I was at a Catholic funeral the other day, and during the homily the priest riffed off of one of the readings from Scripture. If you are not, or never were, a Catholic, let me first explain what I’m talking about. During the Mass there are usually a couple of selections from scripture sprinkled throughout the ceremony. Usually a selection from the New Testament is read as the “Gospel”, then often a portion of a letter from Paul is read as an “Epistle”, and there may be other readings from the New or Old Testament, depending on the occasion. Oftentimes the priest then gives a homily, or sermon, in which he’ll take some point from one or all of the readings, tie it together in the present, and make a theme of the homily out of it.
At least, that’s the way they used to do it when I was an active Catholic. I don’t think things have changed much since I last took part. My experience at the funeral bears this out.
At this funeral, the first reading was from a passage from the Book of Wisdom (not found in most Bibles, other than the Douay Catholic version). The funeral officiant mentioned in his homily how this passage was the first biblical reference to the concept of life after death. He told us that originally the Jews, and even the early Christians, didn’t really believe in a life after death, but that only later did that concept arise among Christians. This is where I became a little befuddled, because I’m not sure exactly at what point in time people began to believe, with their particular religion, that they could look forward to immortal life. It really doesn’t matter for purposes of this post, as the point I want to emphasize is the same point he chose to emphasize – that Christians really have to work hard to maintain their beliefs, especially the Big One in the Afterlife, primarily because it flies in the face of all material knowledge.
I know that these were words he chose to comfort those who attended the funeral, myself included, but it seemed to me that even in times of extreme grief, the Church doesn’t lose an opportunity to reinforce the beliefs they start at birth. The fact that most people don’t shed those beliefs during their lifetimes, as I did, seems also to belie the assertion that people must work hard to maintain those beliefs. Once indoctrinated at birth, all they need are these little refresher courses at Church on a regular basis, (usually every Sunday, but anytime there is a Mass) for these clearly unsubstantiated beliefs to continue to be maintained.
Furthermore, his sermon dovetails nicely with a thought that’s been rattling around in my gray matter for a couple of weeks. To my way of thinking, given the prevalence of religion in our lives and culture, it is rational thought that is actually something you need to work at on a constant basis to continue to ward off religion, and any other superstition or baseless belief for that matter. Atheism takes effort, especially if you were born and raised into a religious family. Actually, any kind of rational thought takes effort, whether it’s religious or secular. It’s the unexamined and unquestioned thought that is easy to hang on to, even when it causes discomfort. (PhillyChief wrote an incisive post about a man who was brought up as an atheist, or so he claims, then became a priest, who unquestionably accepted the indoctrination of his parents, and now professes to be an expert in atheism as a direct result of his unquestioning atheism. It’s a good example from the other side of the coin.)
When society, especially American society, is so infused with religious thinking, from our money, to our Pledge of Allegiance, to every other word out of the mouths of our elected officials, to television, print and music, it is very difficult to break away from the mindset of religion. Go take a look at your local Borders or Barnes and Noble. Compare the shelf space dedicated to religious books to those dedicated to free thought, if you can find a shelf dedicated to the latter. There is more written about astrology than there is atheism. Try sneezing in public and listen carefully for “Darwin Bless You!” (Please drop me an email when you hear it. I won’t hold my breath waiting.)
Speaking only for myself, it took me years to break free of the constraints of religious thinking, and only with a considerable amount of effort. I had to search out books, magazines and people that I could plumb for an alternative to religious thinking, something I intuitively sensed was wrong, but had nothing to validate my intuition. It took years to find like minded individuals, who were always there, but just as reticent to speak out and question as I was, and therefore hard to find. On a larger scale, it took the blatant theocracy of the Bush Administration for many people to finally say “enough is enough” and begin to question their most basic assumptions about reality.
It still takes a lot of individual effort to break the grip of religion, though. Every time I hear religious nonsense, I have to intellectualize the stupidity in order to confront it and debunk it. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of effort. It often requires a search through the internet, a conversation with a friend, or a perusal of a reference book. But it also requires hard, searching questions, and a willingness to reject what I currently believe. It requires me to constantly test my beliefs against what I find in reality, to see if they still stand up to scrutiny, and to reject them if they don’t.
It’s very easy to form a belief at an early age, and then never question it again, living in possible ignorance for the rest of your life. It takes a lot of effort to constantly challenge yourself to see if what you believe is valid.