One of my weekly pleasures is an NPR program called This American Life. I download the podcast and take it on a walk or bike ride where I can enjoy it uninterrupted.
In a recent program, the staff of TAL coordinated with NPR’s news division to produce an hour long, behind-the-scenes feature on the recent U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis. I highly recommend this fascinating program, which answers questions on the hows and whys of the mortgage implosion of 2007-2008.
What the show uncovered was at once both surprising and not. It was surprising in terms of the brazen greed, sloppy assumptions and barely disguised fraud the program uncovered. And yet it was not surprising: Isn’t that trio – greed, laziness and fraud – at the heart of all scams?
As I listened to this sordid tale, spun out in the words of a bartender-turned-mortgage-broker and a mortgage “bundler” who made $75,000 to $100,000 a month (a month), I found my thoughts turning to religion.
Now, hold on just a minute. As a born-again Christian for 30 years, I don’t believe that religion is primarily driven by greed, laziness and fraud. I know that the televangelist stereotype that some lifelong atheists adopt for all religious people is false. I’m well aware that most religious believers are sincere, good-hearted and many are self-sacrificing…
When it comes to the idea of a deity, I’m an “agnostic” atheist. I really do keep an open mind: How could I not? Our human, scientific capacity for understanding the universe is still in its infancy. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, but nobody claims that humankind has “arrived.”
I’m quite persuaded that the anthropomorphic “old man on a throne” god of the three major world religions is a fictional character. But is there some greater entity, consciousness or purpose in the universe (or of the universe) that’s simply beyond our finite skills of detection?
There certainly could be.
A line in The Ghost Map (a wonderful nonfiction book I’ve written about here before) sticks in my head. The book tells the story of the last great cholera epidemic of London and the two men (a doctor and a minister) who solved the disease transmission puzzle. Specifically, they isolated a contaminated water pump in the neighborhood where the outbreak occurred and shut it down, stemming the epidemic.
But they did their work before the germ theory of disease. As author Steven Johnson put it, the idea that invisible cholera molecules were floating around in that water would have been as laughable to them as the idea that invisible fairies are floating around in our gardens is to us today…
Oftentimes, those of us who have left religion behind are asked to define what keeps us going, what motivates us, what rescues us from the pit of existentialist despair now that we no longer believe in god. Some of us do not seem to have much of a positive belief system, others have adopted skepticism or humanism, others excavate their own philosophies of life.
A new member of an ex-fundy support group I help moderate addressed this topic recently and his answer was so interesting that I asked him if I could re-post it to this group and he graciously consented.
I wanted to share an epiphany I’ve had after many years of wandering a post-fundamentalist wasteland. Maybe it will have meaning for some of you.
My Southern Baptist fundamentalist belief began disintegrating right around the time I went off to college. This was very painful for me (as I’m sure comes as no surprise to most of you). I fought it every step of the way as my faith slowly bled from me — my belief in Christ had formed the core of my self image, and my view of myself collapsed along with the elaborate theological construction that had undergirded it…
About a decade ago, I started a journey away from religion after 30 years of Christian belief. During the de-conversion process, I must have asked hundreds of questions about religious belief, faith, specific doctrine and the bible. But as my unsettling, difficult, paradigm-shifting quest wound down, and I reluctantly admitted I no longer believed in god, one stubborn question remained: Why me?
Why did I venture outside the box and begin to find so many standard doctrinal answers unsatisfactory, while my Christians friends stayed perfectly content in their faith? Why couldn’t I just drop the doubt and recommit my life to the Lord, as I’d seen “backsliders” do in the past?
I’m no smarter than many of my Christian friends, nor am I more sophisticated or better educated.
So what was it that caused me to push off from the comfortable port of fundamentalist belief, where I’d been happy for so many years, and set out – alone and wary – for unknown lands? Why did fellow travelers veer into nearby ports like the emergent church, liberal Protestantism or Catholicism…
I just finished reading a terrific book called “The Ghost Map,” a nonfiction account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London. The story follows a scientist and a clergyman whose investigations pinpointed the source of the outbreak that killed hundreds of people within a week. Their work saved untold thousands of lives: Due to them, London never again suffered a cholera epidemic.
Before Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead proved that cholera is a water-borne illness, there were myriad theories about how it was transmitted and cured. The patent-medicine industry spent huge amounts on advertising all sorts of quack “remedies,” writes author Steven Johnson:
“Ordinary people had long cultivated their folk remedies and home-spun diagnoses, but until newspapers came along, they didn’t have a forum beyond word of mouth to share their discoveries. At the same time, the medical division of labor that we now largely take for granted – researchers analyze diseases and potential cures, doctors prescribe those cures based on their best assessment of the research – had only reached an embryonic state in the Victorian age. … For the most part, this meant that the newspapers of the day were filled with sometimes comic, and almost always useless, promises of easy cures for diseases that proved to be far more intractable than the quacks suggested.” pg. 46
It’s a familiar accusation that arises when religious people interact with atheists and agnostics: “You don’t believe in anything. How can life even matter to you? It must be horribly depressing to believe in nothing!”
The sentiment is inaccurate, but it’s not hard to understand. Strictly defined, a-theism is simply non-belief in god(s); a-gnosticism is not knowing whether there’s a god, or admitting that the question can’t be answered. There’s even a new memoir out by an atheist called (you guessed it), Nothing.
When I first shed 30 years of evangelical Christianity, I felt great relief and freedom in the realization that atheism was simply an absence of belief. After all, I’d spent my entire life reciting theological creeds, signing church mission statements and listening to authority figures and holy texts tell me what was – and wasn’t – approved for my belief. I wore myself out trying to reconcile church teachings with my often-contradictory gut instincts and personal observations; and trying to reconcile one group’s absolute teaching with another that also claimed to be “the only right way” to believe…