What I believe
December 21, 2005
With Christmas looming – a runaway freight train of greed and giving, rage and devotion, delight and disappointment – I thought this would be the perfect time to think about religion.I’m a curious choice for this assignment, since I am close to being an atheist and even closer to being devoutly anti-religion, anti-organized religion anyway. And yet … and yet … well, I’ll get back to “and yet” in a moment. Let’s start with my qualifications – or lack thereof.Thinking back as far as I can, I’ve never really believed in God (though I am willing to capitalize the “G” just to be polite). I’ve certainly never believed in that Great Wise Father (or Mother) on high who, like Santa Claus, is “keeping a list, checking it twice” and knows very well “if you’ve been naughty or nice.” By the way, I never believed in Santa Claus either.Heaven and angels and someone (Someone … some One … whatever) looking over our shoulders and into our hearts, rewarding prayer, punishing sex, and deciding who hits home runs and who wins footballs games – sorry, but that doesn’t work for me.And a Supreme Being who created this planet 10,000 years ago, complete with 20-million-year-old fossils of extinct creatures, placed there for us to discover just to test our faith – really, how ridiculous is that? Come on!So what do I believe?I certainly do believe that there is more to this universe – this cosmos – than we understand. More than we ever will understand. More, I guess, than we even can understand.So I believe we have to be willing to understand what we can. And accept what we cannot. It is what it is and we have to work with what we’ve got.I am, of course, in favor of people who resist evil and do good. (People who actually, truly do good – not people who shout about good and do evil.) And I don’t believe we need religions or Holy Books to tell us the difference between good and evil.I respect, but have some reservations about people who do good because they think they’ll be rewarded in Heaven for their good works or fear they’ll be punished in Hell if they stray.Good works are good works. But to my mind, there is no higher morality than that of the atheist who does good simply because he knows it is the right thing to do. No hope of reward, no fear of punishment – simply a desire to do the right thing.In that same way, I have to respect the courage of the atheist who can face the confusion of life and the mystery of death with only the strength he finds within himself. Now, I know that for many people religion is a source of strength in the face of life’s confusion and terrifying mystery. That’s a good thing. But we still cannot ignore the vast sea of willful ignorance, pain and death, the wars, the torture, the limitless human suffering caused directly by organized religion. That is certainly true this year and it has been just as true throughout recorded history.And yet … and yet … and yet even this religion-hating semi-atheist has to be grateful for the soaring inspiration of the world’s great cathedrals, glorious sacred music, painting and sculpture. Even as religion tortured people – even as it burned them alive – it fostered the creation of some of our greatest works of art, inspirational art.The “Hallelujah Chorus.” The cathedral at Reims. The Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s Pietà. The list goes on, as long as anyone cares to make it.It’s easy enough, too easy indeed, to be cynical about religion. It has appealed to hucksters and cheats, to the power-mad and the cruel since the beginning of time. And yet it has also appealed to, it has inspired, it has ignited that creative genius that is the highest expression of the human spirit. And for that, we must all be grateful.I wish us all Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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