When I was young, I held Christian beliefs. For a brief time, in college, I converted to one of the many “Born Again” Christian groups that were popular at the time. The experience provided stark lessons on the good and bad that such religious communities can produce. On the good side, the love and acceptance the group provided was pleasant and welcoming. Having accepted their “Truths”, I become one of their family, if you will. I had been “saved.”
Such was my salvation. In the weeks that followed, members of the group would quietly talk with me. I was told that questions were perilous. They were concerned that a lack of “faith” would endanger my relationship with “God” and that my immortal soul would be in jeopardy. I learned that it was a part of Christian teachings to try to “save” those who could be saved. Just as I had been saved. To try to bring all people “into the fold” in order to spare their souls from torment in the afterlife. It was a Christian’s duty to “spread the good news” and salvation to any and all who would hear.
In the end, it may have been that aggressive approach to selling the Christian idea of salvation and rewards in an afterlife with their “God” that put me off religion for good. I had been raised by parents and an educational system that encouraged me to understand things, to ask questions if need be to understand clearly. But I was being told that if I wanted to continue to enjoy the benefits of that Christian community, I had to set my questions aside and accept what they told me without questions. That just didn’t sit well with me.
I moved on from Christianity. But I found that this marketing of ideas was not unique to that faith. The 1970s were a time for many nontraditional beliefs to find a place in Western Culture. From various Eastern religions and philosophies like Taoism and Buddhism to more radical and obscure ideas like Spiritualism or belief in various meditation methods or other fringe philosophies, it seemed like there were many groups trying to attract followers to their particular path to “enlightenment.” They all claimed to have the answer. It seemed to me that many different groups were concerned with my salvation.
What’s good for the goose…
Fast forward many years and here I am, a non-believer. An important part of my life is a reasoned search for truth and meaning. So far, I have found nothing that has convinced me of the existence of any supernatural force I would call “god.” I’m still open to new evidence so that may change tomorrow but that’s where I am today. Remarkably, having arrived at this view of life and living, I feel no desire or need to convince others of what I believe. It just isn’t a priority for me. I don’t need to “save” others from thinking differently than I do.
But apparently that isn’t true of everyone who has abandoned a belief in “gods.” There are those among the unbelievers who feel the need to market their beliefs to others. The Internet provides a forum for quite a number of very vocal and eloquent atheists and nonbelievers who seem intent on “saving” the religious from what they see as the error of their ways. To spread their non-belief. Whether it be blogs, videos, or discussions on social media, there are plenty of places online trying to convince people who believe in gods that they are wrong. I suppose you could call it salvation of a different sort.
As an atheist myself, I understand the desire to help others come to a rational and well reasoned view of life and the world. I think the difficulty for me is that conversations about such things are very personal. Because these beliefs are so personal, any attempts to challenge these fundamental beliefs would be something of an intrusion. I have always been taught that it is rude to talk about very personal things without being invited first. But for some reason, religious or philosophical questions do not seem to have the same social restrictions as, say, discussions about money or sex. People seem just as comfortable telling you how your god is the wrong one as they are to try to convert you to their particular faith. And I don’t know if that is a good thing.
There are atheists who feel that it is dangerous to allow the religious to believe in the gods. They fear that their use of faith to accept the teachings of their religion will compromise their ability to think and reason in our everyday world. While there may be something to that, I’m not sure I’m comfortable restricting how and what people should be allowed to think and believe. Religion and gods have been a part of human society since our very beginnings. They have played a role in our development just as science and reason have. To deny the benefits humanity has enjoyed from religion seems as myopic as focusing only on the tragedies religion has caused in human history. Babies and bathwater.
Personally, I’m a great believer in the principle of Occam’s Razor – that given that all things are equal, the simplest explanation of something tends to be the correct one. Occam’s Razor requires me to continually question and get new information. I cannot just sit back on my existing stockpile of information and make my decisions from there. I have to continue to question whether there might be a different answer, a simpler answer out there. Sometimes that means talking through what I think I know and sometimes that means listening to what others have to say. Even if I don’t agree or understand it.
In the end, I don’t think salvation will come from thoughts or beliefs but from actions. Our human history is stained with the blood of countless conflicts over nothing more than ideas. The only life of which I am certain is this one. For me, salvation begins and ends here. My opportunity is to save others from pain or suffering. To lend a hand where I can and show compassion knowing that each day is a new turn of the card. The small act of kindness I show today may be the thing I need tomorrow for my own life.
Whether or not there are divine forces and gods, it is within my power to improve the lives around me. If someone is hungry, I can give them food. If they are hurting, I can try to ease their pain. It doesn’t matter to me which god they pray to or what they may believe. They are fellow travelers on this world. If we do not have each other, does the epistemology matter? Knowing is important. Believing is important. But the doing is what I think will save us.
Starry Horizon – Karl Lindsay 2013 from Flickr