(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones)
Okay, let’s settle some things right off the bat so nobody gets upset. I will not in this post be talking about why *BELIEF X* is better than *RELIGION Y* or how *RELIGIOUS POPULATION OMEGA* is ruining our good ole fashioned American Puritan ideals. There’s too much conflict in the world as it is (which is a recurring point, as you’ll see below).
I also will not be using the correct form of religious. Several very smart people in my life have informed me that religion comes from the Latin religio, which means “obligation or bond”, or more informally, ritual. (In case you were wondering, by that definition, we are all technically religious – anyone who has a cup of coffee every morning or performs any ritual they adhere to is religious.)
I will be using the modernized word “religious” to describe ideas and beliefs in organized religions, as opposed to the modernized word “spiritual” to describe ideas and beliefs about God, the afterlife, or other topics/questions usually answered by belief systems, organized or otherwise.
So, to begin the conversation with the terms defined, I would like to say that I consider myself “spiritual”, but not “religious” – in other words, I have beliefs about God, the afterlife, and other questions that I have determined myself, outside of any organized religious structure.
I’ve had a lot of religious influences around me growing up. My father’s side of the family was mostly Presbyterian; my mother’s side, mostly Catholic. Neither of them forced their beliefs on me, although I did have quite a few long conversations with my father about spirituality and belief (and I continue to). Oh, and at least one of my brothers is atheist.
One of my best friends is Catholic, and another was Scientologist for a while until she realized… well, let’s just leave it there. I’ve talked with nondenominational Christians, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists – there are certainly gaps in my knowledge where Judaism and Islam are concerned, and I’m trying to bridge those.
Concerning religion, I have historically said two things to anyone who would listen to me. The first is that, to me, nothing is more inspiring than hearing someone who is truly religious talk about their beliefs – it fills me with so much hope and happiness to see someone sharing a beautiful core part of themselves with me.
The second is that religion produces some of the best and worst people in the world (along with nationalism).
I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate (no pun intended) to folks on either side of the aisle who tell me that either religion is the answer, or science/education/atheism is the answer. (By the way, I am not equating science, education, and atheism – I’ve simply heard all of them opposed to religion in different contexts.)
However, on a long train ride with my girlfriend, we got to talking about this kind of stuff and I felt I found the perfect analogy for what I believe. I see our experiences, thoughts, and beliefs as a kind of a toolkit for understanding and interacting with our world. In a person’s toolkit there might be rationality, logic, and science, as well as history, religion, and morality. (Yes, I’m going to separate morality and religion. Deal with it.)
When I speak to an atheist about why they’re not religious, the answer I hear is the same as when I speak to a religious person about why they’re not atheist. It amounts to, “I can understand the world and my purpose in it completely with my chosen tool.” Now, I want to add that there are much prettier and more intricate, nuanced ways of putting this – I’m just trying to save space, since I’m already running up against 600 words.
So anyway, I see an atheist trying to screw in nails with a screwdriver, and a religious person trying to hammer screws into a fixture, and I just can’t understand why there’s this mutuality going on. I mean, who said that logic couldn’t coexist with religion? (Someone much smarter than me, probably.) However, I always saw it like sensation – there are only so many types of stimuli you can sense with vision, and at a certain point, you have to use audition, or gustation, to get the full picture of things. Likewise, there are some patterns of thought that, to me, transcend or defy logic – questions of religion and God – and when dealing with those things, using logic to try to justify or prosecute religious beliefs is like trying to see a sound.
Maybe it’s just because I was a neuroscience student surrounded by a bunch of people telling me that the soul can be deduced to chemical impulses in our brains. Maybe it’s because I love hanging out with religious people who think the Bible should transcend skepticism. Either way, their argument sounds the same to me – I don’t need a well-rounded toolkit, thanks. I’ll stick with my one pair of pliers.
Let me break here for a moment to say I believe in God(s). I believe in an afterlife, and I believe in a purpose to each individual in this life which will help them become the best person they can possibly be. I find myself to be one of the few people who would define themselves as “spiritual” who think about those kinds of things as much as someone who would define themselves as “religious”.
So why have I not joined an organized religion? I’m not gonna feed you some line of bullshit about how “religions are constrictive” – religions are a tool, just like anything else, and allow for as much interpretation, or lack thereof, as any other tool – but I do believe that no religion adequately aligns with my own beliefs about the divine.
I like to dabble in a little bit of everything. Let’s take a Christian trinity God with the roles redefined under my own rhetoric; throw in some Americanized karma; add a dash of my preferred spice blend of morality derived from many different world religions and finish off with a handful of predestination (I could write a whole other post about why I don’t believe in free will the way we see it).
When people ask, I tell them I’m deist – it’s kind of true, as I do believe in the “clockmaker God” who sets the universe running and then sits back instead of intervening. But it’s so much more than that. It ties in with my beliefs about ethics, my own personal philosophy of optimism and childishness, and my purpose in life. It is so uniquely me, it hurts.
And that’s what I think religion should be. It should be an extension of yourself. If you can find that extension in a pre-composed religion, that’s wonderful for you – all sincerity and love. But if you can’t, I don’t believe you should force yourself into believing something just because the people around you do, or because you don’t feel comfortable or secure without the arms of a god around you at all times.
(That’s another thing – I love when atheists say that religious people are just scared of not having a safety net, because to me, it seems like many atheists are scared of not having free will. Just sounds like two sides of the same coin.)
Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that I see the world as being this terrifying, cold place where the only way people can survive is to come together. And the most frustrating part is that this is what religion should do (IMO), bring people together! But all I see are the Christians saying their religion is the one true path to God, and the Muslims saying their religion is the one true path to God, and all religions disagreeing with one another and everyone is fighting all these goddamn wars throughout the entirety of history in the name of their ONE TRUE PATH TO SALVATION.
The wonderful thing about belief is that it is yours. You don’t have to believe in anything you don’t want to – despite what some may say. For instance, I don’t want to believe in a God that discriminates. I don’t want to believe in a God that thinks being anything but heterosexual is a sin. I don’t want to believe in a God who has defined a single perfect, correct religion and will not let believers of any other faith in.
I want to believe in a God who loves everyone equally, who doesn’t care whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, an atheist, a deist, a Zen Gnostic, a Pastafarian, or an occultist, as long as you did the best you could in your life to be the best person you could be. I want to believe in a God who watches over us, loves us, weeps for us when we fail, rejoices with us when we succeed, and cares not for what temple we worship at, or what our ritual is – so long as we stick to it.
So far, I haven’t found something like that in any of the religions I’ve had experience with (although Hinduism is pretty damn close). If I find something more like that along my search, I’ll let you know.
Yours, hoping he didn’t ruin your Easter,