I grew up Catholic, but for some reason I could never wrap my head around the whole concept. As a kid, I couldn’t help but notice how my science and religion teachers contradicted each other. The only noticeable difference to me was that one of them backed their story with facts, the other one just referenced a book that was thousands of years old.
When it came to questions about religion, I always felt like the answers I got all had that “Don’t worry about it” kind of tone behind them. This was a big turnoff for me from the beginning.
I admit it though, as a kid I probably asked my mom and other members of my family (all very devoted), even priests, some difficult questions to answer. Especially to a kid.
To name a few, I remember wondering: If the church was made by men, what makes it holy? Or how come if there is truly only one God, there are so many different religions out there? And if a priest is just a human being, why do we treat them like saints? (I actually remember asking this to a priest one day).
I was never satisfied with the answers I got — The church is holy because it is the house of God. There is only one God, different religions just give him different names. On that last one the priest did not know what to answer so he just talked about saints for 30 minutes… 🙄 .
No one, especially no priest, ever made a genuine attempt to answer my questions about religion.
But my family was catholic so I grew up going to church every Sunday. I was taught that everything fun was a sin and that most things that were “different” were also sins. Although, I must also admit that the church has come a long way since then.
Even though I had my doubts on religion and the church, I do remember being very spiritual throughout my teenage years and into my 20’s. I believed in ghosts and in some form of afterlife. Today, I struggle with the whole spiritual idea and I’ve developed strong feelings against the church. I also lost all credibility in religion and I believe that it needs to be stored away and replaced with a new concept.
To me, religion can be described as a spiritual and moral path. It teaches us wrong from right, and why doing good is so important for the world and for humanity. I believe that a new and improved spiritual/moral path can be learned in science.
Just hear me out…
As a society, we tend to think of science as a purely logical and quantitative field, which of course is exactly what it is. But we fail to see the spiritual and moral lessons that lay beneath the surface.
What I mean is that as much as we can use science to explain how the world works, we can also use it to drive more spiritual/moral conversations. Science is one of the most beautiful things you will ever see when looked at with the right lens.
Take DNA as an example. All living things on this planet share the same genetic code, DNA. This means that everything from trees, to your dog, share the same genetic code. The difference is that for each species the code is written slightly different. Personally, I cant think of a better argument to the whole “We are all brothers and sisters” story.
When you look at DNA this way it can show you something incredibly beautiful and unifying.
Growing up, religion taught me to “love your neighbor” and that “We are all sons of God, and he loves us”. But it also taught me that those who were gay, divorced, or didn’t go to church are all sinners who would eventually end up in hell.
I don’t know about you, but I like the DNA approach much better. It seems more honest and it will be what I teach my kids one day.
As human beings, we all ask the same questions at one point or another in our lives: Why are we here? Who started it all? And what happens when we die?
These are difficult questions to answer, not because of their complexity, but because the answer we all want is different.
It took a while for me to finally admit I was an atheist. The reason why it took so long is because I didn’t like the answer to those questions when I removed God from the equation. I was afraid to denounce God because the alternative was too lonely. It wasn’t until I started reflecting on the things I learned from science that I began to find solace in those lessons.
One of the books that really helped me through this process of reflection was Letters From An Astrophysicist, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
While religion used to offer me solace, unfortunately, it did not make an honest attempt at answering any of the aforementioned questions. On the other hand, science tried to answer these questions truthfully, but I lacked the ability to find solace in those answers. Today, I believe this was due to lack of creativity on my end and nothing else.
Allow me to elaborate by attempting to answer these three questions.
Why are we here?
Religion teaches us humility by telling us that there is something much bigger than all of us. That “something” of course, is God. You exist today because God wanted you to be here, and therefore, you should be eternally grateful. It was in his plans!
That’s a nice thought but it’s incredibly lazy if you ask me. It doesn’t drive curiosity or a genuine search for the truth, when the truth, in my opinion, can be 100 times more mesmerizing. If this is what we are teaching kids at an early age, then I am afraid we are simply teaching them to take whatever adults say at face value and not to question it. Personally, I think that’s a bad approach if you are trying to stimulate a young person’s brain.
Science takes a different approach to the same question — Why are we here?. For example, science shows us how incredibly unlikely it is for life to form in the universe. The odds that our planet just happened to be the perfect distance from the sun to sustain life are astronomical, literally! A little closer and all the water in our planet would evaporate. A little further away and all the water would freeze, giving our planet no chance to develop intelligent life over millions of years.
If that does not make you humble and appreciate life I don’t know what will.
As to why we are here… Well, we are here because 13+ billion years ago an anomaly happened, an imbalance of particles & antiparticles — matter & antimatter — occurred. It lead to an explosion, the planck era, and shortly after, the universe. Then, billions of years later things cooled down and planets formed. In our galaxy, among the millions of stars within it, one star was pretty special and 8 planets were formed around it (R.I.P. Pluto). Ours just happened to be at the right spot.
We are here because the odds were just right. Or because we beat ALL odds. However you want to look at it, the fact that we are here at all, should be reason enough to feel awe, to celebrate, and to cherish what we have.
But let’s face it, every time I’ve had this conversation with a devout christian (which as mentioned, could be anyone in my family) it always comes down to: “Who do you think started that anomaly and thus created the universe?” 🤦♂️ .
Again, what makes this question so difficult to answer is not so much its complexity as it is what we wish the answer to be.
Who started it all?
When you grow up catholic, having a superior being controlling and deciding what happens around you becomes second nature. It’s ingrained into our brains. We say things like “Thank God!” or “See you tomorrow, God willing.”. Everything good that happens in our life we have him to thank for. When we wish for something to go our way we have to put it in his hands, it’ll happen if it’s meant to be.
The problem is that we grow up dependent of this fake safety net. So much so that the thought of it not being true terrifies us. If no superior being decided we should be here then that means that no one is watching over us, which would mean that we are utterly alone, and thus, there is nothing to look forward to after we die.
But why is that so bad? Why can’t we be happy with simply admiring the odds that we are here at all? Why does some external source (or being) have to decide whether we exist or not? Why can’t it be a simple matter of probability, which in itself is awe inspiring?
I believe the answer has to do with the fact that one of the things religion does so well is instill fear. Fear is the number one enemy of logic and rational thinking. But as catholics, we are raised on constant fear — Fear of being alone, dying alone, and most of all, fear of rejection when it comes time to show up at the Pearly Gates. Pardon my french but this is total bullshit!
What happens when we die?
The short answer is nothing. We seize to exist.
The obvious answer is that when we die our bodies typically disintegrate. If you are cremated then part of your body turns into ashes, while other parts evaporate as smoke.
This may sound harsh to most people of faith but it shouldn’t. Ask yourself this: What happened before you were born? Before your parents brought you into this world, what were you? Where were you? The answer is nothing, and nowhere, you did not exist.
As I mentioned before, science can be absolutely beautiful when looked at through the right lens. When you think of the statement above — You seize to exist when you die, just as you did not exist before you were born. — it sounds cold and borderline depressing.
But think of it like this: Everything in the universe, as explained by the laws of physics, is nothing more than a vessel for energy. Every object that has a mass has a potential or kinetic energy. When an object interacts with another object energy is exchanged between them.
So another way to think of yourself before you were born is as energy that had not yet been exchanged or released. And we can also think of ourselves as energy being disbursed into nature when we die.
Before you were born you existed only as a thought on your parents brains. Your parents had to exchange energy to start the process. Biology then kicks in and within approximately 9 months a tiny amount of energy transforms into you. Then when you die, that energy is transformed into something else.
Not such a gloomy and depressing thought anymore, is it?
One of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein goes as follows: “Never before have I lived through a storm like the one this night. … The sea has a look of indescribable grandeur, especially when the sun falls on it. One feels as if one is dissolved and merged into Nature. Even more than usual, one feels the insignificance of the individual, and it makes one happy.”.
That last sentence is the one that gets me. I mean, for being one of the brightest minds to ever walk on this planet, Einstein had an unparalleled admiration for nature. Most impressive of all, and the real lesson here (I think), is that he found peace with the fact that compared to nature he was insignificant.
When I think about death I always think about this quote from Einstein. More specifically the part where it says “one feels as if one is dissolved and merged into nature”. I like the sound of that, I think it is a beautiful thought.
I even own a t-shirt with those exact words on it:
When I think about loved ones who have passed away, I like to think of them as energy that has transformed and merged into earth and space. And when I die, I like to think I’ll do the same. It is poetic. Almost like going home.
After all, we are made of start stuff, as Carl Sagan famously stated.