First, I was raised in an intensely religious home and was myself a sincerely religious person all through my formative years, up until about five years ago when I concluded Mormonism was false but still wanted to seek out other paths to spirituality, and up until a year ago that I started calling myself an atheist. Something that has been an integral part of one's psyche and identity for so long is not easily slaked.
On the other hand, my brother, twenty-two months younger than I am, raised in the same home by the same parents, claims to have been an atheist since childhood, and I believe him. God and religion just never meant anything to him. So while environment probably played a role in my own religious longings, I suspect there's something inborn about my temperament at work as well.
Perfect pitch is something you either have or you don't, yet it is more common among people whose native language is tonal. A need to tune in to pitch to understand language won't give perfect pitch to someone who doesn't already have it, but it may sharpen an innate ability that would otherwise atrophy if one grows up listening to English instead of Chinese. A Mormon upbringing couldn't impart any religious fervor to my brother, but I wonder if I would still be as drawn to religion as I am if I hadn't been so steeped in it during childhood.
I still like certain aspects of religion and value religious practice. Others can't see the point. What does this say about whether or not religion actually has any purpose?
I have pretty good relative pitch, but I do not have perfect pitch. There are no well-crafted arguments that can give me perfect pitch, but this doesn't mean that perfect pitch isn't a real phenomenon. Nor is music that the tone deaf can't appreciate any worse because some people can't appreciate it. Human beings do not all see the same things.
I like to think of myself as a fairly cultured and sophisticated person, but when I walk into an art gallery, I freely admit that at least half the pieces in there will make me go, "Meh." That doesn't mean it's not good art. Someone else could stand in front of those same pieces and be moved to tears, and their reaction is just as valid as mine. I don't get what the big effing deal about Lady Gaga is, but obviously a lot of people disagree with me there. I can't tell the difference between the bottle of wine that costs eight dollars and the one that costs thirty. Doesn't mean I don't think a difference exists; it's just not one that matters to me.
Skepticmatt asked, why religion? Why not science fiction or fantasy or something that doesn't have the baggage that religion does?
First, it's not an either/or proposition. I read and write fiction and poetry in addition to this blog. I frequently engage with literature, music and art to stimulate my imagination and edify myself as a person. Certainly I can "feel the spirit" while watching a ballet, but the difference between these other humanities and religion is one that matters to me. Religion reaches me in a place where these other art forms don't.
A friend and I were discussing this recently. We were both religious at one time but have since become unbelievers. He admits that there are parts of religion that he still likes and sometimes misses, but feels it is unethical to take part in something that has contributed to so much suffering in the world. He compared himself to someone who really likes the taste of hamburgers, but doesn't eat meat on moral grounds.
If I were to put myself in this analogy, I would say, I can definitely see the moral high ground of a vegetarian diet, but I tried it and found it unsatisfying. Getting my "protein" (meaning) solely from "plant" (secular) sources wasn't working for me. I was still left with an aching hunger. So I'm trying a middle way, more or less equivalent to eating meat in moderation and only from sources where the animals were treated humanely.
I have another friend with a similar background who came out of religion, found himself an atheist and knew that atheism made perfect logical sense, but described it as missing a needed "emotional map." I am a critical, thinking being, yes, but I am also an emotional, feeling being, and secularism doesn't address my emotional needs to my satisfaction. We have ample examples of religion gone awry, but it also serves a useful purpose, or it wouldn't have developed in every human culture. And I no longer believe that those taking a moderate approach are contributing to extremism.
I need religion. For whatever reason, I feel un-whole when I neglect that part of my psyche. I've theorized about why. It meets an emotional need that I have and that I think many, but not all, humans share. There are certain things that all religions have in common. They all have narrative myths. They all have symbols. They all have ritual practices.
Maybe it's the kinesthetic, participatory nature of religious practice that sets it apart from other art forms. In her monologue Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney details her journey from Catholicism to atheism, and then talks a little about becoming a mother and not wanting to raise her daughter to be religious, but still wishing she had a way to mark the important events in her daughter's life with community and great music and art. Sabio wrote recently about a salt purification ceremony that he performs when he moves to a new residence, purely for "ceremony, tradition and specialness." Rituals are a way of imbuing meaning in our lives.
An excerpt of Christian Wiman's "Hive of Nerves" was quoted in a New York Times blog recently, in which he compared religious narrative to poetry. Religion is not a spectator activity. Like poetry, it takes active thinking and participation to "get," or as Wiman describes it, "it takes patience and imagination to perceive....Thus the very practical effects of music, myth, image, which tease us not out of reality but deeper and more completely into it." For me, the exciting question about poetry or other artistic or religious symbolism isn't, "What does it mean?" but, "What could it mean?" And I think we're all entitled to make our own interpretations and extract our own meaning.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes ecstasy, the state of stepping into another reality, and that what we have left of ancient civilizations are their sanctuaries and temples, where they went to experience life in a "more concentrated and ordered form." That is exactly what I experienced when I visited Saint Paul's Cathedral last weekend.
I don't think God exists outside of the human imagination, but if my objective is to change myself, what better place to engage with the Divine than internally?
I expect some readers will nod along and know what I'm talking about, and others won't, and that's fine. So long as no one tries to make me like Lady Gaga, I won't try to make anyone like religion.
Related Posts: Defining Spirituality
Am I a Raging Religion-oholic?