I’m not sure why it is that the tagline of my blog reads, ” … a woman who loves questions more than answers.” I actually seem to be one of those who prefers certainty, despite my protestations that too much of it is unhealthy, arrogant, and even dangerous.
I don’t think that I settle on certainties without a great deal of back-and-forth analysis and reflection. But I do all of that because I want to get to the bottom of things. I like intuitive, conceptually straightforward ideas that ring true and that unify and clarify the mess of information. Sometimes these can be too blunt, but sometimes they are powerfully incisive. Can I always tell the difference? – probably not, but I do try to remain open; I’m not committed to any of the things I feel certain about.
I notice that sometimes I’m driven to find answers because of fear: I want to feel certain I’m not destined for the fires of hell because I chose the wrong religion; I want to feel certain that headache is not a brain tumour; I want to feel certain I’m not going to make wrong decisions in life and end up homeless. Compulsive researching and rumination is pretty stressful to say the least. Other times I’m driven just by curiosity, and that’s much more enjoyable. But either way, if there is a satisfying answer out there for me, I want to find it. And I have found a few!
First, I can’t say I am at all uncertain about religion being man-made. There just seems to be far too much evidence that it is; even the more forgiving idea of religions representing partial spiritual truth, muddied by human interpretation and fallible messengers, has never really worked for me – I can’t see any coherent whole that all religions point to; only a spaghetti bowl of cross-currents and contradictions. I think I have a ‘religious personality’, but ultimately I’m more satisfied by a clear answer to my questions than by faith.
Second, I can’t say I am uncertain on the existence of God, either – at least, God as a conscious supreme being who listens to prayer and, while shying away from real communication, gives us cryptic messages through coincidences and natural events, or perhaps selects special individuals to use as a mouthpiece. The light thrown on these concepts by psychology’s examinations of why we fall into these patterns of belief, for me, have pushed them well out of the grey ‘agnostic’ area. My atheism is not about lack of evidence for God; it’s about becoming convinced that we most likely invented him.
I haven’t arrived at clear-cut answers for every question I’ve pondered. I don’t think there are clear-cut answers, for most of the important questions – and the above two are not really very important, in the grand scheme of things. Is religion a force for good or bad? What needs are the different styles of religion fulfilling in people, and what are the alternatives? These are more important, and complex, questions. When I’ve felt motivated to think them through, I haven’t settled on decisive answers, and I haven’t minded that. Sometimes, I don’t need certainty at all; I just need to understand why I’m not certain.
I’ve heard people making the observation that religious idealists, once they give up their belief, tend to become secular idealists. I’ve felt indirectly criticised by this, as if it’s better to somehow remain agnostic about everything (despite the fact that we don’t really choose our beliefs anyway), or as if feeling sure about your views on certain things automatically makes you an intolerant person, or as if being critical of religion is a bad thing.
As a person who tends to see “all-or-nothing” as the correct approach to religion, I’m fascinated by those whose relationship with religion can be more flexible. I’m also fascinated by the way this flexibility doesn’t disappear when they give up religion; not all ex-religionists share my style of unbelief.
It’s hard, perhaps even impossible, to really understand another person’s relationship with their ‘truths’. But I’m glad we’re all here to remind each other that not everyone is like us, and also (for ex-believers) – that not every religious believer is as we were.