What Sort of Dining Set Defines Me as a Person?
You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled.
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
This quote illustrates how most people feel about religion, I think. For the majority of us, we were brought up in the religion of our parents. This point has been made by others, but it bears repeating that Catholic parents raise Catholic kids (Richard Dawkins just rightfully shuddered), Hindus raise Hindus, Muslims raise Muslims, Jews raise Jews. The comfortable thing to do is to believe your parents about the ideas of a God/Creator (because why would you not believe them when you are a child?) and then never think about it again.
Some of us do think about it again, however. We think and check for ourselves, read the holy books and learn about science and nature. We come to the conclusion that the evidence for belief is scant and see that the evidence for a natural world with all its imperfections and blemishes, beauty and inspiration, tragedy and joy, is mountainous. We realize that it is much more likely that we created the gods instead of the other way around.
But this is not comfortable. We had to work for this understanding and we had to sacrifice much - sometimes friends, family, and the safe feeling of being special or cared for. At times, being an intelligent chimpanzee wearing sneakers that have lights in the heel, walking around on a blue/green speck of rock and water in a cold and unforgiving universe that cares not whether we live or die seems like a hopeless and bleak outlook for our lives. Why would a believer give up all they have for this?
Well, the above is a bit of a strawman I have constructed (all except the sneakers-with-lights bit). Is the universe cold? Yes. Uncaring? Not at all. "Uncaring" is an emotional description we would not use for rocks or mountains or clouds. The universe is a thing, not a being, therefore it just is. Most non-believers also do not live lives steeped in bleak hopelessness; quite the contrary. Our inspiration comes from understanding how things work, from marveling at the complexity achieved through the non-random forces acting on organisms, and on the amazing difficulty of the problems we have yet to comprehend.
Looking into space on a clear night can fill a non-believer with more awe and respect than any cathedral. Understanding that the satellites we see are actually falling towards Earth but the forward acceleration keeps them falling towards a surface curving away (i.e. orbit) boggles the mind. Literally looking back in time at the light from distant stars and galaxies brings about a sense of our miniscule place in the cosmos and how fortunate we are to occupy the couple of square feet we do.
These things are what make life so wonderful. Yes, we are small, but we are here. We work hard to make comprehensible the seemingly incomprehensible, but there are still many many dark areas. We are far away from understanding everything and we likely never will, but to the non-believer, this is what makes the journey of life so grand. Science, like evolution, works through gradual steps; making changes, adapting and mutating - sometimes helpfully, sometimes not so much. The non-helpful changes get found out and clipped off and the sensible ones get used and built upon in the future. The end result is deep knowledge and a staggering library of accumulated brain-power that explains so much about the world around us and the universe stretching out to the edge of our imaginations. As Richard Feynman explained about the flower, the more and deeper you understand something, the more beautiful you see that it is.
I once heard someone say that being comfortable is the enemy of progress and success. If you are comfortable, why work harder? If you have a house, a good job, the occasional vacation and a beer on Friday nights, why bust your ass to be a Nobel winner or solve the Riemann Hypothesis? There is no reason. Comfort in religion leads to the same sort of lax mental state: "Sure I know god is up there, I know because I have always known. Now don't ask me any probing questions because I'll put my fingers in my ears and sing 'lalalalalalalala'." Strawman again? Perhaps, but I would argue that it is the non-thinking comfort in the god belief, against all rational sense, that is the enemy of our progress as a species towards Reason. We must let religions and their fictitious figureheads go. To finish with an altered quote from Fight Club:
Rationality and Reason is - The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide. Let's let religion slide.