Wednesday, December 30, 2009

paths to reason

As a child or young adult, one of the intellectual questions that most frequently possessed me was the existence of god. By college I had exhausted of the debate and considered the question totally resolved, so that by the time I developed this compulsive blogging habit, it no longer held my interest. However, issues of religion in general were not included in my original strictly epistemological contemplations, and my views on that wide of array of issues has continued to evolve over time and is most certainly not set in stone, so this is still interesting conversational fodder to me. Additionally, recent readings (Christopher Hitchens) have put me in the mood to lay out explicitly some of the earlier abandoned conclusions. So I'll probably be putting some chunks of religious philosophy (or just criticism, to put it less politely and more accurately) up here in the near future.

But there is a pretext that needs to be written first, which is my particular religious background and the path I took away from faith, which I think is sufficiently unique to be worth clarifying. Interpretation is always colored by the background of the speaker. So here's a brief description that can serve as a footnote to future religious discussion.

I was raised Presbyterian. My young life was more consumed by church activities than by anything else (except maybe music if you include the church-based music activities). My mom is the organist, my brother is following in her footsteps, and my dad sings in the choir. I went to church every single Sunday, multiple times on special weeks and every possible special holiday service. I went to Sunday school every single week and completed the confirmation class in junior high. I was in the children's choir, the youth choir, the handbell choir, the youth group, went to vacation bible school every year, and volunteered at the Wednesday after school program. I went to church camp, did all the fundraisers and projects, and spent countless afternoons just hanging out at church while my mom practiced, stamping envelopes and such.

Despite this extreme level of involvement at church, I never really got it into my head that faith was a truly important part of life. I took it for granted until I was 9 and went through the motions, with sincerity, of everything you're supposed to do, but I think the aura of "family business" that church had due to my mom's employment prevented any real sense of reverence from developing. Talk about church was about workplace politics rather than the meaning and importance of faith, which therefore never was something I held deeply personally and was horrified to abandon. But it was also not something I resented or was mistrustful of, it was just there, a nonnegotiable part of life like breakfast and spelling tests. (The eventual resentment was a result, not a cause, of atheism - after writing off religion, the high forced level of participation obviously got aggravating quickly.)

Somewhere around age 9 I had an epiphany that god is nothing but Santa Claus for adults, an invisible threat/reward system designed to induce good behavior, and probably somewhere along the line one generation had forgotten to inform the next about the charade. I quibbled about epistemological details for a few years after that, sometimes preferring the 'agnostic' label, but that was basically it. (And I obviously modified the Santa Claus story to something closer to, as Hitchens so wonderfully puts it, "[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge, as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs.")

The point is, I never spent much mental effort on questions of internal inconsistency of religious logic, or the reprehensibility of religious morality, etc. There was no reason to think supernatural things existed, and so the rest was a moot point. This was a convenient license to continue to ignore sunday school lessons and biblical teachings in church, so that I am to this day supremely and woefully ignorant of religious mythology, history and literature. The burden of proof is on the other side, so they can nitpick over Hebrew translations and Bible verses all they want, but I don't need to.

The other point is that it's somewhat unusual to go from extreme religious involvement to atheism in a sudden step. Society is absolutely becoming more secular, but this is a slow trend of lapsing practice reinforced over generations, rather than a slew of individual epiphanies. Either way towards society-wide skepticism is fine with me, but I (admittedly conceitedly) have a huge appreciation for the active step of breaking out of a philosophical system previously taken for granted. Most of my friends are not religious for one reason or another but it's the ones who were raised seriously religious and broke free independently that I feel I can really relate to on this subject.

Another notable aspect of my religious background is that I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt. Religion is so taken for granted that aside from some quibbles over exact denominations, I had no idea there was a nonreligious option in life. When I finally got the nerve to mention my atheism in junior high, my friends were literally terrified for my soul. The cultural tide was so powerful I never even considered taking a real stand on religion, except for some isolated tirades in the 'gifted and talented' class at school, where at least one or two other people were reluctantly open to the idea that god was an invented concept, and there was even a jewish kid (ironically this class included most of my sunday school class as well.) It is simply unacceptable in Oklahoma to abandon religion, and while I didn't so much care about social ostracism among my peers (obviously... I worked successfully towards that in many other ways) I certainly didn't want to attract negative attention from the various people who held the reins on my life.

The other factor is that I really didn't want to hurt my true church friends by either insulting their entire way of life or by putting myself on a direct train to hellfire in their eyes. So I basically kept it to myself until I was more or less on my own and would still never confront friends from my hometown with this debate. There's nothing to gain from it. I don't require their respect or understanding to be happy, and I have no problem with their pursuing happiness through delusion, so long as they don't subject me to their lifestyle. (Obviously this last condition is the problem... so obviously so and so prolifically described that I don't have much to add on that point.)

And that's about it. More on the superiority of secular morality later.