When I was in high school, as I struggled with recurrent bouts of adolescent despair, I went through a period during which I tried desperately to believe in God, thinking that if I could just cement such a conviction in my mind I would feel safe, secure and certain that life was worthwhile and meaningful. I remember kneeling by my bed, clasping my hands in front of my face and trying with all of my inner will to convince myself that there was a loving Creator above who was listening to my prayers. Although I wished so much for this to be true, I always ended up feeling quite foolish as I kneeled there, staring at the wall and muttering into the dark. It seemed that no matter how much I desired to believe in God, I just could not do it. The idea that there was a caring, supernatural consciousness floating somewhere beyond time and space struck me as more than just implausible; it seemed downright childish. God was like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, honest politicians or good government. A person would have to be immature or delusional to think that such things really existed.
This attitude of mine extended to all religions, both eastern and western. If anything, the eastern religions struck me as even more bizarre than the Judaism and Christianity with which I was most familiar. When I was growing up, we had neighbors whose house was decorated with Hindu and Buddhist statues and tapestries. I recall being puzzled, and a bit troubled, by the fact that the designs of some of these decorations included swastikas. “Why is there a swastika on your wall?” I asked our neighbor. “That’s the Buddha’s footprint,” was the reply. That seemed vaguely scary and just plain weird to me as a teenager.
I developed into a devout atheist as time went on, and defined myself as an opponent of religious superstition. Of course, I never bothered to read the actual texts that served as the basis for these religions. Why should I read them? I knew, a priori, that they must be devoid of any worth or insight. They obviously must be filled with fairy tales and nonsense. They were, I assumed, a waste of time.
It wasn’t until I was well into my adulthood and teaching philosophy full-time that I was forced to reexamine my prejudice against religion. I was working toward tenure at a school on the East Coast when I was assigned to teach a class in world religions. Upon receiving the news of my assignment, I immediately felt anxious. After all, I was an atheist who had never had much of an interest in pursuing serious study into this topic. In fact, I had self-consciously avoided the topic for a good portion of my life. Nonetheless, I dove into my preparations, remembering that when I was an undergraduate, I had indeed taken a course in which we read the classic book by Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. Because it was somewhere to start, I decided to revisit Smith’s book and use it as the central reading for my upcoming class.
Smith’s book had a profound effect on me once I reread it; not because it convinced me of the truth of any particular religious tradition, but because of how convincingly it argues for the legitimacy of a single impulse behind all religious faiths. I know that Smith has been criticized for making the diverse variety of world religious traditions seem too similar to one another, however it was precisely this perspective that excited me about the book. Smith likens the various religions of the world to differing paths up a mountain. Even though the sights seen and details encountered on these routes may be unique, they all lead toward the same summit: the Holy. Ultimately then, the differences between religions amount to differences in language, culture, ritual and tradition. Behind and beneath all of that is a deeper, broader and more fundamental similarity: the aspiration toward Holiness.
This idea really resonated with me, and in a strange way made me realize how close the religious impulse is to my own form of nihilism. Nihilism, as I define it in my book Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, is a sort of frustrated idealism. It is a philosophy based on the following claims: 1. Humans are separated from the ideals of their highest aspiration, like Truth, Beauty, Justice, Goodness, etc. 2. This is a situation that is other than it ought to be. 3. There is nothing we can do to end this separation. It is the first two claims of nihilism that seem to overlap with religious belief, while the third claim is what sets nihilists and religious people at odds against one another. Nihilists, like the religiously faithful, aspire toward the superlative; toward perfection. Also like nihilists, religious people claim that there is a gap between the aspirant and the object of adoration, whether it be God, Brahman, Nirvana, etc. The nihilist and the religiously faithful part ways, however, at that point when the faithful claim to have a means to mend the separation between worshiper and the worshiped. In fact, it has become increasingly apparent to me, now that I have actually taken the time to read about and study various forms of religion in greater depth, that the core of all religious traditions probably lies in the advocacy of some sort of mechanism or practice that is claimed to be useful for bridging the gap between worshipers and the Holy. As Smith argues in his book, the details may differ, but the goal is the same.
This fundamental difference allows me now to understand what I both admire and disagree with in the various religions of the world. While I admire the aspiration toward something greater and more wonderful than our present here and now reality, I disagree that there is an end to this aspiration so long as we are alive. Life is struggle, striving and suffering, and there is no rescue from this for us nihilists; but this is not really all that awful since it is through struggling, striving and suffering that things get done and the world moves on.
I now don’t begrudge religious people their faith. On the contrary, I envy it. I wish I was able to believe in the actual existence of something beyond the natural world of flux and change. There is still that part of me that remains intact from high school that would love to believe in God, or perhaps Brahman or Nirvana.
But still, I just can’t do it, for whatever reason.