9.15.2009

Losing my Religion

[I've kept it <1100 words & I value your thoughts]

The last two years or more the effort that I used to put into politics shifted elsewhere, largely to reading history, economics, philosophy, and literature, and thinking about that other topic you shouldn't talk about at dinner: religion. Lately I've reflected back on things, as graduation is a rather explicit conclusion of a big chunk of life and I've had a big change in this sphere over my collegiate time. I've whittled what I want to say down to a few big points to keep it as terse as possible. But first, my background: My family is Catholic and I was even confirmed, but I never felt anything compelling in church. Looking back at it, at the time I thought I was broken somehow, that most of the adults in church must have known or felt something that I was missing.

* * *

The seeds were planted in 10th grade world history. My high school's curriculum spent a week on each of the five major world religions and one day while my mind was wandering in class, I happened to imagine an alternate world in which I had been born in the Middle East. I realized that I'd probably have felt that Islam was correct and the other religions were the bizarre ones. Or if I had been Roman, or Greek, and so forth. But how could a nice god condemn whole segments of the world for having been born in the wrong place or time to the wrong family, especially since the Christian god presumably chooses where to put people? Why would he even bother with the other 5/6th of the present world when they'd just be thrown away anyway?

Not only that, but a light came on during the Hinduism week. Hinduism is so unlike the other four and is glaringly silly, yet it's given the same high regard. Moreover, after learning about the origins of it, it was so obvious that it was made up. The belief system it establishes fits well with what a conquering group of people would set up to put themselves on top and keep the rest content and subjugated with crappy lives.

Isn't that the whole point of reincarnation? Your life now is very crappy, but if you're "good" then your next life will be better. This can't be proven, but would you want to risk it and waste this life if it does happen to be true? Also your entire family and town thinks it's true.

Much of religion appears so obviously man-made with a little thought, for instance kosher foods, pork in particular. Even today it's easy to get sick from pork. In ancient times when people didn't know about disease, perhaps they saw Bob eat a bunch of poorly prepared pork, heel over, and die. For ancient people, the best explanation was probably that god doesn't want people eating pork so he kills those who do.

Armed with my new knowledge about the other religions, I endeavored to justify to myself that I was on the right path. That eventually led me to question Catholicism and Christianity and I went into "well, it's the message that's important" mode for a year or two. That's really where I had been along since my parents had always encouraged my interest in science, so I knew that the Bible couldn't have been more than metaphor anyway. However the pettiness of Catholicism and ridiculousness of Christianity continued to grow in my mind.

* * *

Fast forward to two winters ago I had been a Deist for a year, having happened across the wiki article about it my sophomore year of college and having agreed with most of it despite being nominally Catholic at the time. I was hanging on to believing that a deity exists by clinging to philosophical technicalities (see here) like Pascal's wager, the argument from first causes (what caused the Big Bang?), the transcendental argument (a god must exist for good and bad to have meaning), and the old "you can't prove a god doesn't exist" among others.

The final thread of belief was let go when I realized that determining what was true by what I felt or wanted to be right was surely not the correct method. That's not how discoveries are made. Scientists don't arrive at new theories by what they feel is right--they acquire evidence and attempt to come up with a better model; either a model fits the evidence and is valid or doesn't and is thrown out. Feelings lead people astray. I realized that the only reason I believed at that point was because I felt and wanted that a god must exist.

I stepped back and re-evaluated the whole picture from the ground up and came to the conclusion that the universe is and behaves exactly the way a completely natural, material universe would; there simply isn't proof otherwise. Furthermore, if a deity did happen to exist, it had made every effort to conceal itself, in which case it must not be important whether we attempt to placate it or not anyway.

* * *

The first week was bittersweet. On one hand, I felt existential pain down into my marrow. Ultimately you, I, everyone I love, and everything we and humanity ever does is insignificant and meaningless (see Heat Death). On the other, everything had more meaning then it ever had before--how incredibly unlikely anything is! How valuable every moment and action is! A universe with a god has no value since there are infinite replays and a god could wipe everything clean and completely remake everything slightly differently with no effort. There are no second chances and all that is, is all there will ever be.

The moment when the consequences finally fully sank in, I had gone for a walk down along the SW side of Monona Bay a few blocks from my apartment on a relatively warm, early-March night with my coat unzipped. The lights of downtown Madison rose up the hill and were dancing on the undulating inky lake below and the stars twinkled in the vacant heavens above.

How sublime! I felt like I was seeing the whole world clearly for the first time.

The same few rules govern everywhere on everything, and everything is inescapably bound together. How extremely unlikely and lucky we are that we are able to be aware of anything at all. And this, the facts of reality, I find more inspiring and wonderful than anything religion has ever offered.