Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Three things I envy about religious people

Despite how much effort idiots put into tainting the word, 'Atheist' is one of the few labels I'm comfortable applying to myself. Trying to pinpoint how long I've been on the agnostic/atheist continuum is difficult, but I do recall an event when I was seventeen or so that has stayed with me.

There was a school outing to the shrine at Knock, and the itinerary called for a gruelling day of prayer and gawping at sacred trinkets. Attendance was optional. But all of my friends were going. Nobody seemed motivated by my suggestion to spend the day off doing what we wanted, rather than enduring a long day of ritual observance [more likely, my friends' parents weren't giving them a choice], and eventually I was goaded into attending. I felt like an outsider, so to avoid looking like an outsider, I bit my tongue for most of the day, only breaking my dishonest silence to a priest when I was forced into confession like the rest of the sheep.

The point is, I've been an outsider for years now, and I've gradually become more comfortable in openly not attending religious services, but there are a few things that I occasionally find myself envying about religious people. This is a quick (and unplanned) blog entry that is as respectful of religion as I feel it's appropriate to be, so if you take offense or have insight on what  I've said as a believer or non-believer, leave a comment and let me know.

#3: Meditation
Alone, in private, Christians pray for all sorts of reasons. I don't think prayer itself is particularly valuable, and intercessory prayer has been proven in clinical trials to not have any effect in the healing of the sick (I'm trying not to launch into a tangent on the absurdity of billions actively trying to alter God's infallible plan). That said, the act of prayer is a form of meditation, where people take time out from their day to organise their thoughts and focus on the needs of others, or their own hopes and dreams. While believers may be parsing their urgent needs in the form of an appeal only heard by themselves, I would consider this a more fruitful labour than merely distracting oneself from troubling situations by engaging in brainless activities.

Taking moments to collect one's thoughts seems to me a great way to 'defrag' the brain, and my abstaining from this activity is consoled by the fact that sometimes prayer does lead to dangerous levels of inaction, and if you pay attention to yourself, you can keep your thoughts in check without having to invoke the supernatural.

While I'm on the subject, I might as well confess that I miss being 'able' to pray to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost articles, who would be petitioned by my family every couple of minutes when I was a boy. Regardless of his spotty success rate, I can still remember how comforting it was in the moments after soliciting the assistance of an all-seeing entity whose sole responsibility was to help me find my Ghostbusters proton-pack.

#2: Immunity from offense
Yes, I'm mostly taking the piss, but consider for a moment how much privilege is afforded to religion in society. Even after thousands of years of effrontery against science and reason, countless real innocents murdered in the name of expunging imaginary spirits, and countless bad PR days resulting from angry muslims and pedophile priests, gently tutting at the peculiarities of religion is terribly bad manners.

I try to muster as much self-righteous indignation as possible when somebody is trying to peddle misinformation about the world, but my protests don't hold as much weight as the poor victimized Christian, who may defend his religion by dismissing dissenters as ignorant pricks.

This is immense power. Don't want to come up with solid logic for vilifying abortion? Hide behind religion. Someone doesn't agree with your assertion that your wife is your property? Invoke religion and call them a vulgar scoundrel. This bleeds over into political rhetoric, bringing the conversation to a halt before any ground is broken. Equal rights for gays? How dare you betray the inerrant word of the Bible!

Being able to effectively shut-down discourse whenever the cognitive-dissonance gets too taxing is naturally a bad thing, but I envy the power. As an experiment, I once tried to take offense to the phrase 'my brother from another mother', as I have a brother who was born of another mother, but this did not wield the same conversation killing power as religious ire.

#1: Community
This is the big one. The human species owes a great deal to reciprocal altruism, and while I don't entertain the notion that altruistic acts exist because of divine instruction, I do think that in the modern day, having a focal point to build communities around is great for expanding and enriching social circles. My girlfriend attends a [presbyterian] church for community purposes, and on the few times I've attended services, I've heard people asking for 'prayers' for loved ones who are sick or jobless. Worthless though the prayers may be, these people are able to put up a distress beacon for emotional support or job-networking that may well lead to genuine benefits.

The multitudes of ways this can misfire are obvious: in-groups can be hostile towards out-groups, particularly when religious fervour is involved, assuring the aggressor of his divinely-granted inerrancy. Think Christian versus Muslim, Shias versus Sunnis, Protestant versus Catholic, creationists versus sensible people, and you'll get the picture. These conflicts may not necessarily stem from religious affiliation, but it's a convenient way of 'othering' fellow human beings.


What I've discussed here isn't really the most important stuff, it's just what came to mind to me recently as a result of contemplating my future. I've a few notes scrawled down that I might explore at a later date but in the meantime, leave me a comment and weigh in yourself.

1 comment:

Primateus said...

Agreed, though the post is largely tongue in cheek you have to acknowledge the benefits that belonging to a large cult of mutual self-comforting retardation that supplies pre-packaged guidance and grounds your place in the cosmos.

On prayer: like you said, in not so many words, a billion clasped hands in prayer do less than a single pair of hands at work. But praying is probably an emotional balm for people that can't handle the prospect of open-ended questions and endless randomness and purposelessness. Praying probably helps them ground themselves, to feel significant, safe, able to manage whatever life throws at them because, whatever it is, it's something they can discuss privately with the all powerful all-loving architect of it all. Praying is supposed to be a humble, quiet act of reflection and gratitude, but when you think about it, it's momentously self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing, to think the Creator of the Entire Infinitely Large and Complex Cosmos is listening to, and changing the laws of nature in accordance with, one higher primate amongst untold billions who have ever lived and will live, all interacting together.

The last one, a sense of kinship and community, is something that atheists will concede is generally a good thing, even if it carries the cost of favouring insiders at the expense of outsiders - though maybe as the "moral circle" expands people will be less inclined to dehumanise people outside of their typically narrow Give-a-Shit-sphere. Supposedly having a strong sense of community (which religion fosters) is one of the most enriching, fulfilling things a person can have (at least according to some "positive psychology" research they're pumping out - I don't have links to hand)