An atheist meditation on our seemingly natural pull towards religious thinking.
My wife is a Unitarian Universalist. She takes our kids to church with her every Sunday, and the church nourishes my family. They talk a lot about social justice topics, inclusiveness, respecting each others' spiritual journeys, etcetera. I have only been able to attend occassionally over the past few years because of my work schedule--I work at a homeless shelter in the city, and homelessness does not take the weekend off--but recently my schedule has changed, and I've been tagging along.
I like it. I like the people, I like the way they embrace my family, and I like the overall message. The Unitarian Universalist church has done a great thing by creating a community setting that allows people to deepen their own personal life journeys, explore their own accumulated life philosophies, and share their experiences with others in an open and unafraid way. I am also very big on the social justice element of their mission.
As I was typing the above paragraph, I could feel the looming 'but' hanging over me. 'I love the UU church, but...'. But there is no 'but'. Not really. What I have learned from the UU church is that I have become a little harder than I had realized, and that the human mind naturally orients itself towards religion.
On my hardness: It was inevitable. All of my life I have romanticized troubled men, and taken exception to things that are beyond my individual control. That's a topic for another essay, maybe. The other part...that the human mind naturally orients itself towards religion, has been dawning on me in bits and pieces for the past few years.
The minister talked to us about how we all carried within us 'the divine', or that we all were 'the divine', or something like that. Ultimately, her purpose was to lead us to a place where we recognized 'the divine' in others, but also, a twin purpose seemed to have been to protect her own need to use words like 'god' and 'religion' in a positive connotation. It was painful to watch a baseless assertion be carried into a formula for doing good. If we cannot deliver justice without a god, we're in trouble, because gods do not exist.
So there was that. People who largely could be described as atheists, agnostics, pantheists, and deists, cloaking all of their good works and their experiences in a language that upon only a little prodding would be revealed to be the currency of myth. There's nothing wrong with poetic language, mind you, but people don't defend mere metaphor the same way they defend literal belief, and when you're dealing with the religious--however liberal--the style of defense seems awfully close to the kind of defense we mount of vulnerable literal beliefs.
I've also been reading about Leon Trotsky a lot lately. I like him. Of course, I always see a lot of myself reflected in the lives of great men, so I identify with him. His story has just the mix of romance, iconoclasm, and tragedy that gets to me. The 'Old Man' of bolshevism could be said to be the farthest thing away from religion that you might find. I know I'm not the first to say it, but Soviet communism couldn't be closer to religion, with it's doctrines, enforcers, icons, and inflexible dogmas. The religion of communism put blinders on Trotsky's brilliance.
John Dewey's final assessment of Trotsky, as found in Bertrand Patendaude's 'Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary':
"Dewey, the pragmatist, was alert to the mutual shaping of ends and means. Trotsky, the Marxist, was guided by his belief in an iron law of historical progress. To Dewey, Trotsky was the prisoner of an ideology. 'He was tragic,' Dewey said in delivering his ultimate verdict on Trotsky a dozen years later. 'To see such brilliant native intelligence locked up in absolutes'."
Which is very close to how I feel about all of my highly intelligent religious friends. Personally, I think much of my own cleverness grew out of the need to defend my own religious views when I was an evangelical. There was never any greater challenger to my faith than my own reason, and my wit sharpened considerably defending against it. This is what I suspect of all of my brilliant theologian friends as well, but that's probably another conversation.
Other people have said it before, but I've always bucked at it. I have been burned by religion, so I don't want to believe it is something that is needed. I'm still not sure it is needed, but it seems to be something everyone bends towards.
Lucifer is my favorite character in all of literature. To me, he represents rebellion in the face of tyranny, creativity, humanism, reason, and life. He is also the perfect embodiment of the tragic hero. This is the Lucifer as portrayed in the works of Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Milton, and Neil Gaiman, perhaps best embodied in our age by the 'Good-Guy Lucifer' meme, and the dedication to Saul Alinsky's 'Rules For Radicals':
“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer "
Since this has been so, it makes sense that Anton LaVey and I would have crossed paths eventually. There is much to love about LaVey, but there is also much to scoff at. He seems to have shared the same kind of appreciation for Satan that I do, but he also gummed up the whole thing with a lot of stupid objectivism and social Darwinism. I understand now that LaVey, in his heart, was a serious nerd, and that Satanism is, at it's core, a religion for nerds. None of this is more evident than in the current black pope's meditation on time travel*. I am a nerd too, but I've been convinced that I didn't need any kind of religious structure. After sitting through the UU sermon I sat through this weekend, and reading a lot about Leon Trotsky and his secular religion lately, I am beginning to see how the structure of religion pops up in everyone's life in one way or the other, and that LaVey was ultimately right when he said:
"Man needs ritual and dogma, but no law states that an externalized god is necessary in order to engage in ritual and ceremony performed in God's name!"
As with all religious writings, the overuse of exclamation points makes me cringe, but experience seems to bear out his basic claim. Even among many followers of popular atheist bloggers, you see a lot of arguments from authority ("As P.Z. Myers says..."), and heretic shaming (remember when Neil De Grasse Tyson dared to call himself an agnostic?), and mindless meme regurgitation ("science flies people to the moon, religion flies people into buildings.").
Maybe our mind's most pressing desire is to be comfortable. Unfortunately, personal growth requires constant motion and battle--both internal and external. But we need rest, we need assurance, and we need structure.
I'm uncomfortable with religion. I'm uncomfortable endorsing it as a benign thing...but I recognize the inclination towards it in everyone around me, and in myself. I want to say 'this is this way because of this', and 'this is the law', and instead of giving an argument for why 'this is the law', I want to point to the law book and say, 'because it is thus written'. That's what's in my heart, and I don't like it. I want to be happy with not knowing why everything is the way it is, and bravely accept my life as the dwindling flame on a match head that it is, but I am greedy.
It's become my opinion that mankind naturally reverts to religion if it is not diligent. Anton LaVey wants to have his cake and eat it too when he seeks to free himself of religion while chaining himself to man's 'need' for dogma and ritual. Somewhere inside of me I want to follow him, but I don't think that would be the right thing to do.
CROSS POSTED AT EVERYTHING IN THE MEDICINE CABINET HAS EXPIRED.
*The Satanic Scriptures, by Peter H. Gilmore, page 201,'Time Travel: Cheap and Easy'. Scapegoat Publishing, 2007.