Thursday, June 30, 2005

Apostasy and envy.

I think I've finally completed the process of apostasy.

I grew up in a pretty religious household. One parent was Methodist, the other Lutheran , and I shifted between them. Back then I didn't know a single thing about doctrinal differences and couldn't tell you why one was a Methodist and the other was Lutheran, other than the fact that the Lutheran church followed a more traditional liturgy, used real wine in communion, and had fewer old people. The only thing that I knew was that Jesus was always with me and that the universe was a place that was fundamentally just and would deliver all who suffered or were wronged.

There was a strange duality to the flavor of my religion. I was taught a rather liberal theology that made room for tolerance of others, the scientific method, and the notion that the Bible, rather than being literally divine, was divinely inspired and written by fallible mortals. This was how I was able to believe in things like evolution and rationalize Biblical passages about sexuality and dietary constraints that made no sense to me.

However, there was a darker side to my religion. Although I was always taught that god's message was one of love, there was always the subtle violence between the lines about satan and hell. I probably didn't learn this so much from church as I learned it from pop culture: cartoons, movies, and Halloween costumes. My mom had a Catholic friend who described hell as having your face pressed to a range top on high for eternity, but most of the official messages weren't' so horrible.

Even so, I was always terrified that I was going to end up in the hell that I saw in the Sunday comics. Maybe it was tied into the same reasons that I always felt like I was going to get in trouble at school or with my parents, but this fear is one of the first genuine emotions I can remember feeling and, to be honest, it's never really gone away. Even when my confirmation pastor convincingly argued that our contemporary notions of hell are based on a garbage dump outside Jerusalem called Gehenna, rather than a metaphysically existent place, and that hell was a state of disconnection from god, rather than a state of torment, the fear never faded. Even when I eventually stopped believing in satan or hell, period, and practiced the loosest version of Christianity under the sun, the fear wouldn't go away. The slight doubt in the back of my mind that something as silly as what I believed would guarantee me an eternity of torture was still there.

But eventually my faith disappeared. I went from strict Christian, to liberal Christian, to pseudo-Unitarian, to believing that all religions were part of the same truth, to believing in an unknowable infinity that I couldn't comprehend, to being an agnostic. Eventually, I couldn't believe that ancient myths about something of which I had no evidence were a meaningful picture of the universe. I didn't want to go down that road. I fought it as hard as I could because I was scared, but I couldn't help it. The real turning point was when I realized that no loving deity could possible punish people for something as silly as belief. Different people have different situations that are often determined by somewhat random forces that are beyond our control. How is it fair to punish someone who ended up in a situation in which they couldn't believe in something because they had no rational basis for doing so?

Now I'm finally at the point where I suspect that there really isn't any deity running the world. Everything around us is a freak accident in an enormous abyss that we can't possibly comprehend. To think that we're somehow a meaningful entity in that staggering space is ridiculous. We're a mere blink in a vast expanse of space-time that, in itself, is probably just a single brane that was spawned by an improbable reversal in entropy in an even more unthinkably large multiverse. Forgive me if I have a feeling that no creative entity behind this mess gives a shit about whether we lead difficult lives, struggle with why we exist, or praise one ancient idol over another. This is kind of depressing in that it means that there's no salvation for the meek or the oppressed. But it's also kind of nice to know that innocent people aren't going to have their faces burned off forever because they happened to be born on the wrong continent. I'm not sure if I could even utter the words "I am an atheist" because I'm so used to feeling knee-jerk revulsion towards that concept, but it's probably the truth.

I'm struggling with this. Every night I still have dreams about dying and the last thing I think before it's supposed to happen, I wonder if my consciousness is going to get snuffed out or whether I'm going to discover a new world of pain. I know that the rational answer is that my neurons stop firing and I probably experience the same thing that I did before I was born (nothing), but the old fears are still there and I can't extinguish them.

I also miss a lot of the things that religion brought me. Not only an belief in justice, but also the kinds of discipline and optimism that religion used to bring me. The meditative ritual and the knowledge that a transcendental entity really cared about me used to be a wonderful feeling. No matter how bad things were, there was always something else to strive for (yeah, I realize what Nietzsche would say about this). Now, I don't have that. I watched some Muslims on television tonight describing their faith and I felt a pang to experience that feeling again. Religious people certainly believe a lot of really fucked up shit, but they had a belief that I envy. Even if I don't believe in it, I wish I could feel that just for the personal effect that it has, the feeling of certainty and belongingness in the world. Things may have really sucked when I was in junior high, but, despite what you would expect, it was the happiest time in my life.

But I don't think I'll ever feel that again. It would be fake because I know, deep down, that there's nothing there. Just the random flux of quantum states while our arrogant minds continue to assume that there's some deeper meaning to all of it.

I'm sure that this is all bullshit and that in the morning I'm going to realize how happy I am to not be religious anymore. I'm going to realize the huge range of possibilities in front of me and will continue to believe that I have some sort of free will, regardless of whether I do or not, and will latch onto some rationalization for living in a materialistic world, like eternal recurrence, to hold the placehold for religion like I always have. But tonight you could say that I'm kind of jealous.

edit: Now that I think about it, the real problem is that I'm probably afraid to belief in myself. Like a codependent, I need someone or something else to rationalize my life since I'm scared of doing it for myself. This way, I can shovel all of my problems off onto a stupid religious problem, when the real issue is that I just need to take matters into my own hands and live the way I want to. I don't need religion to have discipline and to get the things done that I want to. I just need to suck it up, get over the bullshit self-pity, and do it. No unlikely entity is going to write a book, develop healthy interpersonal relationships, get a JD, or be in good shape for me. Even if free will isn't real, it's probably a more useful fiction than a god or an afterlife.

Glad I snapped out of that.

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