Friday, December 29, 2006

To Believe or Not to Believe

On cable last night we watched a documentary on atheism, which turned out to be mostly about Madelyn Murray O’hair, who in 1963 successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that prayer and bible reading in public schools violated the separation of church and state clause in the Constitution. While I applauded her legal effort at the time, I felt little connection with her theatrical protests against the domination of our society by certain religious beliefs.

The controversy about church and state remains to this day; yet I have never felt coerced to observe any particular religious beliefs. I grew up in a family that considered itself Christian, and was baptized when I was thirteen. Later, I began to question some of those beliefs, and eventually decided that I no longer fit my own definition of “Christian.” My spiritual journey continues. The label “atheist” has never been comfortable for me, even when I rejected all the images conjured up by the religious institutions I knew about. I joined the American Humanist Association in my twenties, and a Unitarian-Universalist fellowship in my forties, but otherwise have pursued my own way in search of Ultimate Meaning. I have no quarrel with those who choose a different path, as long as theirs does not require my conformity.

O’hair and her associates in the American Atheists organization made a big issue of proclaiming that “there is no God.” To believe that there is no God is not the same, in my mind, as not believing that there is a God. Neither do I insist that it is unknowable. For me, at this time, it’s an unanswered question—or, rather, I think that the question itself is perhaps naïve. Maybe we don’t know enough yet to frame the question properly.

Will I live beyond death? Not to my knowledge, and I’m comfortable with not knowing as well as with the possibility that I will not. Do I have a soul? That’s more difficult, because it depends upon what a soul is. Perhaps when (and, yes, if) scientists manage to demonstrate just what we refer to when we talk about consciousness and self. These seem to be more manageable—if not yet answered—questions. We still know so little about the human mind that to speculate beyond that involves great leaps of faith.

Sam Harris, in a couple of recent books, insists that religious beliefs are causing humanity a lot of suffering. He recommends that we eliminate them. Another naïve notion, in my mind. We all have beliefs of one kind or another. His is that we must look to science to answer all questions. I’ll lean on my own belief that American-style democracy provides me with the freedom to make up my own mind, in my own time, about such big questions.

I choose to keep looking around, and to keep asking the questions that occur to me.

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