I am not a particularly spiritual person. In fact, religion has been a fairly complicated topic for me for most of my life. I was raised Roman Catholic – went to a Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade. Many of my peers went on to attend Catholic or Jesuit high schools and colleges, and maybe half of them are devout Catholics to this day. But personally, my path diverged. Maybe we can blame adolescence and puberty for the angst that led to my eventual fall from grace. Some would blame the fact I attended a public school for high school which focused on STEM fields and promoted a rigorous literary curriculum. Nonetheless, nearing the end of the eighth grade, I was teetering between atheist and agnostic, and since then, have failed to find a good name for what it is I believe, exactly. Every time I fill out the forms to remake my military dog tags, my palms always sweat once I get to the line, “Religious Preference.”
(As you might be able to tell, I empathized very deeply with the protagonist of Life of Pi by Yann Martel.)
“Atheist” might as well be a scarlet letter in the South. Perhaps more terrifying than a curse word, that declaration is bound to get you into a heated debate that you would rather not have. I don’t know that I’d call myself one, but I also wouldn’t call myself Christian by a long shot. Agnostic seems to be the cop-out word because even that does not quite capture what I truly believe. If I were to summarize my belief into three key points, it would be this:
- Humans are not the “greatest” entities in the universe.
- Assuming that a divine entity looks like us and looks out for us is fraught with vanity and hubris.
- There is wisdom to be found in all faiths.
The first is an empirical fact — oceans are greater than us; this planet is greater than us; this solar system and galaxy are greater than us. We are mere mortals who are lucky to be in this universe. And statistically speaking, it is more likely that there is some being greater than us (alien or otherwise) than to assume we are the greatest beings in this universe. How beautiful is it that we all exist – that we were all made of star dust – the same elements that make up the stars, the planets, and even the nearest nebula? I worship the fact my blood is built from the same atoms as the moon and the sun. That the creation of everything I know can be identified down to a single point in time. (I also half joke – I am a Star Wars fan, and one reason I am so in love with that fictional universe is that The Force is so universal, living things are all bound by the same elements, by this thing that surrounds us, the religion behind the Jedi is so… well, relatable.) Because of this, I find it hard to be atheist. I find it hard to believe that we are at the end of understanding or nearing the edge of knowing all there is to know. But this “greater” entity I speak of, is a placeholder word. Much like I think “God” is a placeholder word for the wonder that makes us all exist. Maybe that makes me an atheist but I like to think in much more nuanced terms than a sheer black-and-white “Yes, there is a God” “No, there is no God.”
The second point is slightly less empirical, but statistically speaking, it is very likely that an entity greater than us looks nothing like us. We are one species evolved from millions of others before ours, and what we are now is a product of our environment now and prior to now. Also, I just get disgusted by the idea that we think we are the greatest model for a deity. What god needs ears? A nose? A mouth? What god needs food to survive or oxygen to fill its lungs? Gods are greater than that. To think that our image is perfect because it matches some deity is just flat out vain. Who do we think we are that our God must be like us? How proud must we be that we think we are any model for divinity? Are we so in love with ourselves that we assume all others must bow to the likes of us? To me, it is hubris to assume a god will ever be anything like us.
The third point is a lot less empirical, but is something I have learned over the years. One of my biggest gripes with organized religion (and I have nothing against those who practice them, I respect everyone’s freedom and right to pursue the faith most true to them) is that there is a constant desire to disprove other religions, and to justify the existence of that religion in question — it is an ongoing argument that one religion is “right” and others are “wrong.” I’ve seen this aversion to other faiths as being so strong that people fail to entertain even the slightest notion of teachings of other faiths. There is such a deep fear of being punished or banished for listening or practicing elements of other faiths, that people often refuse to listen to each other at all. The distance between faith groups is maintained, and consequently this distance prevents empathy, prevents us from being able to serve one another.
This is where my faith gets complicated. I grew up Catholic, and my moral compass was largely shaped by Christian teachings. The Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have done unto you — always superseded any other rule that I might abide by. I aspire to the humility of Jesus (that is, when he wasn’t angrily flipping over tables to scold bankers… though I see why he was pissed, and I, too, second that motion…) and constantly refer to His behavior as a model for how I must treat others — how I must look past differences, rise above unjust treatment and to treat others justly unconditionally, and live the example that I wish to see in others. (Heh, I still capitalize the H, old habits die hard). I use these teachings as a moral compass. However, as I said, I don’t think I call myself Christian because I also believe in teachings from other religions which overlap. Other faiths also espouse the golden rule: “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, ancient Egyptian, and ironically, even Satanism – all share that same common thread within their literature. (Don’t believe me? Look it up. There’s a reason it’s called the Golden Rule.)
So, this is where I am — a believer that 1) the human species is a fleck of dust in the grand scheme of things, and that it’s foolish to assume there is nothing beyond what we know; 2) whatever is greater than us probably doesn’t look like us or think like us; 3) all faiths share a common thread of treating others with respect, and that it’s worth listening to another faith once in a while. Call that what you will, if only there was a home for folks like me.
In any case, I learned so much about Catholicism while I grew up that I can’t help but reference biblical teachings in my day to day life and then reflect on how political initiatives play out today. I often reflect on the Ten Commandments, and think about how they relate to treating each other with respect. In particular, one has been nagging me, the second Commandment: using the Lord’s name in vain. Let us consider the order of the Commandments as well. This commandment, using the Lord’s name in vain, is immediately after that of declaring faith in the Lord – the most important Commandment there is. I used to believe it had to do with cursing after you stubbed your toe, or being upset with how your life is turning out, and proclaiming your dissatisfaction to the Lord. I figured “Hm. That seems silly. Why is something that seems so trivial so important?” The more I mill on it, the more I am unsatisfied with my first assumption. There’s no way this second commandment has anything to do with shouting in pain or being upset about how your life is turning out. There is something more significant here. The Commandments are supposed to be the laws of how we treat each other and what we hold dear. Our deepest values. The more thought I gave it, the more I realized that the Commandment isn’t about throwing words around when you’re in pain or anguish, but to invoke God’s name as justification for something you declare is God’s will. To blaspheme. To use the name for vanity – for your own purposes, to further your own cause, and not to shelter or care for others.
Then I hear politicians like Jeff Sessions invoke the Bible and insisting that it is God’s will to enforce the law; the cold and merciless insistence that law cannot change and should be minded as God’s will, and therefore, it gives some humans the “God-given” right to inhumanely treat other humans, just because of their national origin or color of their skin. However, it’s important to note there are biblical teachings about how the laws of man pale in comparison to the laws of God.
Anyway, I’ve been milling on this for a long time – and have been challenged on my faith in professional settings (again, something I cannot stand — religion is a form of personal truth, not one of objective truth, as Neil deGrasse-Tyson puts it). But I think it bears all of us taking a deep look at our own beliefs to ensure we have formulated our correct assumption of how we should treat others around us. Do we use our religious teachings as justification to assume superiority? Or do we use it as an excuse to treat others better? If we’re doing the former, are we truly helping our meek, fragile, and mortal race prevail against all odds? I’d argue that as long as we treat others with love and understanding, rather than with defensiveness and self-righteousness, we put ourselves on the path toward (if nothing else) living peacefully and happily on this planet a few years longer.