It's been a little over a year now since God died. Or at least he stopped existing in my mind. I notice his absence from time to time, often when I'm scared or lonely or otherwise needy and a lifetime of religious training gives me the impulse to pray, only to be cut short by the recognition that I no longer believe anyone is listening. Other times I'm feeling particularly happy with my life and I don't know who to thank. His absence has been particularly notable in the past week or so as we've begun to listen to Christmas music and the familiar songs bring with them powerful feelings inseparably connected to beliefs long dead, signifiers that have lost their signifieds. Christmas has always been such a happy time of year for me and now I'm left wondering what to be happy about--why should the birth of Jesus mean more to me than the birth of Siddhartha Gautama or Muhammad or Joe the Plumber?
If I honestly take into account how important religion once was to me, the removal of God from my life really was equivalent to the death of a loved one, and at the time I was so relieved to be free of a belief system that had caused me so much pain that I never took time to mourn. The other day my father-in-law sent me an article about studies being done on the positive effects of religion on health. The article says that critics of these researchers see an agenda to sneak religion into science and point to the impossibility of separating religious belief from other factors such as the social involvement a religious community brings. I had actually been pondering the effects my lack of religion has on my emotional wellbeing for a few weeks before I read this article. Like the critics of these religious researchers, I worry about jumping to unfounded conclusions about the necessity of religion to human health, but I am interested in what it is about religion--whether the sense of belonging or the beliefs themselves--that contributes to physical, mental, and emotional health.
In an attempt to do a little research of my own and to fill that hole left in God's wake, I've decided to give the Universal Unitarian church a try, hoping to find in it a place where I can be part of a community of people who have common goals of finding peace for themselve and others, but require no belief in any kind of doctrine. I've also found a renewed interest in Buddhism and other forms of spirituality. I feel no need for religion to explain the nature of the universe to me--I trust science and basic observation to suffice there--but I am interested in finding what one atheist Buddhist minister from the UU church describes as "a roadmap to train the mind for happiness."
Meanwhile, I suppose I'll enjoy Christmas for its trees and pretty lights, for the joy of giving and receiving, for the happy times with family and friends. It's hard sometimes to see beyond the pain and suffering brought to the world both historically and recently by people who call themselves Christians, but this Christmas season I'll do my best to remember the good things Jesus and his teachings offer, to find some common ground where I can rejoice along with those who believe him to be the son of God.