I grew up in south Texas, the crotch of the “Bible Belt”, raised by a broken family. Three generations whose core social theme involved two things: god and politics. Today, I’m only writing about one, God. My step-dad was very open about his faith and his conservative leanings. He and my grandmother fought constantly over politics—she was very liberal. When I was young she read me the Bible, and after I learned how to read, I read it, in all it’s King James glory. But above all Christianity for us was social–God and country. My parents where “Christian” and they also collected porn, drank, and smoked weed and tobacco.
Things changed when I moved up north thought. Due to some family issues I went to live with my dad and sister in Michigan for four years, until I graduated. And he had some radical ideas about the bible, to say the least. The world of the Evangelical Christian is bizarre. Buzz words like faith healing, prophesy, chastity. It was never uncommon to see someone literally rolling around or convulsing, people literally going out of their minds “in the spirit”, and as a kid I had no idea how crazy many of these people really were. To be fair, they’re a very small amount of Christians—most people aren’t as extreme. Largely, what I discovered is that Christianity isn’t so much a religion, but a social value system (Aslan).
People naturally seek meaning and purpose, it’s part of what makes us human. We need meaning because it allows us to fully master our environment—this is the premise behind a lot of the popular psychologist Victor Frankl’s work. In an article by Neel Burton on Frankl, he quotes the following:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.
The problem is practical application.
Religion works for many people, and it has its place in culture. It didn’t work for me because I’m the type of person to comb over every sacred word looking for flaws. But now the question is how does one be ethical without a book of ethics? For me, ditching the bible was a great start. The fear of hell-fire over every little sin becomes very stressful. I’ve seen a lot of Christians break down over “sinning”. Jesus does make a few good pitches about love, life, and money (my personal favorite), but he also told his followers he’d return before they had died. Jesus talked about sacrificing his life, but if you come back to life, three days or not, isn’t so much a sacrifice as it is hiding around for three days, and surprising everyone who thought you’d died. Jesus then made sure to bash “doubting” Thomas for making sure he wasn’t full of bull—that’s anti-intellectualism.
As for biblical ethics, I found I did what many other Christians did, pick whichever rules and rituals to follow–there are many to choose from. The ethics didn’t come from the book, they came from me. Otherwise I’d have to use all my time burning offerings to God and other strange things modern living simply doesn’t accommodate. So I walked away from religion and started a journey I began before I moved to Michigan, the pursuit of myself. And to get there, I used the philosophy of Existentialism.
Ultimately, the problem of trying to find meaning is that there just isn’t any. We get a few years, maybe, then we face the abyss of nothingness. That really freaks a lot of people out. Religions reconcile this with the idea of a heaven, or reincarnation, but those ideas break down under critical examination. So why do anything if nothing matters? If this spinning rock is just some strange accident and if we’re doomed to simply fade out of memory, then why try? Try, because in the absence of real tangible meaning, the only thing left is the meaning you make.
Religion, Christianity, I think in particular has come under a lot fire. Richard Dawkins believes religion breeds extremism. But everywhere you look, be it the church, the senate, or the battlefield, there are extremists. No matter what you believe, it’s going to seem like a delusion to someone else, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of delusion either (Popova). Each of us has a self-enhancement bias. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, he describes talking to prisoners, all of whom talked of themselves in a very positive light, people who’ve killed others in cold blood, to show that we all view ourselves in a unrealistically positive light—and that helps keep us sane.
Dwelling on the “The Nothing” as the Never Ending Story put it for kids, renders us fearfully incapacitated—religion can do the same. I believe our ethics boil down to the “golden rule” because we can’t stay alive unless we help those around us do the same, and I think most people will do just about anything to say alive. The difficult part is find our own personal meaning in the midst of all the chaos around us.
Existentialism’s answer to that is to shed the thing you believe you are, and to accept what you really are, and what you really are depends on what you really do. So many of us try to express ourselves with labels. I’ve made use of labels throughout this entire essay: existentialism, Christianity, god, good, evil; all really more like Plato’s forms—abstract ideas that can’t be articulated—like trying to describe love, we all see it differently.
As I stripped away the vanity, the malice, and the mindless distractions, I began to see myself as complexity rather than an embodiment of ideas of which can either hinder life or progress it (because to do nothing is to hinder). A complexity can’t be reduced to single, simple, stereotype or idea. I think that makes life inherently beautiful, and to maintain that beauty we must maintain ourselves, and consequently each other.
Aslan, Reza. “May 13, 2015 – Reza Aslan” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. By Comedy Central. 2015. Web.
Burton, Neel, M.D. “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 24 May 2012. Web. 26 May 2015.
Popova, Maria. “How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self- Enhancement Bias.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 04 June 2014. Web. 28 May 2015.