Friday, December 11, 2009


I normally try to stay away from religion on this blog. It's much too sensitive a topic, and too hard to discuss rationally. Up until now, I've written only one post having specifically to do with religion, and one other one that touches on the subject (in a poem). However, I found myself in church last Sunday morning, asking myself why I was there. I'm not particularly religious, you see. When my daughter was younger, I would go to church in order to set an example. Although I'm not religiously devout, I felt that she needed exposure to religion, else how could she later make a decision on something about which she knew nothing? By the same token, I've never been the kind of father who insists that his child must do something that he himself is unwilling to do. Now, however, she's approaching the age at which she must decide for herself what her beliefs are. My tenure as her Shining Example is almost at an end. Hence, my dilemma. Why was I still there?

I was raised Roman Catholic. When I was a child, I was a True Believer. God was good and the devil was bad and kids who went to church and said their prayers and behaved well went to heaven when they died. Those who didn't believe in God were bad, and they went to hell when they died.

As I grew up, I became aware of more and more subtleties, nuances, exceptions and contradictions that the priests and my teachers tried hard not to dwell on during my years of indoctrination into the Catholic faith. For example, I learned that there are other religions that don't recognize Jesus of Nazareth as a deity, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. Most of these religions worship a single, all-powerful, omnipresent deity although they call it by different names; Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah. However, the various religions differ radically in the details of their beliefs.

Even Christianity, I learned, is divided into several sects that disagree with each other about the details of the Christian faith. Roman Catholics aren't the only Christians. There are also Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Jehovah's Witnesses, to name but a few.

Now here's the kicker; each sect is convinced that theirs is the true and correct faith and that all of the others have strayed from the path, just as each of the major religions is likewise convinced that they are the Chosen People and all of the others are either infidels or at least sadly ignorant of God's true nature.

I also learned that there are people who don't believe in the existence of an all-powerful deity nor a heaven or a hell or even an afterlife at all. We call these people atheists or agnostics and I was taught to see them as evil and immoral. Then a funny thing happened. As my life progressed, I met a few self-professed atheists and, to my surprise, some of them seemed neither evil nor immoral to me. They just didn't happen to believe in that which they couldn't see. They made me start asking new questions. My religious teachers generally discouraged questions, because questions lead to doubt, and doubt is bad.

Why do we need a God or the promise of heaven or the threat of eternal damnation as an excuse to live good lives? Does it make sense to neglect this life in favor of an afterlife? What if there is no heaven? What if the world in which we live is all that we have, and all that we'll ever have? Wouldn't it be a good idea, then, to work on making it as heaven-like as possible?

I further discovered that, just as not all atheists and agnostics are necessarily evil, not all religiously devout people are necessarily good either. Some outwardly pious religious authority figures have used their religion as a vehicle to hurt and abuse. The Catholic church burned those who questioned its doctrines as witches and heretics for centuries. Certain radical Muslims seem to believe that they have been charged by Allah Himself to destroy the infidels of other faiths. In the late nineteen-eighties, The "reverend" Jimmy Swaggart was caught spending the money donated to his ministry by the faithful on prostitutes.

At some point, I went back to asking myself some fundamental questions:

Question: What was I taught when I grew up?

Answer: That there is God and there is the devil, and they compete for the souls of humanity.

Question: What's the difference between the two?

Answer: God is good. The devil is evil. God wants us to be good and to do good. The devil wants us to be evil and to do evil.

Question: Why does God want good, rather than evil?

Answer... Wow. I had to stop to think about that. Why is good preferable over evil? Why can't everyone act purely in their own self-interest, and others be damned? What's wrong with looking out for Number One?

Because that way leads to chaos and anarchy. Nobody is an island. We all need the help of others from time to time, and we accomplish more and improve our world and our lives when we work together. That means being empathetic of other peoples' wants, needs and feelings and acknowledging that everyone else has the same rights as I do. There's nothing wrong with acting in my own best interests, as long as doing so doesn't involve hurting someone else. Unfortunately, every situation is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes, there has to be a winner and a loser. "Aye, there's the rub", as Shakespeare so eloquently put it.

The religious and the secular are often at odds with each other. I've heard both sides argue their positions many times and, unfortunately, those arguments often focus on ridiculing opposing beliefs. Religiously devout Christians insist that we must be Born Again. We must accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. Only in this way can our souls be saved. Any other path leads to eternal damnation, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. The secular sometimes deride the religiously devout as mindless simpletons who have been brainwashed by superstition. "I refuse to believe in that for which there is no evidence," they declare.

Where do I stand? I don't know. I'm not a very good Roman Catholic, and I question many of the beliefs of the faith in which I was raised, yet I'm prepared to allow that there may be forces in the universe of which we humans know nothing. Just because I can't perceive something, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. If I were deaf, I could hear no sounds, yet the sound waves would still be there for those with the ability to perceive them. In that sense, I am neither an atheist nor an agnostic.

I don't believe that any one religion has a monopoly on truth. I think that they share many common ideas and that, in the end, they all strive for the same fundamental goal; the promotion of good over evil; but they waste too much time and energy bickering about the details.

I believe that good makes more sense than evil, because good leads to harmony whereas evil leads to chaos; therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to try to improve this world in any way that we can.

I don't know what, if anything, lies beyond death, but I believe it will take care of itself as long as I stay true to myself and my beliefs. If there's nothing beyond death, then I will neither know nor care after I die. If there is more, then I will discover it with the same fascination with which I've discovered this world since being born into it.

So, getting back to my original question, why was I in church last Sunday? Because I need to feed my spirituality somehow and, for all of its imperfections, the faith in which I was raised still accomplishes that. Once in a while, I still find ideas there that are worth meditating upon.

If I some day find myself standing in judgement before God, I will not say "I believed", nor will I say "I disbelieved". I will say "I didn't know, but I did the best I could with what I was given, and I tried to treat others the way I would want to be treated, most of the time, anyway." I don't think I would much care for a God that would condemn me for that.

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