Religion, Uncertainty and My Mother

There are people who are very dear to you, a childhood friend for instance, that you’ll never see again in your life. You don’t know you are never going to see them again so that doesn’t hurt much, or doesn’t hurt at all. You think there’s always a chance of bumping into them someday even though that’s never going to happen. However, when you consciously know that you will never again see someone you love it’s different. That simple fact is like a great big wall. A wall that seems impossible to surmount.

My mother passed away a few weeks ago. Since then, some persons have tried to convince me that religion is the best way to jump that wall. That only religion can answer such ultimate questions as: “What’s beyond death?” or “What is the meaning of life?” It’s all about having faith, they say. The empirical method doesn’t work here. There’s only one little detail… in order to believe, you have to ignore some minor facts, such as evolution or the age of the universe and, most importantly, you have to stop asking such silly questions as why Adam and Eve had bellybuttons. Although it’s tempting, I’m afraid that my brain cannot be rewired like that. So, is there another way out? Can you get through this kind of pain without religion? I think you can, among other things because the idea that you can’t is based in several false assumptions.

The first is that your pain is directly linked to these fundamental questions. Do I really need to know what happens after life or what is its meaning in order to jump that wall? …In fact healing seems to come more from acceptance. As you gradually get used to the wall it slowly begins to crumble. And you don’t need to practice any faith for that. But acceptance is precisely the kind of thing that religion helps you achieve, they say. Maybe that’s true, but in order to achieve it you have to pretend that the wall is not really there or that it is in fact a door to another world. And I can’t do that.

Another false idea is that without religion everything is meaningless. “You need a faith to have a meaningful existence, to find out why you’re here, to feel hope… Without it you become a robot or a beast.” Apparently, you need to believe that you’re part of a master plan in order to feel important. But if I’m still going to die then am I not a disposable part of that plan? That doesn’t make me feel valuable at all. And going to heaven seems to me more like a consolation prize. You’re sent to a nice and quiet place to retire when you’re no longer useful in this world. In fact, heaven seems a lot like Florida. And I don’t want to go there. Never. So, I prefer to think that I’m here for no particular reason. In that way I can become the master of my own plan. If I make a difference in somebody else’s life then I can feel really valuable. And, by realizing what an improbable arrangement of matter I am I can truly appreciate how lucky I am to be alive. All that is meaningful and transcendent.

Another wrong assumption is that religion has the patent on meaning searching (if it does then I owe a lot of money to the Vatican and other faith monopolies). The quest for meaning is universal, a part of human nature. I don’t know, but it could be that it has its roots in the way our early ancestors learned to take advantage of their environment: What are things, plants and animals for? What is their use or function? Their value and meaning are directly linked to that. We appear to have evolved to see the world through these lenses. So if everything around me has a use or function and therefore a value and a meaning the obvious next question is: What is my own function in the world, my own value and meaning? You don’t need to have any religion to pose that questions or search for the answers.

In any case, I think that here the asking is more important than the answering. So the next false assumption of the religious view is that without answers you suffer, that uncertainty is always painful.

Science is generally the one that solves the puzzles and provides certainty. But in this particular area certainty appears to come from religion. So if you choose a faith you have answers. If you don’t you have only questions. Hence, believers argue, religion is the only path to mend the suffering that stems from a lack of answers. However, if uncertainty isn’t necessarily painful then nothing needs to be mended. In fact, the mere act of wondering feels like a pleasing and meaningful way to spend one’s life. Therefore, you can find purpose and meaning even if you don’t have answers to the ultimate questions. And ironically, by giving definite answers, religion is actually precluding people from wondering and from finding this kind of significant experience.

Thus, if you are the kind of person that needs something more than a Bible to believe in the answers that religion offers, then you’re saved from certainty. Doubt is an alternative way to jump the wall I’m talking about. That’s something that my mother taught me. A small example of why she made a big difference in so many lives and her existence was so meaningful.

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