Love Thyself

Many people find great difficulty in finding love. Think of the kind of reciprocal love that results in deep mutual admiration and respect; The kind of love you have when you get to know someone very well and you’ve yet to find any faults despite the many faults we all have; The kind of love many people spend their entire lives searching for. For some it’s a trust issue, for some it’s setting expectations too high, and for still others it’s just tough luck. But there are many people who won’t let any of these mere minor setbacks stop them. If they can’t trust other people, or if they set their standards too high, or if they simply never have a chance to meet the right person, they can always invent one or choose from the extensive collection of heroes and heroines and deities worshiped throughout history. As an adult, this is truly very questionable behavior. As a child, it’s rather normal. Most children have heroes and often times these heroes are superheroes – heroes with superhuman powers to make their heroic efforts a lot more effective. Children love their heroes and their superheroes. And these children believe that their heroes to some degree also love them back. Heroes are the ones who strive to uphold some greater moral good. By this premise, one can easily conclude that their heroes would be able and willing to do something heroic to save them if in need of saving. Children translate this sacrifice into love. Their heroes care for them and others. I would argue that loving a heroic imaginary friend is a normal part of being a healthy child for many.

So what is the first thing you do when you fall in love with a real person? You tell everyone because you are absolutely positive everyone else will love your new love too. Why? Because when you are in love, the object of your love is perfection. Adults proudly boast of their new loves. Children proudly boast of their superheros. Jesus freaks proudly boast of Jesus. And they can’t wait to share Jesus with everyone.

[Cue in the record scratch sound effect]

I want to pause for a second because this is where these people who love their heroes cross the line. A person’s imaginary love should never be imposed on others because the object of such love cannot be fairly scrutinized. The thing loved is a construct of ideals which are very specific to the holder of such ideals. For example, there are as many “Jesus'” as there are people who believe in the Jesus character. They are all slightly different versions of something which is a very amenable character. Even if Jesus were a real person at one time – and he very well may have been – no one today has met the actual person. They are worshiping and feeling love for an imagined persona based upon a widely accepted set of attributes combined with a whole lot of idealism and wishful thinking and personal preference and bias. But nonetheless, this love people hold does bring them joy and it does affect their lives in a positive way as this is what love does. But if taken too far, it can cause deep emotional and psychological problems. Children should all outgrow the need for this hero-love. And adults should be immune to it. Theism takes this love a step further invoking magic and miracle and proposing that the imagination is alive and real and can interact with you personally, and this is when we cross the line from hero-worship to flat out delusional thinking. Let’s not worship love for the sake of worship or love something for the sake of love. In rare cases, some people who are indeed very emotionally or psychologically unsettled may be better off with their imaginary friends. But this is the exception – not the rule.

As a child, I once loved an imagination called Jesus, this despite the fact that I knew it was very unlikely the person they called Jesus ever existed as he is remembered. But all it takes is a need or a desire in order to take that plunge. I lost my father at the age of 6 and I needed someone to look up to. I needed a father figure to guide me. My grandmothers knew this and they told me about Jesus. In the back of my mind, I figured it would be nice if such a man actually existed but that he was more than likely only a story. I never believed Jesus was the son of God or that God even existed. I also found it very difficult to accept that he was born of a virgin or that he rose from the dead. But this did not keep me from harboring deep admiration for the positive attributes assigned him. I knew nothing of the second coming and Jesus ushering in final wars and so on. I just knew the humble caring loving Jesus. I could think of no better person to love than one who loved everyone unconditionally. I could think of no better person to love than one who forgives everyone; A person who wanted to heal the sick and feed and clothe the poor; A person who sacrificed himself for everyone, including me. How could I not love someone that resonated so strongly with my own perception of perfection? As long as I had Jesus in my life – in whatever small way – I was special because I was able to tap into that perceived goodness. I was recognized by him. I was loved no matter what I did wrong. I didn’t see Jesus as my father. I didn’t even see him as a real being. I saw him as a personal guide. A guide I could trust to never lead me in the wrong direction. All I had to do to make good decisions in my life was to follow his examples of unconditional kindness and forgiveness.

Over time, as I grew and I learned and I matured, I eventually outgrew the need for a personal guide. Jesus became more of a footnote attached to many of my past good deeds. I learned more about religion in general over time and when I learned that Jesus was not the only one who represented such good character but rather the most recent one, I realized that the good in me was actually originating from within me. I chose Jesus not because he taught me the idea of being good or doing the right thing. I chose him because he confirmed something I already knew was right. I chose him because it was obvious that forgiveness was good. It was obvious that loving everyone was an optimal state of being. It was obvious that sacrificing one’s self for the entire human race is the ultimate way to demonstrate that your love for all is tangible. I realized that many very brilliant people over an incredible stretch of time had formulated the attributes that eventually manifested themselves in Jesus, long before his name was first written. People designed Jesus to give an example of what traits we should all strive to emulate. I was not good because I accepted Jesus. I accepted Jesus because I was good.

I am an atheist and have been so for my entire life. Just as many others who think they are Christians. I loved Jesus with all my heart despite not believing in the supernatural or the divine and despite not having ever prayed without feeling guilty for trying to fool myself. I followed Jesus’ examples throughout my life and still gauge my actions based on ideals we have in common. I feel that in many ways, I have the right to call myself a “Christian” more so than countless others who have convinced themselves they are. But alas, I am an atheist. I recall that when I was 33, I thought “I am the age Jesus died,” and with that, he died again – one final time. I began my own rebirth by re-awakening the passion I had to know the truth. A truth I had partially suspended in my quest for keeping the peace with myself and others. It was purely superficial. I recalled that my brand of “Christianity” was not uncommon and that many people who call themselves Christians are in actuality atheists like me or in extreme cases nothing more than opportunists using the weakness, desperation, and gullibility of others to exploit them in the guise of being good by association. I looked deep within myself and focused on my core being. I asked myself many hard questions and thought for a short time that I may be an agnostic. But when I realized that agnosticism is a knowledge position and atheism is a belief position, I realized that I was an agnostic atheist. I knew that despite the fact that I was sure there were no deities to account for – given the lack of any demonstrable evidence whatsoever – that if by chance evidence were to appear, I am open-minded enough to accept it and believe. It was not a matter of having hope as I do not hope for there to be a deity, but more of a way to be honest with myself by keeping an open mind and admitting that I don’t know. And there is no way for me to know given that God is of the supernatural and the supernatural – by definition – cannot be known in our natural world. God is but an idea and can only considered through the exercise of ideas.

Realizing I was an atheist and that I must use the word atheist to identify myself concerning my religious views (or non views) was horrifying to me at first. I looked into alternatives like “humanist” or “secularist” or “freethinker” and determined these were the inventions of people who were also disturbed by the thought of using the term “atheist.” I tried to invent my own term and I could only come up with things with the words “human” or “free” and figured the best alternative terms were already thought of. But I am a realist. And I cannot play this game of skirting around the fact that I am an atheist. The problem is not with the word after all. The word means, quite intrinsically, “not theist.” The problem is that theists have been immensely active in a smear campaign for hundreds of years which aims to vilify those who refer to themselves as atheists. This can have a detrimental impact on family, friends and profession. In defense of myself and other atheists, I have decided that one of my personal quests is to defend the word and to defend myself and other atheists from being marginalized by those who seek to demoralize us in the eyes of the greater public.

It’s interesting for me to note how in my life I have gone from loving an imagination I called “Jesus” to realizing that I was really in essence loving myself. I was my own hero of sorts as I am human and my empathy works as a human’s empathy should. And in my quest for doing the right thing, I decided to be honest with myself and others. I don’t condemn people for loving an imagination. I can relate. I only reject the imposition of the imagination of others upon me and my fellow human beings. There is no right answer to what any of us should believe. There is only my answer and your answer and his answer and her answer. We are all members of the same innately empathetic species. The realization that so many people have chosen to live by ideals which confirm their deep-rooted desire for goodness is testament to this fact. We need look no further than common sense – that is to say our moral compasses – to know the right course of action to take in our daily lives. Christians can choose to decorate their common sense in crosses and angels and Jesus. I’ll keep mine just as it was when I was born and with the addition of lessons learned on the path to where I am today. I will continue to love myself and our planet and all its inhabitants. I can love the world with deep admiration and respect because I can love myself this way.  For me, finding “true love” began with truly finding myself. And I am not ashamed to admit that a guy named “Jesus” helped me to do it. In fact, Jesus visited me one last time when I was 33 and helped me to affirm my atheism. Well… MY Jesus did… YOUR Jesus may vary.

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