Had a great time at the Reason Rally, despite the rain and chilliness, and despite it using every last scrap of social energy this introvert could muster. Adam Savage’s was perhaps my favorite speech, especially this part at the end:
I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of. I believe they know everything I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me.
This nicely summarizes a thought that I’ve meant to write about for a while. It’s one of the less obvious negative consequences of religion, and something I myself didn’t realize until I’d been an atheist for several years. The idea of God I grew up with was everything Adam Savage describes in the quote and more: an ever-present companion even in my most profound loneliness, someone to pour out my worries to, share my joy, amusement, and exasperation with, someone who understood me at the deepest level, and, while he might not always approve, always loved and forgave me. Atheists mock theists for their “imaginary friend,” but perhaps they don’t really consider what it would be like to have such a friend that you actually believed existed. It means always being loved, always having support, never being alone. I, like many ex-believers, mourned the loss of this friend deeply when I found it was impossible to believe.
It took me a lot longer to realize that those experiences of feeling loved, supported, and listened to were real. Of course they were: I genuinely felt them. The interpretation I put on them was false, but the feelings were real. And what that means is that that support, that love, that listening ear, was only ever myself. The wise, calm voice I heard speaking back to me, giving perspective on my problems: that was me too. I had all those resources within myself the whole time, but I believed they came from outside of me. I didn’t give myself nearly enough credit. That friendly presence is not lost to me; it’s where it always was.
I started out saying that this was a negative consequence of religion, and I still think it is: religion, for many people, teaches us that the best and wisest part of ourself is not ourself at all, but external. It teaches us that we are dependent on someone else for love, forgiveness, wisdom, and encouragement. And that is a travesty. But on the other hand, perhaps the teachings about God enabled me to develop that part of myself. I don’t know; I’d have to hear from people who grew up atheist, whether they have anything like that sense of self-affirming internal companionship. (Evidently Adam Savage does, but I don’t know his religious history.) My guess is that some do and some don’t; and certainly not all religious people gain that particular thing from their notion of God. For some, indeed, God seems to embody many of the worst aspects of themselves, the bigoted and judgemental, the hateful and fearful. But I was lucky enough to be raised with a version of God that was everything best and wisest and most loving, as I could conceive of it, and perhaps that helped me develop that part of myself in a way I might not have otherwise.
So it may be that this is a possible positive as well as negative aspect of religion: providing a venue for people to shape and nurture their own best impulses. To the extent that my childhood religion did this for me, I’m grateful to it, as much as I resent it for telling me that those things were external to myself. Perhaps one thing the atheist movement should work on is encouraging those impulses, teaching people how to develop that supportive, forgiving, wise voice within themselves. Even though I recognized that it was present and accessible to me, I’ve lost sight of it in recent months, and I think I’d do well to recover it. I’m never as happy, healthy, and well-balanced as when I’m being my own imaginary friend.