Thursday, February 15, 2007

What I Believe

Since NPR hasn't invited me on yet.

I have no idea how accurate my memories of my childhood are, but my memory is that I grew up in a household with basically zero discussion of religion and no exposure to organized religion. My first memory of entering any kind of house of worship was to attend a cousin's bar mitzvah when I was around 8 or 9 or so, and after that attending church or religious youth group stuff with a couple of girls I was interested in as a teen. At my first exposure to communion I had no idea what it was or what I was supposed to do. I was probably 15 or so. A few weddings and funerals as an adult.

My first memory of being confronted with the concept of God was when I had religious neighbors. I was probably about 4. I didn't understand the concept. I never had much interest in religion-as-religion, religious texts as myth or basis for philosophy, or religious texts as literature. Just really never interested me. By about 8 or 9 I was conscious of my identity as an agnostic/atheist. I don't think this came from my parents at all. I don't remember them being against religion, there just wasn't any talk of religion in my house. It really just didn't come up.

I started dropping the "under God" when I would say the pledge of allegiance. On a class trip in 5th grade a teacher (public school) asked me to say grace before the meal. I don't remember if I refused or not, but it was really troubling. Not only was I nonbeliever, I had no idea what the I was supposed to say. There was an assumption there not only of shared religious people, but of shared cultural experience and practice. The same teacher liked to have us sing hymns, and emphasized explicitly religious songs during the Christmas season. I don't have a problem with either of those, really, but the point is he had an agenda.

Despite all of that, I find it really puzzling when people accuse me of being hostile to religion. I'm hostile to the notion that religion should occupy such a privileged place in our discourse. I'm hostile to plenty of beliefs which are associated with religion in this country, and I'm certainly hostile to plenty of self-styled religious leaders. But religious belief and practice doesn't bother me at all.

I'm puzzled why some religious people seem to get upset by more outspoken atheists. I can turn on the teevee and be threatened with damnation and hellfire. Who cares if Sam Harris thinks you're stupid? If atheists want to engage in their own brand of proselytizing, good for them. I'm not especially interested in it, but what's wrong with it? There are Christian missionaries all over the world.

Having said all of that, I'm sure my general worldview rests on believing things I cannot know, which is in some ways no different than many religious beliefs. I believe there are probably limits to what scientific inquiry will tell us - that The Existential Big Questions will probably never be answered - which of course leaves the door open to all kinds of possibilities. Happy to be wrong about that, though.