I’ve always been about five seconds away from being an atheist, or of just being indifferent to the idea of God.
I once knew the son of a minister. In the middle of facing the hypocrisy of the religion he was raised with and how ill-equipped it had made him to deal with the world, and facing how deceitful it had been in teaching him history, he one day said to me that it almost didn’t matter if Jesus existed, since we don’t deserve such a reality: just look at what we do with God when we do believe in one.
And this is really it: I’ve been so close not to atheism, but just indifference, precisely and only because of what human beings have done to religion, whether the worst violence or, as here, just the insidious and horrible lying mistreatment of one’s children, of entire generations. It’s as if we don’t even deserve religion at all.
Spending the past few months listening to interviews on the favorite music and literature and ideas of people who were adults during World War II, I was struck by how we have lost any sense of a shared education in things like classical music, or art, or literature, the kind of world where people simply knew a piece of music by habit, or could quote a poet or essayist with ease.
People who are in love with knowledge and cultural history like to believe that these things “civilize.” But, finally, one intellectual admitted what had been lurking in my mind: that such a shared cultural heritage had not kept the world from going to war in 1914, or in 1939, or any time before that. He went on to say that culture may, in fact, barbarize us, may make us worse, since all it creates are groups of opinions, categories, and cliques that deny the chaos of being alive. By then, culture is not something to be experienced, but something to argue about.
And when those five seconds towards indifference are running down, it’s hard not to think the same way about religion. It has great potential, but in the hands of human beings that potential is endlessly squandered.
While simplistic, the following statement has a horrible ring of truth to it: “A normally good person will do bad things; but to get a good person to do something evil—only religion can do that.”
After all, when someone converts to a religion and seems particularly obsessed with it, we don’t say that they are becoming political or artistic about their religion; but when someone obsessively takes up anything political or cultural, the religious metaphors immediately come out: whatever it is has “become like a religion to them,” and so on. Our unhealthy attachment to an idea is best described by comparing it to our propensity to be attached to religion in the same fanatical and neurotic way.
And sometimes I do come around to blaming God for what human beings themselves have done and continue to do with the idea of God. It goes something like this:
The greatest religious virtue appears to be humility; and nearly everyone, from the day we’re born, espouses humility, charity, selflessness, decency. And yet we live in a world in which our technology, culture, infrastructure, leisure, and relationships seem bent on the exact opposite. All of these aspects of life are best and most easily used to make us more selfish, more bitter, more sad.
What I’m wondering is why the world is the way it is. Of all possible worlds in which selflessness and humility are apparently the things to strive for, we are saddled with a world in which doing the exact opposite is so easy. So that yes, humanity chooses to be selfish and cruel and violent: we are to blame entirely; but it’s curious that we do so in a world in which such choices seem more natural to make than being humble or loving.
Writing at the beginning of this book on the nature of religious scripture, I said,
To put it simply: if the basis of all religions are ideas and experiences that are finally incommunicable using God-given language, and in the end are incomprehensible using God-given senses, and seeing that God has apparently chosen modes of revelation which emphasize the limitations of our senses and our intellect, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to assume that religion’s purpose (or purposes) has more to do with humility than with certainty, and nothing at all to do with religiously-inspired or -justified violence or intolerance, or with childish and fearful claims to exclusive truth.
At my worst, I would simply use the same points to come to a different conclusion: what kind of God sets his creation in a world where decency is not just difficult but even cruelly so, compared to the success of all those who lie, steal, cheat, and commit violence; and what kind of God equips his created beings with minds and senses and languages so shoddy and not up to the job that the greatest experience of all—of humility, of being consumed into God and into the lives of others—can be perverted so easily, so effortlessly, so thoughtlessly, so violently, so completely, and so ubiquitously, throughout all of history, a history that is just drowning in blood? What kind of God equips his created beings so poorly that the minds and senses and languages of those beings are actually put much more easily and convincingly to ignorance, violence, hatred, bigotry, destruction and murder, all while vaguely whispering that love and compassion are really the way to go?
In such a situation it seems we are much better off helping people than wondering about God at all.
When it’s convenient, we like to talk about our positive relationship to God in human terms. This pervades all religions, from the love of Radha for Krishna in Hinduism, or to the rich interpretative tradition surrounding the Biblical Song of Songs, where lover and beloved are equated with God and the church (whether Jewish or Christian). Nearly everyone could talk in this way about God for hours, effusively, beautifully.
But to negatively compare our relationship to God in human terms is not allowed—then, all of a sudden, it becomes a “mystery,” a transcendence we cannot talk about or conceptualize, and so cannot criticize. I like to think of it this way: when we’re single and we meet someone, or when we become parents, or when we meet someone who becomes a close friend, we are enthused, we open ourselves up to them, we do all we can to make ourselves known to them and to explain ourselves when necessary, and we are drawn to be closer and closer to this lover, or this child, or this friend. Yet it seems that God does the opposite of all of these things: God appears and hides, speaks unclearly, or is simply there and not doing much of anything in our actual world, or God treats human beings in a way none of us would accept from anyone else.
Or to say it another way: when we are single and meet someone, and want to tell them where we live so they can come over, we give directions, we say where to stop, where to turn, and give a street number. God, by all appearances, is like a lover yelling from miles away, saying Come to me. He’ll sort of tell you how to get there, but in the meantime that very same invitation sounds entirely different—and entirely exclusive—to someone else you might meet on the same road. Rather than removing the barriers between the lover and the beloved, the religious experience the world over testifies to nothing but barriers, misunderstandings, and the violence of those who disagree.
And again, all of the tools we have to perceive, experience, understand, emulate, share, and be one with God, so easily betray us. It is always leaning the other way, the deck is always stacked, God appears to be at the table just betting we won’t come through. Our senses, mind, and even our hearts look at this situation and deny it. It’s ridiculous.
As I said, atheism isn’t my answer so much as indifference is. The question isn’t whether or not God exists, but whether believing is of any help to those caught in the brutality of history and the present moment. Is religion actually more of a stumbling block than a help to simple compassion?
As noted over and over in these pages, in the end, and in the face of the total and unending reality of human suffering, the best most religions can do is to suggest that everyday life, or indeed the entire world of sensory experience, is illusory somehow, or inherently evil, and only in some afterlife or enlightenment will things make sense, or will the good be separated from the wicked. Apparently the only way to explain why the world is the way it is, is to say we shouldn’t be here at all. Which doesn’t speak well for religion.
When I am in this state of mind I ask, Where to go, from here? I am reminded of those conflicted individuals who believe the earth is, give or take, around ten thousand years old. Confronted with the bones of dinosaurs, and with the science which not only dates the earth as more than sixty million years old, their only conclusion is that God placed the bones there to test them. This God also apparently falsely rigged the layers of earth and remains, and even rigged the means by which to calculate their age. In other words, this kind of God is pretty ridiculous.
And so when I am in this state of mind I realize that, while such people (and other fundamentalists) would never consider me a friend, the arguments for their ridiculous God sound something like the arguments I’ve made in my mind about this God I have also created out of words: that a world has been created which naturally encourages immorality rather than morality; that human beings were created with such astounding defects in cognitive and other abilities that, even if they came to conceive that a God might exist, their abilities to talk about and express this conviction would be so shoddy as to lead to more division and discord than understanding and harmony; and that anyway, the combination of shoddy world and defective human beings would, with or without disagreements about God, lead pretty naturally to selfishness, brutality, and hatred. It’s all an impossible test.
Such a God, discovered through shoddy and limited human reasoning, naturally seems pretty shoddy and limited. I mean, there’s pessimism, and then there’s the ridiculous; and this kind of God, I realized one day to my surprise, is too ridiculous to even believe in, let alone believe in and denounce.
Which is funny, isn’t it? A prominent atheist recently said, “Religion has kept civilization back for hundreds of years, and the biggest mistake in the history of civilization, is ethical monotheism, the concept of the one God. Let’s get rid of it and be rational.” [i]
While I can agree on the destructive limitations of any religion that claims exclusivity, the idea of the entire world suddenly deciding to be “rational” scares me as much as the entire world converting to the same religion. And I realized that even if I were an atheist, I could never for a second believe that supposed rationality and logic could suddenly solve all of our problems.
When it comes to things like medicine, or astronomy, or calculating air or space travel, or engineering a building, or simply proving that gasoline and not mud will get our cars to run, rationality and logic are kings; but when it comes to living, thinking, and considering how to live and think and treat other people, the certain good of rational logic is as faulty as religious certainty.
Because during the many years this book has been tooling around in my mind, I’ve realized what I said above: if I continue with this line of thought, the entire idea of God will be not ridiculous, but beyond ridiculous; and further: if I applied this kind of thought to anything else in my life that mattered, all of them would come out the other end practically meaningless. Anything thought about long enough spirals out into nothing, or becomes incomprehensible to those important people I keep coming back to, who are caught in the blood and nightmare of history.
Why is it possible to apparently reason something out of existence? Isn’t that a strange limitation of reason? I realize that if I truly believe that religion has nothing to do with reason and logic, and more to do with the real difficulty of faith, I have to stick to that, painful and befuddling as it may be. But beyond religion, so much else has so little to do with reason and logic as well. And the true horror of the world is when we try to prove that religion and life are reasonable and logical, rather than learning to live meaningfully with the incoherence of both.
The only real response I’ve received to any of these grievances is simple enough: nothing is easy, and everything meaningful is hard, so why shouldn’t God—by degrees of importance—be that much harder?
What I’ve come to see, with the invaluable help of my wife, is that the uncertainty and difficulty involved in religion is, as I said on page one, the best analogue to the uncertainty and difficulty found in everyday life.
As written elsewhere, all of our technology, culture, infrastructure—all of our attempts to organize and codify and to make things more efficient and reliable and certain—all of these are attempts to pretend that life is actually neat and tidy. But the mess and variety and uncertainty and difficulty involved in a world with hundreds of religions is actually a closer illustration to how life actually is, and this is why any attempt to make religion otherwise—dogmatic, certain, and logical—is so destructive and mistaken.
And for those caught in the nightmare of history, what better example is there of the humility that can chip away at that nightmare, than religion seen for what it is: strong for being fragile, instructive and exemplary for being provisional, remarkable for being so difficult, for being so hard to talk about rather than being so certain and so easy to spout and yell and preach?
As I’ve hinted at already, this entire essay could have been written not about religion, but about those other fragile things that crowd our everyday lives, and as I’ve prepared to finish this book, I made a small list of difficult things that came to mind: why should things like musical instruments, or other languages, be so hard to learn; why did the discovery of germ theory come so late in human history; why should couples who want children be unable to have them, while those that don’t be capable of it; why should parenting be so difficult, such a sacrifice; why should steep hills or waterfalls exist, since any human being or animal can plunge from such heights and get hurt, or die; why does the abuse or neglect of children exist at all; why are women subjected to monthly periods, why is pregnancy so difficult, why is the delivery so painful; and why is adolescence such a terrible time, and why should human beings be granted the impulse to use their bodies sexually before they can even make that decision decently, or before they can even comprehend their bodies; why should our cars be allowed to run out of gas, why should it be possible that our bathtubs can overflow, why is it possible that an important bill is lost in a pile of papers on the table? And on and on, from the serious to the mundane. Why does any of this happen? Why is life so hard? Why do things happen?
To my surprise, writing this book has helped me put religion back in that category. Religion is so wonderful because it is a part of everything, not because it is outside of or above or better than the world; it works because it is the world; it is the perfect illustration of everything, the great mess of being alive that can just as easily be tragic as transcendent.
The narrative and momentum and inevitability we have given to the course of recorded history, and the need for that plot, the need for that certainty of interpretation, is illusory. All of it can change in a second. For just as there were once moments in history where people had never heard of every God and prophet that has since appeared in the world, just so we are perhaps living in moment before religious diversity is seen for what it is, and what it always has been: a reflection of how being alive actually is, and how to deal with that fact; a reflection of all that can be good, which requires the denial of no one and of no thing, let alone of the world itself; the greatest edifice of contradictory and complementary and paradoxical meaning and experience, all of it demanding not certainty or arrogance or proof or a solution, but only—again and again—humility, empathy, humility.
[i] Peter Watson, interviewed on the CBC News, May 5, 2007; quoted here: https://ffrf.org/news/day/dayitems/item/14381-peter-watson