Patrick Mylund Nielsen

Losing My Religion

10 May 2012

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours. Now and for ever. Amen.

As most Danes, I was raised a protestant Christian by default. I was baptized. I was (and still am, by virtue of my laziness) a member of the Danish People's Church. I went to readings on Christmas Day and other occasions. I said the Lord's Prayer more times than I can remember (every day in elementary school.) At 13, I was confirmed. I believed in God—at least the all-loving and forgiving one described by the priests.

I don't know exactly what turned me away from religion. The contradictions and inconsistencies had always bothered me. I hated arguments from authority whose basis I did not understand, and I loathed that everything divine was, at best, relayed by a fallible human proxy. Maybe it happened because my parents never pushed me toward either end of the (a)theism spectrum, letting me make up my own mind. (In one of the only conversations I had about religion with my father, he mentioned off-hand that he wasn't a member of the People's Church, and I remember thinking that that meant he was kind of crazy.)

After a little consideration, I can think of three major reasons why I no longer describe myself as religious:

  1. The god described by the Bible—and in the Old Testament in particular—is not loving and gracious, but omnipotent and artfully cruel. He created you in his image, with free will, yet defers your soul to an eternal session of flaying and immolation in the chambers of hell lest you follow all of his numerous and often primitive commandments. He plants false evidence such that he may test your faith and expects you to ignore what you see with your own eyes or think with your own mind.

    My sense of empathy is indifferent to the religious orientation of my fellow human beings. If I see a person in distress, I will help them to the best of my ability. It does not matter if they worship one god, two gods, many gods, or no gods, or whether their god's name is Yahweh, Allah, or the Sun. In this sense, the Christian god's "good" commandments are redundant. I would not sleep with my friend's wife because I would hurt him as well as my own wife, and that would make me feel very bad. I would not steal because the owner of whatever I stole would become sad, and of course I could go to jail—and jail isn't nice. The reason that I do not exhibit this kind of behavior is not that I fear eternal damnation. I am this way because it makes me happy to see other humans become happy as a result of my actions, and because I don't want to upset people I care about. (The rejection of the concept of an afterlife only means that I take these principles more seriously, as my time is severely limited.)

    Conversely, the Bible places many restrictions, often ludicrous by modern standards, on how I must live my life, or consents to behavior that the set of morals that I just described would never allow: Exodus 21:7 lets me sell my daughter into slavery if I'm cash-strapped, and Exodus 35:2 encourages me to put my friends and family to death for working on Sundays. I should stone my friend to death for planting different crops side by side, and burn my mother for wearing clothes made from two different kinds of thread. 1 Timothy 2:11-12 says that a woman should learn in quietness and full submission, and that no woman is permitted to teach or to assume authority over a man—she must be quiet.

    (This is not exclusive to Christianity, of course. All religions are products of their time as we are of ours.)

    I lose most of my respect for a god who is so in love with himself that he makes it nearly impossible for you, something he created, to lead a life without banishing yourself, by that act alone, but the straw that breaks the camel's back for me is this:

    • 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death. And yet he does nothing.
    • Around 27-28 percent of all children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. And yet he does nothing.
    • Some 1.8 million children die each year as a result of diarrhea. And yet he does nothing.
    • 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5. And yet he does nothing.
  2. The universe, as revealed by careful observation, is much more beautiful, radiant, awe-inspiring, intricate, and even violent than the Heaven, Earth and Hell described in the anthropocentric narratives of many religious books. This may be attributed to a god, but to claim that we are at any form of center stage in a universe so vast we struggle to comprehend even the distance to the nearest star is a flight from and lack of respect for the truth and, indeed, the universe itself. A person who simultaneously refuses to believe the findings of countless empirical experiments and acknowledges that humans have flaws—and thus may have made mistakes in the passings-on of the holy word—cheat themselves out of much happiness and wonder:

Stellar nursery
The Andromeda Galaxy
The Sombrero Galaxy
Hubble Deep Field

(I shall make no comment about people who happily use their smartphone to find the nearest restaurant, but reject science in its entirety, wholly unappreciative of the amazing accomplishment that is listening to the radio signals transmitted by multiple man-made robots orbiting our planet, and inferring a geographical location in a few seconds or less—or people who accept quadruple bypass surgery from a surgeon who has studied half his life to be skilled enough to perform such a thing, yet thank a god for their survival.)

  1. If there is a creator, then I should expect them to be the kind of all-loving god that would forgive me for not putting most of my family to rest, or forgive me for playing with a ball made from the skin of a dead pig. I should expect them to forgive me for believing what I see, for acting based upon reason, and for following the dictates of my own heart. If they are not such a god, then I should neither want to worship them nor obey their commands.

If there is a god, and they are the sort of gentle, kind god that I used to believe in, that would be lovely. I find it highly unlikely considering that even though we've tried for thousands of years, we've still found no evidence of such a being. Still, I cannot reject the possibility outright as I cannot prove an absence.

I will be happy to live my life not knowing, to strive to learn more about the universe, and to work toward enriching the days of as many fellow Earth-beings as I can in this life. I do not need a god or the promise of an afterlife to do this passionately and earnestly.

For now, it looks like we're floating through space alone, and that this is all we get. Better to make the best of it than to wait and see whether the god(s) really are caring, or wait and see nothing at all.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature." — Albert Einstein

"I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me." — Richard Feynman

"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time." — Bertrand Russell

"But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form. Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds. The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair." — Xenophanes, circa 540 BC

If you're still reading, I encourage you to watch this.