Letter to Ben
I suppose, first and foremost I should apologize for how I treated you when we were younger. I could offer you a plethora of excuses and explanations for my behavior, but it seems all rather moot at this point. I'm sorry. Despite it all, I think we've both turned out rather well. You are not at all ill-mannered or spoiled like I was positive you would end up being. Your parents have raised you well. You are turning out to be a great person, if not a bit naïve.
It's actually because you've turned out so well that I'm bothering to write you a letter. You have a lot of potential, as a person. Simply being good-natured is rare and wonderful—I am far too cynical and misanthropic to be so natured. In fact, your naiveté is probably how you manage to be so good-natured. (Or, conversely, your good nature makes me find you naïve.) It's easy to be loving towards others when you don't see the rot inside them.
Enough of that. Let's get down to the matter at hand. The point of this letter is to share “positive feelings” for you while you are on a spiritual retreat. So I will do two things: tell you about my experience with the Catholic Church and faith and the most positive things in my life.
I attended a Catholic school from K-5 to eighth grade. I went to mass every week I lived with my parents my entire life. At school, everyday we had religion class where we learned about Catholicism. Not just Catholic dogma, but the history of Christianity, the Judeo-Christian roots, the Bible itself, and philosophies and philosophers that have impacted the religion. I performed in several liturgical dances and performances. I even went on spiritual retreats. I know Catholicism intimately well, better than my parents. I know it probably better than our grandfather and our late grandmother. After graduating from Catholic school I studied other Christian sects as well, including fundamentalist sects such as United Pentecostals and sects that have entirely recreated Christianity with new dogma a such as Mormonism. So I'm not just familiar with Catholicism, but Christianity in general. (By the way, isn't it hilarious when you run into someone who tells you that Catholicism isn't a form of Christianity?)
The more I learned of it, the easier it was to let go of it. At the age of ten, in fifth grade, I realized that religion wasn't the same as truth. Religion wasn't an accurate depiction of reality—it couldn't be because there are so many religions all with views and beliefs that run counter to one another. No one religion had any more proof, credence, or reasonableness that made it standout from the others. They all professed the same set of supernatural explanations, many of which have withered under the light of scientific inquiry. Religion existed in this odd place of thinking. It's this odd mélange of wishful thinking, desperate hope, and ancient myth. To reconcile what was once meant literally we take a metaphorical interpretation. Once you go from literal to metaphorical, you can stretch a holy text to mean whatever you want it to mean. People can even change religion. I realized there was a choice. By fifth grade, I had been in Catholic school for six years, going to church even longer, and there was enough doubt in me to question the entire framework in which I had been raised. At the age of ten I became an atheist. I didn't believe in God, but I had been so conditioned to think He is real and to fear Him (despite Him being a “loving God”) that for a long time after making my choice not to believe I feared God would strike me down for insubordination. It had been carefully and thoroughly explained to me that those who turn away from God are the worst people of all. Murderers can confess to a priest, be given penance, and be absolved of sin if they really mean it. Those who openly admit they do not believe in God are excommunicated from the Church. There is no redemption. I knew that once I went down the road of non-belief I wouldn't be able to return for fear of Hell—is not god all-knowing? He would know that I don't believe in Him and was only trying to save my self. I could never again love and believe in God in earnest. Essentially, at ten years of age, I lost Pascal's Wager. It took years for me to completely break away from that kind of thinking and to finally understand that superstition has no place in a sane, competent mind.
I never experienced God in a deeply personal way like some people do. I didn't feel His spirit within me. Perhaps I was not willing enough to suspend my disbelief. I did, as a child, experience the wonder and mystery of God: the kind of small-but-important sensation you get through personal reflection; it is a sense of something larger and more important than yourself. I still get this feeling now when I contemplate the vastness of the universe and the specialness of life; it is an intellectually evoked emotional response, not any sort of supernatural communion.
Now, I am best described as an empiricist and a rationalist. I am someone who requires evidence for non-intuitive claims. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I have no reason to believe something, I do not believe it. Some take more pragmatic approaches to what they do and don't believe, but I have become partial to my way. I am firmly grounded in reality. I do not let myself fall victim to sensationalism or fear mongering from any source, not from the pulpit nor the soapbox.
Some people try to reconcile religion and science. Claiming the Laws of Nature are God's greatest works. But this doesn't jibe. Religion can be traced through time as a part of culture. It can be seen how one influences another; stories of saviors and of doom are copied and rehashed over and over. Christianity is conglomeration of many ancient mythical stories which in turn are based on tribal superstitions which are rooted in ancient man's attempts to explain the world around him. If you go looking for an answer you will find one. This is true of religion and of science, the difference between the two, though, is that science is based on reality and religion is based on unprovable and invalid mysticism. If you can escape the perspective in which you've been raised (for someone who has such a carefully guided life as yours, it will be nigh impossible without a lot of help and willingness on your part) you can see just how crazy Christianity and all other religions and their traditions are. It's very hard to find your traditions bizarre when you're so deeply immersed in them, but I challenge you to turn an objective eye towards your church.
There is a lot of confusion and misinformation among the religious about what being without religion means. Quite obviously morals do not come from religion, morals come from man, the same as religion. The golden rule of doing unto others is universal in all the world's major religions. This does not mean God's hand is at work in all these religions, but that the golden rule is too obvious to not acknowledge. I live my life according to what I think is right, not what has been dictated to me from an ancient and largely morally-irrelevant text. There is nothing sacred in this world, no texts nor relics, save for human life. I have respect for people now (didn't always), but that doesn't mean I respect what they think. People, human beings, deserve your respect, Ben, but stupid ideas deserve to be ridiculed.
I ask you not to share what I've shared with you in this letter with anyone else just yet. Of all my measured actions and carefully thought out executions, I am not entirely sure how our family would react. Not even my parents know of my atheism and I think I need to be the one to tell them. Yes, I've hidden my (lack of) belief from them for twelve years, but will eventually tell them. I appreciate your understanding in this matter.
The most positive thought I share with you in the context of your spiritual retreat is that religion was made by man. There is no omnipotent and omniscient God watching us, messing with us, teasing us, killing people or letting them die. The universe is cold and uncaring, but we humans are the light and warmth of the world. We are what make life worth living. If someone tells you something exists outside of nature it is the same as not existing. Nature, by which I mean reality, is all we have and all we know. It is pointless and silly to waste time on things that others tell you exist but you cannot experience outside of your own mind.
I hope you take all this in stride, and in the very least take a moment to think about what I have said in this letter. Spiritual retreats are for contemplation of your faith and that is exactly what I want you to do.
You as a human being are fully capable of living a full and happy life without God or religion.
Live well, be happy,