Dabbling in Religion (Or How I Became an Atheist)
Back when my family was still living in Moscow, in the last waning days of the Soviet regime, my mother would take a tram car to work every morning. From the Three Stations, it rolled through Basmanny, past the magnificent Yelokhovskaya Church, where sometimes, my mother would get off to light a candle or to … just hang out, I guess. My mother was not by any means devout, but she was a romantic, and I think she had a touch of bovarism: Yelokhovskaya was the most opulent church in the city, certainly the most opulent functioning church (St. Basil’s Cathedral was a mere shell then), and it was rumored that the last remnants of the Old Regime aristocracy came here to worship, bloody but unbowed, and still conversing in French. On the few occasions that I happened to accompany her, the church awed me with its cascades of goldleaf and beeswax candles, its vast, dark expanse that made the lightest whisper ring and soar, its endless icons with saints, regarding me sternly and its otherworldly frankincense-scented mist. My mother would squeeze my hand and whisper in my ear: “Can’t you just feel that the Lord dwells in this place?”
I knew — because she told me many times — that the year before my birth, my parents lived on the shores of one of the numerous man-made reservoirs in Russia’s heartland, where you could still see the crosses of submerged churches and an occasional ruined belfry peeking out of the water. To us, living under the Soviet rule, when it was still dangerous to go to church or admit to being a believer, these small reminders of a submerged world were symbols of some spiritual loss, of the rootlessness, ugliness and the soul-crushing grind of Russian life.
But, it seemed like every time I accompanied my mother to church — whether to Yelokhovskaya or to any other — some small ugliness would invariably occur that would poison the experience; like if you were walking down the street in a white dress, and a car came barreling by and showered you with dirty water. Other worshipers (especially if they looked like members of the aristocracy) were disdainful and rude. If you bought candles, the sales clerk would always make it a point to put the change on the counter, never in your hand, and reacted with disgust if you touched her. When I was being baptized, my mother gave the priest a fake last name, so that he wouldn’t make a big deal out of my father being Jewish; but I still got to hear not long afterwards that Jews are creatures of darkness, and hating them is an article of faith. During sermons, priests would denounce pride or the wearing of pants by women as the greatest threats to mankind’s salvation, but rarely, if ever, did they talk about charity, compassion, or the importance of treating one’s fellow man humanely.
Later, in the West, I came in contact with other Christian traditions, as well as Judaism. Despite the fact that in almost none of these were people as overtly nasty as in the Russian Orthodox establishment, I did notice a dismaying trend among believers: that religious people tended to be particularly mean, smug and duplicitous. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve met plenty of secular people who are despicable and plenty of believers who seem like decent people — but contemptible individuals are disproportionately represented among the devout, and generally, the more fundamentalist a community, the greater its share of asshats.
Among the many arguments claimed to “prove” God’s existence, there are two that I find particularly curious. One of them is that religion establishes moral laws and compels people to abide by them — in other words, that religion, when practiced faithfully, is a recipe for a humane society. But from what I’ve seen in practice, it is quite otherwise: religion not only encourages people to victimize others, but even in times and places of relative religious harmony, it obviates the need to be a good person.
In Christianity especially, being a good person is completely optional, since God will forgive any sin without requiring any kind of correction. If any religious person is reading this, ask yourself honestly how much harder it is to ask forgiveness of the person you’ve actually wronged, especially if the offense is grave, than it is to ask God. Since God exists entirely in people’s heads (even if we assume that’s only as a practical matter), we are free to imagine that he forgives us without so much as a dressing-down, whereas people actually affected by our misdeeds might, you know, make us feel bad about ourselves. Moreover, in some Christian traditions, even asking God for forgiveness is not necessary; as long as you believe that Jesus has prepaid your invoice, you can do whatever you want to people around you. It’s a perfectly rational position to take if your sins have already been atoned for, but it surely does not make for decency or kindness in people’s dealings with each other.
Despite the fact that I have no faith, I do believe in atonement for one’s bad behavior — but atonement is meaningless if it does not involve going out of one’s way to repair the damage and asking forgiveness of the people one has hurt. Religion, however, seems to discourage that — moreover, it seems to give people the carte blanche to avoid facing the consequences of one’s actions. It encourages the worst kind of narcissism: the belief that God is so benevolent towards the “sinner”, that he will forgive without as much as token remorse towards one’s victim.
The second, and by far the most bewildering, of the two arguments states that there is a God because we need for there to be a God. I will agree that to a large extent, most people do need a God — but to me, this proves the opposite of God’s existence: that our near-inability to cognitively assimilate the idea of our existence being finite (which is what the need for God really boils down to) exposes religious faith as wishful thinking.(*) It is exceedingly difficult to come to terms with the idea that this life is all there is — even if everything we know about the world strongly suggests that this is indeed the case. But the fact that it is difficult to wrap one’s mind around this notion does not disprove its veracity.
The argument from necessity states, in fact, that if an illusion is strong enough, it becomes reality, that human beings will God into being. That is an interesting philosophical concept to consider — how strong belief can erode the boundary between the real and the imaginary — but at its core, the argument essentially postulates that Man created God. This, of course, flips all of theology on its head and confirms precisely what atheists have been saying all along.
The combination of these reflections — how religion brings out the worst in people and rewards victimization, as well as how faith is merely an expression of our intense psychological need for immortality — has, over a period of many years, led me away from belief. It is not easy to face the cold, indifferent Universe, but at some point, reason necessitates that we wrestle with all the possibilities, even the most frightening ones.
So why not agnosticism, one might ask. I’ve grown to strongly dislike the term “agnostic”, because I believe it’s a cop-out. I have no belief in God, and see no reason to believe in a divine entity. I am not religiously observant. I hate organized religion. All these things, taken together, make me an atheist. No need to fall back on euphemisms.
(*)It is interesting that the major reason for anti-Semitism in pre-Christian antiquity was what contemporaries described as Jewish atheism. Though this sounds like an oxymoron, it makes sense: Jews refused to worship other people’s Gods even as a courtesy, and rudely denied even their existence, a bizarre and extreme position to take at that time. But mostly, it was because classical, Biblical Judaism does not contain a belief in the afterlife. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”