The unofficially religious

I’ve recently attended a Catholic funeral. At one stage the priest said that the deceased wasn’t really dead. That was the point at which my suspension of disbelief painfully broke down.

I have respect for both religious people and atheists. The likes of Ricky Gervais with their cutting comments aimed at the religious folk are really cutting at people’s refusal to think critically, not their faith.

If it were any other way, there would be no such thing as fanatical atheists.  Or reasonable religious people. Most of all I think that people who claim that they are atheist do have a religion, they just don’t call it a religion.

Some have turned to science. Science has the answers, they say. Not really. Science is all about questions. “But science has proven…” Science has never proven anything. It has only ever said that within this narrow range of values and under these ten unrealistic assumptions, a relationship between two variables doesn’t break down. That’s science.

And don’t get me started on social science. Anyone who has handled data and statistical packages will know how to ask the right questions to get the right answers. That too is called science these days.

Then there is yoga, fitness, self-help, vitamins and mindfulness and all that other stuff that is basically a pagan pantheon in the context of weakened organised religion. Its importance ebbs and flows and whenever it’s not doing well, people find new unofficial deities. These things answer the same need that religion does: what to do when you don’t know what to do.

I’ve yet to meet a person who has the tolerance of uncertainty strong enough to not have a religion, whether it is officially called one or not.

David Foster Wallace comes to mind yet again:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

P.S. I am aware that many of my readers aren’t Irish, so for anyone who has even a remote interest in Ireland/ rural life/ religion/ comedy, you need to watch a few Father Ted episodes. Daily Motion seems to have all of them.

“What… is water?” asks the fish

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

David Foster Wallace

I got into a merry debate with the lovely Pink Agendist about choosing day-dreaming versus being in the moment that ultimately elicited that we broadly agree: reality is a hugely interesting topic. In his touching speech, David Foster Wallace says :

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

In a disarming manner, he admits that he isn’t saying anything ground-breaking. His point, however, is that it is so hard to keep the important thoughts in front of us that they are worth repeating. It seems that from Buddhists to Seneca to Darwin, the main philosophical thought that resonates with me is: be aware and adapt. Even in his seemingly grim Letter 61, Seneca says:

Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness.

Few concepts send my mind into a spin like this. Part of me resists: humans accomplished what they’ve accomplished by defying their odds, not by accepting what is demanded of them. Siberia demands that you freeze to death or leave, for example. However, I think it is a misinterpretation on my part. Seneca is instead saying: find a way to use this situation. What is demanded is that one figures out how to chop wood and sustain a fire, so one has to manage themselves in such a way that they could do this eagerly and well. This one sentence explains the nature of cognitive behavioural therapy used today: changing one’s mind will change one’s emotions – and how one behaves. The point isn’t to idolise Seneca. I am sure that many generations of John the Caveman said it before him. The point is that the concept is as relevant today as it ever was.

Another part of me says: what are the circumstances – and what do they demand? I made a little graphic to show the nature of my confusion. Understanding the circumstances may require the sort of insight that I am not even aware exists.

developing self awareness though mindfulness

I haven’t figured out another way to get closer to understanding any of the above other than through mindfulness and reading the works of philosophers that stood the test of time. Even then, reading a philosopher’s thoughts is secretly wishing that someone else has it all figured out. This is another brilliant point that David Foster Wallace brings up: even if one doesn’t think that they have a religion, they still worship something – and have some kind of default setting:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

Just like Pema Chodron explains, it is part of human nature to assume that someone else has the answer. After all, that is what we are conditioned to believe as children through the behaviour of adults – they always know best. When we ourselves become adults, that void is then filled with some kind of worship. The only way to snap out and have the ability to choose again, even for a moment, seems to be by being in the moment.

I am tangentially involved in game development and recently came across a game called The Stanley ParableIt involves a corporate employee and his choices. The game is incredibly philosophical, touching on the concept of choice and free will – and I couldn’t do it justice here. However, if you have nothing to do on a dark January night, it will rock your world.

Have a mindful weekend, everyone.