Non Religious in America Part 2 – Thinking for Yourself

Free from the Echo Chamber   

Thinking for yourself - the unaffiliatedThe Pew Research Center report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” states that 22.8% of Americans are unaffiliated with religion.  A few of these say they are atheist or agnostic.  A lot say they are “nothing in particular.”  This group as a whole is sometimes called the the “Nones.”

Although it can be argued that there is a negative side to being a None, I believe there is a positive side too: if you are a “None” you seem to be saying, “I would rather think for myself.”  And what could be more positive than thinking for yourself?

I admit that not everyone thinks it’s positive.  Here is what St. Augustine, a great believer in authority, said about looking at the world with curious eyes and thinking for yourself:

“There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger.  This is the disease of curiosity … It is this which drives  us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” – St. Augustine, quoted in “The Closing of the Western Mind,” by Charles Freeman

But if we are Nones, we can probably agree with Albert Einstein:

“Blind belief in authority is the enemy of truth.”

Religious “truths” are usually talked about in a sort of echo chamber—at least for people within traditional religions.  Certain ideas that have been believed and agreed upon long enough are eventually not open to discussion.  They may only be repeated over and over.  This agreed upon repetition leads to these ideas being authoritative.

You however can choose to live outside the echo chamber: you can listen to anyone you want; you can read anything you want; and you can belong to any spiritual or non-spiritual group you want.  Best of all you can think what you want and say what you want.

Think What You Want

If you allow yourself to think for yourself, you will notice that there are a lot of things to think about!  For now, let’s think  about just one question. This question is as close to home as you can get: “Who (or what) are you?”

Who we are as individuals is a big question.  And it’s a question that quickly creates many more: Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  What happens when we die?  Are we spirits or bodies—or what?  These are hard questions.  No wonder religions want such things settled.

We can start by looking at some of the echo chamber answers.  After all, the fact that they are often unquestioned, doesn’t make them automatically wrong.  If  your religious background is anything like mine—and mine was pretty standard when it came to the big questions—you understand yourself something like this:

  • You are created by God to serve God
  • You have a body and a soul
  • You can’t help doing bad stuff and need to be saved
  • You (at least your soul) will exist in some form forever and ever
  • Living forever and ever and ever makes being saved really important!

Rethinking these questions can seem daunting, even frightening.  I think that’s because we are haunted by the notion that somebody found the right answers and we are going to get into big trouble if we doubt them.  But that’s just the echo chamber talking.  If we are “Nones,” we can let the folks in there speak to each other while we look for our own answers.

My Look at Living Forever

To me, the most interesting question is, “Do I in some form live forever?”  Perhaps you have answered this question just as I answered it for many years (quite automatically I admit): “Of course I do!  My body may die but my soul lives forever.”

But do I live forever?  I gradually realized I thought this because I had been told this over and over, directly and indirectly, by my church.

At first, the idea that I might not have an eternal soul was a little frightening.  But I thought about it … and I read … and I listened … and I thought some more.  Finally, it occurred to me to ask, “Why do I want to live forever?”  The answer was that, mostly, I wanted to live forever because my religion taught that humans, unlike animals, were very special to God and were made to live forever.  And you need a soul in order to do that because your body dies—all too soon, it seems.

Schiavonetti - soul leaving bodySchiavonetti’s depiction of the soul leaving the body

As I gradually let go of my need to believe this, I wondered: How appealing would it be to live forever? And, what would I do for an eternity?  Would I start over and raise a new family, then another and another, ad infinitum?  Would I have the same family and friends as now and get to know them better and better until I know about every tiny aspect of their character?  Would I work for billions and billions of years at my little blog?  Maybe I would sing hymns to God for all eternity.  (I bet He/She would get sick of that!)

None of these activities seemed to fit a real human being—which I think I am.

I admit, I have had thoughts about activities in a less heaven-like new life—a sort of second time around on earth, a reincarnation of sorts:

  • I have always  loved music but have also always had precious little musical talent.  Being a great pianist in a new life would be wonderful.
  • And I have thought it would be great to give my life in serving others in a completely different environment than I live in now—Nepal, Nigeria, an American inner city.  But I have been busy with family and work, and—I admit—I am a bit of a chicken.  I could be the self-sacrificing person I have not been in this life.
  • And I can’t leave this out—what could be more exciting than being a jet fighter pilot?  I know, that’s an activity meant for war—but still?

Of course, the biggest reason to want a life after this one would be so we could see loved ones we have lost.  I could be reunited with my mother, dead since I was a sophomore in high school.  After our eventual deaths, my wife and I could be rejoined forever.  It would be nice if such a thing, in some form, were possible.  But desire by itself doesn’t make it so.  And there is the problem of all those billions of years.

If you think a while about “eternal” life, maybe you will also the find that the idea carries a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit into any reality you can imagine. For me, the idea of a personal afterlife still feels appealing, but it is no longer scary to let go of the concept.

And there is this—I see no evidence that we live forever.

Here is what I think now: we  seem designed by evolution (and maybe indirectly by something I would call God) to live on this earth.  Our bodies evolved for here from the same stuff the earth itself is made of.  Our minds seem to have developed to not only handle our “animal” needs, but to build societies, to create art and literature, and to figure out the universe.

This, to me is a wonderful thought—a thought that brings me two similar thoughts, neither original to me.

First: evolution has brought together some elements of this world in a creature blessed with consciousness—me.  So maybe I am, for the brief moment of my life, the world or universe becoming conscious of itself.

Second: what if, as some suggest, I am not quite so separate and individual as I think.  What if I have no separate existence of my own, but am just one distinct and special manifestation of the whole.  A single momentary wave on the ocean of reality?

Of course I can prove none of these ideas.  But there seems to be no reason they couldn’t be true. To me, they are lovely, and they are far more appealing than some of the religious ideas I learned in my youth.

Who or What Are You?

Think for yourself question markBut what do you think?  You don’t have to be a philosopher or a theologian.  What makes sense to you?  If you are a “None,” you have probably thought about a particular question already.  Since no one knows for sure, your answer is as honorable as anyone’s, and will certainly be the most meaningful answer to you!

If you haven’t thought much about who and what you are, you could try one of these:

  • Are you two things—a spirit and a physical body—or are you just one thing?
  • Are you defined mainly as part of a whole?
  • Are you God? Are you “divine?” Are you a part of God?
  • What made you what you are? Evolution?  God?  Mom and Dad?
  • Do you think you exist for a specific purpose?
  • Are you made for this world or some other world?

I am convinced of this much: every human is an amazing being and each person’s greatest gift is the ability to think for herself or himself.

Of course, I have only scratched the surface of any discussion of thinking for yourself regarding religion.  Many of my articles and poems at Spirited-Thinking touch on religion or, more broadly, ones life view. Please feel free to share your thoughts below.

Here are the other parts of the “Non Religious in America” series:
Part 1 – Leaving Religion Behind” an article
Part 3 – Life’s Lines and the Faithless man” a poem looking at the space many “Nones” are in
And a related piece you might like:
Sole Genealogy a poem,” a poem”

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