By Jin-yeong Yi
“The statue on the altar is mere wood and gold leaf, but our need to be reverent is real.”
—Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations
Although I am a staunch atheist as well as a nihilist, I have been attending Mass at my parents’ small church every Sunday morning for more than half a year now. As my devout parents never really got over my deconversion, which occurred in my late teens, I figured that it would give them some consolation to know that their son is in church on the Lord’s Day.
About 2 years ago, I was against going to church because I thought doing so would be to go against my integrity, and because I thought the Bible and Christian teaching were full of evil and superstition. In short, I was basically a Christopher Hitchens-style atheist. That was back when I still believed in morality and had a narrow view of religion. What happened was that my belief in moral truths did not survive the scrutiny I applied to all of my assumptions, and, through continued study of religion, I eventually arrived at a more positive, broadminded view of it.
Generally speaking, a religion, in my view, is fundamentally a collection of symbols, myths, art, rituals, literature, and music that lends itself to a wide range of interpretations, which can be “positive” or “negative,” and based on fiction or fact. The sects derived from a religion are not the religion itself, but interpretations of that religion. We don’t have to be slaves to religion; we can instead use it as a vehicle for culture, as a tool for imbuing life with meaning and poetry.
And that is what I try to do on Sunday mornings. After listening to death metal or black metal on the drive to church, I sit quietly in my pew and use the meditative surroundings to my advantage. Knowing that I am not bound by any of it, I allow my mind to freely go where it will. I might contemplate the meaning of religion. If the priest is saying something interesting or thought-provoking, I listen. Sometimes, I might gaze upon the large crucifix behind the altar and ruminate on the death and resurrection of Christ as a metaphor for the spring-summer-autumn-winter cycle. Other times, I put my hands together and pray. I don’t pray to anyone; I just pray. For me, prayer is about celebration, not supplication. I celebrate the good things I have in life, reminding myself how fortunate I am to have them. As someone who is always taking things for granted, I find it to be a healthy exercise.
Although I believe that atheistic nihilism is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, I do feel that I understand why so many people are committed to supernatural religion. This is because I understand the power of imaginative fiction. The characters and events in imaginative fiction may not be real, but the emotions they engender in us are, as anyone who has ever been affected by a novel or a movie would know. The narrative that a religion provides is like this, but far more powerful because you are one of the characters in that narrative, rather than a mere observer. And who doesn’t want to be part of a good story, especially one that is of cosmic proportions?