As a kid, I went to church and Sunday school and even attended an Episcopal grade school for 3 years, which meant chapel 5 days a week in addition to normal Sunday school, so no shortage of religious guidance. We moved a lot, so I experienced quite a number of churches, and several denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, even generic Protestant—an Army accommodation to multiculturalism). At some point I asked my mom if I really had to keep going, and she said I didn't. I think she just wanted me to get to a place where I could decide such things for myself.
I spent a number of years after that getting used to not being religious. If you're curious, you can read a pretty good summary of how I think about religion in my article Hawking God.
But like so many things in life, religion comes bundled with many things that seem only accidentally associated, like how you might have to go to a ball game to have someone walk around selling hot dogs and peanuts. Nothing about hot dogs and peanuts that requires that they be sold at a baseball game. They could do it at bowling alleys or in churches for that matter. Sometimes they do it in movie theaters or on beaches. But the point is that often an activity comes bundled with an unrelated or only quasi-related item, like hot dogs and baseball.
It surprises me, for example, that there's no religion-free version of a church. A lot of people just like showing up and seeing friends and hearing an inspirational message. It doesn't have to come from the Bible. It could come from anywhere. It's always at this point that people tell me the Unitarian church is kind of like that. But really, my point is that I don't want a church, and other non-religious people don't either. And yet, I'm not against socializing.
And the same with morality. Members of religions often pick up a great deal of morality from their church. That's where I got a lot of mine, as it happens. I think sometimes that Christians worry excessively that people who don't have religion will therefore not have morality, since the place they would have learned it doesn't exist for people outside of religion. It turns out it can be learned in other ways, though, so they can rest easy.
Still, when I left religion, I didn't discard my sense of morality. It seemed useful enough, and I'm happy to learn things wherever they come up up. I was in JROTC (a military training program) in high school, too, and although I eventually decided I didn't want to go into the Army, I was glad I had been in that program. I like to think I learned important things about discipline and respect and leadership that I could carry with me even after I “retired.”
It's perhaps also fortunate that even in Sunday school when I asked hard questions of my teachers, they didn't get all dogmatic with me, but instead tried sincerely to answer the questions on the terms I was asking them. I was quite skeptical about the story of Jesus feeding a large group with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. But the response I got was that probably people were hoarding food and that once someone shared, others did, too. The question I was asked back was, “Is that any less a miracle?” Hard to know how to answer that last question, but it was certainly my kind of miracle.
Even being no longer religious, I'm still OK with believing in that kind of miracle. I don't find myself troubled by reclaiming some of the terminology of religion. It's fully of valuable words that one cannot afford to be expressionally without. Even words like “evil,” which for many years I had no place for. Over time I've come to believe the word is necessary not because I imagine there somehow to be some supernatural Satan sneaking around, tempting and outright sabotaging the affairs of the world, but simply because there exist great wrongs in the world for which it would be too gross an understatement to call them merely “bad” or “wrong.” Such words are too small, too pedestrian. When I speak of Evil, often capitalizing it for effect, I don't mean anything supernatural, but I do find it conversationally useful to have a word to express a systematically corrosive problem that commands priority attention by society. I'll spare you specific examples at just this moment, so we don't get too side-tracked. For now I just want to note I've reclaimed my right to use it notwithstanding my lapsed membership in organized religion.
I'm still working on what to do about the terminology of prayer. I don't find myself with an urge to consult some supreme being, but when bad things happen to others, or when they're just fearful, I wish there were a conversationally simple phrasing like “I'll pray for you” that expressed caring. I often just resort to “I'll think good thoughts.” But just because I don't believe in a supreme being doesn't mean I don't sometimes wish for one. I did read comic books, for example, and I do watch superhero movies, and even though I don't believe in Superman or Aquaman, it doesn't mean I think the world would be worse off if there were such folks. Well, probably. It probably wouldn't work out like people think, and perhaps we're better off just wishing.
Actually, praying for someone is a complicated issue, because it has always troubled me ethically. I was taught that the reason you couldn't put God's name before the word damn was that it violated the commandment about taking the Lord's name in vain. That is, you are asking Him to do you some petty favor of damning someone or something just because it offends you. He's not going to do it on your say-so, and so you're asking in vain. He's not your servant, you're his. And prayer seemed to me to be full of that. It's one thing to make requests, but prayers seem full of command form. “God, bless so-and-so.” That seems similarly pushy to me, so I never really understood why it wasn't much more polite.
I don't think it's a minor point, actually, because once one gets used to telling God what he should and shouldn't be doing, it seems contagious to other things. One starts to hear political leaders telling us what God likes and doesn't, as if they know. Even if there were a God, it seems really unlikely to me that these people who are so free with His name are really the ones God chooses to chat with. Frankly, it seems to me that if there were really a God, the evidence would be in the little piles of ash all over the place where brash politicians went around taking His name in vain in myriad ways that go well beyond merely asking God to damn them. It's as if they don't even have the faith needed to see if God is going to answer their prayer of damnation, and they have to find a way to make sure to damn them here and now, as some sort of offering to a God too feeble to handle his own affairs. Some faith.
Again not to lean too heavily on my long-since-lapsed Christian upbringing, but I was taught that God gave us free will so that we could make choices in life, not so we could go around telling other people they have no choice. Too often, of late, we see hyperevangelicals impatient at the fact that God is not acting in the way they want or expect and worried somehow that the world will come to an end if they don't act. That, to me, seems the very essence of faithlessness.
According to the moral training I received in my youth from the church, it should be our business here on Earth to love, care for, help, and accept one another. Even today, that seems to me like it should be right, God or not. Tolerance and compassion are just good ideas no matter where they come from, but if you're a Christian I just don't understand how you could not think they were requirements.
And yet the GOP, the self-appointed party of God, purports to care about “life,” even though—as far as I can tell—that sense of caring stops just about the time a person is born. GOP politicians hold their heads high and smile cheerfully as they explain why it's important to kill plans for health care, education, minimum wage and other employment standards. Frankly, if there's a form of common human decency, it seems safe to suppose there's a GOP plan to obstruct it. And, I have to admit, if there's a place I feel a need for a word like “Evil,” this is it.
Some days I really don't know what to do about such Evil. For now I guess I just wanted to make note of the fact that these things the GOP has been doing offend my Christian sensibilities.
One ray of sunshine, though, is Pope Francis. He's not likely to get me to believe in God again, but his willingness to take on the big money and power that has infected the church and his seemingly genuine desire to lead by example in teaching people to care more seriously about other people is at least restoring a bit of my faith in humanity. Maybe we could get him to moderate the 2016 Presidential debates. It's not that I think the GOP has to answer to him particularly, but he seems to know the right questions to ask.
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Originally published November 18, 2013 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.
Tags (from Open Salon): politics, gop, republican, religion, love, love thy neighbor, tolerance, compassion, health care, minimum wage, living standards, employment standards, human decency, ordinary human decency, common human decency, pope, francis, miracles, loaves, fishes, matthew, church, sunday school, not religious, non-religious, atheist, atheism, agnostic, agnosticism, god, dogma, moral, morals, morality, philosophy, caring