I’m a third generation atheist on my mother’s side and second generation on my father’s. As a young child living in then working-class Brunswick my mother and her brother were pulled from religious education classes by my grandparents. As a result, both children were the victims of merciless brutality by their Christian fellow-students. Both wore the scars until their deaths; ashamed and silent on all matters religious founded on an indelible deep fear and sadness.
My father elected to be an atheist through his blossoming political awareness as a student at Brighton technical college. He was always comfortable with and outspoken about his politics and his atheism.
As a young child, my parents gave me both sides of the story (science vs biblical) when I asked about the origin of this world. I chose the family tradition of an evidence-based approach, but have deliberately kept an open mind on the range of possibilities. Strangely, they sent me to a church school – renowned for its science education and music programs, and its social justice values. Somehow, nothing about Christianity entered my consciousness (it is a total mystery to me!) I was stunned as an eleven-year-old when, during a religious education class, I asked the girl sitting next to me whether she believed what the teacher was telling us. She admitted that she did. I was gobsmacked!
I experienced discrimination and bullying from a few teachers in my early teens, but didn’t realise it was due to my politics and atheism until decades later. How could fully-grown responsible adults behave so badly towards a child who behaved at least as well as any other child? I puzzled for that long!
As a result of my particular life and heritage as an atheist, I am much more relaxed about religion than many who seem to be obsessed with religion. I have come to conclude that religion is as religion does. We all have beliefs, motivations, values and principles (whether we are aware of them or not) that drive our behaviour in the world. Some of the most generous, radical, loving, socially progressive and effective people I have had the privilege to know have been religious (not just “spiritual”).
We need look no further to see the sinister side of religion in our most prominent religious politicians: Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Kevin Andrews. Men who appear to share the characteristics of psychopaths due (in part) to their demonstrated lack of compassion, and infliction of unnecessarily cruel policies on the most vulnerable of society. To say nothing of their breathtaking dishonesty!
Whatever a person believes drives their actions. Whether you believe in karma ,in reincarnation, in eternal damnation, or in virgins awaiting you in heaven – you are likely to act in accordance with the most strongly-held beliefs, consciously or not.
I advocate choosing your beliefs on the basis of desired outcome. For example, I have chosen to believe that the biblical depictions of heaven and hell are in reality here on earth now. And that we have the choice to create either – in our own lives and in the lives of others. Who cares if there’s a basis for this in fact – it serves to improve our little tiny miraculous and spectacular lives!
This brings me to reincarnation. It’s a two-edged sword. On the one side, it gives permission to excuse suffering that has the potential to be alleviated, on the basis that improvement will be gained in the next life (karma is part of this process too). On the other hand, it does mitigate against a frenzied desperation to make the absolute most of this one life. This can result in detriment to others, now and in the future.
If we truly believed we’d be re-born randomly into the world we’re creating right now, how different would our current behaviour be? Huh?
It doesn’t matter what we believe, as long as it actually results in a better world for everyone – especially the poorest of the poor – in the here and now and into the long-term future.