I was thinking about some of the problems caused by religious fundamentalism, from the challenges of Muslim assimilation in America to Jon Krakhauer’s take on the absolutist background of anti-government whackadoodles like Ammon Bundy. And it led me to set down a few thoughts on what God [cap G or lower-case g, your preference] might have to say about fundamentalism, rank stupidity, and violence. So here’s a little essay.
What if, when we die, it’s just pfffftttt — and that’s the end of our consciousness, the end of our personal story?
Everyone considers that question. How could we not? It makes us gulp. We can be chill about it, like Ann Alexander Bingham or Willa Cather, or we can let it worry us into a state of anxiety and dread. That’s when Big Religion can sidle up and grab us by the elbow. We accept its offer of a mystical support network and a sweet afterlife to host our consciousness, and eventually way too many of us are led to do nasty things in God’s name, like sawing other people’s heads off.
But let’s back up a step.
A lot of us believe, according to a certain amount of evidence and a certain amount of blind faith, that we’re passing through this life on our way somewhere else. Each religion has worked hard over the years to make us feel as if we belong to its own tribe of pilgrims, and each is exclusive, requiring adherence to a single map that points the way to the afterlife. And for the truly devout in any religion, the map means a lot.
Well, it should be obvious that we don’t really know where we’re going, and neither do the priests. Someplace nice, we all hope. But it’s a huge problem that for so many people a sense of belonging depends on church authority, and that a simple wish to know what happens after death can be manipulated, amplified, and co-opted by religious professionals. The question is certainly important, but it does no good to dwell on it.
No god in the whole wacky pantheon of history’s gods should be taken to look favorably on ignorance, fear, meanness, and cruelty, no matter what a particular scripture says. Fundamentalists who believe in a literal interpretation of scripture (which is to say no interpretation at all) are willfully ignorant of plain facts all around them. Blind adherence to statements and stories that are obviously contradictory or wrong, and obviously the work of mere humans, is not what anyone’s god would wish for. No credible god would say, “Here, I’m giving you some brains. But don’t use them.”
Any god worth believing in would at this point want the human race to set aside most worship, set aside all religious dogma and scripture and symbolism, all ceremonies that invoke or involve god — anyone’s god, any god at all — and begin forthwith treating each other decently without regard to nationality, race, sex, sexual orientation, language, or political beliefs.
Any god worth respect would want to reduce ignorance, fear, and cruelty — not encourage such things, or manipulate them to gain power.
Any god worth praying to would say, “Pray less to me and do more to treat your fellow humans with compassion and understanding. Not one member of the human race is chosen above any other, and no one has anything more noble to do than treat the people of the world, and the world itself, with empathy and respect.”
Any god worth understanding would say, “If you have faith, that’s enough. You don’t need to know what happens when you die. I’ll handle that. If you worry about it a lot, and puzzle and ponder, you’re wasting your precious time. Use that energy to go out and learn about what is set right in front of you. Be smart. Be kind and thoughtful. Don’t hang on me like little kids who won’t leave their parents at the playground, clenched on to their knees, staring down at those big comforting shoes. Don’t seek me — I’ll be around.