I’ve met a lot of people over the years who were adrift in that post-religious pre-atheist maelstrom known as agnosticism (Stephen Colbert would call them “atheists without balls”, but I take a more charitable view). Often they look back over their lives and admit that they initially identified as ‘Christian’ only because their parents did.
“My parents took me to church,” they say. “So I went. My parents told my to accept Jesus. So I did.”
Some of these people develop a healthy sense of resentment towards their parent’s proselytizing (justifiably, in many cases), while others feel slightly superior to those who still identify with their parent’s religion. “Get the hell out of Jonestown,” they seem to say. “Do like I did, before it’s too late!”
There’s a surprising amount of truth in the implicit accusation — that parent’s have a massive influence over their children’s religious experience and identification. Personally I’m not sure if I could identify all the childhood indoctrinations that originally pushed me towards Christianity, and I’m sure the experience is the same for most Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, etc.
Which of course begs for the accusation that my religion essentially depends upon the quirk of fate that made the stork stop at my parent’s door and not that of a Cohen or a Supitayaporn.
It’s an accusation that I don’t think I can entirely refute, instead I’m simply going to run with it.
Without using the internet or any other reference material, I’m going to attempt to articulate why I’m not a member of several major world religions. I expect the results to be a little pathetic, but I’d also challenge you to try it before you get too self-righteous.
Why I am not a(n)…
Remembering back to my Anthropology: World History class, I think that Buddhism is actually the oldest of the major world religions. It’s been reinvented several times over the ages, and (at least from the perspective of the western popular media), it consists primarily of shaved heads, orange robes, strange atonal chants, and martial arts. My crude summary of Buddhist theology is that Buddhists believe in dispersing emotion to attain peace. The less one wants, desires, lusts, and hates, the more peaceful one’s spirit can become. In the endgame, one becomes so peaceful that one actually ceases to exist and ascends to ultimate Nirvana.
I’ve always thought that trying to flee pain, suffering, fear, and other emotions by pursuing nothingness is essentially a denial of humanity itself. Perhaps my creation-centric mindset betrays me here, but I would much rather learn to celebrate and moderate my humanity than seek to escape it.
Discipline and control are important to health, as is inner piece, but I’d rather learn to play an instrument well than destroy it and pretend it never existed.
Practitioner of Judaism
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to ‘join’ Judaism, even if you’re not Jewish. For some (males…cough), conversion can necessitate an unfortunate medical procedure, but I’ll try to focus on theology.
Judaism has a long and complex evolution that is now as much composed of canonized tradition as scriptural doctrines. Much of this tradition (at least in my opinion) reflects changing political and social needs of an ethnic minority, and contributes to the confusion of Judaism and Jewish-ness. Obviously I’m not much interested in growing out my sidelocks or binding tefilin to my forehead, and so I probably wouldn’t be interested in the more conservative forms of the religion. As well, I wouldn’t really want to go back to sacrificing animals if the temple in Jerusalem is ever rebuilt. Wait…would they really start that again?
I could probably embrace a more moderate form of Judaism if necessary, but I would miss the emphasis upon love and grace present in the New Testament. Judaism is not evangelical, it is not necessarily interested in relief work, missional living, or social and economic ministry. Much of what makes Christianity relevant, important, and alive to me is tied up in loving God and pursuing social justice for the oppressed and persecuted. Judaism is only traditionally interested in the oppressed and persecuted if they happen to be Jewish (although this is only a theological trend rather than a normative rule).
I was given a Quran a few years ago by a Moroccan friend who didn’t understand how I could be a Christian. She taught me a lot about what evangelism looks like from the other side of the coin, and I have tried to take those lessons to heart. Unfortunately, I have never had much respect for Islam as a religion (although I do appreciate it as an architectural influence).
From having to listen to wailing, electronically-enhanced calls to prayer in Jerusalem every few hours, to routinely reading western articles about radical Muslims burning, looting, and raping on various continents, I’ve never understood the attraction. Sure Muhammad orated some great poetry, and he says many things that I agree with, but his personal history is sickening to modern sensibilities.
Islam is a religion spread by war. Perhaps this is because Islam became political far earlier in its history than Christianity (which also has some black spots on its record), but that fact remains that Islam has historically been spread and enforced by the sword. Given another century and the introduction of western-style democracy it may mellow out and become something ambiguously uplifting and benign, but for the moment I understand Allah as a god of power and little else.
There is an argument to be made that my distrust is partially a result of my ethnocentrisms and North American perspective. As I’ve promised not to do any research, I’m not going to try to argue against this.
The consequence of atheism that always destroys my interest is the lack of ethical absolutes. There is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ but only whatever an individual decides to incorporate into his or her private moral framework. Still (and annoyingly), people continue to use vacuous moral terms like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ despite the lack of any sort of philosophical foundation to ground such terms. Perhaps one can begin to condemn things such as murdering one’s neighbour, or blatant dishonesty as undesirable using the precepts of social contract theory, but these justifications are problematic. Under strict atheism, there is not reason to ‘build a better world’ for anyone other than oneself and perhaps immediate family and loved ones, but then again, what is ‘love’ without a divine spiritual element? An atheist’s loved one, rationally, is someone who makes the principle ‘feel good,’ and that, since that definition relies entirely on what the principle is getting out of the deal, is entirely selfish.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is … selfish?
Try putting that on a Hallmark card.
I also detest that, from an atheistic standpoint, an individual member of the human species has very little value. As long as there are billions of us on the planet, what does any one individual matter (unless they have some sort of direct influence over our personal existence, in which case they matter for selfish reasons)? Why should we stop, why should we care, why should we help, unless they have something tangible to offer to us that will improve our existence.
Atheism creates a reality in which we engage contractually with all other forms of life for the benefit of our own calculated interest. This is not how I would live out atheism if I was an atheist, but that is simply because I would refuse to follow the philosophy through to its logical conclusion. I would incorporate fundamental assumptions of theology into my atheism to make it…well…bearable.
And I’m not terribly interested in living an illogical mish-mash of sentiment and polemic (which sounds a lot like a description some give to my current religion).