You heard me right.
It was a somber occasion. My father-in-law died this past January in an auto accident, and today being All Souls Day, his church had a little commemorative ceremony for all of the congregants who had passed on in the last year. My mother-in-law asked us to be there, so the family came in to be with her. It was hard enough for her, she doesn’t know I’m an atheist, and, what the hell, if I can’t go to church when asked to support a family member who I do love, then what kind of human being am I? So I put on my suit and went.
I used to think that, if anything, attending a church service that I found relatively boring was a good opportunity for introspection. The sermons are usually dumb, the music is repetitive, and there’s nothing interesting to read in the pews (though I did pull out the Bible and showed my son some of the more egregious passages in Leviticus – he now knows where Christians get their authority for putting homosexuals to death). So, I started thinking about, of all things, being in church. I was married in this church almost thirty years ago, and used to attend with sporadic regularity when the children were younger, mainly at my wife’s insistence, but there were times when I did look forward to going. It’s a Protestant denomination (United Church of Christ), one with relatively liberal theology and politics, but still solidly in the theistic camp.
There are many people here I know, good, solid people. Hard working, compassionate, community-centric people. Many of them have been regularly attending services, and participating in the life blood of this small section of the larger community, since I got married, and before. I reflected on how much I respected these people, something you would not expect from someone writing a blog such as this. These are salt of the earth people, people with all the best intentions, people who would give you the shirt off their backs. Christians, all of them.
The common denominator, the one thing that brings them all together, is their belief in god. The Pastor, a very nice woman, (or so she seems, I really don’t know her, and only met her once) speaks of god as if he is her personal friend and confidante. The elders are upstanding men and women of the community. The newer members are all fresh-faced adults and children with an intensity about them that is striking. In short, this is an organization that is a force for nothing but good in this community, at least on the surface (perhaps there are a few Desperate Housewives in the congregation – maybe even some desperate househusbands). These folks support each other in times of need, collect money for charitable causes outside the community, and otherwise provide a sense of focus for the lives of all the members. As an atheist, how can I criticize this?
Well…it’s like this, at least for me. Mass delusion. What else can explain it? Everyone of those very good people, (myself included, at one time) has to be convinced that their god exists, or they wouldn’t sit in church every Sunday to sing his praises. I’m not saying that such mass delusion is wrong (even though it is for me) but it IS necessary to keep this group, and all the other groups like it, cohesive. They all have to collectively believe in something for which there is not a shred of evidence, else they would probably dissipate, and the church would crumble (figuratively, and eventually literally).
So, does the good they do, the sense of righteousness (and you know I hate that word) they feel, outweigh the lack of truth in their beliefs? Is it OK to let them continue merrily along believing in what amounts to a lie, because the benefits outweigh the perceived disadvantages of knowing the truth? What would happen to their sense of good, their empathy towards their fellow humans, if I was able to stand in front of them and convince them, intellectually, that while their faith has done well by them up to this point, their faith was based on nonsense? Would they all fall on each other, beating and killing their neighbors, stealing the gold off of the alter, breaking the stain glass windows? Somehow, I don’t think so.
The Golden Rule – treat your neighbor exactly as you would have them treat you – predates Christ by hundreds of years, and is found in almost every culture. This convinces me that every one of these wonderful people would be just as wonderful without their current beliefs. They might channel their good sense in other directions, they might not meet up every Sunday to sing songs and read sanitized excerpts from scripture, but they would still be outwardly empathetic towards their fellow man, and they would find new and, I think, better ways of expressing it. And even if they knew that their god wasn’t around to demand that they refrain from killing, lying and stealing, they’d also know that without him, those things would still not be advisable.
What bothers me about this kind of mass delusion is the latent cynicism that’s needed to hold on to these kind of beliefs. One must really feel that man is inherently bad, evil, capable of the worst degradations, without some kind of incentive to keep him on the straight and narrow. Like a lion being tamed by the lion tamer, god and eternal punishment are seen as a metaphorical whip and chair. There is nothing like 2000 years of being told that you are sinful to instill such cynicism in the human psyche. If the only way to save yourself from the sins of man, and his fictional first mother and father, is to believe in god, then what choice do you have, if that’s all you know? I can certainly understand why all those people band together to believe in such nonsense, when they’ve been indoctrinated to believe in the inherent evil of humanity. They’re scared to do otherwise.
This is what happens when you put me in a church with nothing else to do. There is no way I’m going to convince those people that what they are doing is worshipping a fantasy, but there is also no way I’m going to do the same thing, even though in some small way I envy their community. I value truth more than feeling good. In fact, I can feel good and value truth at the same time. I wish they could too.
So, for all of you good souls out there, who don’t believe in souls, happy All Souls Day.