(I knocked this piece off in about an hour this morning, which is not the way I usually write. If it seems half-baked, that’s why.)
I’m not religious. As I think back on it, I’m not sure I ever was. I did all of the things you do when you grow up in a church, but it was largely because it was what was expected of me, rather than out of genuine commitment to what it meant. I prayed by myself at night from the time I was just a kid, and while I hoped I was being heard, I never knew for sure. In our mid-30s, Ann and I joined a church, and for a while we were very active in it. For the first time in my life, I felt like prayer was actually having concrete results. But it wasn’t long before the connection was terminated. I don’t know why it happened; it just did. And after doing a lot of reading and studying and thinking over the next couple of years, I decided that I was wrong about the connection. Ain’t nobody up there, not Yahweh or Allah or Zeus or Thor or any other supernatural being. When I thought I was talking to God, I was talking to myself.
Accepting that was incredibly liberating. I had lived the first 40 years of my life with the internalized notion that I was being watched and judged, and the knowledge that I could not live up to the standard that I was being judged by. My mental health, such as it is over these last 20 years or so, is vastly improved by the belief—no, the knowledge—that I am responsible for my actions only to the people who are affected by them. Not some dude in a celestial palace, a guy I won’t meet until after I’m dead, and who laid down the rules thousands of years ago, when people couldn’t explain why it rained without recourse to magic.
Some people will tell you that the human brain is wired for religion. I doubt it, if by religion they mean rituals involving holy books and black robes. If we’re wired for anything, it’s probably to crave connection. We don’t want to be alone. Also, we’re wired to find purpose. We don’t want to feel like rats in a maze, running around for no reason. This wiring is why we formed societies in the first place, when groups of people not related by blood decided to live together. You can call the connection and purpose religion if you want, although you don’t have to. It’s enough to want to be part of a group of people that shares something all find important, and which uses that important thing to animate the way they live.
Some people go to church on Sunday to affirm that they are not alone, and to affirm their purpose for carrying on. Some of us find that affirmation elsewhere.
Last night, Ann and I saw Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt in concert. Mavis, who is 83 years old now but performs like a much younger person, comes out of the gospel tradition, and every one of her songs had a religious bent—but not a sectarian one. Mavis’ religion does not tell you how to vote and who to hate. She said at one point, “I’m here to bring joy. I’m here to bring inspiration.” Her songs argued that we’re in this world together, and that while the road is sometimes hard and long, we must keep going forward, together. They were all infused with the hope that we might someday get to the place where love and brotherhood prevail, and even when the road is at its roughest, we must not lose our determination to walk it, together. Bonnie’s message, discussing her long years of activism and her fears and hopes in this moment, was less explicit, but not much different. Her music is the expression of a soul on the same journey that Mavis describes.
Today, the religion of millions in America is a terrible, destructive force that diminishes our humanity and will, if undefeated, destroy our planet. The religion of Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt—a belief in the importance of human connection and common purpose that stands outside of ancient dogma and modern prejudice, driven by both the hope that we will achieve that connection and purpose and the determination to do so—is the only religion that will save us, the only one we need.