While on a dog walk yesterday, I ran into a neighbor who I don't talk to very often. He started off our conversation in an appealing fashion:
"I read your blog regularly." Nice! But then he said, "Being a confirmed atheist, it's a bit too kind to religion for me. I prefer PZ Myers' blog."
Well, I told him that I also enjoy Pharyngula. Every day I take a look at Myers' posts that attack religion and support science. Hopefully without sounding too defensive, I did some defending of my own attitude toward spirituality.
"Yes, I'm not as rabid toward religion as Myers is. Partly that's because I used to be a true believer, and now I'm not, so I can understand the mindset of religious people. I mean, it's tough for me to say that blind faith is utterly ridiculous when I can remember how easily I embraced it."
I told my neighbor that when I got married to my second wife, Laurel, she would regularly ask me how I could believe such-and-such (that my guru was God in human form, for example).
I didn't have an answer for her that made much sense.
Yet that didn't affect my commitment to the Radha Soami Satsang Beas teachings. I wasn't ready to release my attachment to the organization, and no amount of outside questioning was going to penetrate the illusory answers I'd embraced inside my head.
So I told my neighbor this was one reason I don't write as aggressively about the ridiculousness of religion as PZ Myers does.
People who are beginning to question their religious beliefs usually are turned off (or at least unaffected) by strong attacks on their faith. Similarly, an alcoholic isn't going to turn sober simply by someone screaming at him, "Drinking is ruining your life!"
My neighbor and I did agree on this: There is plenty of mystery left in the cosmos, notwithstanding the advances of science.
Recognizing how little we know about the essence of life, consciousness, and existence, a primal sense of awe is an authentic "spiritual" awareness (I don't like that word -- spiritual -- very much any more, but it's hard to come up with a good substitute).
Awe, of course, doesn't require religion.
As I told my neighbor, it only takes looking up at the star-filled sky on a cold, clear night to feel how right the world is, no matter how wrong it seems, so often.
I understand why passionate atheists and agnostics are so anti-religion. Reality is much better than make-believe, which is what religions offer.
The neighbor and I agreed that "whatever turns you on" is a fine guide to getting along. If someone is happier by believing he or she has been saved through the grace of God, Jesus, or a guru, that's fine.
However, there shouldn't be any attempt to coerce other people to share that blind faith. And "I feel," "I believe," "I hope," and similar expressions of uncertainty should be used when talking about a religion's teachings rather than "I know."
That's what makes religiosity so misguided: the unfounded assumption that an ultimate truth about reality has been revealed to the true believer. No, it hasn't. Without evidence all we can say is "no one knows."
You. Me. Scientists. Priests. Gurus. Saints. Sages. Everyone is in the dark about the answers to the Big Questions of the Cosmos.
Of course, you're free to disagree. Just don't ask me to agree with you without supplying some darn good reasons.