I tend to tell people I was raised “without religion” but that’s not really true. No one can escape the deep influence of religions, and no one is brought up without a belief system of some kind, unless raised by wolves.
I don’t believe in god(s) or an afterlife in the sense that religions depict. I’m not alone in this — even those raised with a religion often fall into atheism or agnosticism as they begin to question the myths they were brought up with. The fact is, religions don’t make a whole lot of sense — which is why “faith” is such a key ingredient. Don’t ask too many questions. Just believe, and follow the rules.
In my humble, non-religious opinion, life is richer and more meaningful if you live outside of dogmatic religious beliefs.
It makes perfect sense to want to make sense of things. We are born into a world that is pretty spectacular and complex, and it seems highly unlikely that this all happened…sort of randomly. Of course, “sort of random” is not random at all when you look at it through the lens of a few billion years; one logical change leads to the next. Part of the difficulty of being human is that we don’t really have the capacity to imagine billions of years. It’s an abstract concept. Which is why it is tempting to assume that this spectacular world came about through some sort of magic. Or divine intervention.
When we humans don’t know how to explain something, we make up stories. And these stories (myths, heroes, villains) are the basis for all of the religious texts and belief systems. That’s not to say I think they are all 100% fiction — there are some historic events embedded in there, along with a lot of historic politics and ideologies that continue to cause political and ideological strife.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to have faith is not the desire to explain the world so much as to explain death. Death is scary. It is supposed to be — our survival instinct is to avoid it at all costs. When a loved one is gone forever we can be torn apart by grief, unable to believe we’ll never see them again. Religions offer the dubious comfort of an afterlife. Death isn’t so scary if it’s not really death.
Of course you want to believe in an afterlife. Who wouldn’t?
Not Knowing is OK
But what if there isn’t an afterlife? Whether you believe in one or not, take a moment to sit with the idea that this life is all you get and when it’s over, it’s over. Doesn’t that make every moment you are alive more precious?
I don’t know what happens after death. It seems most likely that my brain and body shut down, my matter and energy are absorbed back into the universe, and I cease to exist. It would be super cool and a pleasant surprise if something else happens, but I doubt it will.
My mom believes in reincarnation. This is one of many belief systems I grew up around, which is why my “raised without religion” is kind of BS. My mom did past life regression through hypnosis back in the late seventies and discovered that (among other things) she had been a slave girl on a plantation in the south in the pre-Civil-War years, and was buried alive in ancient Egypt. My mom had some pretty shitty past lives. She also has a pretty severe mental illness, so you have to take everything she believes with a pound or two of salt.
If I am reincarnated I probably won’t know it. And that’s OK.
The Beauty of Questions
We want answers. It’s in the fabric of human DNA to try to solve every puzzle we are faced with, and the biggest puzzle of all is “the meaning of life.” Spoiler: There isn’t one. You make your own meaning, or you don’t…it’s kind of a personal choice.
The pursuit of meaning requires asking questions. Of yourself, of science, of your neighborhood monk, etc. And questions are what makes life interesting — especially the unanswerable ones.
One of the problems with religions is that they try to give you answers. And the answers they give are often based on some very specific political BS that was going on a long time before your great grandparents were even born. You have to wonder if the reality presented in religious texts is relevant to your life today. Sure, there are some nuggets of wisdom and some good rules like “don’t murder people,” but a lot of the morality is based on people who were in powerful positions trying to control everyone else by evoking God, heaven and hell. People wrote the religious texts, not deities.
I personally prefer living with questions, rather than answers. It’s just more fun! If you know how the story ends, why keep reading?
The Paradox of Morality
I’ve heard this one from a few folks who grew up in a religious context: “If you don’t have the threat of eternal damnation, what stops you from going around raping and murdering everyone??”
To which I respond: “WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Really? That’s your deepest, darkest heart’s desire? To rape/ murder everyone you meet? If the threat of hell is the only thing stopping you from being Ted Bundy, then I would suggest some serious counseling and strong medication is in order.
I don’t believe in hell, or heaven, but I still have a strong desire to do the right thing. We are born with a sense of right/ wrong and fair/ unfair. Religions don’t create that, and those of us without a religion generally don’t feel good about rape, murder, etc.
Religion is Dangerous
Religion would be a cute hobby if it weren’t so harmful. For one thing, most of the religions treat women like shit. The religious texts were written to serve male dominance, and even now the most devout believers demand subservience and some frankly bizarre manners of dress and behavior to desexualize women.
And what is the deal with religion-based terrorism and warfare? I mean, seriously. All of you believe in roughly the same thing — what is the point of killing over some subtle nuances?
The extremely devout are terrifying, whatever religion you pick.
The Problems of Sin
Most of my sins involve sex. I have had lots of premarital sex, with both of my husbands among other people. Most of the people I’ve had sex with I didn’t even marry at all! Is that still considered premarital?
My mother-in-law is very religious, and she has a small nervous breakdown every time one of her adult children does something like move in with their SO without marrying first. It is stressful and depressing for her to live in this world where people (including her adult children) go around having sex like it was just a normal thing to do.
Here’s a fact: People had sex before marriage was even invented. Before religion, before language, before the invention if the bedroom, people were fucking. Are you going to tell me that those old school homo sapiens are burning in eternal hellfire now because no one had written down any rules yet? Come ON.
My grandma got pregnant twice before she was married in the late 1940s. If the pill had been invented I’m guessing this essay would go unwritten because I wouldn’t exist. But lack of reliable birth control and access to abortions back then meant that grandma had three babies and a SECOND husband by the time she was 22 years old. My grandma was a big old sinner, but I don’t believe that God punished her by giving her cancer or sent her to hell when she died of it.
I don’t believe sex is that big of a deal. The fact that religions have demonized the most normal, fundamental act of being human seems hugely problematic to me.
The Problem of Deities
I am psychologically incapable of believing in god(s). It just doesn’t make any sense. If there is actually someone in charge of all of this, they are doing a spectacularly terrible job!
If I die and find out there is a god, or someone who has some say in what happens, I will be SO MAD. If you are god, and you are letting life play out like this, you are just a sadist. I mean, slavery? You let that happen? You are an asshole, god.
Yes, I know, god is mysterious, unknowable and has a plan that we can never hope to understand. And human suffering is just part of that plan. So suck it up and focus on getting into heaven.
Spirituality and New Age Nonsense
My mom believes in reincarnation, the healing power of crystals, guardian angels, numerology, and ghosts. Schizophrenia leads to some complex belief systems, and in the seventies and eighties there were plenty of opportunities for her to jump on the new age bandwagon.
New age nonsense speaks to a deep need for meaning even outside or a traditionally religious context. I want those lines on my palm to tell me something about myself and my future, but I fear they may just be wrinkles.
All the Christianities
Can someone explain to me why we need a dozen different flavors of Christianity? Of all of them, I’m probably most familiar with Catholicism. I have an uncle and an ex-husband who grew up Catholic, so I get the gist of it.
My current husband was raised Lutheran. When I ask him to explain the difference his answer comes down to Pope vs. no Pope. The story is the same. The beliefs are the same. The moral laws are the same. It’s just the dressing that’s varied. So why are people so uptight about it? I mean, what’s the deal, Ireland?
People getting into wars over nuances is part of the reason I think being religious is just plain bad for you. But that’s your choice.
Finding Comfort and Community
There is something beautiful about the practice of going to church/ temple/ mosque. People gathering and thinking about the deeper questions together is lovely. Many find the ritual to be comforting and it is a way to build community around something that feels bigger and more meaningful than quotidian life.
You don’t need religion for that, though. Start a book club. Host a monthly dinner. There are plenty of ways to build community that don’t require you to stigmatize LGBTQIA people.
Where Meaning Lies
The meaning of life lies in how you live it. I think that relying on religion for meaning robs you of the opportunity to find it elsewhere. The world is spectacular, complex, and quasi-magical. You don’t need a deity to give you that, it is already yours.
In a way, it doesn’t matter what happens when you die. Whether you get into heaven or not shouldn’t get in the way of living your life the best way you can, right here and now.