Religion, morality, and the guiding principle of Shit Happens.
Post Updated October 2, 2022. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church said this week that any Russian soldier who died in battle in Ukraine would be cleansed of their sins. Great.
That’s code for “Murder, plunder, rape. Go ahead, it’s ok with god”.
Really, is it a surprise? Religious leaders have been at it since religion was created.
This post is 10 years old. But with the mixing of religion and politics on the rise around the world it’s probably more relevant then it’s ever been in my lifetime.
I thought I’d share it again.
I’m an atheist. It’s not a choice I ever made, I was just raised that way. As a child in rural Quebec, my only contact with religion was when we went to church on Christmas eve with family friends. Although Quebec is historically very Catholic, my parents and friends never spoke of religion.
We moved to Zambia, in Africa, when I was 8. There again I had no exposure to religion.
In 1976, when I was 10, I was sent to a private boys school on Vancouver Island. It didn’t take long for religion to come up and for kids to taunt me about “not believing in god”. You might as well have sent me to Papua New Guinea and told me that we had to pray to the spirits of dead animals. Jesus born of a virgin (how does that happen?), son of an almighty god who looks over us and judges our every action? Sounded like something out of Star Trek. It didn’t take long before I had school yard fights because of other kids taunting me.
I’ve had a few other events in my life where religion has affected me personally. In all cases they were negative; either people rejecting me because of my (non)belief or trying to convert me. The first type are easy to avoid. The second type just get me hot under the collar. If I can accept you as you are, why can’t you accept me the way I am? Surprisingly it’s not always the usual suspects. I had a good friend who was a priest. He was in an all-priest hockey league and he once invited me to fill in when another priest couldn’t make it. I was surprised at how well these guys played hockey, but I was also surprised that religion never came up during the game. They didn’t bless the puck, they didn’t do a Hallelujah after every goal. In fact, religion was never brought up by my friend. What he did talk about was helping others in the community. He was a good person. Unfortunately he left the church a few years later because he wanted to start a family, something the church wouldn’t allow him to do.
I don’t care if someone is Catholic, Muslim, or Jew. If belief is what gets through your day I think that’s great. If I’ve ever insulted, or in the future insult your religion, I apologize. I probably didn’t realize it. I always try to dress appropriately when I go into a place of worship, I take off my shoes when I enter a temple. I try to remember not to point my feet towards a religious symbol, I try to remember not to touch a Buddhist child on the head. I will respect someone’s right to believe what they want and will be respectful of religious symbols.
All I ask in return is that others respect my right to not believe. And if you know I’m not religious, please don’t turn every conversation into something having to do with god. That’s also disrespectful. There’s lots of other things to talk about.
A lot of people will turn a conversation about religion into a conversation about morality. Most people will agree that the two are separate issues. For people who need convincing I suggest they read “God is not great” by Christopher Hitchens. Think of all the things in history that have been done ‘in the name of religion’. You don’t have to look far, there’s a whole bunch of wackos who’ve been going at it for over 50 years in the Middle East. Not much morality associated with religion.
Another thing that bothers me is “Destiny”. Depending who you talk to, destiny can have religious implications. Lissette and I sometimes talk about it, she has some belief in destiny. Destiny defined is “a predetermined course of events”. It is different from “fate” though where fate is unavoidable, whatever you do. Destiny is a predetermined outcome based on a flow of events as they work themselves out. Lissette for example will say “We were destined to meet. Even if we had not met the way we did we would have met in another way”. That sounds nice and completely harmless. But whenever I think destiny I think of a conversation I once had with one of my bosses. A plane had gone down, over 150 dead. I was reading it off the Reuter’s and said “I feel really sorry for those people and their families”. He responded by “Why are you feeling sorry for them?”. I was a bit flabbergasted “because they died a horrible death!”. He responded “You can’t feel sorry for them, it was their destiny”. I just though that it was an insensitive way to be summed up, like they were just somehow sacrificial lamb. How about kids with leukemia, or thousands of people washed away by a tsunami? “Oh well, it was their destiny to die like that”. What a pile of bullshit. I notice it’s always “destiny” when it happens to other people but that term is never used in that sense when something bad happens to you or your loved ones…
So by now you basically think that I believe in nothing. Which leads me to my Guiding Principle.
Yes. Shit Happens. Good shit happens, especially if you do all the good things in your life to make good shit happen. Most of the time, if you are nice to people, study hard, and work hard, good things will happen to you. Unfortunately bad shit can also happen – and its usually the bad stuff that you can’t control: sickness, accidents, natural disasters. Some people can be the nicest people on earth and do 99% of things just as they should – and somehow everything goes to hell for them, whereas other people can be the biggest assholes (and I’ve met a few) and have everything going for them; the best jobs, great health etc…Why? Shit happens and most of the time you can’t do anything about it.
Fortunately I also believe in another principle; Karma. It’s a sub-principle to my Guiding Principle of Shit Happens. But not Karma in a cosmic or religious sense. I think how you treat others (and everything around you) will come back to you one way or another. If you’re really generous to the people around you then doesn’t it make sense that you have a good chance that it will be reciprocated somewhere down the line when you need it? It just logical. The same way that biggest asshole will eventually pay the price.
Anyway, what does all the above have to do with Travel? Several things: 1) There’s some places that I won’t go because of what I consider religious extremism. Overly religious people make me nervous, partly because of what they’ll do in the name of God or what they won’t do (or resign themselves to) in the name of God. I’ve been to a few Muslim countries where the pilot says something along the lines of “Inshallah, we’ll be in Medan in 55 minutes”. I see people praying. That kind of stuff makes me nervous. Fly the plane properly, don’t use god as your crutch – he’s not flying the damn plane. If certain values or sensiblities are incompatible with a certain destination maybe it’s a sign that one shouldn’t go. 2) I always plan for the worst even if I do everything I can to do it right. Because bad shit can happen. 3) Karma – try to be giving to others, a bit of time and a smile never hurt.
I wish you all the best shit.
Related: Random Acts of Kindness when you travel
Related: Why a month in Poland was enough for us to not come back
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I like many of the articles and insights of this blog from a fellow Canuck. But this particular article displays the militantly secular, somewhat contemptuous mindset towards religion that one imbibes in the water in western countries(sorry if the adjectives don’t quite accurately describe your position). Instead of simply dismissing a paradigm that you don’t quite understand(and you don’t have to agree with something to have an understanding of it) – you could simply ask questions to those believers making it clear you just want to know more and not looking to convert. For example – the Muslim pilot saying ‘inshallah we land at X place at this time’ – is saying this in recognition that he/she doesn’t control everything despite training/expertise and that he is acknowledging a higher power as well as hoping that everything works out as planned. It is in fact the ultimate reminder to all of the passengers of your motto – that ‘shit happens’ but he(Muslims) trust in a higher power and hope for the best.
This canard about religion being responsible for millions of deaths and never ending war is just that – a canard. No one brings up Stalin and Mao as go to examples for the immorality of atheism or irreligion – people ascribe it to Communism even though atheism was a key component of said system. Modern day secular westerners don’t seem to understand that conflicts and the resulting killings are ultimately about power. And human beings have used whatever mode that has currency in society to achieve that end – whether it be based on differing tribes, nation states, ideologies, religions, political parties etc.
Most of the readers and commentators on here seem like slow travellers. I would urge folks to ask questions and listen when travelling to countries that are different than yours. I’m referring specifically to varying paradigms on life and differences in social dynamics not on abusing animals or throwing trash everywhere. Best of luck in your travels.
I appreciate your well-thought out comment.
I do disagree with some of the things you mention however:
“contemptuous mindset towards religion that one imbibes in the water in western countries” – most of my own issues stem from things that have arisen here. We in the west are not immune from fervent religion. Look at the religious right in the US dragging the country backwards 40 years. No, there are many very religious people. I recently had someone told me she rather “see her daughter dead than do yoga” (as if practicing yoga is a subversive, immoral act).
“Power” is also a very general term and you’re picking and choosing your examples. And means to power over centuries has been religion and race. The Crusades, The 30 Years War are a couple of wars started for religious causes…there’s tons on them. You can be a cynic and say that there were about power but Europe was very religious at that time and while I’m sure power factored in the prevailing cause was religion. How about the recent Balkan wars? We lived over a year in Croatia and travelled all over the Balkans. Great people except that they all kind of hate each other which really makes no sense because they come from the same people and speak a version of the same language. It comes down to religion.
I agree that we humans have used every means to create tribalism. By as I say, chief among them is religion and religious leaders always lead the way.
We won’t agree. But I appreciate the comment.
I’m glad you reposted this because I agree with everything you’ve written here! I was raised Catholic but lapsed a long time ago. Here in India, you do need to have a religion for many documents and “atheist” or “none” are not options so I still say I’m Catholic. We are also raising our daughter as Catholic partly because of that and partly because we want her to have her own say when she’s older, although we’ve done the bare minimum for her in that regard! My husband is a touch more compliant but he doesn’t really practice it either.
Sadly, my parents and my sister were very religious until they died, while my brother and I went the opposite way. My parents let us alone eventually even though they didn’t like it but my sister got more religious as she got older. There was tension between us during her last two years because she couldn’t just let it be and had even shamed me a couple of times. It was only when she was in the hospital fighting for her life and two days before she was put on a ventilator that we made amends. If you can call two sentences making amends. She died of Covid because she refused to get vaccinated due to her religious beliefs. My parents were less die-hard and tried to convince her over the phone and my brother and I would send her scientific articles and point to the Vatican’s stance on covid vaccines to convince her that she was not being a bad catholic by getting vaccinated. She got close to doing it a couple of times but didn’t follow through. So from my personal experiences and from what I see as growing bigotry in my own country, I’m more adamant than I ever was that religion hurts rather than helps!
P.S. I’m going to email today about our trip, Frank 🙂
Sad when differences over religion fracture families. I’ve seen it first hand, a person being cast off because a religious sister divided the family with her beliefs. I have so many examples from people we’ve met…
Hope you enjoyed your European holiday Claudine. I’m off soon to Mexico…
Sometimes I think conflating the essence of a religion with its followers or religious organizations is akin to thinking that we can evaluate the citizens of a nation by its government.
If anything, travel has opened my eyes to how that is often not the case.
Lissette and I have had this argument. She’s religious in theory even if she doesn’t practice. So she’ll talk about religion in theory and not how it’s practiced. And that’s fine..but I always say does it really matter the theory if the religious leaders and their followers follow/believe in a certain way? People who have studied Islam know that in theory it’s probably the most tolerant religion. It’s what I learned in school when we touched on every religion. It’s morphed into the opposite. Can’t blame Mohammed for that I agree. But someone has to take ownership…
Religion certainly has been a fertile landscape for debate/argument and worse over the centuries….and as far as I know neither side has won or accepted defeat.
Maybe that itself tells us something about debates over religion 😆
I know this is an old post, but I just ran across it while I was pondering material for my own travel blog — and I was deciding that I needed to write something about being an atheist in a world of religious people, and how that affects us. Glad to know there are people going before me. Cheers, you.
theologically speaking, Frank, I think we are on the same wavelength.
Cool, cartoon Andy! 🙂
coming from a country that doesn’t separate religion from state and growing up with a semi- traditional family, it is hard to detach yourself. However, I totally agree with everything you said and likewise try hard never to offend believers regardless which religion. I like the historical and traditional aspect of religion without being caught up in its dogmas and restrictions. So I thought it was Interesting that your expressed thought ” If you’re really generous to the people around you then doesn’t it make sense that you have a good chance that it will be reciprocated somewhere down the line when you need it?” has it’s reference to a biblical quote:”Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days”. (taken from the book of Ecclesiastes. I had to look it up for this writing, since I am not religious). I am in total agreement with you about “destiny”. It works for the people when it’s not their family.
Where is your next itinerary? Stay well!
I’m not at all religious so that thought was not based at all on any religious quote. It’s just basic morality and sense isn’t it?
One of the conversations I’ve had with Lissette is about religion teaching morality. Religion always preaches morality. But is basic morality based on religion OR just human beings knowing right from wrong? ie. if no religion existed, would we be all be less “moral”?
It might sound a bit harsh, but my personal feeling one has nothing to do with the other. And if anything what have people done (and justified) in the name of religion?
Next destination? Just finalizing it, we’ll have a newsletter coming up soon.
Thank you for the always thoughtful comment Sara!
people should keep religion to themselves, it is an inner conflict of trying to become a good person. but the main thing u should start from that all people are equal and we are different for a reason.
I agree, it should be a personal thing. But it never is, is it?
nope because someone wants to get something out of it. do people really believe that religious leaders have been chosen from god? no, they are simple people and we are not supposed to follow them anyways.
I don’t begrudge people from believing. If it makes them happy in their lives and it makes them better people with everyone around them then I have no issue. They can believe in little green men if they want.
My problem with religion is when there is something wrong with every non-believer. That they will all go to hell or that they are no better then dogs. We talk about Islam (who even between themselves are fighting about what a “true” Muslim is) now but a few hundred years ago Christians were killing each other in the hundreds of thousands over the smallest of differences and beliefs. Petty, stupid stuff. That’s my issue with religion.
‘Shit happens’ is my favourite mantra (a term funnily enough derived from Hinduism and Buddhism), so I absolutely loved this, and can relate pretty well even though I’ve perhaps not been quite so adversely affected by religion as you have. I’m a total atheist too, mainly because I’m one of these people that doesn’t believe in something that can’t be tangibly proven. Like ghosts. I’d love to believe in them, but until I’ve seen one for myself… I grew up having to go to Sunday School, not because my family were religious, but probably more to get rid of us kids for a few hours each weekend, and I hated it. I was once forced to play the Virgin Mary in a play, and managed to drop the baby Jesus from a great height, whereby his head fell off and rolled down the aisle of the church. That just about summed up my belief, and was my last day there!
You’ve got it spot on with saying your right to ‘not’ believe should be just as respected as people’s rights ‘to’ believe. It’s a personal thing, everyone is different, and thank god (excuse the pun) for it…the world would be a boring place if we all agreed on everything!
Thanks so much for the comment Heather. Cute about being forced to play the Virgin Mary 🙂 I guess the real story is that you weren’t invited back huh?
Damn. You found me out!
Christian Mingle – “Find God’s match for you”. As long as they’re Christian because all the others can go straight to hell. Religious shit pisses me off too. It doesn’t unite, it divides.
Well written; thanks for sharing this one out.
Thanks for reading 🙂
Even if you are not an atheist, religious people can make you nervous. It’s very complicate to deal with the differences in culture and religion. Traveling shows us this all the time. Complicated but luckly not impossible.
I have the same view as you towards the religious folk, if it works for you so be it, just don’t force it down my throat. The closest thing to what I believe is pantheism, though when I try to explain to a religious person that I don’t believe in religion they automatically peg me as an atheist, heh, because surely if someone doesn’t believe in religion they must not believe in a higher being. I don’t even try to explain, when they assume so I just say no and move on. I don’t try to convert folks either, I might attempt to have a meaningful conversation but I’m not going to try to bring them over to my side of belief, That was something I foolishly tried to do in my early 20’s, when you think you know everything there is to know haha.
While assholes definitely rule the world, I still believe in the golden rule & karma, and that has worked for me for a long time.
Great comment, thanks Devlin!
I totally get this, a friends partner died last year, she was so young and it was one of those things that you think could only happen on TV almost. My religious friend said to me, it must have been her destiny, she must be destined to do something in the afterlife. Whatever that means! It offended and annoyed me a little bit, I just can’t rationalise things like that! Great post. I would also love to write a Turkey guide for you guys. 🙂
I agree, I don’t get it and that kind of rationalization makes me upset. Would they say the same thing if it was something in their own family? I know a few people who stopped being religious after stuff happened to them.
Thanks for the comment Louise – would love to have you write a guide to Turkey, it’s somewhere we’d like to go.