I am not a religious person, but please don’t call me an atheist. To me atheism is simply another faith, dependent, as all with everything, on what other people believe is the truth. I have listened to snide non-believers rant about the very idea of God, angry, for some reason (often valid reasons, frequently not), yelling out their own beliefs as gospel. I have even been one of them, that is, before I lost faith. I thought and thought about it (one of my chief historical interests is the development of organized religions throughout the ages.) I read every bible I could get my hands on–Old and New Testaments, the Avestan of the Zoroastrians, The Koran, numerous Hindu holy books, including Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. I read the mythologies of many ancient cultures, with a focus on their creation myths. I tried Buddhism, but could not get through Tripitakas (far less of an adventure story than the others.) Hell, I even read Dianetics on a lark. In the end all I could see was divisiveness, a rampaging declaration from every faith that “My God is better than your god.”
Now it is very easy to tear apart the silliness and contradictions of every one of these religions, but that seems cheap. It does not acknowledge the fact that people truly believe these stories, and invest most of their hope in life on their vision coming true. And who am I to say what’s true? What do I know? Perhaps there is simply some Universal Center, located inside a giant black hole, that churns out and sucks back in all of the energy that has ever gone to create life. Maybe this is God. Or maybe the Satanists are right. It is a presumption (especially on the part of followers of an individual faith) to claim that you understand something that is profoundly unknowable. In fact, isn’t it true that the chief blasphemers among us are all those holy leaders? Priests, rabbis, ministers, imams–they speak as though translating the words of of divinity, usually inserting their own moral or political ideas into the voice of God.
I want you to consider Christianity for a moment. It is divided so thoroughly that most of the wars over the past 2000 years have been over it. Here:
Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Calvinist, numerous Reformed churches with these dominant sects; Hussite, Amish, Quaker, Mennonite, Pentecostal, numerous ‘born again’ movements that preach the end of the world is coming soon, such as Seventh Day Adventists and The New Apostolic Church–all those pre- and post-millennial faiths that dream, happily or angrily that we are all so sinful we deserve God’s wrath. There is Anglicanism, Evangelism, Eastern Orthodox, Restorationism, the regional Oriental Orthodox churches, Coptic churches, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Messianic Judaism, Unification churches . . .
Every single one of the above mentioned is also divided into smaller groups, often at odds with one another over the meaning of a single line of scripture. And yet, every one of these religions contains true believers. Everyone of them, as well as the hundreds more I have neglected to mention.
In Islam, among other sects, we find Shia and Sunni–terminally at war with one another over the idea that the coming Mahdi is either the seventh or twelfth prophet to follow Muhammad. Other than regional and political concerns, that really is all their differences are about. As modern times have descended upon these cultures, several still living in the 13th century and fighting the Crusades (only with much better weapons), there has been some liberalization in the west. But this has only led to increased violence, the belief that outsiders are desecrating the purity of the “one true faith.”
How many times throughout history has the phrase, in whichever language, “Convert or die” been used against the oppressed or defeated? Even the atheists have used this, if you wish to consider 20th Century Communism an atheist ideology (in fact, it was a religion in its own right. Joseph Stalin had the statues of saints and Christ knocked down, and churches turned into party headquarters. He had those statues replaced with replicas of Lenin and himself.)
In Peter Shaffer’s masterpiece Equus (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=&an=peter%20schaffer&tn=equus&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ats-_-used), a boy is forced by his atheist father to renounce his mother’s faith. The picture of Jesus over his bed is replaced by one of a noble horse. The horse soon becomes the boy’s replacement god, leading to an act of fundamentalist violence. It is a profound study of the dangers of absolutism of any sort, from Doctrinal obedience to free-wheeling nothingness. It is a lesson people of all faiths should heed.
I do not wish to condemn those who believe. That isn’t fair. We can all self-righteously state “so long as they don’t force it on me,” but we need to pick apart that sentence to its key word: “me.” Yes, their preaching may be every bit as selfish, but you cannot have a serious discussion with anyone without expecting to hear their beliefs. If we smugly condescend (as I certainly did while a younger man, irrationally enraged at the very idea someone could believe such foolishness), we disregard that whomever it is we are speaking with honestly believes what they are saying.
I have said this before: Belief is the precursor of reality. What I mean by this is that true believers have the ability to make their ideas come true–especially the apocalyptic, in this age of weapons of mass destruction. Get one crazy person seeking the rapture with access to a nuclear weapon or plague, and you will find a brand new religion emerging out of the wreckage. It is how we cope with our fears, and gives us a quiet sense of hope.
Most times people use God as an explanation to make sense of tragedy, or to evade their fear of death. “It’s God’s will,” or “God’s plan,” or “Now she is in the arms of the Lord.” It makes people feel better, to cope with the horrors that befall them in life. Sure, it’s a cheap explanation meant to close the subject forever, yet there emerges from this among the faithful new, lingering doubts. “Why?” they ask, or they even mention their anger with God.
God is used far less to explain success and joy. Sure, you might have a baseball player point to the sky after hitting a home run, or a prize winner thank the Lord, but these people also discuss the “gifts” God has granted to them. They take credit for their excellence, attempting humility by commenting that an ethereal spirit helped out a little. But no one ever says “It wasn’t me that won the Oscar. It was God.” They might call themselves His messenger (and I have a problem with granting any sort of gender to an unknowable entity that created everything there is–let us call It ‘It.’), but they proudly acknowledge their talent.
The very idea of God, ultimately, amounts to a single thing. I have told this final story many times (probably even here, in Recording Editorial History, but we shall let that go for the purpose of this essay.) Here is the first notion of God:
A caveman stands at the edge of his cave, looking around at the bestial misery of life. He is part of a community, yes, but no one really cares about one another. He has spent the handful of years of his life watching brutes rape women, drag them by the hair, smash rivals heads in with rocks, or simply make foolish mistakes that wound up killing everyone in their vicinity. There are terrible diseases, most women die in childbirth, and most infants die. Wild animals frequently come into the primitive village and rampage through town until someone manages to kill the thing. Usually it is then eaten raw.
Life is all about incest, and murder, and cannibalism, and this one caveman, smarter than the rest, stands there looking up at the sky–at the sun, at the moon, at the stars, at the night, when everyone runs scared, believing that all light has been blotted out forever. He looks and he wonders. He spies a woman ramming a small child between two stones. He shakes his head. He thinks to himself, there must be something more . . .
Yes, this is my claim. Here is my acknowledgment of God. God is imagination . . .