I have only once before written on my version of “the God thing” (to quote Denis Wright). That was in 1957 when in a Scripture Class in my final year at school I came “out of the closet”, and in a long essay, revealed that I was a non-believer and advocated the teaching of comparative religion in schools. The forbearing Anglican Minister of the Parish awarded me the Scripture prize. I do not know if that would happen today.
(Don’t worry, I aim to keep this short.)
I come from a religious Christian family. My mother was Anglican, my father a Catholic. They managed the mix considerately and carefully without either becoming subservient to the other. My sister embraces her religion and cousins fully embraced theirs to the point one became a nun and one studied at St Patricks Seminary.
My realization that I did not believe in a god consolidated itself when I was nearly 12 years old. Until I went to University, however, I did not feel free to discuss my views and, apart from the immediate family, have not unsolicitedly volunteered my views much until my later years, and until now only do so in situations of strong provocation. One of my mother’s injunctions “keep a still tongue in a wise head” seemed to apply aptly to this issue (but, in my case, not to many others).
Although I have studied a modicum of Philosophy at a tertiary level, and lots of Psychology, I know no more than the mere basics about just a few of the great world religions so I am not really in a position to make comments upon them. I do not characterize myself as a humanist, as there are some things about that position I do not agree with, anyway I do not feel I have to have a position. It is not a question of a space abhorring a vacuum. Just because I believe there is no god this does not leave a vacuum for me. In the same way as when I say I do not believe there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, I have no need to answer a question, “What then do you believe is at the bottom of the garden?”
Even my studies in formal Philosophy had me focused on other things. I am very interested in the philosophy of education over the ages, the “why” more importantly than “what”, especially since compulsory education. (See, I divert myself so easily away from the, to me, less important “God thing”.)
But I do like people and think they are important. I have great hope for that capacity for goodness and kindness that is to be found as part of the human condition. Predictive text tried to make that “cognition”, and indeed it is right. Cognition and compassion are also great assets to the human race. This is evinced in the heartfelt reactions after a minority of human beings do dreadful things to other humans or animals.
Although I regard the human race as just one part of the animal kingdom, these characteristics of ours make us well suited to live in a sophisticated, co-operative social format and thus to defend ourselves against predators and to become the dominant species. We are aware that we are not the only social animals. Other animals can be seen showing compassion, no doubt created by some capacity to empathize. So while we are in an evolutionary sense dominant, I do not think we are totally different.
So why do we believe? It appears to give some of us strength and when it does this it is something I admire. I have seen friends cope with almost unbelievable losses with the support of their belief systems. I have been glad for them that they have these beliefs.
Almost all religions that I know a minuscule about encourage, in their basic doctrines, goodness, compassion, helping the less fortunate and generally obeying moral codes that are close to universal. I have seen these codes followed by most human beings, believers and non-believers alike, and find that they can also have a purely human origin and I can often see psychological reasons for those who transgress such codes.
The difficulties for me, as a non believer, in accepting other’s religions is because of the impositions, not really of the god parts and some of the belief parts, but mostly what I will rudely describe as extra-doctrinal trappings. These are most of what I can find that distinguishes one system from another or the general credo of a believer from that of most non-believers. So it amazes me if, for example, we look at the differences in the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and their similarities and then turn to the centuries of conflict about the status of Jesus, the role of Mohammed and the rituals of practising their individual faiths, when there is so much basic doctrinal similarity in the invocations as to how to live in a society. Such similarity occurs also in the way most non-believers feel it is their duty to live in society, such duty coming from, I contend, the psychological impetus for reciprocal respect and love rather than from instruction.
Naturally, having lived now for many years, I treasure among my friends a number of religious people. I respect their views and, when when we are together, such as when visiting or traveling, always try to co-operate in their facilitation of their need to fulfill their own acts of worship.
I resent two attitudes which often show themselves but my friends would not be a party to either. One is the exclusive and therefore sometimes inevitably racist, sexist or dominating nature of some few who practice religions. The second is a derogatory view that is surprisingly common and was expressed quite recently by none other than by Cardinal Pell, that those “good” non-believers, and he did acknowledge that there is such a group, are not thinking for themselves. He used the words “coat tails” and “Christianity”.
That is when I start to lose any vestige of a “still tongue in a wise head”. All that usually keeps me under control is an, admittedly unworthy, sense of smug superiority that an athiest can turn the other cheek more becomingly than a highly placed Christian.