As I got to know myself better, I found that I no longer needed abstract figures to guide me through life – I had always known everything that my gods did, I just hadn’t been able to get in touch with that knowledge without creating omniscient personalities with whom I could communicate. As I identified the motivations behind the creation of my gods, they lost their power and died.
Gods can be comforting. When a person is severely discontent with their present situation, they sometimes provide themselves with solutions that cannot be directly supported by logic. This could be as simple as a person sacrificing food to appease a god that assures him that the crops he needs to feed his family will come in successfully, or as intricate as a person’s dedication to gaining the favor of his God through worship, despite any direct response or evidence that He even exists. When our crop doesn’t come in, one of God’s messengers is there to tell us that we are just being tested and that we’ll be provided for if we are faithful. God’s message can provide hope and a spirit to recover. When we’re worried that our kids don’t listen to us, we still haven’t cured any major diseases, we still haven’t published a single best-seller, and it’s starting to look like we’re going to be stuck struggling all the way through life and then dying without ever being able to meet any of the impossible goals we’ve set for ourselves, one of God’s messengers is there to promise a second chance – either through reincarnation or through eternal life in a magical land of happiness. God’s message provides a reason to carry-on living as good a life as possible, regardless of whether or not a noticeable difference is made in the world around us. However, this message can only provide us with as much hope as we can allow ourselves according to our degree of faith in its origin.
A much sturdier but more difficult alternative would be for us to accept that life is painful, dangerous, and short and learn to live with it. That life is painful is unavoidable and more or less undisputed. "Life is suffering" is a rough English translation of the first noble truth of Buddhism. The point that we must decide for ourselves is whether suffering is part of some divine plan put in place to test our resolve, or just a natural side effect of growth.
Gods can make life easier. Nearly every situation can be made easier to handle if we’re willing to turn some part of it over to a god. For example, it takes a less well-developed social conscience to tell the truth because God demands it than to tell the truth out of a desire to live in a trusting society. Assuming that all of the things that have gone wrong in our lives are a part of some larger plan is more comfortable than accepting that we live in an unfair world. Assuming that we’ll live forever is easier than accepting mortality. Assuming that the discomforts in our lives are simply trials that must be endured saves us from having to work to make life more comfortable. Unfortunately, these gifts from God usually come at a price. Basing moral decisions on divine guidance creates a moral platform that is dependant on an unwavering faith in a world with a very colorful religious spectrum. Refusal to face a world that is sometimes unfair and cruel makes us even more vulnerable when things don’t go as we’d hoped. Refusal to accept our own mortality sometimes leads us to devote our lives to preparing for our deaths, a rather morbid consequence of a strong belief in an afterlife. Finally, refusal to seek the roots of the discomforts in our lives allows us to hide from our own roles in making our lives more difficult or more comfortable.
Demand for an afterlife is selfish. If a person is very lucky, he will
get to spend a century as a small living piece of an impossibly complex
network of life before he’s returned to the raw matter that formed him. Compared with the thought of eternity, one century is a painfully
short time, but it’s all we get – most of us will get much less. Death
is the price of life and we all have to pay it. Pretending to be
immortal won’t help. God’s messengers tell us that this miraculous gift
of life isn’t all we deserve and that He has more to offer. We get the
irresistible prize of eternal life for the small price of faith,
worship, tithing, and unquestioned allegiance. It is those of us that
believe that our roles in the world define us and that act out of a
desire to see the world improve without any promise of reward or threat
Gods can be vengeful. Vengeance is a difficult urge to quell. Accepting that life is unfair is difficult and we all have our own methods for coping with the anger we accumulate from the situations we face where we feel that we’ve come out behind. It is very convenient to turn this imbalance over to God. An unfair event might be tolerated more easily using the assumption that it is just a trial sent by God to be endured. Similarly, the situation might be diffused using the assumption that the perpetrator of the unfair incident has just added some bad karma to his soul and will eventually reap the consequences of his actions when he dies. These principles and similar interpretations of these principles guide the basic moral and ethical decisions of many people. It is easier to accept a loss with the promise of a return.
Gods can be judgmental. While telling the truth out of fear of damnation is certainly better than lying, fear of postmortem retaliation or reward is an inadequate ethical explanation of why lying is wrong. Trying to stay in good favor with God is a good reason to act ethically for all of those with a strong faith in His promises, but a more scientific explanation is required to guide the doubtful. This dilemma has lead to the emergence of religions much more focused on ethical guidance than on rituals and the supernatural. Also on this point, when a group of people rallies around a common god, they quite often will reject the existence of gods invoked by others. Although this paper focuses mainly on my chosen path and its importance in my life, there are an unlimited number of paths through life – polytheistic, monotheistic, and atheistic – and there is no arbitrary way to say that any single path is more valid than any other. This idea has inspired religions such as Buddhism that demand no specific set of beliefs regarding the supernatural. The Buddha himself believed in gods, but said that his teachings could be just as useful for the gods as they were for man. When he spoke of the influence that the gods had on his life, it sounds like he envisioned them more as facets of his personality than actual physical entities. This flexibility allows a person to incorporate the best points from more than one religion into his way of thinking and to find a path through life that is perfectly tailored to suit him, instead of relying entirely on external advisement. The Buddha’s quest for enlightenment was not the first, but it was unique because he observed no preset dharma and had no religious advisor during his quest. He taught that no leader was necessary and that change must come entirely from within. Buddhism embodies some of the best points of religions that do not necessitate specific deities. The Theravada school of Buddhism is entirely atheistic but, despite common stereotypes of the godless, it is strictly disciplined and demands absolute selflessness from its students. Buddhism uses a sense of universal empathy with all living things to motivate good behavior instead of allegiance to any central supernatural figure. While on this point, it would be irresponsible not to note that all atheistic religions are not as socially responsible as Theravada. The disturbing teachings of Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan illustrate that, when used by irresponsible persons to rationalize their actions, the liberation provided by eliminating deities can make people more powerful whether they are motivated toward good or evil.
Gods are unnecessary. Any person can learn to live so that gods are not
needed to motivate their ethics or to provide easy and convenient
solutions for the difficult parts of life. In his 1930-NOV-9 essay Religion and Science written for the New York Times Magazine, Albert
Einstein called the drive behind the ethical actions of the most
religiously evolved persons the "cosmic religious feeling" and said that
Gods can be dangerous. While many people need their threats and promises in order to convince themselves to act ethically, the many ways that gods make our lives easier typically carry hidden costs. Identifying the gods’ roles in life and seeking explanations and solutions that do not necessitate supernatural solutions can lead to more stable, natural religions. With a solid emotional foundation and sufficient time dedicated to contemplating life’s most challenging points, atheism needs not be pessimistic, chaotic, or depressing. While it is impossible to relate fully in a paper of this length, probably of any length, an internal "cosmic religious feeling," like the one described by Einstein in his essay Religion and Science, can be a sturdier motivator than any supernatural being invoked by any religion for those who do not require those beings to exist. It is not until we’ve internalized our guiding spirit and the motivating force behind our actions, abandoning hope for salvation and fear of damnation, that we can finally take full responsibility for our actions.
Copyright © 2001 by Nick Tolk
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