Monday, December 25, 2006

I'm not an atheist

It's funny how a seemingly innocent conversation can be misconstrued and come back to you in a way that you don't recognize. This Summer, during my migrant adventures in Wisconsin, I had occasion to converse with somebody about religion. At the crux of the conversation, was my resistance to joining the Jehovah's Witnesses. As a disclaimer, I should note that I have no antipathy towards the Witnesses. Rather, I simply have no desire to abandon the Catholic church, even if I'm not a slavish follower. When the conversation bounced back to me through mutual connections, it turns out that I'm an atheist.

Here is how it all started. My friend's wife has converted from Catholicism to the Witnesses. She is really gung-ho about it. He's not so devout, but he does find value and peace in the teachings. We were chatting over beers, mind you. He thought that he would ask me to join them on a weekend. How do you tell somebody that you have no desire or curiosity to learn about their faith? There is no tactful way to do it, so I went the other way and told him that I have no desire to be saved. I realize that some may find this shocking. Truthfully, I don't want to be saved. This may sound like a slap in the face of faith or some other silly metaphor. In reality, it's a realization, on my part, of the value of faith and the search for meaning. I believe that I have found what I need within the Catholic church, and it's there for the taking.

I explained to my friend that I have no desire to be saved because I don't need salvation. Many people search for meaning and inspiration in things that ultimately have little value. They spend hour upon hour reading through biblical texts and having discussions with others in their faith about their faith. In other words, reading and talking about God will somehow bring them salvation. I don't believe that these things have much value in and of themselves. They are good ways to spend empty hours, but nothing else. This applies to any religion or denomination. Being well versed is of value only to preachers and priests. Some people find salvation by strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up innocent people. Salvation? Pshaw! Most people read the bible out of context.

One major reason I don't want to be saved is because I would rather try to make life on Earth as close to heaven as possible, while I'm alive. I can be nice to people. I can live my life according to a given set of principles. I can do my best not to hurt others. I don't need to be saved to ensure my entry into heaven. Forget waiting for heaven, let's make good things happen here.

What then, do I believe is worthwhile about religion? This is what started the whole rumor that I am an atheist. Here is what I submit. Be part of a church regardless of whether God exists or not. Arguing about God's existence totally sidesteps the value of religion in general. Before I get into my defense of this, let me assure you that I think that being faithless and uncommitted to a church, any church, is equally foolish. You need guidelines for your actions. If you set those guidelines yourself, you might as well not have any as you will pick and choose values as if you were in a buffet. Choose a template and go with that.

What is worthwhile about religion comes about whether God exists or not. When you go to your church, whatever kind, what do you get from it? Why do you go? Do you go to commune with God? Why not just go any day of the week? Why not go to any church? You go to your church for very specific reasons. The first is that you go where there are other people who share your beliefs and practices.

There are very real and almost tangible benefits to belonging to a community of like-minded individuals. For example, you know that they share the same standards of conduct. If they fail to live up to the standards, you can call them on it or they can call you on your failures. You know what is encouraged and what is discouraged in their behaviors because you share the same faith. Somebody outside of this structure requires a bit more of an investment in your effort to deal with them. Being part of a church makes you a part of a community. That has value in and of itself whether God exists or not.

Most religions and denominations share a common theme. They espouse rules of conduct that, if you observe them, result in the betterment of your personal life and the betterment of society. How many of you believe that being unfaithful to your spouse has positive personal or social value? How about murder? How about jealousy? These and other things that religion shuns are generally destructive to you, your family, and society as a whole. This is true whether God exists or not.

The consequences of your actions have little to do with whether God exists or not. If you abuse your kid, expect your kid to have issues. If you neglect your family, don't expect that they'll be there for you when you need them. If you murder, you will be punished. If you (insert shortcoming here), you can expect (insert consequence here). These things occur regardless of God's existence. In fact, they occur to atheists as much as they occur to believers.

Finally, another friend and I had a brief discussion about some issue with the Catholic church. I explained to her that the Catholic church is not a goddamned democracy. Many politically correct Nazis try to impose a democratic system on religion. It doesn't work that way. There are principles that are true whether you choose to believe in them or not. Murder is never good. Rape is not good. Being a jerk with your kids is not good. So many things that we may do have destructive consequences whether we choose to believe it or not. When it comes to a church, you have to take it as is. You're either in all the way or you're not. If you're not, you're a sinner. Live with it or get out; don't try to change the church because you can't live up to the standards.

Most religions give you a means to atone for your shortcomings, so long as you repent. Repenting is like learning from your mistakes and avoiding that pitfall again. If you drink too much, you get hung over. If you repent, you'll avoid drinking too much again. If you don't repent, prepare for some suffering every time you overdo it. You can't fake repentance. You either do or you don't. You can't fake being a part of your church. You either accept what it is or you don't.

Going back to the original discussion, I accept what the Catholic church is, even with its shortcomings. I can work with it. There are benefits to being one of the faithful of any church. If the Pope tells me to give up beef on Fridays, I'll do it because I value the other things the church offers. I enjoy the community that comes from being a part of a church. I agree with the principles that form the basis of the Catholic faith. I understand that failure to adhere to the principles has real consequences besides my chances of getting into heaven. I would do these things even IF God did not exist.

If you want the quick version of my argument, the benefits of you being part of a church or religion should be equal whether God exists or not. Just like living in a country requires you to adhere to its laws, being a part of a church requires some things of you. The main difference being that religion is not a democratic process. The consequences of bad decisions don't change just because you don't like them. Having said all that, I do believe in God. The principles of making a better life and society have real value. To me, principles and ideas are real. I can't in all honesty believe in intangibles like my own ideas and universal principles, yet not believe in an intangible like God. How is it possible for you to have an idea and for you to share it with me so that it's as real to me as it is to you? If I don't believe in God, then how can I believe in your idea? How can I believe in the rule of law? If I don't believe in God, how can I believe in mathematics? It's all a bunch of trivial rules made up by other people otherwise. If you dismiss God, you have to dismiss a lot of other intangible things just as well.

Have I contradicted myself? No. Find a religion that works for you and stick to it. Don't waste your time looking to discover the secrets of the Universe or the true God. The real value of religion is independent of God's existence. The value of religion is in the character and relationships you build. Don't worry about unlocking the true message of God. Just make life better for you and those you care about with the help of your church. Seek and follow through on the Wisdom in religion. And do me a favor, don't ask me to convert.

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