Some Thoughts on Religion

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?

Religious Literacy

Religious LiteracyI’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

The God DelusionI’ve been waiting for a chance to read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins for some time now. (It’s on my 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.

God is Not GreatToday, I stumbled across excerpts from Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great on 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.

13 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Religion

  1. that was a great article. I’ve got to the point I think religion is the curse of the masses. It’s hard for me to have any intellectual respect for someone who rejects evolution etc. I’m curious have you read the stats for religion in the federal prisons, it’s astounding thanx JOHN

  2. I’m getting raked over the coals this morning on an unamned forum for merely asking someone to keep their religion to himself in public.

    Funny, scary and sad how insecure people are with their own faith and beliefs that they are so defensive and vitriolic.

  3. I stumbled upon this blog because I have a Google Alert for “Penn Jillette Radio”. I think it’s fascinating, and good, that even with such a short-lived show Jillette’s outspoken atheism seemed to have such a strong effect. That combined with a spate of books that have come out in the past couple of years. Atheists are really coming out of the closet.

    I hope that in time you will reconsider this postion:

    “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!”

    I think we’ve all got a moral obligation to seek truth, and then believe what we determine it to be, whether or not it makes us feel good. There’s not a lot in atheism that makes many people feel good. There’s basically only one thing that makes you feel good: the knowledge that you’re operating according to the truth, as best you can determine it. And with a right moral sense that trumps all the others.

    So I think we non-believers do need to, at the proper moments, with gentleness and without rancor, try to convince religious people that they are wrong. Factual error, when it is the result of deliberate blindness, is moral error. It can lead to all kinds of terrible things, like jihad.

  4. Atheists are indeed coming out of the closet. And I think that’s a good thing. No: it’s a GREAT thing.

    But I also know that the vast majority of the people in this country think atheists are downright evil. And, given my position as a business person and author, I have to tread lightly when discussing these topics. Gentleness IS the key, but I don’t want to alienate friends, family members, and potential customers/readers by discussing it too much.

    As for Penn Jillette, his radio show made me think hard about a lot of things, including religion and “new age” beliefs. When I looked inside myself, I saw the truth about what I really thought and felt. It’s a pity he’s given up the show; I feel that it helped me take a huge step forward in my personal development.

    Thanks for taking the time to write. It’s always good to hear from someone on a similar wavelength.

  5. I am a religious man, and like many I can find it hard to reconcile* with those who do not share my beliefs. It is not out of anger, but out of an idea that I have knowledge I wish to impart. How to do so in a civil and productive manner seems to be a hard thing for most of us to master.

    (* “reconcile” might be a harsh word, perhaps I am meaning “relate” — and I am not suggesting that I simply do not understand anything about people with different beliefs, rather that I might find it hard to relate to those beliefs which are different than mine. Not to sound like a bleeding heart, but I find I often have much in common with folks having very different religious, social, and political beliefs.)

    Since I do not respond well to folks getting in my face, but rather to folks leading by example, I try to employ the same. I have little desire to argue religion (or politics, social issues, etc.) as such is often nothing more than unpleasant for everyone. I am always open to spirited and open debate, but with the understanding that, regardless of what we believe, we are all in this together.

    To suggest that atheists have an obligation to convince believers they are wrong is to also suggest that believers have an obligation to convince atheists they are wrong. Free expression is a great thing, but *please* exercise it prudently.

    Ms. Langer, what an interesting site you have. I found it because of my interest in helicopters, only to find several areas of interest — books, Macs, small business, other geek stuff, etc. Well done.

  6. Thanks for your very kind and very understanding comment.

    I agree with you 100% regarding obligations to tell people whether their beliefs are right or wrong. Religion is (or at least should be) a personal thing.

    Anyway, I’m glad you’re not offended by me stating my belief and I hope you continue to visit and enjoy the site.

  7. Thank you for the post. I quite enjoyed it. In response to your post, both those who are atheists and those who are religious are just as likely to go to war, with equally unacceptable excuses. It seems to be human nature. On another note, I have been wanting to read “The God Delusion” as well as other books Richard Dawkins. A very interesting man with some very intriguing ideas.

    I just want to add a few thoughts of my own on religion and our attitude to wards it.

    First, I don’t know where I sit on the scale in terms of being a ‘believer’ or ‘non-believer’. My views seem to change daily, and incorporate beliefs from both sides of the spectrum. But whatever my views or beliefs are at a given time, one is always the same, that everyone should have the freedom to practice their own religion or beliefs.

    Something we as a human race need to do is to stop fighting over who believes what, and the authenticity of our beliefs. No one can prove or disprove the existence of God. In the end, as long as we act in a ‘moral manner’ or ‘do the right thing’, what does it really matter what we believe?

    In addition, if you criticize religion, then you should know that there is most likely a ‘religious gene’, meaning that it is in our nature to be religious, or believe in a greater power. So people who are religious have those beliefs because it is in their genetics.

    In turn, if you are religious, then many of your religious texts will speak somewhere of “loving your neighbors as yourselves” or some variation of this. Part of this is accepting the beliefs, or non beliefs of others. I also want to point out that all religious texts were written by humans, and no human is free of error. So whether God is real or not, his word may not be completely accurate seeing as humans were the ones who wrote it.

    I personally don’t like the notion of an organized religion. I wish to live a spiritual life, to take time to reflect or meditate. I do not want however, to commit myself to any one belief or non belief. In the grand scale of things, we humans know next to nothing, and can prove even less. With that in mind, I aim to live with an open mind to all beliefs or non beliefs, because there are many good ideas or teachings.

    That said, I do agree that using religion or God’s word as an excuse to go to war is very disappointing, although going to war in the first place is completely useless and counterproductive.

    This may be a sightly confusing or unorganized comment, but in the end I just wish that people would accept the fact that not everyone believes the same thing.

  8. I also wish that people would just accept the fact that not everyone has the same beliefs. I don’t think there’s a “right” or “wrong” religion. If your religion (or lack thereof, in my case) makes you feel at peace with yourself, then its right for you. That should be enough.

    The thing that bothers me most, however, is that people start wars over religion. How idiotic is that? Religion should promote peace, not war.

  9. Agreed. Where is the rationality in ‘fighting for peace’? People are not fighting for peace, they are fighting because no one believes in what they do. I’m sure that if there is a God, he would definitely not support this.

  10. People start wars over religion? People will start a war over anything, and I will never understand how “religion” is continually vilified as a force of war. Hitler and the Nazi’s did not war for religious reasons and he killed tens of millions because THEY had a faith. The Bolshevic’s did not make war over religion and yet their eventual party leader killed tens of millions of his own people, some because THEY had a faith. The Chinese have killed tens of thousands for simply owning a Bible or other Christian literature. It would appear to me that religious people are the victims of athiests like Stalin or Mao, and an agnostic like Hitler. Men who killed to crush the free spirit within people of faith. And the numbers of dead cannot be touched by any other “religious” war.

    As a demographic, people who profess to be Christians out give charitably every other demographic on the planet earth. They have built hospitals, clinics, shelters, sponsor drug programs, and on and on it goes. I have never seen a hospital or clinic built by a group of athiests. I’ve seen things torn down by athiests but never built up. I’ve never seen a Christian attack and beat someone for telling them they were an athiest, but I have seen a man beaten for giving a bottle of water to a man in a park that said on the label Jesus is the water of life.

    The Salvation Army (a christian organization) has been ranked in the world as the charitable organization that does the most good with the money it receives. Teen Challenge ( a Christian organization) is a drug and alcohol program that has the highest success rate and lowest rate of reccurance of any program in the world today. Could someone please list the athiest organizations that are doing as well.

    People start wars over nothing and everything. For someone to start a war over religion….well my guess is they are not really religious now are they? Religion is not the enemy of man….hate is the enemy of man. The law of sympathetic resonance states that how YOU “vibrate” is how you will get others to vibrate with you. How are you vibrating today?

  11. Like you, Religion has been on my mind a lot lately, so I’ve been reading a lot about the subject which is what led me to your article. I haven’t been trying to prove or disprove the existence of a God, rather simply trying to understand everyone’s views on the subject. I think your post was written beautifully, it was informative and very interesting. However, there are one or two points I would like to make about this post: Firstly, when I first started reading this you struck me as someone who wasn’t trying to undermine religion but simply does not agree with it, which I respect. However, you pretty much undermine the view’s of anyone who believes in religion or God when you say “I have a lot of respect for people who can have faith in God or religion — both of which were invented by man”. Perhaps I misunderstood.

  12. Maria,
    What a powerful article. Thank you for stepping outside the box. Politics and Religion are two sensitive issues for some, and you will more than likely hear debate. I have practiced eclectic spiritual beliefs for some time now. My practices includes Native American, Buddah, Christian, Wiccan, Aztec and others. I am now talking to a Jehovah Witness about their belief. I won’t say that God exists or not, or even if “God” is the only one. And if I am going somewhere in a handbasket I’m sure I won’t be alone. For me, if what I practice feels right in my heart and guides me in the right direction of love and Light for myself,others and mother earth then that is what works for me. I have an open mind to what anyone has to say about this subject. It facinates me as to how many different beliefs there are. I say kudos for anyone who stands up for what they believe in. As long as I am here, I will keep learning.

What do you think?