The Importance of Religious Literalism

Although I discarded all my religious beliefs several years ago when I deconverted, I have retained one metabelief throughout my life: it really matters whether the claims of religion are true. If there exists an omnimax deity who created the universe, who loves me, and who has instructed me how to be happy, then I want to listen to him and follow his plan. If heaven exists, then I want to live there forever. If hell exists, then I want, more than anything else, to avoid being condemned to suffer there for all eternity. Indeed, I simply can't imagine anything which would more justly merit my concern. If, on the other hand, there are no deities, there is no heaven and there is no hell, then I see no reason to maintain any religious tradition merely for the sake of tradition. And if religion is nothing more than a metaphor, then I don't care any more about biblical stories than I do about Aesop's fables. In fact, the message of the bible is essentially tyrannical and barbaric and, even though it contains some benevolence, I don't want to give the impression that I respect the more pervasive malevolence or give special credence to any of it as divine. If any religion is true, then I want to accept it as truth, but if it's false or just symbolic, then it's simply not of any interest to me.

The rejection of literalism and scriptural inerrancy is the mark of liberal religion. It seems in particular that one can't be a liberal believer without rejecting the doctrine of hell, or at least the belief that nonbelievers are condemned there simply for not believing. But without the threat of hell, there is no reason to take religion seriously except societal pressure, personal preference or the belief that religious devotion is rewarded in this life and there is certainly no reason to obsess about it. Over the past several centuries, even the Catholic Church has liberalized its teaching on the salvation of those outside the church. (Of course, church leaders refuse to acknowledge the change and refer to it doctrinal development.) The traditional teaching was that only baptized Catholics in good standing could hope to be saved. The possibility was later extended to those who lived before Jesus or who otherwise never heard the gospel. Next unbaptized infants or aborted fetuses were included. Then it was non-Catholic Christians who could be part of an “invisible” church. Now some theologians argue that all non-Christians and even atheists might achieve salvation. I know not all of this has become official dogma, but the overall trend toward universalism is unmistakeable. If the church officially renounced the doctrine of hell, however, and apologized for the enormous amount of suffering it has caused through the ages, I would be no closer to returning the fold as there would be even less incentive to return since I would be admitted to heaven no matter what. I attended mass every single Sunday for twenty-five years, with only a small number of exceptions which I later confessed, until the day I decided to apostatize. Not once since then have I ever even considered the idea of returning for the community or the nostalgia. Attending mass was at most a tolerable experience from which the only pleasure I ever really derived was my belief that I had fulfilled my obligation for yet another week. Attempting to follow all the moral rules was at best an annoyance and at worst pure torment. I want to leave all vestiges of my former faith in the past where they belong. Perhaps the only significant difference between liberal believers and nonbelievers is that the former like religion and want to preserve it, even if they have to mangle it in the process, and the latter generally don't like it and are content to live without it.

Ironically, I share this metabelief that religion matters with conservative believers, who are usually opponents on political and social issues, but not with liberal believers, who are usually allies on these same issues. Since individuals rightly have their own unique opinions, it's usually not possible (or necessary) to find others who share the exact same thought processes, only similar conclusions. We can use all the allies we can get for political battles.



Happy World Humanist Day!

Today is World Humanist Day, a day to celebrate and raise awareness of Humanism as a life stance. Unfortunately, this holiday holds even less significance for me than Humanlight since I know of no local events in which I can participate and it has no popular holiday to create a festive atmosphere from which it can indirectly benefit. Nevertheless, I would like to wish all of my visitors a Happy World Humanist Day! Perhaps next year I will have someone with whom to celebrate this special day.



Pain and Suffering

Yesterday I went to the beach for the first time in years, excluding visits during which I simply walked along the sand or the pier, and I paid the price for spending so much time in the midday, summer, Florida sun. I completely forgot to apply sunblock to my feet and failed to sufficiently cover the backs of my lower legs, resulting in severe sunburn, primarily on the tops of my feet. In addition, I had to walk back to the vehicle barefoot over sand which was absolutely scorching, the hottest I have felt during my entire life. My feet are still in constant pain more than twenty-four hours later despite my use of multiple cooling, soothing and healing agents. I'm sure that I will recover soon enough, but all of this pain reminded me of the change in my approach to suffering from when I was religious.

As a believer, none of this pain would have seemed pointless because I could have offered it to God. I believed this would reduce the amount of time I would spend in purgatory after my death and perhaps even gain me some merit in the eyes of God. It didn't matter that the causes of suffering didn't always seem just; the offering itself gave it meaning and perhaps made it easier for me to accept. This response to suffering has most likely played a major role in allowing religion to largely sidestep the problem of evil, which even believers acknowledge as the strongest argument against their faith, and is just one way in which religion makes life easier for believers by making unsupported promises.

As an atheist, now I have to accept any and all pain as essentially meaningless. It's true that it will teach me to more carefully apply sunblock before spending hours in the merciless sun, but this is a lesson which I could have learned without pain and which has no real moral value. The same is true of much greater suffering such as major illness, accidents or even death. We have to face cold hard reality without any promise that everything will be all right in the end and that everything will balance out. It's not easy, but it still seems better than comforting fantasy.