BELIEF AND UNBELIEF: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
Jean Brown
Presented to a meeting of the Atheist Society, 12/4/11

Religion can be something you imbibe with motherís milk. My first memories were of being told the Christmas story and one of the parables every night as I went to bed. I never queried the fact that I was a Christian although my motherís Christianity was very tenuous, she introduced me to the idea that God was within ourselves.

As far as we knew, there were only tow religions: Protestant and Catholic. At primary school, there was a pecking order. The white Protestants at the top, the Aborigines who were Protestant, second, and last of all, the Catholics who were despised because our parents told us they bred like rabbits and would soon outnumber us. Thus is the beginning of prejudice.

In NSW, Christian religious instruction was taken for granted and was given by a Church of England clergyman. All Protestants were lumped in together. The Catholics may not have received RI as they were expected to attend Mass every Sunday. This alone made them different and when I attended a convent to learn music, it took a long time for it to dawn on me why students there were taught Latin. The mystery of the Latin Mass informed we Protestants of a dark, Catholic conspiracy. Despite these suspicions, my mother entertained a Catholic priest who dearly wanted me to be baptised a Catholic as I gave lessons to Catholic children for their Confirmation.

Moral education was based on the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, which caught the imagination, the life of Jesus, the parables, the Lordís Prayer, the Golden Rule and the Apostlesí Creed with a few great and uplifting hymns. Music and religion are a powerful combination. Both are hard-wired in the brain and seem to be default positions for a great slice of humaanity.

On Sundays, Sunday school was the go and no one else had the staying power of the Sallies. We sang with gusto, told stories, went on picnics and attended Sunday school in nearby villages, being taken there standing on the tray of a truck, leaning against the cabin. It was wonderful. The freedom. The wind in our hair.

The high points of my childhood were linked to religious instruction at school and Sunday school.

In teen years, it was youth groups, which were well attended, because in a country village, there was nothing else to do. These tended to be a low spot in my religious experience because the pastor did not like we self-righteous, holier-than-thou, goody-goodies. He was in the business of saving the souls of sinners, not us.

At high school, qualified clergy gave RI but, in Year 7, we were taught comparative religion, which whetted many of our appetites to find out more about the cultures and beliefs of the wider world. Until then, I had not even been aware that others existed.

At this point, I was deeply influenced by mysticism. It felt great to be at one with God and the universe. We were poor, ignorant and I was an only child and a very lonely teen and this, I felt, was a test of faith; a panacea for poverty and social deprivation. That the negation of self, the passive acceptance of oneís lot, turning the other cheek and the sheer fatalism, was psychologically unhealthy, only dawned on me later.

When I married, it was to a Roman Catholic. He could not understand why I took religions so seriously. Hours of indoctrination preceded the wedding. I was horrified by the rubbish handed out to me which told me what to think about matters that I considered irrelevant. I was better acquainted with religious history than the priest instructing me, which meant that I had a lot of fun. My disillusionment became absolute when I was sent to a Catholic doctor who gave me the pill because of irregular periods. This would have meant the rhythm method of birth control would have been even less efficacious than normal. The hypocrisy astounded me.

And this is how I became an atheist.

I believe atheism is a choice and that those who are too lazy or otherwise engaged to contemplate life and the universe and believe in nothing, are not true atheists. Most atheists I know, know more about religion than most of the faithful. They have actively rejected one to adopt the other.

Atheism is not as easy as being always in the company of ones god, the invisible friend and support. For a start, there is no higher power to offer forgiveness or absolution. There is only one life for which one is totally responsible. We canít hedge our bets with things like baptism and last rites. There is no rosier future beyond old age and death, which is often slow and nasty. I believe that, on death, we again become part of the cosmos, stardust, from which we were all created Ė ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

I am always amazed at how Christians rail against death and mourn so intensely when, presumably, the dead one is going to a far better place and to meet their god.

And I canít understand why they accept bodily resurrection when it can occur at any age with the body in any stage of disintegration or decay. At what stage of their life do they want their resurrected body to be? To give most theologians their due, they too, have trouble with this.

Which brings me to another point. Christians , except the extreme right, tend to cherry-pick just what aspects of their religion in which to believe and what teachings to obey. They also believe or want life to have a purpose. As an atheist, I am quite happy that life has no purpose except the one we give it.

Without humans, there can be no god as I believe he has no objective reality but is a creation of the human mind. Strangely, my concept of God is similar to that of many of my Christian friends.

But the playing field between atheism and the great religions is not even. They have wealth, circus, pomp, ritual, beautiful churches and institutions, status and direct access to government and, when it comes to their interests, unity. In addition, key members of the early church saw the advantages of creating an institution around it which later gave it the gravitas to be adopted as the religion of the Roman empire. From there, its survival as a great historical player was assured.

Atheists are divided, fractious, lack institutions and are poor. Only in a few countries are they supported by governments as churches are. Even our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, an atheist, allocated massive funds to the churches in support of school chaplaincy and Christianity seems to have been endemic in the education Acts from the very beginning. That, of course, was when Australia was almost wholly Christian.

Australia is now a country of many faiths and this heavy bias is anomalous. It also excludes non-believers.

PART 2

While many religious consider that morals and religion are separate issues, most of the church hierarchy, state that the church is the only body that is qualified to teach ethics, hence its opposition to any other group endeavouring to do so. But morals or ethics have ancient roots stretching back to all groups, animal and human. For a society to be successful and healthy, rules apply and deviating from these can be both catastrophic for both the individual and the group.

So what makes us human?

We share about 98.5% of our genes with chimps and bonobos and 92% with mice.

We breed them to have our diseases, including depression, and splice human genes into them quite successfully. As research progresses, the differences between us and them become ones of degree in all except one thing: religion. While most of humanity embraces it in varying degrees, no animal does.

Birds can make music. Apes can be taught to use symbols on a keyboard or sign language to communicate and both those and cetaceans can have the communication skills of a young child while their politics and social sophistication exceeds that. All three make tools.

Cows, chooks and many other animals appreciate and are relaxed by music that isnít dissonant. Birds will dance to rhythm while some apes will perform primitive dance before a fire or waterfall or when the rains come. But they do not practice self-adornment nor do they produce representational art. Apes are physically unable to speak, cannot walk like us and do not have opposable thumbs that allows for our marvelous dexterity.

However, most animals know the identity of members of their group and their social status while the higher animals recognise relationships to several degrees of separation. This ability to know members of the group facilitates the existence of rules or an embryonic moral system. To break these, to cheat, be selfish or a bully can result in severe sanctions imposed by others in the group or ostracism. Ostracism, even in human societies is painful and, in animal or primitive societies, can result in death.

In our complex society where many millions and not just a hundred or so co-exist and co-operate, creating a nation or megacity, these rules are codified in law; oral in small societies, written in large, literate ones.

It must also be said that the altruistic society is a healthy one and altruism feels good so it follows that being moral feels good. Humans will do and act in a way that makes them feel good or our large, cooperative societies, would not be possible without this.

Man started on his voyage to become Homo Sapiens about two million years ago and became anatomically modern about 195 000 years ago. But, until 60 000 years ago or so, nothing much seemed to have happened although stone artifacts were used. Technology may have existed before this, such as rope, nets, even spinning and weaving and food technology, but this has not survived the millennia.

But, almost certainly, natural phenomena were deemed to have a cause. Flood, famine, thunder, earthquakes, the sun and moon dictated lives and induced fear and/or awe. At what time, these phenomena were endowed with personality and became gods and goddesses, no-one knows but it was a far cry from the behaviour of other animals. Anyone who could purport to predict or control these events would become powerful as witch doctors, shaman and eventually, priests, became. Tribal chiefs could tap into this power and rise or fall by their association with them and their knowledge and predictions. And how does one appease an angry god? With sacrifice which is still the cornerstone of Christianity.

So, when was philosophy born? When did we begin to contemplate the universe and our place in it? We know that rituals for the dead came quite early and certainly animals show reverence for the dead. These rituals are very diverse ranging from mummification to burial to exposing the dead to vultures. When did ritual become religion?

The point I am making is that rules came before religion. However, religion undoubtedly became a powerful force for imposing unity and therefore, had survival value. Atheism does not provide this focus, this unity. And, once Christianity was institutionalised and became an integral part of government, unbelievers were at serious and certain risk of death. Fear of death and fear of hell reinforced its power. Atheism could not thrive although there were always unbelievers, particularly among the Classical philosophers. Only as late as the Enlightenment could you express unbelief and not risk burning.

However, for eons, the best minds were devoted to the mysteries of religion and Christianity and, through them, we came to know the best and worst of humanity.

Most of our culture was derived from them and their power was only broken when scientific enquiry produced new fields of knowledge and power and gave people the freedom of unbelief.

Back to Atheist Society