It’s always refreshing to hear a religious person, who is trying to convince you of the truth of their faith, suddenly realize the actually wonderful mystery of faith: they can’t actually prove it.

And so instead they end up saying something like, “I can’t prove it, but it clearly works.” This is what they say about those obvious things which religion engenders: a sense of community, or purpose to one’s life, or the discipline of observance and prayer, or the sense of belonging which comes with the conscious participation in a tradition.

But of course those same practicalities—the way in which any idea “works” for a certain community with a certain outlook and certain expectations—can be said about any religion, even the worst and most violent versions of them. (And the same is true for political or cultural ideologies, since for some ISIS “works” just as well as Nazism did.)  

Like Nazism and ISIS, though, just because part of a religion works for a large segment of the population, doesn’t mean it’s true. Put another way, I once heard it said that since contraception has obviously made women more promiscuous, and that this promiscuity has ruined marriage and family to a great degree, this was somehow “proof” that a religious ban on contraception was correct, was “true”, and was what God wants. But all it actually means is that life is difficult, messy, and uncertain. We don’t go around banning cars because of automobile fatalities; rather, experience and constant refinement only hopes to make driving cars safer. Something like this is the best we can do with morality, which less a math problem and more of a conversation.

Put another way: as much as we all see irresponsible parents who should never have had children now with a carload of them, no one actually wants to mandate forced sterilization to keep certain people from procreating. Which is odd, because the same religions that are against contraception are also against forced sterilization; forced sterilization is apparently an affront to human dignity and freedom, but somehow freely choosing to use contraception (or living together before marriage, or sex before marriage) also is.

But the answer to the problems which sex in general produces (married or unmarried) isn’t in banning things, since there just isn’t any safety in Declaring Something Wrong, and hoping that will do away with it and make life easier. And anyhow there’s a large difference between being prohibited from certain behaviors because they could lead to various complications that are simply a part of life, and choosing behavior by experience and learning from good and bad decisions.

You could be silly and say that if any of the above is true, we might as well legalize murder and child abuse and rape while we’re at it, since those things also clearly “work” for some people, but even ancient societies governed by the rules of one God or gods or still somehow had crime. Having the rules has never mattered; having the human conversation about why there are rules, has mattered.

All we have are the thousand ways we’ve found to help deal with one another better, and more lovingly, and more humanely; and the best we can do is juggle all of those options every day, reacting to every new situation and context, to discover not what’s forever true, but what might work for a moment, and maybe a moment more.



7 thoughts on “Just Because it Works Doesn’t Mean It’s True

  1. Interesting point of view. Does religion work? In reality it is the common sense nice people who are more pleasant than the die hard zealots who try to force their blinkered ideas on others. mmm.

  2. There’s a Delmore Schwartz story, i don’t have it with me at the moment it is in my house, so i can’t recall which one exactly, but i know it’s from In Dream Begin Responsibilities; anyway, in one of the stories one character raises the topic of contraception & raises something no one present had considered: that due to contraception it gives people the option to test the waters, to try out partners before settling, whereas the fear of pregnancy & the shame of getting pregnant outside of wedlock had made this inconceivable before the arrival of contraception. i loved that Schwartz had considered that.
    One thing i hope as man goes forward with designing new things for themselves, we have as you say the dialogue about there value & that if there isn’t one we stop wasting our time with them.

    Having the rules has never mattered; having the human conversation about why there are rules, has mattered.

    This is a great line & i couldn’t agree more. However, it poses a problem, when all the positions on why they matter comes in, will it not serve as problematic in deciding which of the opinions are valuable enough to move forward with?

  3. “…the human conversation about why there are rules, has mattered.” Absolutely, we need on-going conversations to achieve and sustain some sort of moral consensus to help govern behaviour.

  4. I find people who are convinced they are speaking for God a bit of a pain. Too often they are offering their opinion and are convinced that God agrees with them.

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