Christians often assume that atheists regard Jesus as a great man, but that they either don’t believe he was real or else they don’t believe he said and did the things in the Bible. Personally, I don’t care if Jesus was real—or about the events of his life if he was real—because I consider many of his teachings to be appalling. This astonishes a great many Christians, just as their willingness to overlook the absurdities, cruelties, and contradictions of their 3-in-1 deity astonishes me. Even so, I could enjoy attending some ultra-liberal “church” where even the conservative members would make Billy Graham blanch, but it would be for a sense of ritual and community rather than any love of Jesus. In fact, the reason that I don’t go to such a church is that I don’t want to hear about Jesus because of the horrible injustices that have been committed in his name.
I could get on board with some other concept of god—say some quality like peace, beauty, or compassion—but I don’t feel the need to call such things god. I’ve done it though. That’s how I got into the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows. When they said I had to believe in an undefined something that I called a deity in order to join their clubs, I assumed that any definition would do. The rub about such groups is that they actually expect you to believe a lot more about god than the simple fact of his existence (for instance that he’s a supernatural entity that answers prayers), but they don’t tell you this upfront—they save it for a surprise. It also rankles me that the very existence of the god-requirement suggests that a man who believes in god is more virtuous than one who does not. I have never found this to be true except in regard to tolerance, an area in which the atheists have an easy lead, having never killed, maimed, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed people in the name of atheism, whereas such things have always been a prominent feature of monotheism.
I’ve flirted with quite a few non-Christian concepts of god, but none of them ever stuck. Take A Course in Miracles. I stumbled upon that back in the ‘90s when I was feeling even more strongly than usual the need for an anchor to my life. According to A Course in Miracles, neither matter nor evil exists. What does exist is god, and god is us. It naturally follows that we would do very well to live with this knowledge of our true identity—and the identity of other people—emblazoned across our consciousness. I spent most of a weekend really trying to find some way to open myself up to believing all this, but I failed—or rather A Course in Miracles failed. For one thing, there’s no evidence for it (as with most religions, you’re supposed to believe it’s true before you believe it’s true in order that you might believe it’s true), and for another, evil as an illusion struck me as being hardly less evil than evil as a reality.
I’ve also flirted with Buddhism, pantheism, panantheism, hylozoism, animism, Unitarianism, Yoganandaism, Bahaism, Wiccanism, New Age Sufism, and even totemism. (During my totemic phase, I decided that tree squirrels would be my totem, and I made a point of moving dead squirrels out of the street. This constituted my one and only totemic observance, and I must have done it upwards of six times.) I’ve also read a fair amount about atheism, which, despite what I often hear from Christians, is in no way a substitute for religion, although some atheists develop what believers might call a religious zeal for protecting the civil rights of nonbelievers. To my mind, atheism is nothing. This is why atheists often say to would-be proselytizers: “You and I are alike in that we both disbelieve in hundreds of gods. It’s just that I disbelieve in one more god than you do.”
I’ve heard that there’s a gene for religious faith, and if that is the case, I don’t appear to have it, and I think the world would at least be a more tolerant place if no one did. While I have every confidence that my Christian readers are people of exemplary tolerance (otherwise, they would be long gone from this blog), the rarity of such believers in my life makes me think that their tolerance is a rarity. I also think they are somewhat ignorant of how mean-spirited their fellow believers are to outsiders. If not for religious intolerance, I might very well have stayed in Mississippi instead of moving to the opposite corner of the country.
If you want to see the evil of the dominant form of American Christianity personified, look at Texas governor Rick Perry because that’s IT, that’s what I grew up with, that’s what I took seriously into my middle teens, and that’s what I somehow rejected. It seems screamingly obvious to me that the religion of such politicians could inspire them to commit almost any atrocity, yet America’s fundamentalists, evangelicals, and many Catholics support them. Otherwise, Rick Perry would not be the governor of Texas, and he would not be a contender for the Republican presidential nomination.