the practical buddhist : essentials

what it’s like living without religious beliefs

Belief: Confidence in the truth of an idea or concept that is not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.

I’ve stated, both in my book and in this post, that I live belief free. I live independent of the need to exercise faith in ideas or concepts that are unproven, unobservable, unsupported by independent investigation or experience, or that would be considered hearsay.

I thought I’d write a post about how I live my life free of the need to exercise faith in ideas of concepts for which there are no proofs. At first glimpse, it seems almost unnecessary to list these types of ideas, but here goes.

Examples of the types of beliefs that I no longer concern myself with are, but are not limited to:

As I started this post with a definition, let me give you another that is equally important. The definition of belief as stated above is but one you’ll find in numerous dictionaries. This particular definition makes the most sense to me because it clearly distinguishes belief from its opposite, the other necessary term in this discussion – fact.

Fact: A truth verifiable by independent investigation, experience, and/or observation.

I live each day unconcerned with belief and the refusal to exercise faith, but very aware of facts. Because facts can be verified and their relative truth corroborated by independent observation, they do not require the exercise of faith.  I choose to live my life not tied to the ancient stories and histories found together in various religious tomes, but alongside the verifiable truths supported by observation and reason.

Some might counter that I place my faith in facts, but that isn’t true either. Faith is the intellectual and, sometimes emotional, choice to support an idea or concept for which no proof exists. Who has time for that?

A friend recently argued this point in response to my position, stating:

“All logical and rational behavior is based on a set of axiomatic beliefs. There is not logic or sanity without beliefs; People who claim they don’t have beliefs believe that there is a real world that their brain is capable of accurately perceiving.”

I countered that:

“…people who claim they don’t have beliefs experience sufficient sensory input to displace the need for voluntary faith in something unknown, unknowable, or comprised of a false set of proofs.”

Religion and beliefs

Adhering to beliefs can be harmful. Many people live their entire lives constrained by belief systems that hold them to near impossible standards of behavior. It’s not that all of these standards are negative, in fact I quite like most of the Biblical ten commandments purportedly brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Not stealing, not committing adultery, not coveting, loving your fellow humans, and not lying are positive moral teachings and stand apart from the need to believe in God as their author.

Unfortunately, the near impossible standards imposed by most religious beliefs simultaneously induce guilt, feelings of inferiority, and negative self-esteem in those who fall short of the ideal; this is accomplished by weekly, and sometimes daily, exposure to the exhortations of religious leaders, talk show hosts, and television evangelists who urge believers to continually strive for the impossible all the while knowing it’s impossible.

Religion and sexual oppression

A study by Darrell Ray as cited in the BBC television special, ‘Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life,’ asked over 14,000 participants about their sexual history, specifically their age when they began engaging in masturbation, petting, oral sex, and intercourse.

The study found that the responses of those raised most religious compared to those raise least religious, were identical.

But they also found that those raised most religious suffered excessive guilt, shame, and blamed themselves for the failure to achieve the ideal standards of behavior.

The ideal standards set by Biblical and Koranic belief systems, to name the most oppressive, set believers up for continual failure and subsequent feelings of unworthiness, and guilt.

To those who support such a choice, I have a question: What’s the point of repressing a person’s sexuality? In doing so, more harm is done than good. In fact, no good comes from it.

For a parent to willingly engage in this repression via shaming and castigation is perhaps the most harmful act they can engage in.

Most, but not all believers, are treat their religious belief systems as factual and unassailable.  However, as we have seen, by their very definitions beliefs and facts lie worlds apart on the spectrum of proof.

Religious belief systems set believers up for failure

Christianity teaches that every person is born unredeemed, imperfect, neck deep in original sin, and in dire need of salvation via faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This is necessary, according to their beliefs, to right the congenital condition with which humanity is born.

The very idea that my grandchildren, or yours, or any other human beings, were born with this innate deficit is absurd.

Christianity exhorts believers to accept this as ultimate truth. When children -the precious little concrete thinkers who automatically accept their parents’ work as truth- are raised with this belief they grow up with a burden of self-doubt, decreased self-esteem, and the probability of judging their spiritual development as inferior and substandard.

I know because it happened to me. When faced with the weekly exhortations by preachers and lay leaders to “be a better Christian, and refrain from sin,’ all the while realizing how incredibly futile this goal was, I was already an adult male with a family of my own facing the grim reality that it would soon break apart if I didn’t play along.

To use a Biblical metaphor, my ‘wilderness experience’ brought forth the fruits of an open mind and the ability to remove the rose-colored glasses of religion through which I’d previously viewed the world and my own life.

Abandoning religious beliefs

Choosing to abandon beliefs altogether is something most will never do. The cultural imprinting of most beliefs occur in young children before age five. If a child is raised in an environment that reinforces the religious beliefs of their parents, the child grows up to accepts them as fact. When they fall short of the ideal, they inevitably experience guilt, shame, and a diminished self-esteem.

Indeed, some religions and sects widely acknowledge that any believer who leaves the community will be shunned forever. Entire families turn their collective backs on sons and daughters who stray from the religious community. In my opinion, this practice is the epitome of selfishness and deceit.

In my own experience, it was a painful process to abandon religion because my nuclear family was so entrenched in church life. After years of doubt I came to a point of realization that it was, for me, a false existence. My western mind wanted very much to corroborate the claims of the Bible, but I found no such corroboration.

I learned how some trusted leaders were actually aware of child-abuse, sexual abuse of minors, and other horrific human tragedies and never once reported such behavior to the authorities. Men of God? I think not.

Even today there are those that tell me I am deluded, misled or even a heretic. But that’s OK. I no longer feel any need to believe anything. The concepts and Biblical stories they hold as facts are no longer a concern for me.

Removing the lens of religion

What if children were only taught facts? What if, instead of teaching unsupported beliefs for which there is no proof, children were taught to think for themselves; to evaluate verifiable facts instead? They would live more honest lives without the lens of religion that many force them to wear.

What if children were taught truth telling and non-stealing simple because it’s the right thing to do? Is there really a need to create a deity that will punish us unless we comply with his/her commands? What if religious-colored lenses were not handed out willy-nilly by parents? Are really necessary to teach right and wrong?

When you view the world through a religious lens, everything is skewed toward the Bible, Koran, or whatever holy book your religion sets as the standard for behavior. You must always be on the defense. You constantly need to formulate responses to the questions about proof, faith in the unseen and the unproven, and even -if you are hopelessly out of touch with science- defending your belief that the age of the earth is only 6,000 years.

Removing the lens of religion helps you see the world not as a collection of lost and imperfect people in need of redemption while struggling with their spiritual condition, but as a world of interconnected peoples with a common goal of making life the best we can make it.

Removing the lens of religion frees you to simply be the best person you can be without the impossible standards that repress your efforts to succeed.

My life without religion

“But wouldn’t life without religion result in rampant rioting, looting, lawlessness, and blatantly immoral behavior?”

I don’t see why it would result in this at all. People, regardless of religion, choose their modes of behavior. Religious people riot, kill, mame, steal, fornicate, etc., just as non-religious people do.

Since abandoning religion, if anything I’ve become more peaceful and less stressed by the rules of society. I don’t fear repercussions for my actions because I act in a way that causes no intentional harm to anyone. I live in manner that peaceful and kind. Of course, I could choose to be violent and unkind, but why?

Living without God isn’t horrible, violent, or immoral. For me, life without religion is a vastly more enjoyable experience. I am free of the guilt that arises from not measuring up; I live without fear being ostracized for holding obscure views based on theory and fantasy; I am kind, gentle, and helpful because I want to be, not because I fear I must be.

The role of prayer

I don’t engage in prayer. Why would I? Because there isn’t a God who hears my prayer, what is the purpose? I’ve always had a problem with the hypocrisy of prayer anyway.

It is said and taught in Christian circles that God hears and answers all prayers. How does God answer the prayer of a four-year old girl heartbroken over her parents’ divorce? How does God answer the prayer of a loving wife entreating Him to save the life of her dying husband?

Wouldn’t the events following such prayer requests ensue anyway?

Headaches go away. Diseases run their course. People die and so will you and if you believe there is a God, guess what? He is going to let you die. Why waste everyone’s time asking them to pray for a reprieve when you know damn well you’re going to kick the bucket one day?

I am reminded of Frank Underwood, fictional President of the United States in the television drama House of Cards when he said:

“I pray to myself, for myself.”

That’s strangely comforting for me as I reside on the other side of religion.

Enjoy your life now. It’s really all you’ve got.

Finding meaning in life without religion

My life if full of meaning, more so now because religion no longer plays role in it. I live life every day as if it were my last. I let people know how I feel about them. I enjoy my days and nights. I don’t waste time worrying about the fate of millions of unsaved people or native peoples who’ve never been subjected to a truly boring Southern Baptist church service.

Final thoughts

If I can leave you with a final thought -since you’ve been so patient in reading every…last…word of this post- (wink-wink), this would be it:

Love everyone equally. Lead by example. Be happy and stop worrying about native peoples not singing Kumbaya. Be good to your children and let them choose their own lives. Teach them right from wrong by example, not by pounding them over the head with requirements for church attendance and memory verses.*

*OK, that’s more than one final thought, but they’re all good.

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