- CRITTER TALK
- NEWS I FIND INTERESTING
In a society where religion is pervasive and taken for granted, we unbelievers must always be considering how to deal with its influence, especially when “holy” days roll around (Mother Hen’s recent Zombieaster is a good example here on MMA). Personal “deconversion” (escape from religion) stories are a staple of the atheist blogosphere, and some who were raised with a religion but abandoned it still find themselves nagged by “spiritual” questions (example).
My history is different. I grew up completely without religion, and so I have a rather different perspective on it.
I was born in the US, but my parents had immigrated here from Britain in the 1950s. It’s hard to convey to Americans what a non-issue religion is in mainstream society in Britain. Many (perhaps most) people would, if you asked them, self-identify as “Christian” in some very vague way, without actually believing in anything much. Fervent religious belief is (outside the small Muslim minority) very rare, and mistrusted. The word “Christian” continues by cultural inertia, almost devoid of substance. My parents, as far as I know, never self-identified as “Christian” to even that extent, but the word was all there was left to give up.
That’s what I grew up with. I was not taught to reject religion; as far as I can recall, the subject never even came up. I was given a kid’s book of Bible stories (I still have it somewhere), but it was just one of many storybooks I had. As a teenager I became interested in history, and of course that included the influence of religion, but that’s all it ever was to me — a feature of cultural anthropology.
To me, the stories of Jesus and Jehovah stand on exactly the same footing as the stories of Zeus, Thor, Aton-Ra, Vishnu, Peter Pan, or Harry Potter. They are simply stories which have influenced human culture in various ways; it does not occur to me to wonder if there are “truths” in some sense to be found in them. I do not believe humans have souls; I do not believe in anything “spiritual” whatsoever; there is no “God-shaped hole”. On the question of how human free will and consciousness can be reconciled with the laws of physics, I’m quite content to say that we simply don’t know — yet. Our understanding of the brain continues to advance, and we will figure it out in a couple of decades, as we have figured out so many other things our ancestors thought must be supernatural.
If it weren’t for the fact that the society I live in is still full of residual religious influences — from creationism in the schools to molestation in the confessionals to incessant efforts to enact ancient sexual taboos into modern civil law — I’m quite sure that concepts like God, souls, spirituality, etc. would never even have occurred to me.
What fills me with awe is not the fantasies of other humans who lived millennia ago, but the staggering sweep of achievement since then. Think how much more we know, how much longer we live, how much more we have, how disease-free our lives are, how many superstitions and taboos we have been liberated from, compared with our ancestors of a thousand years ago — or even a hundred. My grandmother was born before the flight of the Wright brothers, and she lived to see men walk on the Moon; what she would have thought of the device on which you are reading this post, I can barely imagine.
That is achievement, the achievement of human reasoning power and hard work.
It inspires me because I know where we started from. We are not “fallen” from some ideal state and in need of redemption. We are a bunch of hairless mutant chimpanzees, trying to understand the universe and run a high-tech post-industrial civilization with brains which basically evolved to hunt animals on the Serengeti. If you look at it that way, we’re not doing so badly.