This might be a long one. I'm going to preface this by saying that this is all the opinion of EleCivil, the eccentric weirdo whose advice you probably should not heed for any reason. It in no way represents the views of the site admins, etc. etc. legal stuff.
I recently got an email from someone telling me that they enjoyed my short story, Fistfights with Flashlights - this was a short story that I wrote while in the middle of Leaves and Lunatics, when I was about 18 years old. To be honest, I remember almost nothing about it. It's about 90% autobiography, 10% fictionalized. I wrote it in one quick burst and then submitted it without going back to edit or even re-read it once. I then deleted the file and have never gone back to look at it again. As such, I can't speak for the quality - it was pretty much just an hour of catharsis. I haven't thought about the story in a LONG time, but this email brought it to mind, and I wanted to reflect a bit.
One of the major themes of this short was religion, and how it can mess with one's perceptions of the world. Specifically, it was about how, when I was a kid, I believed in things like demons, possession, and the apocalypse, and how that screwed with my head to the point where I was deathly afraid of the dark, carrying a flashlight with me at all times to scare away any demons that might try to possess me. I used to read the book of Revelations and compare it to current events, searching for signs of the coming rapture and subsequent end of the world, which I was eagerly looking forward to. Yes, I was six years old and my main hobbies were Eschatology and awaiting the end of the world.
But the part that I wouldn't - couldn't - admit to anyone was that I was a skeptic when it came to the existence of God. I felt it, but couldn't even admit it to myself. I didn't think God was real. I didn't think that he sent his son to die for me, and in fact I found the idea of parents sending their children to die for them to be terrifying - if God, the source of all morality, sent his son to be tortured and killed by the bad guys, would my parents do the same to me?
Now, there's some cognitive dissonance there - I fully believed that Satan and his demons existed and were out to get me, but I was skeptical about the existence of a God that wanted to save me - but come on, I was six. And let's face it - it's easier to believe in perfect evil than perfect good. You can SEE perfect evil every day. Perfect good is something far rarer, and there wasn't a lot of it going on around me.
So to summarize my childhood beliefs:
There is a devil who wants to get me.
There are demons who work for him who are roaming the Earth looking for me.
The world is going to end any day now.
God can save me, as long as I believe in him.
I believe in God a little less every day.
Therefore, my only hope is that the world ends or that I die soon, while I still sort of believe in God, so that he won't condemn me to an eternity of torture for not believing in him all the way.
This is what was running through my brain every day, every night. I couldn't turn it off - everything reminded me of it. And keep in mind, this is all before I started thinking that maybe I was gay, and even MORE of an abomination in the eyes of the only entity that could save me. Holy shit, no wonder I attempted suicide as a child.
I still called myself a Christian and told myself that I believed until I was about 17. I wrote Fistfights with Flashlights when I was just starting to admit to myself that I was really an atheist, and that WANTING to believe in something can't make you start believing in it. Making that admission - giving myself permission to admit that I didn't believe in the religion of my parents - was the biggest relief I have ever felt in my life. Why? Because if I didn't believe in God, I didn't need to believe in any of the things that scared me - the devil, demons, hell, and the apocalypse - I didn't have to spend my life waiting for death. I didn't have to seek to end myself to please a God that could never be pleased with me. (This is a theme I revisited in the later chapters of Laika.)
Back to the reader response - the writer of this email wrote that he assumed I was a non-believer, and identified himself as an atheist. This gave me pause - I haven't sat down to really consider my religious beliefs in quite some time. I try to make it a habit to "re-draw my map" - attack my own philosophical and intellectual views with logic to see if they hold up, or if they need to be reconsidered...but I haven't done that with religion in a long time. So, what's the best way to sort out one's beliefs? Stream-of-consciousness writing! Hence, this blog post.
I suppose I am an atheist, in the dictionary definition - I do not believe in any gods, and do not follow any religions. But at the same time, I don't fit in with the "New Atheist" movement that's been gaining traction, lately. I've read the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, but I don't really agree with their view that, as Hitchens wrote, "Religion poisons everything." If you read my above experience of being driven to self-hatred and suicide by religion, you might be thinking "What the hell, EleCivil?" but hold on.
I don't think religion makes a big difference one way or another in day-to-day life. I tend to see human goodness on a whole as a bell-curve distribution - about 5% of us are completely evil psychopaths, 5% of us are completely good-natured saints, and the other 90% are somewhere in between. And I believe that there are religious people and non-religious people in every segment of that progression.
The religious guy who gives half his income to charity and goes on "missions" to distribute medical supplies in disaster zones? If he wasn't religious, he'd probably be doing the same thing, but in the name of "humanism" or "personal conscience." The atheist who is found with a pile of torsos in his basement, who claims he went on a killing spree "just for kicks"? If he were religious, he'd be doing the same thing, but instead claiming that he killed them in "a glorious cleansing for the Lord!" The religious guy who hates gays because "the bible says it's wrong"? If he were an atheist, he'd still hate gays; he'd just say he hates them "'cause it's gross!"
I don't think religion (or lack thereof) can turn people "good" or "evil" or "open-minded" or "bigoted". I don't think it has that much power. I think we are drawn to our beliefs and come to define them by our innate qualities, not the other way around. There's a saying that if you ask ten preachers to interpret the bible, you'll get twenty different interpretations. Thanks to a blend of archaic language and confirmation bias, we will always see what we want to see in religion. If you read the holy text of your religion and see a call to help your fellow man and live a life of service, then you were probably going to live such a life even if you had never seen the text. Likewise, if you read the holy texts and see a list of people you should dislike, you were already looking for a reason to dislike them.
Or, to put it more simply - Douchebags are gonna be douchebags. Amen.