This is the first of a two part presentation of my beliefs as it relates to religion. In this part I will discuss my personal perspective on religious traditions in general and how I relate to them. In a subsequent part I will discuss my views on Christianity in the United States along with some serious concerns I have about associated political meddling.
On this credo subject I intend to be brutally honest. So if you are not open to considering different religious perspectives and points of view it won’t be helpful for you to read further. Or if you can’t tolerate sincere members of different faiths demonstrating mutual respect for each other’s beliefs and working together for the common good of humanity you won’t like almost anything I will write. Better bail out now.
I have not discussed religion much with my family for many years. They are very opinionated and their perspective tends to be fundamentally different from mine. However, early last year at a family reunion one of my relatives asked me directly about my faith. Rather than lie or duck the question, this time I just decided to answer truthfully. That turned out to be a mistake.
At the time I thought we had a frank, but open and mutually respectful discussion of our relative views. I came away feeling positive about the experience. In subsequent email exchanges however, my relative challenged my unwillingness to commit to a faith. Further, he criticized my association with my local interfaith organization; he said that while they may be nice people the group has an unhealthy influence over me. Putting it mildly, I was hurt. It led me to relive the religious intolerance and hatred I grew up with.
I have written elsewhere in broad terms about my views on religion. I admit my religious experience as a youth probably biased my thinking in my early life. Regardless, in some ways that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It helped me recognize the fallacy of what people were telling me to believe. It encouraged me to search for facts, truth, and a defensible personal philosophy for myself. That has solidified my adult views for the past 60 plus years.
In his emails my relative, referenced above, essentially labeled me a coward for being unwilling to stand up and proclaim a religious faith. Of course he was promoting his brand. With that in mind I am now declaring: I am an “honest atheist”. That term is not original with me. It is from the author of a book I recently read, but it fits my thinking perfectly.
As an honest atheist I believe the likely existence of God or Gods is remote. But I also recognize I can’t know that with certainty. I also conclude that any particular religious dogma is likely to be a myth, but that also can’t be known for certain. Therefore for an honest atheist like me it comes down to: what does the best scientific evidence indicate? To me the evidence for the existence of God(s) is very weak. And the more we learn from science and history the weaker it gets. Having said all that I admit I have no explanation for the origin or future of the universe. But I don’t generally subscribe to the fantasy explanations of scripture.
Through my own study and personal exposure I am reasonably familiar with the basic tenets of most of the world’s major religions. Through my international business experience as well as healthy interfaith community experience I have become acquainted with sincere followers of virtually all of those faiths. I respect and support the moderate practice of any and all of them.
I think the promotion of mutual respect, tolerance, and cooperation in serving humanity is a value that religious traditions can provide in this world. Regardless, I have not found one faith that fulfills a need in my life or is “right” for me, to the exclusion of the others. I know that faith provides a moral compass for some people. I accept that and support those people and their feelings. But I don’t believe a religious conviction is critical for individuals to live a responsible moral life, be a happy person, or exercise a valuable positive influence in our society and democracy.
Going further, I don’t buy the idea that God created a heaven for the righteous and a hell for the unrighteous. But if He/She/They did that, I don’t believe that God(s) would banish the vast majority of the world’s human beings to everlasting pain and torment in hell simply for being born and reared to believe the wrong scriptures. Therefore, I have concluded that a loving and just God, if one or more exist, would not exclusively endorse a single religious tradition to the exclusion of all other sincerely held beliefs.
My flexible and inclusive view of religions invariably leads some of the more intolerant religious practitioners to challenge me on what my defense will be on Judgment Day. First, I think the reality of a future “Judgment Day” is probably also a myth. However, if the world ends at some future point and there is such a day, I think sincere believers of every faith will be strongly represented in heaven. I suspect even people like me will be there, rewarded for our sincere effort to use our God given intelligence to seek truth, serve our fellow humans, and exercise respect and support for those who have sincerely held but different beliefs.
Challengers to my response to the Judgment Day question frequently follow-up with a question about what I think happens after I die. The answer to that is simple – nothing, I no longer exist. I compare after-death to the nothingness one experiences when having major surgery. You are administered anesthetic and you see nothing, feel nothing, and know nothing about what is happening during the event until you wake up later. Likewise, I had no consciousness and knew nothing about the world’s existence until after I was born. That is what I expect after death will be like too; the world will go on but I won’t be any part of it or even aware of it.
One pitch, especially evangelical Christians make, is that I should endorse their faith tradition for the promise of eternal life. They typically describe that condition as living forever with the Lord in paradise without pain, cares, or concerns; no one wants for anything; failure, competition, and loss are unknown. Actually as some philosophers have also opined, that sounds pretty boring to me. How long can one be happy never having anything to strive for? Or knowing in advance that every endeavor will have a successful outcome? Part of what makes life meaningful is uncertainty, working for success without knowing that the result is already pre-ordained.
If an after-life could exist and I were going to choose one it would probably be some version of the reincarnation concept, perhaps like Buddhism. With hindsight from this life I could avoid failures and transgressions in the subsequent life. I could address the abuses I committed in this life and atone for those I harmed; With what I have learned in this life I could help council the people I see who are making the same kinds of wrong decisions and taking irresponsible actions similar to what I did in my previous life.
While I am not a believer, reincarnation seems to me to be a far superior and more humane policy for loving God(s) to implement than an eternal life of ease for a few righteous souls and everlasting damnation and suffering for the vast majority.
Things I have observed:
In my experience the majority of moderate religious practitioners are respectful and tolerant of people who believe differently. In fact the only requirement for faithful people to earn my respect is that they show similar consideration for others of different faith traditions. That is what I admire about the interfaith community. They assemble to share love, respect, understanding, mutual education, and fellowship with others who have different faith traditions as well as those who have none.
Not withstanding my experience with the interfaith community, I offer my outsider’s general assessment of faith traditions. Buddhists appear to me to be the most respectful and tolerant of all other religious people. Its practitioners seem the most faithful to their spiritual tradition of any of the major faiths. From my perspective though I am not sure Buddhism should be classified as a religion. It seems to me Buddhism may be more properly termed a spiritual philosophy. I have actually talked to Muslims and Christians who revere and practice the Buddhist teachings of morality, meditation and wisdom in conjunction with their own faith traditions.
On the respect and tolerance scale: in my limited experience polytheist practitioners as a class are generally more respectful and tolerant of other faiths than monotheists. And within the three major monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) Muslims seem the most tolerant. Not withstanding a small worldwide group of extreme terrorists trying to use Islam for political purposes, Muslim’s current and historical respect and tolerance for other faiths seems close to that of polytheists. On the other hand, again in my experience, Christians as a class of religious people are the least respectful and tolerant of other faith traditions.
This treatise reflects my religious and spiritual philosophy. It has evolved and been refined through life experience since I set out to pursue truth and reason for myself as a young man. I have lived a flawed life as all human beings do. I have done many things in my life I am ashamed of in retrospect. And I have made stupid mistakes that hurt other people. But I continue to grown in wisdom; today I am a better person than I was yesterday. The experiences I have had and the education gained from my mistakes has improved my character and my own level of tolerance.
The one final thought I will close with is this: To me there is a single downside to being an honest atheist. I have to face the fact that there is no ultimate justice. Atheists realize that the Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Trumps of the world will never pay for their despicable and inhumane behavior beyond whatever happens to them in this life.