And a few books to back up those thoughts.
In trying [desperately] to catch up with the RSS feeds I follow, I stumbled across a three-part series of excerpts from Christopher HItchens’ new book, God is not Great.
Lately, religion has been on my mind more than ever before. Our country is being led by elected and appointed officials that repeatedly claim that their faith in God is what guides their decisions. And we’ve been sucked into a war where religion is the motive or justification for extremists to kill themselves and others.
I’ve never been a religious person. I’ve always believed that doing the right thing whenever possible is far more important than praying or going to church or skipping meat on Fridays during Lent. I’ve always been satisfied to let others believe what they want — as long as they don’t try to make me believe.
But things are different these days. Religion is causing deaths. Deaths of innocent people. Deaths of patriotic young men and women who go to Iraq with the misguided belief that they are protecting America. And it hurts me — a thinking person — to see so many lives lost or ruined every day in the name of religion. In the name of God.
Am I the only person seeing it this way?
I’m currently reading Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero. The book is really two books in one. The first part of the book explains how important religion has been throughout the history of the United States. With the country’s Protestant background, religion was taught not only at home, but in public schools. As time passed and immigrants arrived with other religions, less religion was taught in school. Supreme court rulings that stopped school prayer pretty much put an end to religion in school. As a result, Americans have what Prothero refers to as a religious illiteracy.
It’s interesting to note here that Prothero makes a very good distinction between teaching religion and teaching about religion in school. While he apparently agrees that school should not be used to preach religious theories or convert students to any one set of beliefs, he believes that a curriculum that covers the basics of all major religions would be beneficial. He believes that only through knowledge of what these religions involve — beliefs, rituals, histories — can an educated person discuss and make informed decisions about what’s going on in today’s world. I couldn’t agree more — which is why I bought the book. The President may not understand (or care about) the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, but I do.
The second part of the book is a glossary of the world’s religions. Important terms are clearly defined, giving the reader a good base of knowledge. I think of it as World Religions 101. And although Prothero is quick to say that the information in Chapter 6 of his book is not all inclusive, I believe it’s a very good start for anyone interested in learning about the beliefs and histories of other faiths.
In any case, I highly recommend the book. Although the first part is a bit dry and repetitive, the second part is sure to fill a lot of holes in your knowledge of world religions. Best of all, Protheros makes no judgments at all, so his book will appeal to believers and non-believers alike.
What I Believe
As I mentioned earlier in this entry — forgive me; I still have a terrible cold and am having trouble thinking linearly with a headache and hacking cough — for the past year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about religion. And I’ve recently concluded that I’m probably an athiest.
I say probably, because I’ve always been agnostic, even as a youngster. The conscious conclusion that I’m a non-believer was not easy to make. But looking back on the decision-making process now, I can’t understand why. It makes more sense to me that there isn’t a God than that there might be.
Before I go any further, please spare me the irate comments about my beliefs. If you think all atheists will rot in hell, fine. You don’t need to clutter up the comments for this post or send me nasty feedback to warn me. For obvious reasons, I don’t believe that. And if you feel that you can no longer read my books or follow my blog because of my religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), you can keep that to yourself, too. People who feel that way are just an example of what’s wrong with religion in this country (or world). Too many closed minds, too much intolerance.
And, of course, I won’t try to convince believers that they shouldn’t believe. I have a lot of respect for people who can have faith in God or religion — both of which were invented by man. If going to church on Sunday or praying facing Mecca five times a day makes you feel good, great!
But if your religious beliefs are causing you to do evil things — discriminate in employment or housing, deface or vandalize private property, or harm innocent people — it’s time to take a real look at what your God really means to you.
God is Not Great
I’ve been waiting for a chance to read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins for some time now. (It’s on my Amazon.com Wish List.) I’ve listened to Interviews with Dawkins on the Penn Jillette Radio Show (Penn is an atheist) and on the NPR show, Fresh Air. Although he comes off as a snobbish elitist — it might be the accent — I do agree with much of what he has to say. Listening to his views is part of what brought me to my decision about my own beliefs. It was the first time I’d heard anyone present the atheistic view in an intelligent, educated, and persuasive way.
Today, I stumbled across excerpts from Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great on Slate.com. One paragraph in the first excerpt really brought things home to me:
While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way — one might cite Pascal — and some of it is dreary and absurd — here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis — both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain that they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible! The Aztecs had to tear open a human chest cavity every day just to make sure that the sun would rise. Monotheists are supposed to pester their deity more times than that, perhaps, lest he be deaf. How much vanity must be concealed — not too effectively at that — in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to “fit” with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils and conclaves are required in order first to be able to establish a dogma and then — after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty — to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas? God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.
This is how an intelligent person looks at religion — all religion — from the outside. And — fortunately or unfortunately — this is how I look at religion these days, too.
Needless to say, this book is now on my Wish List.
Why Tell You?
I don’t know what I’m hoping to achieve by presenting my thoughts about religion here, in this blog. I think it’s just my way of getting things straight in my own mind.
Please remember that this blog began back in 2003 as a personal journal — my way of recording the things that go on in my life and mind. I think this entry is in tune with that purpose. Years from now, I’ll look back on these words and remember what I was reading and thinking in these sad, confused times.
But maybe — just maybe — my thoughts might help a few readers clear their minds on these issues.