Jason thinks I’m still chickening out on the religion thing. He thinks I’m much more radical than I let on. I probably am. But I’m less radical than he thinks I am. He thinks my desire to not offend anyone is watering down my messages. My friend Larry wants me to express my views as a more coherent whole. As I “prepare to die” (his words), is my “spiritual framework” changing.
A little back-story. Until I was in my early 40s, I suffered from clinical depression and didn’t even know it. Being diagnosed as depressed was as shocking to me as being diagnosed with lung cancer a few years later. One of the ways my disorder affected me was my deep-seated belief that I wasn’t “as good” as everybody else. Every man was manlier, every woman was way too good for me. (The fact that Ginny had married me—even sought me out—was somehow factored out in my thinking. The fact that my career was going pretty well didn’t register either.) When I went to college my goal wasn’t to learn anything in the classroom. It was to learn how to make people like me, as unworthy as I was. I found my role model in Johnny Carson. On the Tonight Show, everyone liked him and he seemed to know and like all his guests. He didn’t hesitate to tease them good-naturedly the way you would good friends. It occurred to me that he couldn’t possibly be a close friend with all these people, yet he was teasing them as if he were their best friend, even though it was quite possible they’d never even met. It was genius. People like good-natured teasing. It let them know they were liked—nobody teases somebody they hate that way. The other thing he did was, he treated important people (big stars, politicians, etc.) as ordinary people—and he treated ordinary people like stars. More genius. The big stars were more relaxed coming off their pedestals, the ordinary people were honored to be publicly elevated.
I tried it—and it seemed to work. (Elevating people comes naturally for a guy who thks he’s already lower than everyone else.) Still I hated meetings, parties, phone calls, public speaking. But everyone says they hate those things, right? So again I thought I was just like everyone else. Prozac changed all that overnight. I still may not like the meetings, phone calls or public speaking, but now a whole level of the dread-verging-on-panic was gone. And I felt like a big lump in my chest was dissolved. (Is it a coincidence that that imaginary lump was located where my cancer would one day be discovered?)
I’m still not big on phone calls or parties, but I can actually enjoy meetings and public speaking engagements.
All of this is my way of saying, I want to be liked. I’m a regular Sally Fields. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to be well liked. Radicals aren’t usually well liked. And I really don’t think I’m a radical. Here’s why Jason thinks I am.
I think along with corruption and ignorance, religion has long been–overall– a negative force in society. I think that because of their own internal politics and corruption they have done little to stem the twin tides of corruption and ignorance.
Religions are supposed to establish reasonable moral viewpoints—to define sin so we recognize it. But when they tell us gay relations are wrong, contraception is wrong, birth control is wrong*–or when they cover up crime within their own parishes–or when they keep children from school or sell them into outrageous “marriages” that are little more than slavery—or when they protect their own fortunes instead of helping the poor and feeding the hungry—or when they provide support for the death penalty or money laundering for the mafia—or when they favor their richest members over the poorest—or when they hatch, encourage or applaud acts of terrorism—or when they sacrifice principles in support of criminal governments—they make a mockery of their very purpose.
I am, I suppose, a John Lennon “imagine” utopian. Imagine no heaven or hell, no countries or religions, no possessions, greed or hunger—it isn’t hard to do. (Well, actually, giving up my possessions would be a little rough. No more Apple products!?!)
We siphon off many of the most important things we do as a society —feeding people, getting them the medical care they need, scientific research, education, etc.– to tax-exempt nonprofits and churches. That’s crazy. Let’s raise tax levels to a point where all of us who able to contribute to those things contribute. If we really believe all people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, our success as a society should be measured by how well we deliver those rights to all of our constituents.
I do realize that unlike corruption and ignorance, religions and religious people around the world often do worthwhile, helpful, noble, even saintly things. But I believe the huge majority of people would still do good, saintly things without any nudging by the church. The more famous representatives of “the new atheism” are, of course, controversial because of their strongly held belief—but few would deny that they are morally responsible public servants. Richard Dawkins is an educator, an antiwar activist, a gay rights activist. Civil right leader Dan Dennett is also a teacher and a philosopher. Like Thomas Jefferson two centuries ago, Sam Adams fights for “the wall of separation between Church and State.” He’s a neuroscientist who studies our moral decisions are made. He has much to teach us.
Like Harris—if I’m reading him correctly—I believe religious moderation is much better than religious extremism. But to answer Jason’s challenge: I do believe civilization would make progress faster if mankind moved away from religion altogether. I believe the result would be fewer wars, less hunger, less poverty, more equality, more cooperation, more empathy.
To answer Larry’s question about my spiritual framework in my end days, I confess that there are times I’d love to believe that heaven and a reunion with Preston and my father are just around the bend. And no altar boy who went to Catholic schools for 12 years can completely escape the nagging fear that hell might just be waiting for an atheist like me. But I do understand the difference in superstitions and beliefs.
I believe when the end comes, it’s over. (I’ll know before you will if I’m wrong.)
*Abortion is the thorniest issue to deal with, so I leave it off this list deliberately. The fact is, like most everyone I know, I don’t like the options.