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Philosophy and Religion

A few months after high school, I discovered an old intro to philosophy textbook from the 1960s in my grandmother's attic. I still remember reading about the "gadfly of Athens" in the car on the way back home. Once I started, I couldn't stop. I was hopelessly hooked. Socrates became one of my idols (right up there alongside Albert Einstein and Cary Grant). From that point on I began reading books on philosophy whenever I wasn't reading books on physics and ancient literature. I couldn't get enough. I didn't go to a university right after high school. Instead I went to a two-year electronics school, then working for a couple of years as a graphic artist. During those four years, waiting for my sweetheart who was away at college, I had a lot of free time to read—and I did a lot of reading. I had an insatiable appetite for philosophy, biblical studies, theology, world religions, eastern philosophies, ancient literature, archaeology, anthropology, physics, and evolutionary biology. Any extra money I had, I spent on books at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers. I was in there several times a week.

Finally, after holding off for four years, I enrolled at the University of Louisville full-time to study philosophy, with an emphasis on religious studies, and a large spattering of anthropology and other sciences. Analytic philosophy helped me to "question everything." Like Descartes, I embarked on a long journey of questioning everything I thought I knew. One side-effect of the Cartesian journey of skepticism is that you begin to become acutely aware of just how much you don't know. That sounds like a simple lesson, but it's a difficult one to reach, and is really quite humbling. Until you're aware of what you don't know, you don't realize how much you still need to learn. That realization lights a fire inside you to learn as much as you can. But then the more you learn, the more you realize how much more you don't know. And from that point on you don't tend to talk about subjects with quite the same attitude of certainty you once held.

Leaving Religion

My temperament has always been one that most would call "religious" or "spiritual." I wouldn't use those terms today because they imply a supernaturalist worldview. It would be more accurate to call it something like a self-reflective, contemplative, or philosophical temperament. But whatever you call it, abandoning belief in the supernatural did not change that part of my personality. It's why I chose to major in philosophy instead of something more career-oriented. It's why I continue to study religion, philosophy and science. As I explained to a class of grad students I was invited to speak to a few years ago at the Southern Bapist Seminary, leaving religion does not instantly change the kind of person you are, but it can be the first step to a whole new world of intellectual and emotional growth and maturity. Eventually you'll find that non-religious sources of inspiration and depth—such as great literature, music, science, and philosophy—can be just as profound and significant to a human life, if not more so, than anything found in religion. Despite the rants of some over-zealous Christian apologists, religion does not hold a monopoly on inspiration, depth of meaning, compassion, or charity. Those things have been a part of every human culture and are a result of our nature as an immanently social, sentient species. Religion is only one among many complex products of human cultural development.

So why did I leave religion? I didn't exit Christianity out of anger at the church, and I didn't ever experience a negative or traumatic event in religion. On the contrary, my experience growing up Catholic was overall a very positive experience. The schools were adequate, the people were good, the church communities were supportive, and the priests I knew were kind, intelligent men, all of whom I still highly respect. I didn't stop believing because I didn't like going to church (actually, I quite enjoyed going to church as I got older). Nor did I stop believing because I didn't like believing in the existence of a deity or because I didn't want to believe for some reason. I don't hold any ill-will toward Christianity, and I respect those who find genuine emotional and spiritual inspiration in it. For me, abandoning belief in the existence of supernatural deities was a slow, calm, painless process of self-reflection, study, and rational deliberation over the span of several years. I simply drifted away slowly from belief in supernatural beings and forces. Looking back, I was influenced from four distinct directions: (1) studying the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern literature and history, (2) studying other world religions, (3) studying physics, astronomy, and other sciences, and (4) studying philosophy, anthropology, and sociology.

(1) Studying the Bible and other Ancient Near Eastern Literature and History

I had been enthralled with ancient literature since the day I stumbled upon the Greek Mythology section of my seventh grade World Lit textbook. I rode my bike to the mall that weekend and bought myself copies of Edith Hamilton's Mythology, and Robert Graves's The Greek Myths. After devouring those with sheer delight, I went to the library to find more. By the time I graduated grade school I had read Homer, Hesiod, and Ovid. So when, in junior year of high school, we began to study the Bible, book by book, with scrupulous critical analysis, it seemed to me plainly obvious that what I was reading was the same type of literature as that which I had read from the Greeks. The priest teaching the class explained the progress of Protestant and Catholic biblical scholarship over the past hundred and fifty years (textual criticism, historical-critical method, hermeneutics, etc.), which had basically come to the same conclusion: that the stories in the Old Testament are mythical and legendary in nature.

After high school I continued to feed my passion for ancient literature, collecting and reading translations of ancient texts from Sumer, Babylon, Ugarit, Israel, Greece, and Rome— the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Charlesworth's Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, the works of Josephus, and on and on. Along with the ancient texts themselves, I sought out books by scholars of the Bible and the ancient Near East such as Frank Moore Cross, William F. Albright, Alberto Soggin, Samuel Noah Kramer, Thorkild Jacobsen, Robin Lane Fox, Norman Cohn, Elaine Pagels, and many others. Getting to know all this ancient literature and history put the Bible into such an extremely broad perspective that it was really impossible for me to see it as something special above and beyond any other ancient literature. I view the Bible as merely one collection among many of ancient literary texts by men from a relatively small ancient culture in a tiny area of land at the edge of the Mediterranean sea—no more, no less—just as worthy of study as any other ancient literature.

(2) Studying Other World Religions, Philosophies, and "Spiritual" Traditions

I don't remember what lead me to it, but some time around the age of 19 I picked up a book on Hindu Vedanta philosophy by Alan Watts. I still remember the experience of culture shock while struggling through it on a long bus trip to Pennsylvania. All the ideas were so incredibly foreign to my mind that I just didn't know how to process them. So, naturally, I went and got as many books as I could afford about Hinduism, then Buddhism, then Daoism. I read some of the Vedas and Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi, some Buddhist Sutras. It was a whole new world of ancient literature. I was particularly fond of the naturalism of the Daoist philosophers, and they have certainly influenced my outlook on life heavily. At that time I also read widely in New Age spirituality, started meditating and practicing yoga, participated in Human Potential Movement seminars, and read the "esoteric" writings of such colorful characters as Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Blavatsky and their successors. But once I discovered the rationalist, skeptical essays of authors such as Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Kendrick Frazier, Martin Gardner, and James Randi, I left the New Age behind. It all seemed far too implausible, and had not a shred of reliable evidence to support its many outlandish claims.

(3) Studying the Physical Sciences

Aside from church every Sunday and my mother praying with me every night as a child, religion in general was not overly emphasized. Even Catholic grade school and high school, aside from a few religion classes, were mostly quite secular. Science classes didn't include any religious teachings or influence. Rather, they taught very detailed, year-long courses in physics, chemistry, and biology—yes, including evolution. From a very young age I had been very interested in scientific ways of investigating and understanding the world, and physics became one of my favorite subjects. I continued my interest in the physical sciences after high school with popular books about physics and evolution, and subscribed to magazines such as Science News, Scientific American, Omni Magazine, and Smithsonian Magazine. The writings of Carl Sagan enormously influenced my thought during those two years after high school.

(4) Studying Philosophy and Anthropology

To me, the real value of studying philosophy and anthropology is not the details you learn for the tests. You forget most of those. The real value is the overall broadening of your perspective outside your own small world. Studying philosophy is not about merely learning what past philosophers have written about various topics. Studying philosophy is about learning how to think clearly and question everything. It helps you to step back and view your beliefs as an outsider looking in. And for me, as with many who study philosophy, most of those beliefs didn't seem as plausible from that vantage point. When I finally enrolled at the University of Louisville, I had originally planned on double majoring in philosophy and anthropology, so I took a lot of anthropology courses. Learning about the way other cultures view the world forces you to view your own worldview from an outsider's perspective. And when you do that, it's very difficult to just accept your previous beliefs as-is.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Somewhere around age 20 I realized that I simply no longer thought it plausible that supernatural beings of any kind exist. Gods, devils, angels, demons, faeries, ghosts, leprechauns, tree nymphs, whatever—one is just as implausible as the next. I can't really pinpoint an exact time when I decided to stop believing. As I said, it wasn't a painful process for me as it is for some. I simply drifted away, intellectually, from the wishful fantasy worlds of both Christianity and the New Age Movement and became satisfied with pondering the meaning of existence for what it really is rather than for what we might imagine or wish it to be. It really is an amazing, awe-inspiring universe we live in, if you take the time to learn about it.

Abandoning belief in the existence of gods and the supernatural did not change the kind of person I am. My religious beliefs were an important part of my life at that time and I certainly don't regret having them. I was an insomniac during high school, so I used to spend many hours lying awake at night, thinking and talking with an imaginary deity. Sometimes I would sneak out my window and go on long walks through the neighborhood, or lie on the ground and gaze out at the stars, marveling at the vastness of the universe and pondering the profundity of life. Religion is not necessarily a bad thing. For many people it is an extremely good and important part of life. My favorite prayer was the Prayer of St. Francis. I used to recite it as I walked late at night. I still love that prayer. To me it sums up what religion should be about, but sadly most often is not.