March 30, 2013
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The following is an excerpt from "The Bonobo and the Atheist", by Frans de Waal (W.W. Norton, 2013).
One quiet Sunday morning, I stroll down the driveway of my home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to pick up the newspaper. As I arrive at the bottom—we live on a hill—a Cadillac drives up the street and stops right before me. A big man in a suit steps out, sticking out his hand. A firm handshake follows, during which I hear him proclaim in a booming, almost happy voice, “I’m looking for lost souls!” Apart from perhaps being overly trusting, I am rather slow and had no idea what he was talking about. I turned around to look behind me, thinking that perhaps he had lost his dog, then corrected myself and mumbled something like, “I’m not very religious.”
This was of course a lie, because I am not religious at all. The man, a pastor, was taken aback, probably more by my accent than by my answer. He must have realized that converting a European to his brand of religion was going to be a challenge, so he walked back to his car, but not without handing me a business card in case I’d change my mind. A day that had begun so promisingly now left me feeling like I might go straight to hell.
I was raised Catholic. Not just a little bit Catholic, like my wife, Catherine. When she was young, many Catholics in France already barely went to church, except for the big three: baptism, marriage, and funeral. And only the middle one was by choice. By contrast, in the southern Netherlands—known as “below the rivers”—Catholicism was important during my youth. It defined us, setting us apart from the above-the-rivers Protestants. Every Sunday morning, we went to church in our best clothes, we received catechism at school, we sang, prayed, and confessed, and a vicar or bishop was present at every official occasion to dispense holy water (which we children happily imitated at home with a toilet brush). We were Catholic through and through.
But I am not anymore. In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?
As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”
Losing My Religion
I was too restless as a boy to sit through an entire mass. It was akin to aversion training. I looked at it like a puppet show with a totally predictable story line. The only aspect I really liked was the music. I still love masses, passions, requiems, and cantatas and don’t really understand why Johann Sebastian Bach ever wrote his secular cantatas, which are so obviously inferior. But other than developing an appreciation of the majestic church music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and others, for which I remain eternally grateful, I never felt any attraction to religion and never talked to God or felt a special relationship. After I left home for the university, at the age of seventeen, I quickly lost any remnant of religiosity. No more church for me. It was hardly a conscious decision, certainly not one I recall agonizing over. I was surrounded by other ex-Catholics, but we rarely addressed religious topics except to make fun of popes, priests, processions, and the like. It was only when I moved to a northern city that I noticed the tortuous relationship some people develop with religion.