My Religion

October 19, 2009

That which is impenetrable to us really exists. Behind the secrets of nature remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend is my religion.
– Albert Einstein

After going head-to-head with a commenter of Can Christianity Be Rescued From Fundamentalist Christians? and tweeting a lot on my latest Dawkins’ read, I thought I’d give this topic a shot. Excuse me if I’m not too eloquent this evening; I’d be happy to clear up anything left unmentioned in the comments.

“Tree of Truth”, h.koppdelaney
Tree of Truth, h.koppdelaney

In the time before time before time – well, as far back as age 4, anyway – I attended Canyon Creek Day School, attached to Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Plano, Texas. Naturally, my memories from this period aren’t the most reliable, but I clearly recall the importance my parents placed on me coming to church every Sunday. As for myself, I found myself less interested in what the minister was saying and more focused on the end of the service, when the kids would be allowed to get first grabs at the leftover communion bread (always after the carbs, I know). I guess Christ would probably have felt like tearing himself into pieces if he could have seen what we did to his “body” without any regard for the significance. Come to think of it, I wonder why the church even allowed this… While the adults seemed to focus on talk of being a good Christian and the history in the Bible, I couldn’t have cared less – what kid would? My favorite way to pass the time with “grown up talk” was to take one of the offering pencils and write on the back of the donation envelopes; my parents eventually caught onto this little distraction and started taking the pencils away, but I couldn’t help myself: what was the big deal, the big secret? What was so important my parents make sure I know every Sunday morning?

I know I was born into a privileged life. My mother and father weren’t rich, but they made sure I had the best education possible: a private, nondenominational, co-ed school in suburban Dallas. By 2nd grade, my views on religion were pretty much in line with my parents’, though lacking a certain depth: going to church is just something you have to do… other than that, they weren’t over the top with talks of “fire and brimstone” when I misbehaved, nor the delights of heaven as a reward for my smiley face sticker on my writing exercises. Again, I was only 8 years old; I believed whatever my parents told me as reality, and thus far, they had yet to fill in the blanks on a lot of religious questions. Still, if you had asked me back then, I probably would have affirmed the existence of God and following his path as the only means to salvation. Although the idea of heaven sounded… well, heavenly, I can remember feeling a little uncertain about the afterlife, what it meant to die – after all, if I died, I’d just go to heaven, right? So why not just kill myself (unfamiliar with the suicide clause)? Surely heaven is better than here? Good thing I decided to stick around.

So, one late morning in my usual social studies class, I was first introduced to the idea of evolution. The first contradiction I had ever heard to religious doctrine (other than a few logical questions surrounding the existence of God). And how exactly did this come about?

Teacher: …now, I know what you’re thinking: you read the Bible, and God made men and women. No, no, no. You see, all of us came from apes…

Much of this is pieced from memories, but the “no, no, no” stands out; that’s exactly how my 2nd grade teacher discounted religious history, throwing it from his mind as if it were nonsense.

I guess that really was where it all started for me. My teacher provided logical answers to my questions. The Bible provided confusion, uncertainty. Guess which one I chose? Several years later, and I was posting quotes on my bedroom door for my parents to read before they woke me for church, quotes highlighting the evils of forced religious beliefs – though I wasn’t an atheist, I knew I didn’t want to be told what to believe, and being told to go to church was tantamount to that. If you had asked me, I probably would have said I was an atheist, if only to rebel. In my heart of hearts, I probably still believed in a higher power, but going against the fold is what every normal teenager aspires to do.

In the case of religion, however, I saw where my “beliefs” were taking me: isolation. My school was probably 2/3rds Jewish, the rest a smattering of Christians, Muslims, Hindus (didn’t really come up, but I can see it now). Talks of anything anti-religion just resulted in a shouting match with my father, and looks of pity from my mother, so I learned to keep my mouth shut. Fake it. Go to church when the situation called for it. Not say a word. If I had spoken out enough, I probably wouldn’t have been in the Boy Scouts to reach the Eagle rank: atheists, or even non-Christians, are generally not allowed (sidenote: I know there are plenty of Jewish scouts and those of other faiths, but Scouting essentially established itself as a private organization based on Christian beliefs; try getting the “God and Country” insignia as a Muslim).

As a rule, I probably kept this silent behavior up the longest; for some reason, people don’t like it when you poke holes in the logic of their sacred books. It’s better to just smile and nod rather than disagree, keep your opinion to yourself when it comes to something so polarized. After all, you can’t change the minds of some people. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence or painfully simple reasoning, they just won’t listen. If I were to have a public debate with a Christian fundamentalist, my opening statement would be something like:

“Welcome. I should point out, if you wish to continue, that at any point during these talks, I’m willing to admit everything I’ve ever known and believed in is wrong, should you convince me with proper reasoning and evidence. Can you say the same?”

What fundamentalist could?

“We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that.”
The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Though all this talk is very much anti-religion, I have to point out that I’m probably not an atheist by Dawkins’ standards. I couldn’t really think of any appropriate label until I started reading up on Einstein’s take on religion, as well as those of American’s founding fathers. All had to maintain a semblance of established religious beliefs in a world that wasn’t ready to hear otherwise, I guess that still isn’t ready (we may have elected an African-American president, but would you have voted for an atheist? Oh, the horror!)

For me, following the ideas in established religious texts like the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc, is a complete and total waste of time. Moderates pick and choose which stories to consider in forming a foundation of morality, and fundamentalists’ virtues are so screwed up by following the texts literally they have become the subject of ridicule and pity by the mainstream (thank God, so to speak): e.g. murdering workers at abortion clinics, starting holy wars, suicide bombers, attacking homosexuals. Keeping an open mind is a fair choice, but unlike Dawkins, I don’t believe everything should be confined to what we can see and hear, what we can base on scientific findings. I do like the “prime mover” argument: like it or not, something started the universe. Maybe it was God. Maybe it wasn’t. But I can tell you right now, no one has a clue one way or the other, nor are we likely to anytime soon. In that respect, I believe that there may have been something or someone to jump-start existence; I don’t believe it is a man in a white beard listening to everyone’s thoughts and tallying their actions to be judged after death. Death is just as big a mystery, one, again, we are not any closer to solving.

I know I’m leaving more questions than statements, but that’s entirely the point. My religion is about the power of the mind, just as Einstein’s was. Leaving a part of the universe open to mystery and interpretation. Having everything so quantifiable, as Dawkins suggests, really takes the poetry out of life. So I suppose no western religion really fits that criteria. As Sam Harris said in The End of Faith, just try to find something in the Bible comparable to the Buddha’s teachings… impossible. Buddhism and most eastern religions utilize the oldest tool available for study: the mind, and how best to reach its potential. Although I live on a traditional Theravada monastery in New Zealand, I don’t bow to the Buddha statue as a believer would to an idol. Nor do I follow all the tenets of the monastic code. But I am here academically, studying the words of the Buddha and how he believes one can become aware of past lives and escaping rebirth.

Is this the only answer, Buddhism? Hardly. But it fits the bill better than anything I have yet encountered. I’m all for expanding scientific knowledge and looking for “the meaning of everything”, but I believe (there’s that word again) that the pursuit of such things is in itself more valuable than the answers. Maybe there really is a human soul, something we will into existence by consciousness alone; maybe there is a kind of “God”, who snapped her fingers to create the universe; maybe this is all a dream in the mind of a really fat kid, and once he wakes up, we’ll no longer exist, and he’ll have a craving for ice cream.

Your thoughts?

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One Response to My Religion

  1. Kirt Germond on January 10, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Check into the writings of Ann Ree Colton.

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