Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Christian Asks an Atheist - Part 3

If you don't BELIEVE then you can't have Christmas anymore! 

(This is Part 3 of a three-part interview. Part One and Part Two)

Q. Do you not participate in religious holidays at all?

I definitely do celebrate holidays!  I participate in as many religious (and non-religious) holidays as I possibly can, and with great enthusiasm!  I try to learn about the mythos and traditions that have developed around each holiday.

All holidays, both religious and secular (and a few which are both!) belong to everyone.  They grew out of the non-religious traditions and cultural development of all of our ancestors. Most have their origins in ancient rituals which long predate the modern religions which now claim them. They are my cultural heritage as they are all humanity's.

I love the winter holidays, especially the ones which grew out of my western European ancestry.  The fun of Santa Claus and the magical elements of the Christmas story (a giant star! angels in the sky! talking animals! That's magical stuff!) make Christmas my favorite holiday hands down, with the traditions of Yuletide and Winter Solstice included, of course.

New Years Eve is another big holiday in our house (we throw a huge party!).  We celebrate the twelve days of Christmas, not just a single day wrapped around turkey and presents. The myth of the magi/three kings is one of my favorites from long ago, and we celebrate Twelfth Night as the Christmas season draws to a close. 

I like Chinese New Year because I had friends in school who taught me a lot about it and the traditions around that holiday.  I rejoice in Easter/Spring - I celebrate the renewal of the earth (with no human sacrifice necessary).  St John's day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day/Canada Day (July 1), Independence Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving are all marked with special meals,  decorations and family traditions.  I also enjoy learning about the holidays of other cultures and I celebrate them, too, when I can!

Like most people, I love holidays!  One of the nice things about being atheist is that, since I am not forced to regard only some as "true" and declare others "false" to validate a religious belief system,  I can appreciate the genuine history of human seasonal celebrations and the myths created around them, claim our common human heritage and celebrate them all! 

Q. Were you brought up as Athiests or did you decide on your own later in life?

No, I was not brought up an atheist, I was brought up a mainly cultural Catholic in a fairly open-minded, tolerant, book-stuffed household. I attended Jesuit/Catholic school right up to university, not by my parents' choice but by necessity: where I grew up, all schooling was religious. To my parents' dismay, my dream and my plan for most of childhood and teen years had been to become a Maryknoll Sister.  Those nuns were adventurous and heroic - doing important work! - and I longed for a life of purpose like that, too. I even spent a year in a convent boarding-school preparing to enter the novitiate after high school.

Growing up, my identity was intricately entwined with my religion, but only in a cultural sense.  The people I knew were not fundamentalists, nor social conservatives, nor did religion or god-belief figure in our daily lives much at all - it was just who we were.  My siblings and I walked to our Catholic schools with our Catholic neighbors and the Protestant kids on the street walked to their schools with the other Protestant kids. We all shared generic Christian holidays, but had different denominational holidays - we had St Patrick's Day off; the Protestant kids had St George's Day off.

Religion provided the calendar of our lives and the cultural community to which we belonged, but religious belief was not something that was in our lives every minute or hammered into us every day.  I barely gave God a thought. I never connected god-belief with fear. Nobody I knew behaved as though a judgmental god was in any way a real thing. At most, people seemed to regard God as an invisible pal who agreed with their gripes and who sympathized - silently and apparently impotently - with their troubles. We did have a religious denominational school system,  but in spite of that the society was largely secular and one might even say almost irreligious.

The only obvious difference between our denominational public school system and the secular public school systems I have seen elsewhere since then was that we did have religion classes in school a few times each week.  I remember catechism as dry and boring (except when I was thrown out of class - once for declaring that I was not a sinner and another time for insisting that I did so understand the "'mystery' of the Trinity"- I was in second grade).  In middle school and high school, catechism gave way to world religion classes which I remember as interesting and illuminating.  Outside religion class, we had a completely secular education in our so-called religious schools, learning about evolution in science classes,  ancient mythologies in literature classes and even an objective study of the Reformation in history classes. As far as I can tell,  there was no redaction or revisionism of inconvenient history to suit a religious agenda in my school in the 1960's and 70's, unlike what we are seeing today. I loved my schools and church and I was enthralled by the sacred music, the mythology and the ritual.  

I never believed that the Biblical mythos was literally true nor that the Biblical god was a literal being (at least not in my conscious memory) so in that sense I appear to have been born atheist. The Biblical god was roughly equivalent to a story character in my mind - not a real thing, but an idea - a caricature with a purpose. I had a vague sense that everything we discussed and did in church was deeply meaningful ritual and poetry and art which was symbolically pointing us toward some kind of ineffable, supernatural goodness. To me, the religion and the Bible and the beautiful Church rituals and glorious music and liturgies were reaching toward so much more than the literal interpretation of them. My understanding of that ineffable goodness gradually morphed into a belief that the purpose of religion was to work toward the fulfillment of human potential for good- ie as stewards of the earth, as peaceful co-inhabitants of the earth with other people, animals and other living things, as intelligent beings seeking greater understanding of the universe and our place in it - no gods required. God was simply a metaphor.

The truly funny thing is this: I thought that was what everyone else thought, too! I thought I was completely normal in my church and that what I understood to be pointing to the greater meaning of it all, was in fact, what everyone else thought and believed! I thought that everyone else considered the Bible readings and lessons to be simply our ancestors' best acknowledgement (through centuries of wonderful effort and tradition) of our role as human beings and our duty to continue to strive toward fulfilling our role to the best of our ability. This was probably true in my hometown in that era (late 1960's- 1970's). I received all of my sacraments blissfully, joyfully convinced that I was completely in line with the Catholic Church's teachings. 

Until I was away from home poised to enter the pre-novitiate, it honestly never really occurred to me that other people in other communities (other than rare cults) actually have a very different - very literal and illiberal - view of religion. But there is a whole other world of religious conservatism out there, which I discovered when I traveled far from home to a convent boarding school.  I had come from a community where the fatherly priest at my school had enthused that I might become one of the first women priests if I wanted to be, to a place where the aloof young convent pastor made it clear how subservient I was to remain as a female Catholic - he represented a renewed wave of reactionary conservatism in the Catholic Church.

The hopes of progressive Catholics in the 1960s and 70s were soon to be decisively dashed, though I did not understand all of that in that one year.  I just knew that the changes I had heard about growing up were never going to happen quickly enough for me to be able to participate fully in the Church. Of course that realization was the main reason why I did not enter into religious life.  It was in the convent that I gave up my dream of becoming a Maryknoll Sister. I was not conflicted about it or upset; life is full of surprises and adventure and my realization only made me even more interested in religion as a social force, while saving me from a mistaken turn in my personal pathway.

I loved my Church. I grew up always believing that my beliefs were perfectly in line with everyone else's. To this day, in spite of that disconnect, I feel at home when I visit a Church.  I guess that is the power of "belonging" and "community" that so many people seem to be seeking in a church. However, both time and geography have revealed to me a far less beautiful Church than the one I grew up believing was a force for justice and goodness in the world.  I don't attend church anymore, and I am very happy to be recovering, but I do miss that sense of belonging.

Q. Can you share more about your non-beliefs?

What are non-beliefs?  That is a question I am not sure how to answer. How about if I share a few more things I do believe?

I can tell you that I believe very strongly in the power of humankind to grow and learn and to become better people.  I think that our emotional development will surge forward as we understand our environment better and can learn to manage our resources so that physical survival is not the main concern of the majority anymore. I believe that once survival for a reasonable lifespan is reliably ensured for most people on the planet, cognitive and emotional development will increase at a faster pace, allowing humankind to gradually approach its eventual potential. I am not talking about overnight, obviously.

As long as human survival is still precarious for a majority of human beings, the primitive pre-occupation with individual survival - with competing for food, territory and mates; with controlling other people to ensure reproductive success - and the survival and dominance of the tribe or nationality will continue to be a dominant trait in our species. These are all concerns which are instinctive to all living things and which, to me, are very convincing evidence of our evolutionary nature. We share this preoccupation with survival and reproduction, and the fierce competition which has its roots in these, with every living organism on the planet, from the smallest one-celled organism, to the largest animals on earth.

The interesting and amazing thing is how human beings began to develop more complex concerns as tiny pockets of them settled into relative prosperity and began to enjoy freedom from extreme want. Enter: confessional religion.

People were still strongly influenced by the ever present concerns about survival, but the small comforts and privileges of small pockets of settled humanity allowed people to begin to think about issues other than killing or being killed, starving others or starving themselves, winning land/food/mates or losing them and losing the battle for survival. With the stress of these constant concerns easing slightly, they were able to begin to think about how to make societies better, how to treat their fellow humans better and so forth.

Obviously, even this step forward was hampered by many of the more primitive concerns of humans (thus the elaborate rules and strictures around reproduction, for example).  Still, it was a significant leap in a relatively short space of time and with only slightly eased circumstances!  Imagine how far we could go if the majority of humankind could enjoy freedom from extreme want for several generations! I have great faith that humankind will reach that happy point, maybe not in my lifetime or my children’s or even my grandchildren’s, but it is coming.

This is a huge subject and it would take days to type even a brief overview, but the above is a small sampling of what I believe about the development of humanity and religion. 

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