We here in the United States live in a religion-saturated culture. It’s dreadfully pervasive. And it’s not just the religious right making huge amounts of noise – you can’t wriggle a stick without whacking someone or something religious.
This was brought home to me with a thump when I put the teevee on something other than my usual trio of Doctor Who, Mythbusters, and Castle. I live in a close little cocoon, mostly because I’m too damned busy to watch shit, and I like music better than the box. But I had cooking and cleaning to do, and I wanted the teevee on as a background companion, and I hadn’t recorded a bunch of Nova to babble at me. I found some program on Hurricane Sandy, and listened while science took a back seat to “ZOMG look it was really destructive you guys!!!” (no shit, Discovery Channel), and many survivors babbling about how they prayed. They prayed and prayed, and God walloped the east coast with a megastorm and destroyed their houses anyway. Why were they saved? Either because they’d had the good sense to evacuate or had been retrieved from their roofs by rescue folk. God does not seem to have personally plucked anyone from the clutches of the storm surge. And he certainly didn’t care that some dude had a cross on his roof and kissed it before he left. God took that cross-covered house and smashed it to smithereens anyway, just like he did to all the Buddhists’, Muslims’, Hindus’, Wiccans’, not-otherwise-specifieds’, and atheists’ houses. It’s enough to make you think there might just not be a god, that shit happens to everyone, and we should have taken care of our global warming shit before it came to this. Because it turns out that all of those who told us we can’t destroy God’s creation were really fucking wrong.
Then I ran out of that, and was still cooking and cleaning, so I turned on some reality ER program. Patients praying, patients’ friends and family praying, doctors praying all over the damned place. One of the ER doctors babbled on for at least a minute about how he’s veryvery religious and God helps him out. Just like God helps out the atheist ER doctors who don’t pray, eh?
I’d not noticed this pervasive prayer in the past. Not consciously. But I’ve done some thinking, and I’ve come to realize that all of those cultural signals are what kept me from admitting I was an atheist for so long. When everyone around you is professing belief, including your professors; when the media goes out of its way to find pious scientists or sweet and gentle ones who will assure you that it’s really okie-doke to believe ridiculous shit, when you’re bombarded with the message that you and the universe will be utterly hollow and horrible without some kind of faith, any kind of faith – it’s very hard to face up to the fact that there is no god. Not one solitary one. Nor faeries, nor elves, nor magic, nor any other supernatural thing.
No one ever told me that I don’t have to believe. So I searched for something to believe for a long, fruitless time.
After all, Scully believed. She didn’t believe aliens, but she believed in God. Even the skeptics are supposed to believe! My friends believed, a bewildering variety of beliefs, but I don’t remember one atheist among them. Perhaps a token agnostic or two. My parents weren’t practicing, but they believed some god was out there. My world religions class may have scared all the hardcore Christians away because the teacher refused to treat other beliefs as invalid, but the closest thing to an atheist we encountered was a Zen Buddhist. Everybody believed.
I didn’t know Carl Sagan didn’t believe – it wasn’t in-your-face, and his universe wasn’t empty and dull, like an atheist’s universe was supposed to be. I didn’t know Stephen Hawking didn’t believe – it was enough trouble getting through A Brief History of Time without having my brain dribble out through my ears. The Four Horsemen hadn’t appeared on the horizon. New Atheism wasn’t a thing. I didn’t know that it was okay to decide religion, all of it, every single one, was bunk. Sometimes interesting, funny, beautiful bunk, but still bunk. To be fully human, I’d been trained since childhood, one must believe. At the very least, one must be spiritual.
No one ever said to me, “You don’t have to believe.”
So I tried. I tried to believe. I wanted to believe. I convinced myself something must be out there, because otherwise, the universe would be a bleak and empty and meaningless place, and my life would be nothing.
I would not be a good person, if I didn’t believe. I’d have no purpose, if I didn’t believe. So I tried to believe. I thought if I believed in something, anything, something would fix all my faults, give my life meaning, if I just did what it wanted.
That didn’t happen. Couldn’t find the right deity. They all wanted mutually exclusive things, according to their followers, and none of them sounded any different than the voices I already had in my head, the ones I knew I’d made up because they were my characters. Most days, my characters were more real to me than these gods. They certainly talked more.
And I gradually stopped searching, although I held on to the last tatters of belief. When pressed, I’d be an agnostic, or a Buddhist-Taoist-Odinist, or something. Someone who believed in something, because one must believe, or the universe will cease to be wonderful.
Then I found a community of people who said, “You don’t have to believe.”
I let go.
And I discovered that the universe expanded exponentially, and became far more fascinating than before.
I found that we’re no different without god, just a little less guilt-ridden over imaginary sins. We’re no worse and sometimes better. I still have flaws. They’re the same flaws they always were, and I work on changing the ones I can and compensating for the ones I can’t. I do nice things for my fellow human beings not because a god demands them as my ticket to heaven, but because they are my fellow human beings and they need me to.
Things have changed. I’m less patient with faith and woo. I’m less tolerant of imaginary things pretended to be real than I used to be. This is because I wandered in the wilderness for years because of tolerance. Because no one was intolerant enough of religion to say, “You don’t have to believe.”
I wish someone had. I wish I’d been given a world without gods a long time ago. I would have wasted so much less time.
So I say to you, seeker: “You don’t have to believe.”
The universe will still be beautiful, intensely interesting and endlessly wonderful. People will still matter. You will still matter. But everything will be in perspective, and you will be free.