Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 8 October 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

College essay contest — second place

My rejection of religious dogma

This student received $1,000 from FFRF.

I suppose it is the natural inclination of a child to believe whatever he or she is taught by adults, especially when those adults are the authority figures in the child’s immediate circle. A child’s mind is a pure and empty vessel into which experiences, prejudices, ideas and influences pour without a proper filtration system in place. When those ideas and influences are colored by and orbit around a kindly paternal figure hovering over the child in pristine benevolence, then the child accepts in total warmth and openness.

To a child, Kermit is a real talking frog, not a piece of felt with no existence outside of television. So why shouldn’t God or Jehovah or Yahweh be just as real? The child accepts without question the conclusion in “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake: “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.”

If the child is rewarded by the parent for proper behavior, why should God not reward him or her, as well? The child, however, does not remain a child forever. Eventually, a perceptive and independent child will observe, read, think — and question. And, as Blake knew so well, that childhood state of blissful and unquestioning Innocence must be abandoned, to be replaced by the enlightened state of Experience.

Thus it was with me.

I grew up immersed in Catholic dogma and ritual. Questioning was not acceptable, and skepticism was anathema. In my childish mind, surely all those powerful male figures had to know things I did not and could not know at my tender age. They were all the same to me: priest, bishop, pope and God himself. They were stern, yet loving, distant, yet nurturing. I celebrated the birth of the baby Jesus each Christmas, and I wept over his Passion and Resurrection each Easter, never doubting those scenarios were real, never questioning the absurdity of supernatural phenomena that defy rational logic.

The first germ of doubt occurred when I was 7, doubt certainly not based on intellectual awakening, nor prompted by any species of gestating philosophical awareness. The occasion was my first confession.

Humankind must abandon belief in an omniscient, omnipotent being.

What sort of sins has a 7-year-old to confess? When I failed to come up with any transgressions of my own, the priest proceeded to “suggest” sins I may have committed and that I should confess forthwith. Call it intuition, instinct or simply common sense, a feeling arose in my young mind that something was not right.

I had always been encouraged to tell the truth, even if the truth proved painful. But here in the austere environs of the confessional, I was being told to admit to sins I had not committed! So it began, the doubt and the questioning that would lead to my rejection of religion.

For some, the rejection of faith is painful, bordering on traumatic. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, after rejecting faith and embracing atheism, still said that his rejection of faith was a source of lifelong pain. But for me, the casting off of superstition has been the logical outcome of intellectual enlightenment, an outcome I embrace as liberating and by no means painful or traumatic.

I now see religious doctrine as an interesting myth, a fiction that may have allegorical or metaphorical meaning, but not a system to which I will subscribe, abandoning reason and logic for something as tenuous and nebulous as faith.

I sincerely believe that adhering to the view of an anthropomorphic being who hovers over us, who is responsible for all of creation, who creates human suffering and joy, who acts according to omniscient whim cheapens the beauty of a process that has taken millions of years of change, mutation and selection. Where are the beauty and majesty in the creationists’ view? If all the beauty and majesty of our known world are simply the result of “intelligent design,” the by-products of a bored celestial mind, then why indeed are we here?

Who designed the designer? What of the overwhelming fossil and geological evidence that so clearly and dramatically points to process, not supernatural whim, as the reason for life? These are conundra that have lead me to question seriously the foundation and “logic” of religious dogma. These questions are not mere academic or rhetorical exercises staged in some illusory Platonic academy. They are essential in addressing that oldest of all queries: “Why are we here?”

Faith, the great cop-out

Zoologist and atheist Richard Dawkins has said he’s against religion “because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” While superstition and the supernatural may have been perfectly reasonable alternatives for explaining natural phenomena in humankind’s early history, surely we have progressed beyond that. We no longer burn witches, avoid black cats or think the moon is made of green cheese.

Yet there are millions of intelligent, educated and sophisticated people who, while rejecting such absurd notions, have not one scintilla of skepticism when it comes to embracing such mind-boggling tales as an ark with two of every animal aboard, a virgin birth, a savior who walks on water and raises the dead and who rises from death himself to ascend in bodily glory into the heavens.

There is not one shred of evidence for any of these most unnatural phenomena, yet they are embraced and promoted as articles of faith, as indications of a supernatural agent who can defy the physical restraints that limit all of us.

“Faith,” according to Dawkins, “is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

The law of gravity tells me if I leap from a cliff, I will plummet to the ground. I can test this law with every rock I toss from the cliff. Not one time will a rock fall up. Yet my companion can put his trust in faith, assuring himself that his omnipotent God will allow him to soar like an eagle as he hurls his mortal body from the cliff. I am more than reasonably certain that the outcome of this scenario would be my driving home in one piece with my companion’s disarticulated parts in my trunk.

Human intelligence, in its reaching for knowledge and understanding, has progressed past superstition. We no longer live in a society dominated by an institution that controls every facet of our minds and bodies. We no longer burn those scientists at the stake who would challenge the restrictions imposed by religious dogma and institutional doctrine. Ever since Darwin set foot in the Galapagos and felt the stirrings of a theory that would transform our understanding of how we arrived at this unique point of development, science has, or should have, surpassed blind adherence to unproven and untested faith.

If embracing a scientific theory poses a direct threat to the establishment of religion, so be it. Dawkins has spoken most forthrightly on this point: “The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and toward atheism.”

It is time for those who challenge religion to come out of the closet, as it were. It is time to stare religion of any stripe in the face with fierce and undaunted truth, the truth that belief in imaginary friends is natural and expected in a 6-year-old. But just as a child develops and then rejects childish ideas, so must humankind abandon belief in an omniscient, omnipotent being.

“The end of man is to know,” said the novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren. Knowledge must be unfettered, even when it challenges and destroys devoutly held but erroneous beliefs. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his nephew, made the most eloquent defense of the striving for knowledge: “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

It is time for the blinders to fall and, as William Blake called them, “the mind-forged manacles” to be broken. The truth must set us free.

Lauren Keil, 18, is a second-year student at the University of Maine-Farmington. She’s majoring in English and creative writing.

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