If there are two subjects that bore me to death these days, it’s politics and religion. I’ve lived sixty-eight years and during that time my political opinions have never changed. I grew up believing governments and churches were there to help people, that true socialism – a fair taxation system distributing health and welfare to those in need, while encouraging jobs with wages that allowed workers a reasonable standard of living – was the only viable politics for any society.
My vision for the churches was a simple New Testament ideal of “do unto others…” and, “love thy neighbor.”
Both have become somewhat tarnished over the years. The first, for reasons that must surely be obvious to anyone but the most politically illiterate, and the second as my belief in any sort of supernatural being waned to the point of non-existence.
It’s here that some of you – the ardent believers – may decide this article not worth pursuing further: “If he doesn’t believe in ‘God’ then nothing he says has any worthwhile meaning”. I would argue that isn’t the case, but the choice is yours. If you prefer, turn instead to the ‘text for today’, only you won’t find it here.
Let me be clear, I’m no Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. I’m not here to preach atheism, while pocketing a hefty stipend in the process. After all, isn’t that just what the bishops and mullahs do? My concern is merely to point out that, in my humble opinion, we would all be a lot better off by accepting the finality of death, rather than clinging to the vain idea we’ll live forever in some ‘spiritual’ environment devised by a supernatural being for our eternal entertainment.
While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that religion is responsible for all the wars and conflict in the world, it’s certainly been, and continues to be, one of the most powerful military recruiting tools of all time. Telling a warrior he’ll be rewarded in ‘Heaven’, for his sacrifice on Earth, is a powerful incentive to go to war.
In the beginning, when we first came down from the trees, I’m sure religion was no more than a tale evolving from the desire to understand the age-old questions of why we are here, and what is, ‘here’. Over thousands of years it developed into a tool to manipulate and control the populace, as well as proving a ‘nice little earner’, both in money and power, for individuals able to convince the simpler-minded of their ‘special relationship’ with the Divine. For years I believed our local priest/pastor had a spiritual ‘red telephone’ allowing him to intercede with God on our behalf. Then, of course, I grew up.
I didn’t come lightly to the conclusion that life ended at death. Much of my time on Earth has been spent studying religious books, and scouring the world’s religions for some modicum of comprehension that might ignite a spark of understanding, a moment of enlightenment that made the truth of eternal life apparent to me.
Once, I thought I’d found it. It was a ‘Hallelujah’ moment, when God in the form of Jesus, appeared to open my mind and lift all my troubles from my shoulders. My heart leapt with joy. Finally I was experiencing what all Christians hoped for. The ‘moment’ lasted for a couple of years. At this immature time of life (late teens, early twenties) I threw myself into local church activities and was soon convinced ‘taking the cloth’ was the future God had mapped out for me.
Thankfully, before I could embark on this crazy notion, reason and logic combined to call a halt and I came to realize my ‘Hallelujah moment’ was merely the product of loneliness and teenage depression finally burning itself out. The communal whirl of active Christian life replaced this negativity with new social excitement and a raison d’etre.
It gradually dawned that religious communities were self-perpetuating for social, rather than spiritual, reasons. Prayer only gets answered 50% of the time (if that) making it all mere chance, and the ‘power of prayer’ has more to do with being in mutually sympathetic company each Sunday, rather than any Divine intervention.
To put it bluntly, if I’d felt the need to go train-spotting I could have joined the local railway club and had a similar experience.
I still wasn’t ready to give up on religion altogether. I became a lapsed Christian, then began checking out all those other enticing ‘Eastern’ mysticisms so beloved of sixties pop and film stars. After all, if the Maharishi’s teachings could produce, “Sgt Pepper”, for the Beatles, maybe it could do something for me. It wasn’t until later I realized “Sgt Pepper” was conceived from the Beatles’ love-affair with drugs, rather than religion.
For many years I held onto personal spiritual beliefs that evolved from a mix of mostly ‘New Age’ ideas. I was done with organized, hierarchical, religion of any kind but not yet ready to leap the reality void and admit to myself that neither ‘God’, spirits, nor angels of any variety, existed.
For some years I’d been living in the heart of the Welsh countryside. It was a beautiful, and to me, spiritual environment. Then I made the move to America, but my spirituality remained firmly located in Wales, causing a degree of mental confusion that required serious consideration.
The conclusion I arrived at was that the thing we call ‘spirituality’ is linked, not to the Universe or any form of Divinity, but directly to an environment – a very earthly and material environment. My loss of spiritual awareness was not due to some break in communication with the ether. Like an alpine orchid transplanted to a lowland bog, my ‘spirituality’ was simply failing to thrive in a foreign habitat.
Unlike plants, humans can adapt more readily. After twelve years in America I’ve adjusted quite well, but the sense of spirituality I experienced in Wales has never revisited me. Spirituality, I’ve deduced, has nothing whatever to do with ‘God’ or the Universe, but is very much to do with our connection to the Earth. This conclusion has formed the basis for what I believe is the final home straight of my religious journey through life.
We are of the Earth. We evolved into what we are, just as every other living thing has done over eons. Like them, we’ll eventually die and return ourselves to the Earth from whence we came, as trillions of organisms have done before us.
Frankly, I find this cycle of life and death, of which I’m a part, far more satisfying than any forlorn hope of living on for eternity in some new form. For me, one life is quite enough.
Ego requires immortality. The ego becomes less relevant as one grows older, at least, for most of us. At sixteen the idea of not living forever was an anathema. I was far too important to myself to simply disappear after three score years and ten. Now, past sixty, I’ve learned I’m not really important at all, except perhaps to those who love me.
And so religion has become a bore, its discussion the habitat of college students late at night, egos swelled from free-flowing wine bottles; or, among the blinkered, ermine-robed, church hierarchy who don’t have any answers but pretend they know it all. They spend their time arguing the finer points of ancient scripture, and by so doing waste it, in the belief their immortality transcends all time.
Those of you who’ve stayed the course of this rambling essay will likely, by now, conclude my atheism is complete. If so, I have misled you, for it isn’t. The ego alone can conclude it has solved the vexed question of its mortality. As a mere human being I must keep doubt in the equation. After all, quantum physics is in its infancy. Who can say what discoveries in that field might cause a change of heart?
I don’t like pigeon-holes, unless specifically for pigeons. Atheist, I am not. But to those of my species content to believe in the existence of eternal fiery lakes, sons of ‘God’ waking from the dead, walking on water, or performing any other supernatural acts, I say, “Wake up!” and “Grow up!”
Equally, for those young men stuffed with the belief their warrior death will be rewarded with numerous nubile heavenly virgins, I can most positively assure them it won’t be.
I once asked a Catholic lady how, in the 21st century, she could still believe in the literal fiery pit of Hell. She thought for a moment, then responded: “I do. It’s in the Bible. And, after all, it must be true or so many people wouldn’t believe it.”
I’m so glad not to be one of them.