An old friend I haven’t seen in years is writing about this blog for a regional magazine. She’d pretty much finished her article when I posted the “Chickened Out” item in which I came clean about my religious inclinations. “I was tempted to add the ‘atheist’ tag to my piece somewhere,” she said in an email, “but, while interesting, I don’t think it goes very far in defining you.”
That sounds right to me. I don’t want to be defined by something I’m not. I’m not religious. I am a father, husband, advertising man, moviegoer, klutz, friend, couch potato, etc. Those descriptions—and a hundred more—capture me more fully, I think, then anything about my religious beliefs.
I’ve been asked, “Aren’t you really agnostic?” If you mean, do I believe there could have been a starting force that existed before the big bang, then, well, yeah, maybe. But that starting force is a long way from the usually humanized god presented to us by most religions.
I don’t feel the presence of a god in my life or in the world. The world and our lives are filled with moments of wondrous beauty and horrifying ugliness. (Sometimes those moments happen simultaneously: think of those magnificent walls of water crashing down on the helpless citizens of Tohoku in Japan.) Believers tell us that “God works in mysterious ways” that we can’t understand. But if the goal is really to help us find eternal reward, why would He be unclear?
Friends visited the other day. I said what I often say: “I’m just incredibly lucky.” That is how I think about myself. But this time there was a little pause after I said it. I realized that in the minutes leading up to that remark we’d discussed our older son’s death, Ginny’s three bouts with cancer and my current hospice situation—stuck on my couch wearing sweatpants and a tee shirt that I’d slept in. I had to add, “Well, I’m not completely lucky.” We laughed.
When I posted my “Chickened Out” entry, I said I’d have more to say about religion in a future posting. Now that I’m trying to do that, I find myself confused. I don’t feel any need to be defensive. I’d like to also say I don’t feel any need to evangelize—but that’s not completely true.
I don’t want anyone to feel they should turn away from their religion or their agnosticism or their lack of religion. I do want to encourage people to think about what they believe and why they believe it. I think society is harmed by people thoughtlessly living up to the assumptions about what kind of people they are. Just because you’re the daughter of a Baptist minister living in rural Alabama doesn’t mean you have to be a pro-gun, anti-choice, anti-tax Tea Partier. Just because you’re the son of a Stanford physicist doesn’t mean you have to be a pro-choice, anti-gun, tax-the-rich liberal. Don’t take your stance on the death penalty based on what people like you feel. Think it over. Read advocates on both sides of the issue. Understand the gray space between the pro- and anti- sloganeering.
This posting has rambled so much, I have no idea what it’s about any more. Forgive me. Earlier versions had a couple of sections I’ll include here in case they add anything to the discussion:
ADDENDUM #1 If my Mormon friends want to baptize me after I’m dead, I say go for it. (They should give Ginny some advance notice so she can buy me some underwear without holes. As I understand it, some things in Mormon churches involve underwear.) If my Jewish friends think it’s important to get me in the ground by the next day, they should be aware that it’s hard to get a bunch of Italians, Irishmen and advertising people to do anything overnight. (They should also go easy on the talk of “sitting shiva.” Gentiles tend to think that means something dirty.) Islamic friends should know that my eccentric family agrees completely with not serving meats. But you will have trouble getting them slow down enough to get them to eat using just their right hands. (Remember: Italians, Irishmen, art directors, etc.)
ADDENDUM #2. I’m not sure why I feel the way I feel about religion. I’ve certainly spent a lot of time coming to grips with my beliefs. From the day I was born, I was lovingly nurtured to be a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic. I believed all of it—miracles, transubstantiation, papal infallibility. During my high school years, I even spent two nights at a seminary investigating whether I had a calling. (I didn’t.)
What first nudged me away from the church was the feeling at Sunday Mass that I was shaking hands and wishing “peace” to people who were clearly bigots. They were the casual racists who would make the “harmless” little “just between us” jokes about minorities. We’d excuse them by saying “well, you know, when they were growing up, that’s what everybody did.” This was in the late ‘60s and I was probably a little bit of a self-rightous, antiwar peacenik. But that doesn’t mean I was wrong.
Once there was some distance between the church and me, I began a lifetime of more objective introspection. There’s a reason faith is considered a gift. If you try to build it yourself, you won’t come up with anything that looks like religion. You’ll come up with something that looks like science.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t understand science any better than I understand deep religious beliefs. Take evolution. You mean something crawled out of the ocean millions of years ago; figured out eating and reproduction and how to raise two-year-olds; split up into a million different species, and got us to where we are today? Really? Seems on the surface like a long shot to me. I believe in evolution because I believe in the scientific processes that led to its discovery. That makes more sense to me than the notion of a loving God who instructs Abraham to murder his son or who sends his own Son to be crucified on earth because a woman many generations earlier had eaten the wrong apple. Couldn’t that all-powerful, all-loving God have just forgiven his people? (Theologians need not respond to this. I know how much I’m oversimplifying here. I’ve read a lot on the subject, but I’m not Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. On the other side, I find Bishop Spong especially helpful—he’s at least skeptical about the same things I’m skeptical about.)
One more thing. Yes, I’m fully aware about the irony of my capitalization of words referring to the one, true deity—and of the fact I refer to Him as “Him.”