This message is not intended for the very assuredly religious. If your religion—be it Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu, Islam, or some other iteration—is central to your daily life and/or to your self-identity, then perhaps check back another time. I can no more convince you away from your beliefs than you can coax me towards them. Let us part here, then.
Neither is this message especially meant for those already settled into stable secular worldviews. Much of what is presented here will likely seem superfluous to you, and perhaps redundant in light of your own thoughts. If you do choose to continue reading, just know that it is not to you that I address these words.
Rather, this is a message for the nominally religious, for those who claim religious affiliation by proxy of something or someone else, and, especially for those who claim it out of some uncertainty or fear. To all the half-observant, prayer-dozing, “my parent(s) follow X religion and therefore I too follow X religion” theists, and, again, especially to the confused, afraid, or newly-questioning, this is for you.
Dearest lukewarm believers,
The time has come to reconsider your faith.
As harsh as it is, there is no way to sugarcoat this statement without it losing its urgency. It is urgent. Those of you who claim a religious affiliation out of tradition, conformity, or fear have the potential to be immensely powerful agents of change, if only you will choose to be. Our world and its future depend, in part, on the thoughts and actions of those nominal theists brave enough to critically consider their worldviews.
Hear me out. Here’s how:
Whether or not you realize it, identifying with a particular religion has an effect on the world around you. When you assert belief in God or an afterlife or angels and demons, etc., you are influencing—in minor and major ways—the worldviews of those around you.
It is kind of like identifying with a specific political party. If you identify with a political party and vote for its candidates because your parents or your community do, or because you have been scared by fear-mongering tactics into doing so, are you truly expressing your own personal political views? Is your vote actually an attempt to change your reality by voicing your deeply-held convictions? Obviously, the answer is no.
But will your vote have an actual, real-world effect once it is counted and your candidate’s tally increased? Yes. A vote cast out of apathy, passivity, or fear counts just as much as one cast from conviction.
Living out your everyday life and interacting as modern humans do both in person and via social networking, you cast a number of “votes” and influence the world around you. You “like” the Big Bang Theory on Facebook, you recommend this Thai place over that one to your coworker, or perhaps your email signature includes a link to your favorite charity, blog, or website. These little “votes,” as miniscule as they seem, have a real-world impact: your cousin noticed your “like” and is now binge-watching the series, your coworker has begun to only order Thai from the restaurant you recommended, and a curious email recipient clicked your link and spent 40 minutes on Free Rice. Many of the assumptions and assertions we make on a daily basis—the little “votes” we cast—impact the world around us in ways we never see.
Religious affiliation and nominal religiosity work in the same way. By asserting a belief in Allah or Jesus or in heaven or hell, you are casting your “vote” for a particular religious mode of thinking. By assigning yourself an allegiance to whatever religion you were raised in or converted into, and thus casting your vote for that religion and its ideals, what effect are you having on the world around you? What effect does your religious affiliation have on your school system and the history and biology lessons taught there? What effect does it have on your little sibling, who tells you tearfully that they are afraid they are destined for hell? Most importantly, what effect does your affiliation have on you, on your sense of self-worth, and your thoughts and hopes for the future?
We are fortunate to live in an age when the majority of Earth’s human population lives longer and more comfortably on average than ever before. Due in part to both technological and social justice advances, we are possibly entering one of humanity’s most tolerant, passionate, communicative, and productive eras. The world is priming itself for human greatness: whether or not we capitalize on this opportunity is up to us.
More specifically, it is up to you, lukewarm believers. There is a massive distance between the magnificent era we could embark on, or even the modern era that we live in today, from the ancient foundations of most major world religions. Consider the following from Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, wherein he discusses the profound difference between modern values and those expressed in the scriptures sacred to both Christians and practicing Jews:
“The Bible… depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.”
Any Google search for violence in the Bible or Koran will retrieve a virtual slew of such nasty theistic commands. Whether it be God wiping out the bulk of the world’s population in a flood, commanding the slaughter of Amalekite tribes, promising virgins in the afterlife for those who die as martyrs, or simply sending people to suffer eternally in Hell, that these texts are fundamentally violent is an absolute fact. Though as violent as these ancient texts may be, however, the savagery promoted by many of them is thankfully absent from most modern religious practice. Many believers choose to look past them. So, you may wonder, what is the harm in my being religious, either fully or nominally?
The harm implicit in religious affiliation is that it gives credence to—and elicits more “votes” for—these religions. It keeps current each religion’s systematized discriminatory beliefs about who is righteous and who is not. It keeps words from these obsolete holy books ringing in the hallways of courthouses and Congress—places where real-world decisions are made and defended. When you identify with a certain religion, either passively or from apathy or fear, you are perhaps inadvertently casting your “vote” not only for the good messages in these scriptures, but also the many of the bad ones as well.
Ancient religions like the Abrahamic trifecta have nothing to offer that cannot be found elsewhere. Stop to think if there is any message contained in them that cannot be found elsewhere. The Golden Rule, for example, expressed by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, has many other iterations, among secular and religious philosophies alike, many of which predate both Jesus and Christianity.
But many religious scriptures also have bad elements that are unique to their creeds. They are rooted in traditions that even many theists have begun to realize are violent and flawed. Why else would Rob Bell (Love Wins) write so fervently, and at the expense of his career, about the improbability of hell and its tortures (cf. Lk 16:19-26)? Why else would Christian feminism (cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-15) and pro-gay Christian thought (cf. Lev. 10:13) emerge as they suddenly have, despite long-held Biblical teachings against these ideas? What else explains the rise of the “nondenominational” church, and the rise of religiously “unaffiliated” people in general? All this is happening because even the faithful are beginning to see the folly of their religions’ ways. Even preachers, religious leaders, and institutions are beginning to realize this truth: ancient religious teachings have less and less of a place in modern society.
My ultimate question for you then, lukewarm believer: why, after we have abandoned so many other things from the ancient world – such as slavery, monarchy, and witchcraft – do you still casually accept the teachings of ancient religions? And if you do not accept all of their teachings, why even identify under their name? Why not shed off your religious affiliation entirely?
Imagine with me, for a moment, that there is no God. Just imagine it, don’t believe it. What is the sensation you feel? What is it that keeps you from admitting to yourself that this, given all we know about the world, is probably true?
For me, the sensation was always a falling away one. Raised in a nominally Protestant household and encouraged as a teenager to pursue church activities in apologetics and Evangelism, I stood in your place about four years ago. A college sophomore, I attended church services when it suited me, and, although priding myself on a thorough knowledge of the Bible and claiming Jesus’ salvation, I did not identify with the Christian faith at any deeper level. I remember my thoughts in waves, as I stepped back from my worldview and began to realize the pieces it was made up of.
I saw the influence of Christianity woven throughout, sure, but bolder than that, I saw the shining of my own thoughts and ideals. I saw an enduring burning for human equality, diversity, safety, and freedom, and a manifest hatred of the apocalypticism, exclusivity, and guilt that religious practice, even at the level of self-identification, impresses upon an individual. With time, I began pulling back the layers of my Protestant identity: I was first a self-identified “non-denominational,” then a modest “Jesus follower,” then a resigned “agnostic.” And then I tried this thought experiment, promising myself that I would just imagine it without believing it: “What if there is no God?”
As Neil De Grasse Tyson asserted on the season finale of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, some of us prefer and choose to live in small universes. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, if you have actively identified as religious, I cannot hope to sway your mind. Keep your created universe nice and cozy.
But if you are only connected to your religion nominally, or through some convenient or implied affiliation, why not opt for a different way of looking at our world and our universe? Why not let the floor of your cottaged universe swing out from under you and drop you into the mindbogglingly vast one that is real?
It is perhaps terrifying to think of the implications associated with the illegitimacy of your particular religious tradition. It certainly was for me. But we shouldn’t be afraid. Falling out of the floor of your old universe is the best way to explode to life in a new, bigger one.
It is difficult to decide to renounce something that has been a foundational part of your life’s back story, but I encourage you to at least think of the possibility of your religion’s invalidity. Imagine—without believing—a universe without your God and his pleasures and punishments. And then, when you feel that thought’s reality, allow yourself to explore this brave, new, malleable universe without a creator. Allow yourself to consider the hard decision to lose your faith.
Our world, and any glorious future humanity might one day make for itself, rests on the conviction of lukewarm believers like you to reject affiliation with religious tradition and to cast humanity’s vote away from ancient fantasy and firmly towards reality. Only then can we truly have the foundation to face our greatest challenges and quench our most curious thirsts.
Besides, I think the universe is much…
…larger and more interesting out here, than what any world religion has ever dreamed. Why not explore for yourself what lies beyond them?
Onward and upward,