Although I am an atheist, I do not dismiss religion; in fact. I envy a bit those who have it. But I don’t understand it; perhaps someone can provide me with a credible explanation.
I can see where people in the Middle Ages believed. But today? We have explored the universe and found no Paradise in it. It is said that space is infinite, and somewhere in it God may be ensconced. But the earth is far from infinite, and we can now affirm that it houses no Hell in its bowels. And even if it were a hollow sphere, how could there be room in it for all the baddies since the beginning of time?
Well, you might say we need not take everything in the Bible literally. But what would a nonliteral afterlife be like? And can you be selectively Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever? Can you partly believe in the multiplication table? Or in astrology? Can you be partly Vegan or halfway superstitious? Can you be semi-agnostic? Or half-humble?
I believe you must either swallow religion whole or you are not religious. So then how can persons with first-rate intellects be believers? Like, for example, T. S. Eliot.
Of course, intellectuals may seek recourse in Tertullian’s famous credo quia absurdum—I believe because it is absurd, I take faith on faith. But why should religion be exempt from logic? Falling in love is. True, but there, palpably, is the love object. Even the troubadour Jaufre Rudel, who fell in love with the unseen Countess of Tripoli, did so on beholding her picture.
I find incomprehensible, for instance, the belief of some perfectly intelligent people that they will be reunited in Heaven with a predeceased spouse. What of the man twice widowed and thrice happily married? Will he become polygamous in Heaven, even though he was perfectly monogamous on earth? And how will the three wives feel about it? Yet how many Christians believe such a thing, even though Holy Writ tells them that in Heaven no marriage is.
Still, I can sympathize with believers. It is human to be afraid of death, or unreconciled to it, and so invent a remedy: the afterlife, the soul’s immortality, its basking in supraterrestrial bliss. But can one perceive the soul as detachable from the body? And, by the way, when does the good Christian go to Heaven? Upon his demise or at Christ’s second coming? Both are advocated. Furthermore, what about those cremated by the family, hacked to death by a madman, or blown to smithereens by some fanatic?
What I have especial difficulty with is uniforms, the regimentation that rejects individualism. Must every Jewish man wear a skullcap, even if, for children, it can be motley rather than black? Must there be prescribed hair- or head coverings? Must a woman’s whole body be hidden from view in a standardized way? I can see wearing an artful cross on a necklace, but even that may be ostentation, zealotry, or proselytizing.
There is also the matter of ritual. I see no pressing need for circumcision, sitting shiva, weekend confinement and other restrictions. Or total immersion. To say nothing of practices such as human sacrifice, suttee, footbinding.
And then there is churchgoing at specified hours. This might seem harmless, except that it involves sermons by preachers who are not in the class of John Donne and genuflections and uncomfortable pews. But probably the most problematic thing about religion is that it breeds intolerance toward noncoreligionists (though it denies any such thing.) In the past, this produced persecution and burning at the stake, but there is unpleasantness even in the present. Is anti-Semitism dead? Far from it. And what about Muslim suicide bombers? Is there no developing anti-Islamism?
One of the arguments for religion is that it keeps the underprivileged from murdering the privileged, that it stops crime from running riot. I am not sure to what extent that still prevails. If it does prevent criminality, it is as good as the system of law, with which no one in his right mind would want to do away.
But what about its interference with our rights? To consensual sex, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, freely available contraceptives and, above all, abortion. The chances of forced parenthood benefiting an unwanted child are slim, and even adoption by the right people is an iffy proposition. Whatever doesn’t harm other people, not mere embryos, should be allowed.
That religion creates a certain clubbiness—favoring the coreligionists—is unavoidable and would, without religion, take other forms. As indeed it does, on the basis of the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or even your IQ.