There are many reasons why I am not religious, and I am sure I could write many lengthy essays about quite a few of them. I have decided here, for the purposes of this essay, to focus upon what I would consider to be my main reason for opposing religion; the religious mindset that has a stranglehold on rational thought in the minds of many believers throughout the world – the clutches of which I am very glad to be free from. This was not always the case,however, I have not been an atheist for my entire life, I have had first hand experience of the shackles of dogmatic thinking and mental slavery, and though I have come out relatively unscathed, there are many like me who never break free, a minority of whom are driven to cause harm to their fellow human beings in the name of their chosen religion. As this essay is primarily about my personal experience and reflections upon it, I thought I would start out with a history of my flirtation with religion (and irreligion) as I grew up, before giving a detailed account of my main objection towards it.
I was brought up a Christian, my grandfather was a vicar, and my mother remains to this day a devout believer. I attended Church a few times when I was younger (by no means regularly, however), and my mother occasionally led the family in prayers and study. I cannot honestly say whether or not I believed it at that age, I think I was too young to formulate any concrete decision on the matter, but I can recall being amazed and intrigued by the many stories, both of Jesus’ life and of the Old Testament. I went along with the beliefs simply because I didn’t really know any better, not because I had reasoned them to be true – and I think the same could be said for all religious children.
The first time I ever really questioned God was when I was quite a lot older; around the age of 16. I was on a drunken night out with my friends at the local pub, when I bumped into my older brother, who was also rather inebriated. I can’t recall exactly how we arrived at the conversation, but I can distinctly remember my brother presenting to me what is often referred to as ‘the problem of evil’. If there is a God, why does he allow so much evil in the world? I remember being slightly taken aback by my brother’s statement of his atheism for two reasons. Firstly I had always assumed that he was Christian, because I had assumed everyone in our family was, and secondly because I had never heard anybody make such a statement against God before (one could say I had a sheltered upbringing). I wouldn’t say that I became atheist at this point, but I became more, and more apathetic towards the faith that I was brought up in as I went through the later part of my teens.
For the next few years I remained in a state of apathy. I didn’t really give much thought to the matter either way. That lasted until I moved away to study at university when I was 18. I met someone there who was an atheist. On many an evening we would walk together and talk critically about religion among other things. He provided me with more and more arguments against it, and it was a that moment that I decided, for the first time that I did not believe in the Christian God.
This is not the end of the story though (although I would have been spared an awful lot of time-wasting if it were). As many students do, I was messing around with various intoxicating chemicals, and this, as well as other factors caused my overall sense of vitality and enthusiasm to deteriorate. During my second year of study, I went through a period of depression and anxiety. I sought solace from the troubled thoughts that seemed to endlessly circulate within my mind, and in a moment of desperation, I spontaneously recalled being taught a simple meditation practice in school, and thought that this might provide me with the peace of mind that I was after. It were as though this memory had sprung up just at the right moment – which I would later reflect upon as being some kind of karmic fate. Soon after, I bought a book about Zen Buddhism with the intention of learning more about meditation practice – and thus began my first and (to this date) only intense devotion to a religion.
I have always been a rather obsessive person, from my intense craving to learn all there was to know about dinosaurs and Star Wars when I was a kid, to the passion for reading and learning that grips me today. I became obsessed with Buddhism. This is partly due to my insatiable curiosity about altered states of consciousness – a variety of which can supposedly be achieved through meditation practices, and also partly due to my desire for freedom from anxiety, stress, solitude, and depression – all of which Buddhism promises in it’s ultimate goal; Nirvana.
I write cautiously here, for in Buddhism the importance of having a personal teacher is often stressed, and this is something that I lacked during the two years or so that I was a Buddhist – meaning that I may well have been misguided in many aspects of my practise, therefore the following is not necessarily a critique of Buddhism, rather a critique of my interpretation of it – which may or may not be a false representation of the religion.
From the very start I fell unwittingly into the trap of what some people call ‘spiritual materialism’, I was overly concerned with my ‘attainments’ on the path to enlightenment. This desire to progress towards the distant goal of Nirvana slowly but surely eroded my initial passion for Buddhism to the point where the practise itself – which is intended to relieve suffering – became a burden in it’s own right. I desired to be a good Buddhist, I would try to follow the teachings as closely as I possibly could, this consequently led to feelings of guilt when I perceived myself as having failed at being a good Buddhist. I would in turn redouble my efforts. I resolved to undertake 1 hour of meditation a day rather than half an hour, and I would spend certain days observing strict rules about not eating after midday, and not lounging in comfortable seats or taking to high and luxurious beds etc.
I was trying desperately to progress, to attain the ecstatic states of deep, blissful meditation that I had so often heard about, I wanted to avoid material attachments and to banish desire from my thoughts entirely, but I couldn’t, and for this I felt miserable and inadequate. I carried on for quite some time in spite of all this – I believed that Buddhism was still the solution to my problems, despite the fact that it was causing me stress and anxiety.
During this time, I also found myself abandoning my critical faculties, and accepting – without due reason – the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth, among other things. I was content with weak arguments to justify my position, things like; “we see cycles in nature all the time, its not unreasonable to think that life itself is part of a cycle of endless death and rebirth”. This was not the only front on which my reasoning skills were absent. I also started to believe in heavenly realms and divine beings, whom I could appease with various prayers and offerings. I believed that saying “May all beings be well, peaceful and happy” repeatedly in my head would have some kind of impact upon the physical world. I even believed ancient stories of monks stopping the sun in the sky and so forth. I don’t recall overly questioning any of this, I simply accepted and believed it because I was a Buddhist, and this is what the great teachers who I admired believed, and I wanted to be like them.
Around the time that I started to become really disillusioned about my practise, and frustrated at my lack of progress on the meditation cushion, I also watched Carl Sagan’s seminal series ‘Cosmos’, which introduced to me a new way of thinking; skepticism and rationality. Like a cool breeze on a hot summers day, the relief of my realization was almost blissful. This was not some spiritual revelation though, it was the gradual dawn of reason. I didn’t need to meditate, and still my mind, I could fill my mind with whatever I choose in complete intellectual freedom, without guilt. There might not be any Nirvana or enlightenment, so there is no use in pursuing it without evidence that such a thing exists. There is no need to feel remorseful for being imperfect – some behaviours are not unwholesome and wrong, they’re perfectly natural and should not be repressed (I’m talking mainly about sexual urges here, something which caused me to suffer a lot of guilt in my time as a Buddhist). Most of all there is nothing to fear, I probably wont be reborn when I die, there is no risk of being trapped for aeons in lowly realms, or as a ‘hungry ghost’, or worse being reborn in a hell.
At first I was cautious, I had, after all, been a Buddhist for a couple of years, and I initially felt like I might have been abandoning something precious. Then, slowly but surely I stopped meditating, I stopped studying exclusively Buddhist literature, and I gave up all desire to achieve the illusive and mysterious state of perfection that is Nirvana. Thus ended my experience of participating in religion. Since then – here comes the cliché – I haven’t looked back. There is no aspect of my experience that I would wish to cling to, and as a whole I feel a lot better for having abandoned faith and embraced reason.
Having experienced it’s rabid clutches first hand, I would resolutely say that the main reason I now oppose religion is the mindset that it provides people with; the suspension of one’s critical faculties, and the intellectual laziness of accepting someone else’s answers to life’s big questions, without a seconds thought. The tendency to blindly latch on to the every word of monks, priests or imams, and accept them readily, whilst viciously keeping your doubts at bay using fallacious logic, constantly with your eyes fixed firmly upon the eternal reward of paradise and freedom. All the while oblivious to the fact that the central tenants of your beliefs may well be false.
The intentional sedation of reason, and intellect did not come at much of a cost to me, save for a few years wasted, and a few pennies spent on books that I probably won’t read. I was lucky in that I managed to snap out of it with relative ease. This cannot be said, however, for a lot of people who devote themselves to religion. Many people block out the light of reason, and remain in the dark for their entire lives, some even retreat so far into the abyss of blind faith that they become willing to act out atrocities in the name of their particular doctrine. Indeed, one does not have to delve deep into our history to see the horrific evil committed willingly by slaves to dogma (or any kind of ideology) all of whom could have seen through the deceit of their leaders and irrationality of their actions had they not locked themselves into a certain mode of thought and abandoned doubt as a worthless enemy.
After years of striving I have rather ironically arrived at an enlightenment of sorts, but it is a completely different kind to that offered by the spiritual and esoteric paths, like that of the Buddha. I am no longer afraid to think for myself, and now, with doubt as my trusted ally I have a glorious wealth of knowledge to explore, knowledge that I had previously denied myself in those dim days that I’d rather forget. I am free, free from unwarranted fear, free from needless guilt, and free from the intellectual prison that I had willingly built for myself. There is no greater blessing, no more satisfying a reward than freedom of thought, and if some holy man makes you an offer of something more rewarding in the next life – just remember to ask a few questions before you hand them your mind.