A close friend has recently come into some conflict with his very religious parents, and it’s made me think about some of the reasons why people are religious. Dylan Moran in his last comedy tour, much of which is floating around youtube, put it very precisely: Religion is a ritualized anxiety about death.
The subject came up in conversation with a younger colleague of mine who studies Heidegger for a living. She asked if I wasn’t concerned about what will happen to me after I die. I said I had enough things to concern me while I’m alive, and I can at least narrow that list down by using surrounding evidence to think of what’s most probably going to happen to me. I look in my bank account to see how much I’ll have after the rent check comes through. I prepare my doctoral thesis outlines and notes to work on writing that. I go through manuscripts that come into my publishing company to see if they’re worth disseminating. There is clear evidence in the world for all these tasks with which I am directly concerned. There is no evidence at all of what will happen to me after death, so I see no reason to waste my time in idle speculation when there are blogs, stories, and philosophy to write.
I’m an atheist when it came to most personal aspects of God. For me, death is a kind of recycling. Life is the most interesting way I’ve come across so far of keeping meat fresh. I’m quite happy with eventually becoming a meal for a forest glade and a flock of worms. Do worms come in flocks?
I’m digressing a bit here with the worm comments. People who believe fervently in religion often end up in quite violent arguments over who can be right. Religious conflict is driven by a particular conception of truth that many people seem to think is universal, the only kind of truth there is. Imagine a scenario something like this. A bunch of people are in an apartment having an intense argument about how many chairs there are in the room. Moe says there’s only one chair. Kamiko says there aren’t any chairs at all. Julia says there are three chairs, but that they’re all part of one big chair anyway. Fred says there are two chairs, that you can only sit on one at a time, and is terrified by anyone who sits on one chair and rests his feet up on the other. Padma says there are so many chairs in the room that she can barely move, they’re all in the way.
They can’t all be right, because it’s clear that when you look around whatever room you’re in, you can plainly see how many chairs there are. Anyone who tries to disagree with this obvious truth is stupid, because you discover it through simple attention. Now, replace the word ‘chair’ with the word ‘god,’ and you’ll see how the confusion arises. Naively religious people, like my friend’s parents, think gods are like chairs, and that it’s an obvious truth what kind of gods there are. What I hope my funny example, and draft of a standup comedy routine, shows is that there are many different kinds of truth depending what it is you’re talking about. A truth about God/gods is not the same kind of truth as a truth about furniture. And you end up in very silly positions if you think it is the same kind.
Is God a chair? Or perhaps a comfortable futon? A dining room table? Or the floorboards themselves? Find out eventually. Or not.