Concerning Haibanes and Atheists
I’m going to do something today that I haven’t done with this blog very often. As my readers who have found this blog through the kindness of Charles who writes on Beneath the Tangles probably already know, I’m an atheist and I’ve already written a very general discussion about how I credit anime with helping me reach many philosophical conclusions.
Atheism is important to me and I’m going to talk in detail about how Haibane Renmei, in spite of—or maybe because of—its religious themes influenced me during an important transition in my life. I’m going to try and remain as general as possible describing the events of the anime that helped me become the person I am today, but the following paragraphs may contain minor spoilers, so you’ve been fairly warned.
Let me explain that my transition to atheism away from religion was not some overnight conversion or epiphany like so many religious experiences. It was a slow, cumbersome and contemplative process that started when I was a 16 year old junior in high school. At around this time I decided that I was going to give up organized religion and the church after reading Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” as part of literature class.
Go forward another two years when I started college and took a philosophy course. After hearing the powerful quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” I decided to look more closely at what I believed compared to the facts of the world around me. For reasons too numerous to go into here, I decided that I could no longer believe that a god existed. However, I still hung onto the concept of an afterlife and spirituality. I think I didn’t abandon this idea along with almost all of my other religious teaching right away because I have a romantic side that finds literal immortality enticing and I simply wanted to believe that some physical or at least metaphysical part of me would remain intact and go on forever.
However, this unsubstantiated belief disappeared as well after watching Haibane Renmei back around 2006 when I was starting my third year of college. The first conclusion that I reached right away was that I—and for that matter nobody—had any knowledge of what the afterlife would be like. Recounts of near-death experiences conflicted and were always heavily biased towards the religion of the person describing the vision.
What if the afterlife was literally like what happens in Haibane Renmei? What if we are robbed of all memories of our previous life and trapped in a walled city with seemingly arbitrary rules only to be tested then ultimately move on to yet another stage of existence beyond that yet again? More so than not wanting to experience an afterlife as it is depicted in the anime, I was horrified at my lack of knowledge—about everyone’s lack of knowledge—concerning what happens after death. This warranted further investigation because not knowing is no excuse to simply make something up. I begin to reevaluate what I realized to be a huge assumption about the nature of reality; I eventually realized it to be nothing more than the wistful thinking of men afraid to die.
Another part of Haibane Renmei I absolutely loved was a kind of kinship I found with Rakka. Neither of us understood our worlds in a way that we found satisfying. But we both had the courage to ask questions and seek answers, no matter what that eventual truth might turn out to be. And like Rakka, I wasn’t afraid to get into trouble along the way. In our self-imposed separation from our former lives, we both found that the world is in some ways simpler than expected and in other ways stranger than we can possibly imagine. Like the young haibane who lost her way and found herself again after getting mixed up in some deeply philosophical and twistedly existential conundrums, I too realized that I would rather accept an uncomfortable truth rather than indulge myself in pleasant lies.
In some ways I see the world of religion (Christianity in particular) as the Reki to my Rakka. The masses of the world were born told they are fallen and sinful—trapped in an endless cycle of punishment generation to generation from which there is no escape. To those who have the courage to stand up for themselves and ask for salvation in this world—in this life—the only life we know for sure we will ever have—I extend a hand to pull you off the tracks and out of the way of the train you can’t escape on your own.
I say to you—don’t believe what you’ve been told! You are not responsible for the misdeeds of your ancestors (real or imagined). You were born innocent and beautiful. The only way someone can take away your dignity is if you allow it. At the risk of getting too cute or preachy with my metaphors, I want to tell everyone who struggles with religion that you have a Rakka waiting in the wings (pun intended)—someone who will pull you out of the path of self-destruction in a moment’s notice. But you have to take that first step yourself and call out to her before she can lend a helping hand.