Semantics & Isms

Never ever comfortable.

I don’t believe in god(s).  As far back as I can remember, I didn’t believe in god. I’ve never had a deep, abiding faith in anything. When I was a kid, my family went to church on Sundays. Like school, church was something to be endured. I had no choice in the matter. They even gave me a book I was supposed to read like they did in school. I never opened the Bible unless I had to. It was just something else I had to tote back and forth every week.

My favorite time of the whole week was Sunday afternoon because it was the longest possible time before I had to go back to church again. I’d come home, rip off my uncomfortable, patent leather Mary Janes (which were never broken in since I wore them but once a week), my tights (the saggy, baggy variety that I spent more time pulling up than wearing in the traditional sense) and my Sunday-best dress, and I’d dance around like a retarded monkey, or maybe just a regular one, in a celebratory ‘church is a whole week away’ dance.  I loathed church.

Never ever comfortable.
Never ever comfortable.

I didn’t give the concept of church nor the reason I had to go there every week all that much thought.  I was just a kid.  I was completely and truly agnostic. I opened my hymnal like everyone else and halfheartedly mouthed (never sang) the words on the page. I had the Lord’s Prayer memorized and said it along with the rest in a monotone mumble with all the pauses in the right places, like the Pledge of Allegiance. I stood up and sat down when I was told to, but none of it had any significance to me.  It had no meaning save that it was something that I had to do. I never thought about it any deeper than that, at least, not until I got a little older.

Like a lot of teenagers, I had a rebellious streak, a soul-searching period, a crisis of faith (even though I had none to begin with), or whatever you would like to call it.  In my early to mid teens, all the things that had been crammed into my head up to that point started sloshing around and bumping into each other. I had to untangle the big mess of facts, beliefs and experiences, and organize it into a coherent system–the system of me.  Some people never seem to manage it. I guess they just learn to live with the clutter.

During my ‘who am I?’ phase, I sorted everything into big piles of facts, theories, hypotheses and myths. I sought out more theories and more facts to make sense of the ones I had already sorted. I read a ton of philosophy books looking for someone or something that could explain it all. None of them seemed to have the answers, but some were closer than others. I went through phases of existentialism, Buddhism, nihilism, etc., but never once did I dig out that old book that the church had given me (or my family had paid for, more likely).  It never even occurred to me.

After a lot of research, study and introspection, after the shine wore off, I shunned all the isms and philosophers. I decided to build my own system of beliefs. It was truly the best of all possible outcomes, only I didn’t know it then. I built a system firmly rooted in logic and reasoning. If it didn’t make sense to me; if it wasn’t backed up by facts, or at the very least, plausible hypotheses, if it contradicted something else that was based on fact, out it went. I did a big spring cleaning and out went religion of any kind and all the isms I had collected.

However, I still had to go to church. Every week, I had to trudge my non-believing, skippy ass into the holiest of holies; the church. Until I was in my late teens and patently refused to go, I got the old, “you are a member of this family, and as such, we will go to church as a family.” argument. I decided to keep my new belief system to myself.  It was best for all of us… as a family. But, I was sure the church people could smell the infidel on me.

When I finally thought on it and came to the conclusion that believing in god(s) just wasn’t for me, as if to punish me for my heathen ways, my parents parceled me off to a Catholic school. It was merely a coincidence – a rotten, stinking, ironic coincidence – but it cemented my beliefs, or lack thereof, even more. I learned how to pretend and got pretty good at maintaining a poker face.

Depending on the company and how argumentative I feel, I will identify myself as a non-believer, an atheist or as an antitheist. The term non-believer is a nice, simple and accurate phrase with soft, round edges. It’s more easily digested than antitheist. Whereas, antitheism means that I am against the belief in the existence of a god(s), which I am, non-believer just says that I don’t believe. Atheism has too many connotations and presuppositions attached to it. If you say you’re an atheist, before you’ve even gotten the word out, most people will judge you based on everything they think that means.

Not being a fan of most isms or joining in general, I have a hard time identifying myself as an atheist or antitheist, even though they are actually anti-ism isms. The act of not believing in something, in this case god(s), shouldn’t be an ism. From a purely semantic viewpoint, one of the definitions of an ism tacked onto a noun denotes a system, principle, or ideological movement.  Atheism is none of the above. As Sam Harris said, “It is worth noting that no one ever need identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist.”

And then there’s agnosticism: the Pascal’s wager of non-belief. According to the dictionary, an agnostic is a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable, or one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of a god. Unless you are in the process of shedding your belief, agnosticism says that you don’t want to take a side, but will just wait to see what happens like not placing a bet on any horse in the race while sitting in the stands all day long. I have even less respect for agnostics than I do for religious folk; at least the religious have chosen a side. When someone calls themselves agnostic, it’s like saying that they are neutral and you simply can’t be neutral on this topic. Either you believe or you don’t. If you identify yourself as agnostic simply because you haven’t thought about it, well, shame on you.

I used to be mainly live and let live about the whole thing.  To quote myself, “I try not to denigrate other people’s beliefs no matter how stupid they are,” but when religion is publicly funded with my tax dollars, when public school kids go on field trips to churches during school hours, when politicians have to boldly boast their love for Jesus to have even a chance of getting elected, well, things have gone a little too far.  If you want to believe, don’t let me stop you. It’s your right under the First Amendment, after all.  I won’t try to convince you otherwise, but, please, keep it in church where it belongs and out of my government.

The older I get, the less permissive and tolerant of religion I become. This sick and twisted world is overflowing war, violence, murder, bigotry, sexism, racism, pedophilia, perversion, hypocrisy, greed, injustice and immorality perpetrated in the name of religion.  Just look at any news source and you’ll see the latest kiddie-diddling priest scandal or the most recent atrocity of the eternal war in the Middle East over a scrap of land, which is sacred to a few of the different religions in the area.  That’s all religion at work.

I’ve heard believers say that the irreligious don’t have a moral compass–whatever the hell that is–and that all morality is derived from religion. It’s a pretty lousy argument when you consider just how much death, racism and cruelty religion has truly spawned in the world. If the church handed out a moral compass like the Bible, then I must have missed that week. I learned morality from my parents, teachers, peers and my own personal experiences. They taught me right from wrong. They taught me manners, consideration for others and how to see things from the other perspective. They taught me to be blind to race, color and sex. They taught me the value of hard work, diligence, education, honesty, kindness, sharing, free will and using my own judgment.  I never learned any of that in Sunday school and I can’t find any of it in that big, dusty book called the Bible.

This post is part of the On Being Series.