Today I stopped for lunch at Lifesource Natural Foods here in Salem, Oregon -- where a fairly healthy slice of pesto pizza captured my stomach's attention.
There was only one table unoccupied in the eating area, so I grabbed it. Not long after, a woman appeared, lunch plate in hand, and asked if she could sit with me. Naturally I said, "sure."
At first both of us started to look at our phones, the usual way to pass time these days, since simply eating without any distraction would be too damn boring.
But then she glanced at my pizza slice and opened up a conversation.
"Their gluten free pizzas have a nice thin crust. I prefer it to the crust on regular pizzas." That caused me to start talking about one of my favorite subjects, how so many people nowadays believe they are gluten-intolerant, even though science-based stories I've read say that actual gluten intolerance is quite rare.
As conversations go, ours wound around in a varied fashion. Eventually we arrived at the subject of vegetarianism.
I told the woman about how, when my daughter was young, six or seven maybe, she'd invite friends for a sleepover at our house. When we ate lunch or dinner, sometimes the children would ask if they could have a hamburger. My wife and I would explain that we were vegetarians and didn't believe in killing cows.
"What?! Hamburgers come from cows?," I remember hearing. I also recall a concerned mother phoning us after a sleepover, saying that their child is refusing to eat hamburger now, and wondering what we told the kid.
At some point in our conversation I extended the topic of vegetarianism into adult attitudes, noting that people will go to great lengths to save a kitten or baby duck trapped in a storm drain. These same people, though, have no problem eating chickens raised cruelly in factory farms.
"This is hypocritical," I said, even though upon reflection probably that wasn't the best word.
What I was getting at was that meateaters have some contradictory attitudes -- happily eating animals killed for food, on the one hand, and loving animals that aren't destined for a dinner plate, on the other hand.
The woman had told me that she eats meat, so I had a sense that my hypocrisy talk wasn't going over all that well. So I broadened the topic to include myself. "Of course, we all deny reality to some extent, me certainly included. Sometimes life is just too harsh to get through with a clear-eyed view of what's going on."
If a loved one is hit with a terminal cancer diagnosis, we still hold out hope that they'll survive against all odds. Even though we've failed at numerous weight loss efforts, we still imagine that a new approach will create a svelte new me. After decades of seeing politicians make promises that fail to be kept, we still vote for candidates who proclaim, "I'll make a difference."
And notably, most people believe in the promise of religions even though there is no demonstrable evidence of God or the supernatural.
Why? In large part because almost all religions deny the reality of death. Instead of coming to grips with the finitude of human existence, this being our one and only life, religious believers embrace a fantasy of an eternity spent in heaven, enjoying the splendors of a supernatural realm.
It's hard for atheist me to argue against people doing this. Death is scary. It's natural for us humans to use our powerful brains to envision the possibility that dying is followed by another life, either here on Earth or in some divine realm.
If this was the sole foundation of religiosity -- a wish that death wasn't the end, but a new beginning -- those of us who criticize religions wouldn't have much reason to do so. After all, everybody embraces wishes and hopes that almost certainly won't come true, but help us get through difficult periods in our life.
The problem is that religions aren't judicious deniers of reality, to cite the title of this blog post. They are fervent, dogmatic, passionate deniers of reality. In addition to generally believing in life after death, religions promulgate all sorts of other untruths about the world.
Such as, to name an example I've been writing about on my Salem Political Snark blog, that same-sex marriage and same-sex sex are sins, being disapproved of by God (albeit without any evidence that God exists, or that God's likes and dislikes can be known).
So even though everybody fails to see reality precisely as it is, each of us having blind spots of some sort, there are degrees of reality-denying that need to be acknowledged. Religions often are so important to believers in them, those people come to see almost everything through a religious lens that seriously distorts the true nature of this world.
A little bit of religious fantasy is OK, however.
Today I couldn't help but notice that after the woman sat down at my table, she folded her hands and seemingly said a brief silent prayer before she started eating. Of course, for all I know she could have been Buddhist or Hindu, rather than Christian, since many faiths use folded hands as a sign of devotion.
I wasn't bothered at all by this. Heck, sometimes I'll do the hands-folded thing myself when I'm feeling particularly Buddhist, just to see how it feels. I'm not really a Buddhist. I just enjoy play-acting as one now and then.