Today, April 16, is the one day in the year when I allow myself to co-opt this blog for very personal purposes. Usually I use this time as a way to remember Virginia Tech, and my time there. Today, however, I want to be a little more audacious.
Forgive me, I want to talk about God and godlessness.
The theme and the day have something of a connection, of course. But, as before, I will steadfastly refuse to make it.
If you’re here for physics-related content, I apologize; a new post should be up within a couple days.
My childhood was a very religious one.
I mean this not just in the sense that I spent a lot of time in church (which I did), or that religious doctrines played an outsized role in shaping and constraining the events of my life (which they did), but in the sense that religion felt very important to me. From a very early age, the religious ideas to which I was exposed felt intensely valuable and deeply moving.
I was a Christian (a Mormon, in fact), and the doctrines of Christianity fascinated and moved me in a way that few things in my life have. I felt very personally the Christian call to strive for a particular ideal of Christ-likeness, one defined by patience, charity, loving kindness, and faith. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that I took some inspiration from this ideal almost every day of my life, starting from my earliest moments of literacy through the first year or two of college. Christianity, to me, felt challenging and profound; I’m sure I expected that my religion would be the most important thing I would ever study. Through deep intellectual thought, I supposed, and through the cultivation of very personal emotional experiences, I would become ever closer to this Christ-like person. And to do so felt not just like a rewarding challenge, but like a moral imperative.
In short: I was a serious-minded kid, and my religion was perhaps the thing I took most seriously.
I was also a pretty analytical-minded kid. I loved building things, solving puzzles, and learning how things work. I relished those moments of wonder when you first realize that something seemingly mundane is much bigger or more intricate than you first supposed.
And, during childhood, those analytical proclivities seemed very much compatible with my religious feelings. In fact, they usually mixed together in a truly beautiful way. I remember, for example, the first time I looked at a cell. I had peeled the thin skin off an onion from the fridge, and I lay down on my stomach on the prickly June grass and looked at the onion skin with a little mirror-lit microscope. That was a moment of real wonder, as I’m sure it is for many a child: the first time you get a visual sense of the impossible intricacy of life. And for me, those feelings were compounded and deepened by my awe at their creator.
In those years, every piece of learning or exploration of Nature made me feel like I was getting a little bit closer to God, like I was learning to see the universe just a little bit more like He was able to see it. And that was exhilarating.
In addition to my seriousness and my nerdiness, my childhood was generally defined by happiness. I had (and continue to have) a wonderful family, and from them I received the gift of feeling safe and feeling loved in a very fundamental way. These feelings, not surprisingly, also got entangled with my gratitude for God, as the ostensible source from which love and protection flows. And gratitude is a beautiful feeling when it is felt deeply and recognized for what it is.
In this way my religion provided the frame for the deepest feelings and experiences in my life. It was the channel through which I experienced wonder and gratitude, and it provided the context through which I interpreted the love and security that I felt in life.
It was a beautiful way to live.
Of course, I realize in retrospect that there was something dangerous about this religious way of experiencing life. Specifically, there is a particular trick commonly played by religion (if I can phrase it this way without ascribing bad intention to any particular person) for which I fell completely.
The trick goes like this: in most churches one is taught, quite explicitly, and from the youngest possible age, that God loves you and is watching out for you. Therefore, the lesson continues, you can feel loved and safe in the world. It’s a comforting lesson, and when felt deeply it is quite moving. Implicit in this lesson, however, is something like a threat. Namely, that if for some reason you don’t know that there is a God who loves you and protects you, then you will have no grounds for feeling loved and safe in the world.
Even without being explicitly taught that unhappy converse statement of the “God loves you” lesson, I accepted it. I doubt that I even realized how deeply I had accepted it; it just seemed natural. This was, perhaps, the most dangerous idea that I absorbed from my religion: that I was dependent on my religious belief for the most valuable emotions in my life. (And maybe this is always the case, that the most dangerous religious lessons are the ones that are absorbed through implication rather than through explicit statement.)
I remember, for example, somewhere in my early teenage years, having a gentle creationism argument with an atheist. The things that this person was saying (basic things, like “there is no God” — this was a very primitive discussion) seemed, to me, impossible to accept. Not because they were illogical, but because it seemed intolerable to believe that human life was a cosmic accident with no purpose. Such an idea simply could not (or should not) be accepted, I thought, because it would rob one of the ability to feel things that were essential for happiness.
As I aged through my teenage years, however, I found it increasingly difficult to be a “religious person.” Maintaining religious belief and religious feeling required a constant struggle, whose gains were made by concentrated acts of studying, prayer, and willing oneself into a state of religious feeling. Indeed, the very nature of religion was often described explicitly as a struggle, or a battle: a “good fight” that must be won. But as I got older, this fight got increasingly difficult. It involved grappling with deeper and more personal questions, and staving off doubts and alternative ideologies that seemed increasingly natural (and which I often kept at bay by equating their acceptance with a kind of moral laziness).
This process was largely terrifying, and intensely stressful. At the conscious level, I propelled myself forward by appealing to the moral imperative associated with being a Christ-like force for good in the world. (Again, this type of motivation, and the “battle” imagery that accompanied it, was often made explicit at church.) But at the unconscious level, I was very afraid that if I lost my religion then I would lose completely the channel through which I experienced happiness.
This struggle for my own soul left me stressed, dour, and judgmental.
Eventually, it all fell apart. Somewhere during my first years of college I became unable (or, as I would reproachfully describe myself, lazily unwilling) to maintain real religious belief. My level of certainty about religious ideas shrank and shrank over time, until one day I found that I had nothing at all – no strong belief, and essentially no religious feeling.
That realization was a dark moment of real despair, and I became terribly depressed. I felt hopeless, and isolated from my own family. I felt as if I had a shameful secret that I had to keep from them. Perhaps even worse, I felt isolated from a part of myself that I had loved dearly and that had made me happy. I felt like a person whom I could no longer like or respect.
Eventually, though, after at least a year in this kind of state, a truly wonderful thing happened. I remember very clearly: I was in the middle of a long, solo road trip, driving through the staggering mountains of Colorado along I-70 west of Denver. The radio didn’t work in my car, so I had nothing to do for entertainment but to provoke myself to internal argument. Suddenly, during the course of one of these arguments, and among the mountains of Colorado beneath a beautiful bright sky, I had an epiphany.
All my life my religion had exhorted me to seek truth, which was to be obtained through that painful “good fight” process, under the premise that real knowledge of deep truths would enable me to be a happy and a good person. But what I realized, in that flash under the Colorado sky, was that I could be perfectly happy with no knowledge about any deep truths at all.
What a beautiful moment that was — it was one of the happiest instants of my life. (And, ironically, it felt exactly the way that I had always been taught religious revelation would feel.)
What I realized in that moment is that my happiness in life did not come from, or rely upon, any religious idea. It was not dependent on any particular idea of God or any specific narrative about my place in the universe. My feelings of being fundamentally safe and loved in the world were gifts that had been given to me by my family; even if I interpreted them in a religious way, they were never inherently religious feelings. Today I am just as capable as ever of feeling like a good and a happy person, even though I lack any absolute standard for “good” or any plausible ultimate source from whom that happiness flows. My religion had always taught me to credit its god for those feelings, but I realize now that they exist whether I believe in Him or not.
I can’t tell you how beautifully liberating I find that realization to be.
I should make clear, in closing, that I am not trying to make an anti-religious statement. In general, I don’t feel qualified to make any large-scale comments about the “value” of religion. Whether religion (in some particular form) is more “moral” than atheism, whether religion in general does more good than harm in the world, or whether any particular person will profit from adopting a particular set of religious beliefs – these are all hard questions that are best left to someone who has given them much more thought than I have.
But the point of this post is that I do have one comment that I think is worth making, directed to anyone who may find themselves unable to hold on to their religious feelings:
Though it may seem impossible, there is still wonder on the other side of belief. Even without a God around whom to focus your wonder. There is still gratitude, even without a God to whom you can direct it. There is still love and kindness, and the world can still be deeply moving. It is still possible to be happy and to feel like a good person, even without an ultimate arbiter to give your life meaning or to tell you what “good” means.
To those of you who have never constructed your lives around religion, these statements may sound obvious to the point of being asinine. But to me they were among the most valuable and difficult ideas that I ever learned.
I was inspired to write this little essay after reading this wonderful blog post, which includes the lines:
If one thinks of creationism as a sequoia with God in the towering trunk and the various aspects of the natural world as branches going outward at every height, then [in contrast] science in general and evolution in particular is a web of unimaginable richness, with connections in every conceivable direction, splitting and rejoining and looping in almost infinite variety. The strength of the sequoia is its enormous trunk, a monolithic invulnerability; that of the web is its deep interconnectedness, so that even if a few of its strands are found to be flawed (and they surely are, from time to time), the overall structure retains its integrity with room to spare.