After Atheism

October 29, 2008, 4:43 pm
Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Spirituality, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Where does the idea of God come from? The major western faiths – Christianity, Islam, Judaism – claim it comes from divine revelation or from God’s messengers sent to earth. Jesus, Mohammad, the Prophets. From the heavens. From outside.

But religions tend to be culture specific. They emerge from within a culture, defining its identity and values in a set of stories, rules and beliefs unique to that culture. Religion is a reflection and a product of a community. It comes from inside.

C’mon. If there is a God, why does he (or she) do such a poor job staying on message? If you believe that God can create the world, how do you explain why that same God can’t communicate clearly to everybody just what he expects from us?

So why do cultures create religions? What need does this belief in some higher power, in a spiritual realm beyond the senses, satisfy? Why have people, throughout history, embraced all these “irrational” beliefs? I don’t know. But here’s a guess: Humans, by our genetic wiring, do not naturally work well together in large numbers. We can handle maybe an extended clan, but once the crowd grows beyond a few dozen, the mistrust meter kicks in, paranoia pops up, and things get ugly.

On the other hand, strength in numbers give a certain evolutionary advantage to a tribe. Tribes are better at hunting and growing food, defending themselves, etc. The trick getting everybody to get along together. Religion, broadly defined, solves this problem. If everybody in a tribe believes the same stories about how we became a tribe, about where power comes from, about what happens to those who stray, about how team players are rewarded, the tribe becomes unified by a shared communal truth. Religion creates an emotionally acceptable motivation for ignoring our instinctual self interest. And the beauty of such religious belief is that it can’t be disproven. It is not “of this world”. It assumes a spiritual world, beyond our perception. It requires a leap of faith in something we can’t see.

But how do you get the tribe to buy in? For one, they recognize the benefits of being in a tribe. For another, these stories have an empowering appeal. We like belonging to the club. Once the members of the tribe start making the leap, belief becomes mutually re-inforced and sustained, through rituals, through stories told around the fire. The tribe overcomes human instinct by creating, out of language, a culture that supports communal instinct. And thus is religion born.

What we need to recognize, here in the 21st Century, is that we humans, atheist or theist or whatever, still face the same dilemma.


The Religion of Community
October 28, 2008, 4:02 pm
Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Here, in brief, is the core idea I’d like to explore in this blog: Much of what I used to get out of believing in religion and God, I now get out of belief in community.

By community I mean any group of people united by some common purpose that requires their active participation. It could be two people in a relationship. A family. A neighborhood. A club. An organization. A business. A government. It can last a day or go on indefinitely. All of us belong to many communities.

A community is something we choose to belong to because we believe in the value of its common purpose. It is a leap of faith that something in this world is worth preserving, or that some future is possible.

By joining a community, we shift from being an isolated individual to being a citizen. Few groups long tolerate members whose sole interest is their own needs. Being a citizen requires a certain degree of selflessness, of working to further the group’s goals, of adhering to the rules, of supporting your fellow citizens and defending the group from all the forces that tear groups apart.

Which doesn’t mean you lose your individuality or unique perspective. It’s the duty of a citizen to keep the community on track in an ever shifting world, to disagree when disagreement is called for, to actively engage in the debate. But also to recognize that the purpose of the debate isn’t who wins and who loses. It’s finding those ideas that best addresses whatever problem the group is facing. It’s as if a community is an organic thing unto itself. By belonging, we become part of this larger body.

Seen in this way, community can be a source of belonging, of moral authority, of common cause, of meaningful action, even of a certain immortality.  It’s through becoming part of a community, stepping up to citizenship, that we can become part of something transcendent, something I would even call spiritual.

But that’s another conversation. Today’s music: Mercedes Sosa. It’s a sunny day in L.A. and the Phillies are half a game away from winning the series. What a world.