Asking why



I share the following sentiment:

“No matter how difficult our circumstances or how dire our situation, we need a way to pull everything together and celebrate wholeness. We need to affirm what is true, cherish what is beautiful, and embrace what is lovely. The necessity of religion emerges from this deep-seated and longstanding human need for wholeness.”*

Upon reading it, I reflected that most if not all of the atheists I’ve known would argue that I don’t need religion for these things, but I’m afraid I do. Yet, I too am an atheist so why, then, religion? Because I’m still idealistic enough to believe that, at its best, religion has the potential to contain in one place a mixture of worship, philosophy, morality, mystery, compassion, openness, music, art, history, and community. But why Christianity? Because it’s what I have to work with, both by virtue of my culture and my history.

I’m a Christian in the same way that I’m a Mississippian. I lived in that state for 37 years, and in Oregon for all but two of the past 28 years. I left Mississippi because I hated so much about it, yet it is ever with me. I miss its water oaks and Spanish moss; the flatness of its Delta; its Indian mounds, battlefields, antebellum mansions, and Natchez Trace; the heavy fragrance of its warm humid nights; the constant reminders of its Civil Rights era; and scores of other things. When I’m especially low, I envy my friend Lee, who left Indiana and never looked back. I likewise envy my wife, Peggy, who left God and religion and never looked back. I not only look back; I can’t separate myself from these things. They make me the person I am, possibly as much or more than if I had never left them, and I find it as pointless for my fellow atheists to argue against the literal truth of God or Christianity as to argue against the literal truth of anything that matters deeply to me. Besides, I know all their arguments.

If you want to understand something, be completely absorbed by it, think of it from a thousand different angles, throw everything you have into reaching a state of peace and wisdom regarding it; then love it even while being tortured by it, knowing that the times it will hurt you the most are when you’re the most vulnerable, which are also the times it will delight you the most. I wouldn't wish to mold myself into someone else because I know who I am and what I’m about. Others might look at me and think I need some serious alterations, but just as they pity me, I don’t envy them because my struggle is also my reward. I apparently communicate this poorly because, much to my horror, it’s obvious that many people do pity me, and since I relate pity to condescension, I hate being on the receiving end of it.

Too many people imagine that a good life is one in which pressing problems have been resolved. I can’t say but what they’re right because I’ve never experienced such a life, but when I think of one, I picture prisoners who are kept in their cells for 23-hours a day and only allowed out to exercise in what amounts to a dog-run. They’re fed without working and don’t even have to wash the dishes. Their laundry is done for them, and they need never worry about getting behind in their work, or being laid-off, or having an accident, or finding enough money to pay for surgery, because their lives are completely secure in regard to the kinds of problems that the rest of us face every day. Yet, who wouldn’t rather be dead than to live in such security?

This post was mostly inspired by those readers who, for years, have repeatedly asked: Why would an atheist write about religion so much? and Why would an atheist go to church? To what I just wrote, I would add the following:
I enjoy holy water, ritual and incense. I delight in stained glass. I like reading about religion. I like discussing religion. I enjoy religious art, poetry, music, and history. I enjoy being a part of a community that struggles with issues of morality (which is something the Episcopal Church does in spades). I enjoy having at least the hope of a sense of community that is otherwise lacking in my life, and I enjoy knowing that this community will outlast me because I’ve been a part of so many communities that failed. I enjoy trying to work out old hurts in a new way, a way that is right-brain rather than left-brain. I enjoy taking risks. I enjoy exploring internal frontiers. I enjoy experiencing new things. I enjoy meeting thoughtful people. I enjoy being reminded that not all religious groups are intent on dominating society’s schools, morals, and politics. Despite my atheism, I enjoy the experience of reverence and worship.

I have no illusions that what I’ve written will satisfy my questioners because: (1) As their context usually indicates, umbrella questions that challenge my motivations by asking why? suggest that the questioner regards my behavior as so extraordinary as to warrant disapproval if I am unable to offer an adequate explanation, something that I am rarely, if ever, able to do to their satisfaction. (2) Almost invariably—if not invariably—my past explanations were met with complete silence, and I took this to imply that they were likewise met with disappointment, an interpretation that was reinforced when the same readers asked the same questions repeatedly. (3) I can’t even defend my preference for chocolate over vanilla, so how am I to defend myself in matters that are interpreted as indicative of a deficiency in character or stability? I wish I could, but I know that my efforts are doomed in the eyes of others, and so it is, as it has ever been, that I write primarily for my own benefit. Although these two questions have encouraged me to think, I've come to wish they were a bit more varied because, after years of answering them to the best of my ability, I've run out of things to say. It's now a case of either accepting my answers or not.

*by Galen Guengerich in an article entitled “The necessity of religion,” UU World, Winter 2013 

16 comments:

All Consuming said...

"I’m still idealistic enough to believe that, at its best, religion has the potential to contain in one place a mixture of worship, philosophy, morality, mystery, compassion, openness, music, art, history, and community." - Worship what? I'm curious. All the other elements I understand. The worship part, well I don't know what actually is going on in the universe and beyond, but personally I feel ill never know enough to put it under one roof and call it something specific. If there's anything at all that is.

rhymeswithplague said...

"I apparently communicate this poorly"

On the contrary, my good friend, this post is evidence par excellence of the adroitness of your way with words and your superb ability to communicate.

My favorite post of yours ever.

Stephen Hayes said...

You might be asking too much of religion.

Linda said...

"Worship what?" was also my question when I read that. Now, why do you need to worship something?

You may have noticed I have not commented lately. Oh, I formulate a post in my head, but typing it out makes my thoughts seem condescending. I felt like I was picking on you.

I lived in a racist family and society, but I got over it. My mind left those things behind. So, I "was" something doesn't seem like a good explanation, excuse, or defense.

We cannot dispute our being Mississippians. We can leave and we are still Mississippians. However, we can change our ideologies when we learn better. You learned better.

My friend and I discussed wanting to go to church for the singing if we did not have to believe the words of the hymns or listen to the preacher. We decided it was okay. Maybe that is what you mean.

Peggy seems at peace, and I wish you could be, also.

Charles Gramlich said...

In many ways, religion aspires us to what is best in the human race, but so very very often if falls far short of that. It is unfortunate but I suppose it is also immensely human.

Paula Kaye said...

I would never pity you Snow. Instead I envy that you find your struggle brings you a reward. I just wish you peace as you continue in your journey to find some type of closure with religion....

Sissy said...

No matter where you are on this path of life, always know I love you for being you.

Pity? Never! Empathy? Yes,because of your physical pains.

Condescension? Not from me.
Yep, there are those out there that have an idea they are better, ah "more holier than thou". I've met them, even here on your blog. Actually, I meet the type almost daily - except when I stay to myself in full.

We each are still just the child that daily carries all the baggage we have picked up along our path, some of which is very heavy. I struggle often.


CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

I'm often quiet because I don't share in your quest and you seem so toured by it. All I can do is wish you peace.

Snowbrush said...

"Worship what? I'm curious."

I've learned to redefine two words: faith and worship. Rather than define faith as belief in a set of theological propositions, I've come to think of it as that which one's focus inescapably rests upon. Rather than define worship as an act directed at a deity, I've come to think of it as a feeling/attitude born out of gratefulness and directed toward that which is good, precious, sublime, no matter what it is or where it is found. This is why I can repeat words that mean nothing to me in terms of literal truth. I simply say to myself that I am taking part in a ritual that was inspired by my culture's dominant religious mythology, and that I find this ritual meaningful, and am thrilled to be a part of it because it elicits for me feelings of gratitude so immense as to result in worship. I am so enthralled by the way my heart opens at such times that I only wish I could carry it into every moment of my life as a path to inner joy and to a better world for everyone around me.

"The worship part, well I don't know what actually is going on in the universe and beyond, but personally I feel ill never know enough to put it under one roof and call it something specific."

Surely, you can remember a time when you heard some piece of music that touched you so deeply that you thought to yourself that this is sublimity, and to remain in this state is all that I could ever ask of life. Pain, futility, dread, resentment, longings, and all else that causes you distress went out the window in the presence of that music at that moment. You touched the best that was within you, the part that you love most, the part that you would like to take into your relationships with others in order to make the world a happier and safer place. That is what I mean by worship, and it has nothing to do with the acceptance of some set of authoritarian precepts about the existence and nature of a deity.

"My favorite post of yours ever."

Thank you, my good friend.

"You might be asking too much of religion."

I can't say I'm not. I guess it's a matter of faith--ha.

"We can leave and we are still Mississippians. However, we can change our ideologies when we learn better."

But poisonous ideologies are everywhere. For example, among educated people here in liberal Eugene, a person would be roundly condemned for suggesting that black people were inferior, but to regard Southerners, fat people, smokers, loggers, hunters, ranchers, Republicans, and those who lack a formal education (as long as they're white) as mentally or morally deficient would be considered by many as evidence of enlightened thinking.

"In many ways, religion aspires us to what is best in the human race, but so very very often if falls far short of that."

Yes, this is very, very true.

PhilipH said...

Dear Snowy, your way is the best way for you and anybody else, irrespective of their religion or lack of it.

Whatever floats your boat - and stay afloat.

Another scholarly essay dear friend.

All Consuming said...

That's a lovely definition of worship. I understand the feeling, but not as worship, as gratitude, to what I don't know, partly to all who are around me, partly because I think there's more than meets the eye to all this.

Helen said...

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for these words. Wise, insightful, generous, helpful, life affirming, brilliant. I appreciate you more than I can say .... you never have to explain / justify anything to me.

Snowbrush said...

"I just wish you peace as you continue in your journey to find some type of closure with religion...."

As it is said in church: "Peace be with you," to which one responds, "And also with you."

"Yep, there are those out there that have an idea they are better, ah "more holier than thou". I've met them, even here on your blog."

Maybe we all see ourselves as better than other people. It might even be the most serious problem of our species because once we can relegate another person (or creature) to the status of our inferior, we can excuse mistreating them.

"All I can do is wish you peace."

And likewise to you. I'm so happy you have a new fur-child.

"Another scholarly essay dear friend."

Thank you.

"That's a lovely definition of worship. I understand the feeling, but not as worship, as gratitude, to what I don't know, partly to all who are around me, partly because I think there's more than meets the eye to all this."

It's interesting that we can divorce worship and gratitude from an object. For instance, I can be grateful for a sunny day in winter (something that is rare here) without being grateful "to" anyone. I had anticipated that going to church and saying words that I don't believe about a being that I don't think exists might become an increasing problem, but my feelings have gone the other way. I don't try to ignore the words or think of an alternative interpretation because I don't hear them as having a meaning that needs to be ignored or explained. Once I decided to think of them as the religious myth of my culture and the European part of my family (I'm also Native American), they ceased to matter to me as other than myth. I still study Christianity (currently, the gnostics and St. Patrick), and I certainly know what the words mean, but they simply don't mean to me what they meant to the people who wrote them, and I'm okay with that. i usually go only on Saturdays and holy days when the service is small (around 15), is called a "high mass," and the music is provided by harp and harpsichord instead of organ. I look forward to the service all week, and it leaves me with a glow that can last for days. I hear the words in the same way that I hear the harp or smell the incense. The last song yesterday was a harp solo of "Fairest Lord Jesus." You don't hear it much in the Episcopal Church, but I heard it a lot as a boy. Yesterday, it didn't take me back to my boyhood (in a church that didn't even have musical instruments) in any strong way, but it did strike me as being more beautiful than I had ever heard it before. Yet, for much of my life, I either believed in Jesus, or at least tried to. Now, the most I can say about him is that he almost certainly existed, was very charismatic, emphasized the importance of love, said at least some of the words that are attributed to him, and was crucified. So, I have no image of him, but I could "feel" the music so strongly that had I done as I used to do, which was to attempt to create am image of him, the music would have meant less to me because my thoughts would have been divided.

"From the bottom of my heart, thank you for these words."

Thank you so much. By writing, I get clarity. Sometimes, people ask the same questions because they didn't read my previous answers, but it could also be that they sometimes ask them because they know there must be more than what I'm seeing. In the latter case, even when I feel annoyed by the questions, answering them all over again takes me to a deeper level of understanding.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Just re-read my comment... My stupid Ipad rewrites my words just as I hit the post button...making me sound like an idiot!

**Tortured...the word was tortured.

Carol Peiffer said...

I think questions that begin with "why?" don't necessarily imply disapproval. I often ask "why?" when I want to learn something or know something or get a different point of view. Sometimes I see a situation in a new light. But, of course, at times, I find no merit in an explanation.

I understand why you think about and write about religion. I started to doubt my family's religious beliefs when I was about 12 and was a closet atheist by the time I left home for college. That was 50 years ago. Yet religion still interests me.

A part of me still doesn't understand why and how religion became such a big part of people's lives. From what I've read of the church during the middle ages, I have no idea why anyone stayed Catholic or what possessed thousands to leave their homes to fight in the Crusades. The only reasons I can think for both is fear of hell and hope for an afterlife. I can't fathom why terrorists are so willing to kill innocents and sometimes themselves for ideological reasons. But then I remind myself that the Christian church was not much different during the Inquisition. And reading Hofer's "The True Believer" sheds light on fanaticism of all kinds.

Today, one of the church's biggest draws is a sense of belonging. That can however, lead to the notion that "we're right and everyone else is wrong," that "we have all the answers or privileged information" ---and that, I think, leads to a sense of superiority. Taken to extremes, it involves shunning those who don't agree.

I've always liked history. I enjoyed reading "Mistress of the Vatican" ---about the woman who essentially ran the Vatican for her brother-in-law pope. I've read books about the faithful who did good deeds and those who did terrible things in the name of God (the Magdelene Sisters in Ireland.)

The large library system I use has lots of "The Great Courses" and "The Teaching Company" sets that are either audio CDs or video DVDs. I've been listening to a lot of Bart Ehrman's lectures and also reading (or listening to his audio) books. He is an Biblical expert who becam a born-again Christian but is now an agnostic. His books are written from a historical perspective, not a religious one.

The only difference between my reading about these things and your joining a group is that the group can interact. My husband and I often discuss what we've read, but we are so in sync in our thinking on religion, that there is no one to challenge our conclusions.

Snowbrush said...

"I think questions that begin with "why?" don't necessarily imply disapproval."

I agree, but they do require an explanation, whereas other question prefaces (who, what, where, when, and how), only require information.

A part of me still doesn't understand why and how religion became such a big part of people's lives.

If you go back very far--say three or four months--my writing about religion was entirely critical (and every word of that is still true for me), so one reason I write about it is to show it for the evil that it is in its most visible American expression, which is characterized by ignorance, materialism, nationalism, intolerance, heavy-handedness, and a ready reliance upon violence. Obviously, religion means more to me than that, as my writings since the funeral of my friend, George (in either July or August), suggest. I don't think it's religion per se that causes problems but rather the dogma that is associated with religion. As the priest at the church I go to said, "It's hard to be a heretic in the Episcopal Church," and the truth of this makes it a good church for me. I've found that Episcopalians are open to atheists, at least here in liberal western Oregon.

From what I've read of the church during the middle ages, I have no idea why anyone stayed Catholic

I think the Middle Ages was much like present-day North Korea except that people back then could find relative freedom by fleeing across national borders. I also see the bubonic plague as a major difference between then and now. A parallel might also be drawn between the Middle Ages and much of today's Moslem world. I just heard on the radio that an Iranian woman was executed for killing a man who was trying to rape her, and I wondered if the same might not have happened in the Middle Ages because, like most Moslems today, the Christians of that era blamed women for being raped.

The only reasons I can think for both is fear of hell and hope for an afterlife.

I think it had more to do with fear of what the Catholic Church might--and probably would--do to them. If I saw people being burned at the stake, it would sure give me pause if I was thinking about buying a "Down with Catholicism" bumper sticker.

The only difference between my reading about these things and your joining a group is that the group can interact.

With me, it's an experiment in letting my right-brain take the lead and my left-brain occupy itself with other things because that is the only way I can attend church. My emotional self and my intellectual self have been at war since I was eleven regarding religion, and this is an attempt to flank the issue rather that to regard religion as necessitating half of my brain having to endless keep the other half in subjection, no matter whether I'm for or against religion.