What is religion really about, and do we truly need it? An atheist wonders and asks these fundamental questions.
Obviously, a thinking person has to wonder why the universe exists, and, concomitantly, why does mankind? Also, why here on earth and, apparently, nowhere else? Which, of course, raises the consequent question: Is there a God? That may be where questioning must begin.
First of all, why should there be monotheism rather than polytheism, which satisfied humanity for so many centuries? And why has religion taken, as it still does, so many different, contradictory forms? And why has this diversity begotten so many atrocities, from the Inquisition to suicide bombing, from wars to more wars?
Furthermore, why does the Judeo-Christian Bible (there are others) state that God created Man in his image, which, among other consequences, has given rise to much laughter among the many who have sneered at the representation of God as a fatherly, white-bearded gentleman seated on a throne and exuding either severity or benevolence. Yet this would be the image in which we are created.
I have tended to concentrate my astonishment, for need of focus, on T. S. Eliot, a man of talent and intelligence, perhaps even genius, who went from making fun of the Church to becoming a good Anglican, ostensibly believing in such things as heaven and hell.
Now, heaven and hell may have had some credibility before astronomy and geology, not to mention space travel, became what they now are. Search the heavens, as we now can, for a place called Paradise; the earth, for a place called Hell. Nothing bib- lical anywhere.
Nietzsche and his likes came up with the idea that God was dead. Where then is his grave? On the highly questionable notion that the Almighty could die, some trace of his tomb must exist somewhere. But where?
I know well enough what religious belief is for. We all want to belong to a community, or fraternity, or club, to counteract isolation, loneliness, dejection. That is what, undeservedly, makes a Church so attractive. Yet just because I pray and sing hymns with a bunch of others, are they really my kin? Do they give a rap about me and I about them? Anyway, how much do we really share with Muslims, Buddhists and so many diverse religions differing from ours? And does either sharing or not sharing make us right?
Clearly, religion has its uses. Chiefly because without it, humans would be even less well-behaved, law-abiding. governable; have less of a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and lack a moral directive. But then why does so much evil exist nonetheless, how could a civilized nation have perpetrated the Holocaust, and how can to this day so many deny that it ever existed? Persons who are not manifest idiots.
To be sure, there is all that stuff about free will with which God allegedly endowed us. But how free is free? Free to declare something white black or vice versa? Free to dispute that one plus one make two? To believe in the resurrection of the body after it has been cremated or rotted underground? Has there not always been a great contradiction between going to heaven upon death or not until Judgment Day?
That clever cuss, Tertullian, came up with the notion of faith as belief in the unprovable, of “credo quia absurdum,” which is why it is called faith, because it takes absurd things to be true—on faith. Nice enough, but that means that we can throw logic out the window, doesn’t it?
Granted religion, especially Roman Catholicism, is a kind of free spectacle for the poor, who cannot afford the real theater. Well, if it is really that sort of art for art’s sake, how can it have anything to do with God?
Still and all, why does the world exist? Why do we exist? How can we have developed so much knowledge and knowhow, so much philosophy and science? How come there are no motorcars on Mars?
There is no incontrovertible explanation for these things, despite the many millennia of time to come up with indisputable answers, which would seem like an argument for agnosticism rather than atheism. That, however, means ignorance about basic matters, and is ignorance really bliss? The very least God could have done for us is instill in us belief in his existence. Yet just to think of the multitude who still capitalize the noun and pronoun pertaining to him. How absurd!
Let me cite one significant example. A man as smart as William Buckley responded to my letter of condolence at the decease of his wife with the declaration that he could not go on living without his belief in an otherworldly reunion with her. This from a highly educated, extremely intellectual human being! Was one to pity him? Envy him? Ignore him?
What can certainly be said for religion is that it has inspired some very great music, painting, sculpture, and literature. That is, even if not necessarily voluntary, a huge gift bestowed on us. But are we to carry gratitude to the point of irrationality? Or do you really believe that God sees the sins—even the tiniest peccadilloes—of billions of human beings and lets them get away with it? Out of the candy box with your hand, Sonny, when it isn’t even your box and can do such harm to your health. To say nothing about your ineligibility for salvation.