Did you ever stop to think that to proclaim yourself an atheist you must, by definition, be interested in religion? It’s a dialectical question to ask and replete with irony. I know many people who are, if we would label them, atheistic, but never call themselves so. If pushed they might say they are agnostic or deists, but in truth, they can’t really be bothered. Religion nor even its corollary irreligion, simply does not feature in their lives.
So I have decided to ask myself, and hopefully make readers ask themselves: If I’m an atheist why am I so interested in religion? But don’t let’s be discriminatory. Religious people can and ought to ask themselves a modified half-sibling of the question. Why am I so interested in religion? Period. It’s a good reflective exercise to undertake for one and all.
First let me clarify what I mean by ‘interest’ in religion. And indeed ‘religion’. My interests do not mainly lie in the extant, monotheistic religions that claim millions of adherents today. But rather in the more archaic, extinct religions of the ancient past (if 99% of all life that ever existed on the earth has gone extinct, haven’t 99.9% of all religions that ever existed similarly died out?). When I first grew out of my Catholic upbringing I did not go straight into unbelief. I had an intermediary, evolutionary step. I became fascinated with the pagan religions of the past and for a while I proudly espoused a form of pagan belief (I justified myself by claiming I was in good company: Oscar Wilde, Fernando Pessoa, etc). I went from thinking and reading and writing about the ancient Greek gods but then moved on to the death-obsessed ancient Egyptian faith and then even fell under the spell of the distant Mayan creeds. The names of the goddess Ix-Chel and her jaguar form cajoling the moon, and the sacred book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh, I can still recall with piecemeal intimacy.
Looking back I cannot say I genuinely believed there was a jaguar-goddess on the moon, or that there is a place called Hades where the dead reside. But the comparative exercise proved toughening. If it doesn’t make sense for all those extinct gods to exist what better case is there for the extant gods of modernity? At this point I took the last step off the ladder of belief and landed on the terra firma of unbelief. And yet: still I spend leisurely time reading books like The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, reading Revelations for descriptions of heaven, and even reading Quranic narratives about the doings of the mischievous Jinn. It is in a way like watching films: you know the stories on screen aren’t real and yet you don’t stop yourself watching films altogether.
But why? I feel like I have a love-hate relationship with religion, that maybe I’m suffering from divine Stockholm Syndrome. After some soul-searching I think I stumbled across the semblance of an answer.
I am – and I claim no exclusivity here – addicted to stories. I claim no exclusivity because it is no exaggeration to say that humanity is primed for the virus of storytelling. All religions, without exception, are based on stories. Be it the Bible story, the Popol Vuh, the Odyssey or the Vedas. Religion and its myths populate the world and the universe with stories. But not just any kind of stories: they are all relatable stories. Relatable, that is, to the culture that tells them. This explains the sheer profligacy of diverse religious tales which are all endemic to the place that spawned them. Of course Ix-Chel is a jaguar goddesses if the Mayans lived in the rainforests. Of course Ganesh is an elephant deity if the Indians lived surrounded by elephants. And, yes, I have to go there, of course Jesus was a carpenter and his apostles fishermen, in 1st century Palestine, what else could you be? (In this, the Abrahamic religions are an exception that proves the rule: the desert gods are worshipped by people who no longer live in deserts; most of the differences that arise between monotheistic religions and the modern world are due to the fact that people today worship a religion not borne out of their own environment. Imagine a Mayan living in Guatemala worshipping a lion god.)
Religion’s relatable stories serve an important psychological function. Science today tells us that the universe and life have come about through random, indifferent, partly-fortunate mechanisms. Therefore non-sentient mechanisms. Whatever happens in the universe happens because of the fixed and indifferent laws of nature. And, in a sense, mankind has always known this: long before the scientific revolution. To avoid this feeling of celestial loneliness, we tell stories that explain and embellish all the order around us. Religion ensures we are never alone. The stars are deities. The winds and storms their anger. The sun their warmth. When we die we shall meet them and have a grand-old party. Religion is a nesting instinct on a grand scale. It has been the only torch in a dark, cold reality. (Pardon the hyperbolic melancholy there, it is necessary to make the point.)
So intimately is religion tied to the nesting instinct that it parasitizes itself unto familial and in-group bonds. I am not an advocate of the group selection theory as a root cause, but religion sure does have group-selected side-effects. Why do so many people simply refuse to abandon faith in later life, even though they can see its banality? ‘How can I stop believing in my (dead) mother’s God?’ ‘If I were to believe that Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th December then all those Christmases were a sham.’ It’s all understandable. Religion ties us to our family or community through the poisoned glue of memory. Why else would history be so replete with sectarian wars? We’re seeing it today with Islamic fundamentalism. ‘I don’t really care about Muhammad flying to heaven on a winged horse, but if I believe it I will belong to a group that doesn’t marginalize me. So, because that group has accepted me, I will kill anyone who doesn’t believe in Muhammad and the winged horse.’
And although this in-group nature of religion can lead to horrific atrocities, it is also the only hope we have of escaping the chains. For, if religion is a way of telling stories that make the world feel more welcoming and hospitable then, there is indeed hope: you don’t need religion to tell stories. You don’t even need it to make it relatable.
Science tells uncountable amounts of stories about the universe, its creation, its evolution, and about life’s diversity, majesty and complexity. (There’s a lot of needless destruction in these stories too, like in all the best stories.) History, biology, anthropology, paleontology – these are all storytelling edifices that rival religious myths in grandeur, poetry, intrigue and, what’s more, they have the eerie moniker of being grounded in truth. And I can hear you calling out from the virtual ether. I am not unaware of what your brain is making you rebut. ‘None of those stories are relevant to me’. I said, didn’t I, that religious myths all over the world are crafted in the image of the place and time that conceived them. But science tells a universal story, it tells me nothing about my life and my problems and my struggles and my dreams.
Is it vulgar to suggest a dab of hedonism as a replacement for religion? Not hedonism in the modern, chaotic sense (that is more a Cyrenaic approach); but hedonism in the Epicurean sense. A life dedicated to friends, simplest of pleasures, and the pursuit of wisdom. And family too: the stories of your parents, brothers, grandfathers: aren’t those stories more relatable to you than the manic creations of some distant desert tribe? And the world is so full of stories why would you want anything else? Travel: listen to the stories of locals, of their history: not to mention the stories told by nature in the hidden nooks and crannies in rivers and forests. And don’t skip on the bars and restaurants, an entire cosmos of untold tales to be told by legends for legends. And these are relatable because they tell the grand narrative of human experience. Our story.
The world is not a lonesome vacuum. We are surrounded by an expanding circle of familiarity: family, friends, strangers, foreign countries, history, archeology, paleontology, biology, astronomy… truly, what more do you want?
And whilst we will always be interested in religion, because we will always remain storytelling animals, let us recognise that religion does not own a monopoly on stories. Don’t let’s fool ourselves either, political correctness tacitly aside, religious stories are by their dogmatic nature anti-stories. They are stories with full-stops. No commas or semi-colons. They claim not only an exclusivity on the truth, they also deny the possibility of any other stories being true or enticing. Their nature is dictatorial. Hear what I say and hear nothing else. And this reminds me why I left religion behind in the first-place. The minute I stopped believing the stories a whole new world of possibilities opened up to me. Now I keep them at a respectful distance. Long may they linger there.