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Interfaith Voices: Confessions of an atheist
INTERFAITH VOICES

Interfaith Voices: Confessions of an atheist

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It seems awkward for an atheist to join in the interfaith voices, but may I share with you my thoughts about God and religion. They have evolved during various stages of my life.

Children have an innate gift for detecting hypocrisy, apparent when the whole story is not told. School books seldom mention the fact that gunboats and slave ships followed missionaries, that cathedrals and temples, just like royal palaces and empires, were built with huge taxes on peasants and the blood and bones of artisans and serfs. In my rebellious youth, I readily embraced Karl Marx’s proposition that “religion is the opium of the people,” promoted by kings, politicians and priests who use God to shield their abuse of power.

As an adult equipped with abstract thinking but starting to feel that my feet are made of clay, I pondered, like others, about the existence of a creator. How else can we explain the wonders and mysteries of life, and who do we pray to when other humans have failed us? Voltaire quipped: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Pascal proposed that believing in God is one’s best bet: If I believe in God, but God does not exist, I have lost nothing; if God exists and I don’t believe in him, I would be damned! So why take the risk of not believing in God? Ben Franklin simply stated: "Religion is useful." All very true, maybe, but hardly a spiritual journey, if God exists only to satisfy our human caprices or to relieve our insecurity.

Now, I am an old man no longer asking questions for which answers can only be imagined or fabricated. On the death of a young child or the loss of thousands of lives from a natural disaster, please don't tell me "God works in mysterious ways". Even if there actually were a God, his/her words would likely come to us filtered through the minds and lips of fallible humans. Still, I respect individual choice of religious beliefs and practices, so I don’t question the faith of folks who claim to have been blessed by a divine life-changing experience, especially if it moves them to do good things.

Myself, I have rediscovered the hero of my youth, Albert Camus, and his existentialist-humanist “faith” — if you can call it a faith. In his plague-stricken city, when asked whether he believes in God, Dr. Rieux answered: “No, but what does that mean? I’m fumbling in the dark … under the vast indifference of the sky.” To attain peace, he put his compassion (from the Latin, to "suffer with") to work, find meaning in life by bringing relief to others. Not for heroism, but out of empathy. Driven by social decency, not charity.

Secularism means to separate human values from religious considerations, while atheism implies a denial of God's existence. But labels don't say much to me anymore. What matters is putting to work our innate human empathy, our duty to others, and our common resilience in times of adversity, whether God exists or not. Still pained by all the injustice and violence unabated by prayers, I long for a humanity not divided between the saved and the damned, the sinners and the pious, the faithful and the infidels. I can’t say much about heaven or hell, but here on earth, where I live, I want to reach out to others, and work together for a better karma for our common humanity and other living things. With only my social human conscience to guide me, unchained by religious dogmas. God's mercy not needed.

Chinh Le was raised in Vietnam in the Confucian-Buddhist tradition. He is currently a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

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