I don’t believe in determinism, the idea that we are not in control of our actions or events because everything that happens is a result of forces beyond our control. Laws of physics, genetic imperatives, chemical reactions. I will admit, however, that determinism has merit. It explains much of what happens in the world. In many ways, we are slaves to our programming. We are influenced by the way we are raised, as well as by our DNA. In some ways we are no different from robots. We have hardware and software that are responsible for much of how we act. So on the other hand, I don’t necessarily believe in free will either. I think reality is somewhere in between.
I’m reminded of the neuroscience discovery whereby it has been shown that the brain will start acting and moving a person before they have a conscious thought about taking an action. So in a sense we are always on autopilot. It’s akin to the story of the monkey riding the elephant. The elephant goes where it goes, when it wants to, but the monkey tells a story about why the elephant is moving, pretending as if it’s in control of the elephant. In much the same way our emotions, our actions, our thoughts are like the elephant, lumbering along beyond our control, while our conscious minds are like the monkey, telling a story about why things happen, because we need certainty, reassurance. We want to know how and why things are the way they are. The desire for certainty is very powerful.
I think this desire for certainty, to understand and explain the forces of nature that are beyond our control, is one of the primary reasons religion exists in human society. We desire an authority to explain to us why bad things happen in a way that makes sense. The notion that disasters or tragedy are all part of some divine plan can be comforting, I suppose. One of the biggest questions in human history, what happens when we die, is answered by many religions. This gives a sense of purpose and meaning to an otherwise chaotic, tragic and cruel existence. People are programmed into this way of thinking from birth and as a result, religion is passed down from generation to generation. Science and philosophy, however, have been the big finger in the eye of religion. We now know what stars are, what the heavens are composed of, why weather happens. Scientific explanations for many are enough to explain phenomena, and so more and more no longer rely on religion to explain their world.
I have attempted to escape my religious programming, from a fairly young age. I finally declared myself an atheist at the age of 21. I didn’t do it because of some clever philosophical argument or scientific evidence, however. For every argument against the existence of a God or gods, there is a counter-argument. Rather than get into an argument with myself or others that would prove fruitless, I made my decision to leave the Christian faith because of my gut instinct and feeling.
For one thing I never really believed in the efficacy of prayer. I always felt like I was praying to nothing when I prayed, and that it was pointless. I didn’t like the idea of having a pastor tell me what to do, how to think or how to live. I didn’t feel it was necessary. I was tired of the built-in guilt and shame I got from being raised in Christianity that was totally unnecessary. Most importantly, I looked at the world and how things work, and the lack of evidence for a god or gods and concluded that I just didn’t believe. I already had been living like I didn’t believe in God. I was not praying, not going to church, not reading the Bible. Furthermore, I felt the God of the Old Testament was especially evil, and even if he did exist, I wouldn’t want to worship a psychotic jealous weirdo. So I made it official.
Fast forward ten years and my atheism in some ways has softened into agnosticism. I admit I can’t know for sure whether there is a god or not, but I take the attitude of the disciple Thomas in the Bible. He required evidence to believe that Christ was resurrected, and so do I. I’m not going to live my life based on hypothetical scenarios without sufficient evidence to back them up.
Even so, it’s hard to escape my programming. My conception of morality is still tied very much to how I was raised, and changing that is very difficult, its a gradual process that has taken a lot of time. Studying other religions, studying some philosophy, studying science, and working out in my head why I believe what I believe is important, but most of all, after leaving religion, I am learning to trust myself to know what is right. I’m willing to search for the truth and find the answer’s to life’s questions on my own. I don’t need a book written thousands of years ago to do it for me.