Monday, August 13, 2012

My people!

I just read this article on Friendly Atheist, and boy, did it get me excited! Mary Johnson is one of my people. Her whole journey really resonates with me, and I love that although she is now an atheist, she still can see the value and appeal of religion.

Check out this quote:

I believe that humans need ritual and art and encouragement. I’m in the process of becoming a Humanist celebrant so that I can help people celebrate weddings and births and funerals in a secular context. I’m encouraged that people like Alain de Botton and Greg Epstein and Miriam Muroff Jerris are taking on the challenge of creating meaningful Humanist rituals without supernatural references.

I could have said that! Plus, it takes me back to my original idea for my presentation. Probably, I can focus on deBotton, Epstein and Jerris and that will be enough for one presentation. I wonder if Jerris would answer some interview questions for me. After all, she did reply to my e-mails.

But what REALLY got me going was the discussion in the comment. It seems that Friendly Atheist's readers are up in arms because Johnson used the word "soul" in her last sentence. Personally, I think she was using the word partly as a metaphor and partly because she was asked to address "anyone who is sitting in a church pew right now," so the use of religious terminology was appropriate in that context. But I often say that religion gets a lot of things right, and I think the idea of a soul is one of them.

Let me be clear: I think it's incredibly unlikely that there is any kind of life after death. I don't believe that there is some kind of permanent part of us that is endowed by a deity. 

However, there is the essence of a person. That thing that is not my brain and not my body: the me that metacognates. I know it's not a real thing--it's generated by the chemicals in my brain. But I also know that it is real in my experience of myself and my experience of those I love. It's the thing that makes each of us who we are, different from everyone else. It's the part of my husband that I love all the time, even when his body and his brain are pissing me off. Although I know it's only a concept, it's a concept worth talking about, from time to time, and when we talk about it, we need a word for it. "Soul" is a long-established term for just that thing, and it comes in handy. Because the rest of this paragraph makes very little sense.

And there's another thing. My mother, whose relationship to religion is very confusing so I won't try to explain it here, told me a story that made me wonder about all of this. When my grandmother died, my mother was with her. My mother reports that Nana's last breath was peaceful, and exactly like my first breath, but (obviously) backwards. My mother felt in that moment that death was completely natural. She also says that there is no question in her mind that her mother left the room at that moment, and that she want up.

Do I think Nana went to Heaven? Of course not. But neither do I think my mother is lying, or deluded. She is not a Christian and does not believe in Hell, so there was no interest in her believing her mother went up instead of down, or to the side. What I think is that she experienced something we can't explain. She had a sensation of some kind, and other people have experienced this same thing, and that's where the whole idea of a soul going to Heaven came from. What was it? I have no idea. But I know it brought my mother some comfort. She still had a really tough time with the idea of her mom rotting under the ground. She couldn't watch the body being lowered into the grave, and a few months after my grandmother's death I started singing that lovely childhood diddy about "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout" and I thought my mom was going to have a panic attack.  (To be clear, I was an adult when all of this happened--there was no child abuse involved.) But she likes the idea that her mom left the room with that last breath, and I can't prove that it didn't happen.

So, to sum up: I don't believe in eternal souls that go to Heaven if we're good, but I do notice that each of us has an essence of some kind and I think "soul" is a useful term for it. Lay off the poor woman.

No comments:

Post a Comment