A Better Way to Believe in God

Religions do offer theological doctrine, but what they really offer is solace, love, sanctity, and value -- all of them inchoate, all of them dear.
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If you listened to today's crop of neo-atheists, you'd think our culture's ideas about God are remarkably adolescent: a 6000-year-old Earth? A God who punishes the wicked? This sort of thing might have been convincing long ago -- but not to anyone who uses the Internet.

Sophisticated religionists have long had more subtle conceptions of their religions, of course, without the fideistic claptrap rightly derided (but wrongly labeled "religion") by today's detractors. For example, many progressive religionists understand God not as some old man in the sky, but as a name we give the reality of all of being, a God that does not "exist" but is, indeed, Existence itself. Others understand Scripture as myth -- its literal truth is no more relevant than whether Hamlet really lived in Denmark. The point is its meaning and its purpose. And so on.

Of course, this is not the stuff you learn in Sunday School -- but that's a good thing. Imagine if your education in literature ended with Tom Sawyer and the last math you learned was pre-algebra. (That many not be such a stretch of the imagination for many of us, perhaps...) You wouldn't take seriously the possibility that literature can be transformative or that good math can put men on the moon. But that's exactly the situation when it comes to most religious thought today. People learn the simple stuff as children, and then, unsurprisingly, regard religion as childish.

Much of the problem stems from a certain misunderstanding about the purpose of religious belief. Believers and disbelievers alike seem convinced that religious beliefs are about explanations of how things are: the age of the Earth, what happens after we die, etc. Yet this is obviously not the case. A believer doesn't become convinced of the existence of the afterlife because of philosophical argument -- she becomes convinced because of grief. Eventually, more and more ideas accreted, and more and more solace, meaning, community, and perhaps even experiences of the sacred became attached to them. But it was never about the ideas; it was about the pain of living and the healing one finds in religion.

This is why it is so difficult to talk about religion in America today, why we fight wars about it, why we condemn and even kill one another about it: because it gets us in our guts, and stays there. Religions do offer theological doctrine, but what they really offer is solace, love, sanctity, and value -- all of them inchoate, all of them dear.

Really, why should anyone care so much about the age of the Earth, the parting of unscientific sham the Red Sea, or the resurrection of Christ? Do we really suppose that the most ardent of religionists are committed to ontology and history?

No -- these doctrines are only important because of the deep desires to which religion caters. Fundamentalisms and orthodoxies may say they are about the content of theological propositions, but the reason it's impossible to argue with them is that their adherents have so much at stake in their being right that they'll say or do anything to make it all work out. What's at stake? If the Torah isn't literally true, then something in my life is wrong. If Jesus didn't die for my sins, then I am not okay.

The trouble is that, for many people, the intense feelings that religion touches become translated into beliefs and opinions. America's religious right has intense religious experiences and associates them with Biblical literalism. The Islamic world's religious right has intense religious experiences and associates them with keeping the umma pure of corruption and decay. Israel's religious right has intense religious experiences and associates them with notions of chosenness, and holy land. In this way, fervent hope leads to fervent ideology.

Here in America, hundreds of millions of people believe in Intelligent Design, in life beginning at conception, and in a notion of a retributive God. Why? Not because of science, truthseeking, or logical inquiry. They "believe in" these things (notice the locution) because they think religion is at the core of their lives. Our political debates are not about evolutionary biology, civil liberties, or pre-existing conditions; they are about a terrified minority, afraid that society is slipping away from all it holds dear.

And religion is dear. Just imagine the grief of a young boy whose father has died. And imagine the hope, the consolation, when that boy is taught that at the Rapture, he'll meet his dad again. All of a sudden, Biblical inerrancy is no longer a hermeneutical proposition; it is necessary for the dearest of dreams to be true.

This is why otherwise intelligent people make absurd, ridiculous claims that fly in the face of the scientific revolution -- you know, the folks who brought you the airplane, the computer, and the artificial heart. That evolution, among the most successful explanations of facts that has ever been propounded, is somehow incomplete or inaccurate. That a fetus is a baby. That a blastocyst is a baby. None of this is about science; it's about primal human needs. The mind stuff is just window dressing.

If unreflective atheists mistake the window dressing for the view outside, unreflective religionists get too attached to the architecture of the window. Personally, I am a religious person, in love with God, and a mystic. As my readers know, I think spiritual and contemplative practice makes us better people, and makes life worth living. But when those spiritual states become wedded to ideology, they become dangerous. Already, a third of our country believes itself to be at war not only with Islam but also domestically, in what used to be called the "Culture Wars." Our lunatic fringe has grown in size as the bulwarks of its society have begun to crumble (a black man is president, homosexuals are getting married), and, whether explicitly religious or not, the rage they display is the same fundamentalism as that which motivates their Islamist enemies.

And we are all implicated by their fury. If I make a political decision based on an irrational or subjective value I hold privately dear, because of the emotional connections I associate with it, I am committing the same sin as they are. Those of us who are religious bear a heightened burden to question our motivations.

How not to believe in God? By confusing the Mystery with our all-too-human attempts to explain it. By confusing the finger that points at the Moon with the Moon itself. And by confusing the reasons why we believe with the content of our belief systems -- by thinking that it was ever about "belief" in the first place.

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