You know, on a certain level, I appreciate religious extremists. Whether they’re street preachers telling uni kids they’re going to hell for having sex, or terrorists who bomb women’s health clinics. While I don’t agree with a damn thing they say or do, they remind me of the gravity of living.
Basically, these “prophets” if you will, are here to remind the rest of us of our apparent obligations in life, that we aren’t just animals who can act however we want without repercussion (admittedly a rather sympathetic interpretation). They remind us that we aren’t just robots, that we shouldn’t just fall in with the crowd and follow popular culture without reflection (here I’m thinking specifically of the street preacher crowd). They remind us that we can’t run from want to want, looking to fill that “God-shaped hole” inside.
As I’ve moved away from organized religion, I have to say I’m not at all sorry to say goodbye to the rigid morality. I think, on the whole, I’m a better person than I was within that system. And on a certain level I still believe very strongly in the idea that all have fallen short of the glory of God. I mean, you don’t have to believe in God to see that humanity’s pretty messed up. You don’t need a Bible verse or a holy scripture to tell you that. All you need to do is step outside your door and pick up a newspaper. Only the self-deluded believe that humanity is just a bouquet of daisies.
I’ve watched a particular friend of mine over the last few years struggle with organized religion and wrestle with whether or not God actually exists. He’s done his homework. He’s done lots of research and dedicated so much effort to this pursuit. I admire him. He’s got the passion of the street preacher minus the blinders on his eyes.
At a few points, I’ve told him point blank, however: I don’t know how much it’s worth your time to be pursuing these questions. All we know really as non-philosophers and pragmatic individuals is that this is the life that we know in the here and now and one day, we’ll be dead. Why spend so much of your life chasing what’s ultimately unknowable?
At the end of the day, we’re uncomfortable with life not having a purpose. Sooner or later it catches up with us and pulls the rug out from underneath. That’s why religion is such a draw for people. It gives people a purpose in life that’s so compelling that they’ll die for their religious authority.
On the one hand, while I do not miss the frivolous regulations, I have to admit, I sometimes miss that deep conviction of something so right and so powerful and so compelling that you can do nothing less than offer your whole self to it. So this is why many people who leave behind organized religion seek out some sort of meaning in political engagement, in an art or a craft, in the people around them.
But, fundamentally, I have to say I can’t really imagine anything that can replace that conviction, there’s nothing out there that can move you so profoundly as the idea of an omnipotent, actively-engaged God whose total concentration is focused on you every moment of every day from conception till death.
Personally, I’m left with deep admiration for the Gospels, for the idea of a god who would lower himself to such a humiliating state and respond to it in such a superhuman, transcendent way. But frankly, it’s not the same. I’m left with a feeling of smallness, a feeling of being a breath in the wind, a tiny dot of life floating on a rock hurtling around its corner of the universe.
It’s hard to balance the passion of the street preacher and the profound respect they have for the gravity of life with the indisputable fact that at a certain level we have no gravity, we are too small, we are too transient, we are all going to be dead in 100 years.