Religion: A Useful Fiction?

February 2007


Nicolas Poussin – the adoration of the golden calf 1633-36 {public domain}

“Transcendentalism, especially when reinforced by religious faith, is psychically full and rich, it feels somehow right …  (But) Science has always defeated religious dogma point by point whenever the two have conflicted. But to no avail. While empiricism wins the mind, transcendentalism wins the heart … Still, if history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth.” – E. O. Wilson, Consilience.

My memory is not very good.  Specifics of events are often lost over time, leaving only the “gist,” like the contours of a picture whose details have faded. But some moments have remained vivid in my memory like undying embers forever aglow from the passion they inspired at the time.  I remember one afternoon, some years ago; the rain had stopped, and from behind a large cumulus cloud an array of shining Fingers of God emanated down towards me as if reaching to touch me.  The brilliance of the sun behind the cloud also edged it all around with gold, and that too seemed almost magical in its sheer beauty.  I was listening to Et in terra pax hominibus from Vivaldi’s Gloria on a CD in my car at the time, and I thought to myself  that if ever there could be a physical manifestation of the glory of God, surely this would be it.  If I were so inclined, I might indeed have taken that scene, so beautifully enhanced by Vivald’s Gloria, as evidence of God.

It has often been said that God has inspired much of the world’s best music and art.  No doubt Vivaldi, who was, after all, a priest, was so inspired when he wrote his Gloria.  Indeed, the magnificence of these human creations has sometimes been taken as evidence of God.  But, of course, this is not really evidence in any usual sense of the word.  Just as the beautiful “Fingers of God” enhanced by Vivaldi’s music that day wasn’t really a physical manifestion of God.  There is a straightforward scientific explanation of the “Fingers of God” phenomenon, so named metaphorically but, alas, not literally – alas,  because I think most people very much want there to be a God and so are strongly inclined to take as evidence all manner of things about which a cooler mind would be skeptical.

Interestingly, we are skeptical about the conceptions of God in other cultures, about their God, who has a different name, and has written a different book, than our God.  Even as a child, I noticed how most people tended to readily accept the religion into which they were born, no matter how fantastical the stories on which it was based, and to unthinkingly categorize other religions as nothing more than just that – fantastical stories; certainly not the truth.

There is no more actual evidence for any one religion than for any other religion – although millions of people would argue fervently for the veracity of their religion.  Some would even kill in its name.  And most people who feel strongly about their religious beliefs are surrounded by many other people – whole congregations or mosques or megachurches, nowadays – who feel likewise.  Surely all these people cannot be wrong.  But, of course, they can.  The sheer number of people believing something, without any actual evidence that it is true, does not in itself provide that evidence.  And, of course, as has been pointed out more than once, if millions of people believe one religious story, and other millions of people believe another religious story that contradicts the first story in some not unimportant details, they cannot all be right.

But putting aside the contradictions among (and within) the world’s great religions, there is a more fundamental problem – the famous Problem of Evil.  A thorough assessment of the world does not easily induce us to conclude that there is a God – at least not an omnipotent, benevolent God.  Perhaps if you ignore all the horrible violence of nature, to say nothing of the mind-numbing cruelty of man, you might be able to convince yourself – that is, if you carefully cherry pick the aesthetically pleasing aspects of life on earth.  But an honest appraisal does not support the notion of the omnipotent, benevolent God that most of us in the West are brought up to believe in.  So to believe in such a God, people must try to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable.

One way people approach the problem is to try to “rise above it” by simply having faith that God himself is somehow above it.  “You have to have faith …,” people say, or “God works in mysterious ways, and we cannot hope to comprehend Him.”  To which I wonder, “Why does one have to have faith?” And, “If we cannot hope to comprehend God, why do we think He’s trying to communicate something to us or that he even exists?”

Another way this problem is sometimes dealt with is to define “God” so vaguely that the concept is no longer “hemmed in” by most of the anthropomorphic characteristics that traditional religions, especially of the Abrahamic tradition (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), have imposed on God.  In his debate in the blogosphere with the atheist, Sam Harris, Andrew Sullivan described God, whose existence he said he has never doubted, as “a force beyond everything and the source of everything.”[1]

It’s clear from reading many of Sullivan’s other posts on his blog and his other writings that this “force beyond everything and the source of everything” is not the same as, say, Jerry Falwell’s or Pat Robertson’s concept of God.  It’s not an angry and judgmental God who would punish people for straying from the straight and narrow path described to us with such certainty by the likes of Falwell and Robertson (and a host of other “Christianists,” as Sullivan calls them).  It’s nothing so cartoonish.  Sullivan’s idea of God is more subtle.  But what is it?  Is it just a force of nature?  No; Sullivan believes in a God who can love us, which means that God is something other than an impersonal force.

There’s a public part to religion and a private part.  The public part is the part that is shared with others, the part that is meant to bind us  together – the rituals that all the members of a religious community take part in and the story they are all required to believe:  that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was then resurrected; or that Muhammad was the prophet of Allah; or that the Buddha experienced enlightenment as he sat beneath the bodhi tree.  The public part is usually handed down to us by our parents and maintained by an entire community of people.  It is what we, like Andrew Sullivan, are surrounded by from the moment of our birth, a ready interpretation of the world around us, a ready source of answers to those seemingly unanswerable questions most people ask at some point in their lives.  Of course, not everyone accepts every word of the story they are given.  But the public part is what is presented to us; it is what we draw from in our search for meaning; it is sometimes what we reject completely.

The private part consists of those personal experiences that we interpret as religious or spiritual, experiences that we feel link us with God; experiences in which we somehow “sense” God in our lives.  I put the word in quotes because we do not sense God the same way we sense the objects we see or the sounds we hear.  But this very private experience can seem every bit as real, more real by some interpretations, than the experiences we have through our five senses.  Sullivan eloquently describes such an experience:

 “The sense that evil was the ultimate victor in the universe, that evil is the fundamental meaning of all of this, that ‘none of this cares for us,’ to use Larkin’s simple phrase: this sense pervaded me for a few minutes and then somehow, suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted. I can no more explain that – or provide a convincing argument that it was anything more than your [Harris’s] own moment of calm in Galilee. But I can say that it represented for me a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness, the improbable notion that the force behind all of this actually loved us, and even loved me. The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes.”[2]

A few days after Sullivan wrote that, Sam Harris replied.  His reply contained sentiments I’ve felt all my life, sentiments that have prevented me from having the sort of conversation with religious people (some of whom have told me to my face that I am damned to hell because of my lack of belief in their religion) that Harris and Sullivan have, to their great credit, been having in the blogosphere:

 “You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn’t come to believe in God by taking any state of the world into account, no possible state of the world could put His existence in doubt. This is the very soul of dogmatism. But to call it such in this context will seem callous, as you have emphasized how your faith has survived—and perhaps helped you to survive—many harrowing experiences. Such testimonials about the strength and utility of faith mark off territory that most atheists have learned never to trespass. This reminds me of the wonderful quotation from Mencken: ‘We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.’ The truth is, no one wants to be in the business of arguing that another person’s principal sources of comfort and gratification are not as he thinks them to be. …”[3]

Unlike Andrew Sullivan, I was not brought up within a religious tradition, and unlike him I have always questioned and doubted the existence of God.  But like Sullivan, I have always thought about God.  And I have wished I could believe in God – for what I suspect is the same reason so many people so fervently believe:  to banish the feeling that “none of this cares for us.”  Sullivan’s  interpretation of the lifting of this feeling as “a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness” and of the feeling of calm that followed, the hearing of a “voice with no words,” as “truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes,” is one of the more eloquent descriptions I’ve read of what is, in the end, a completely personal experience.

And therein lies the problem.  I cannot, of course, get inside someone else’s head or claim to truly know another person’s private experience.  When religious people talk of their experiences of God, from which they derive a certainty of his existence and his love, I am left with two possible conclusions about what it really means.  It is possible that they have indeed had an experience of God – of a God that exists outside of all of us – that I have not – because, they would say, I have not opened myself up to God.  Or it is possible that these types of experiences are actually completely internal to the person having the experience, that such experiences have nothing to do with an actual God outside the person but have everything to do with our deep need for there to be a God, to banish the feeling that “none of this cares for us.”

Because God, if he exists, has never given us any legitimately public sign of his existence, all we are left with are these personal testimonials.  And that is problematic, because people often convince themselves of all sorts of things that are not true in an effort to comfort themselves or protect themselves from perceived threats.  Life can be extraordinarily difficult, and comfort is no small thing.  If one wants to believe something, it isn’t that hard to convince oneself.  And if a story that is told to you or that you tell yourself is comforting, then why not continue to tell it?  And why not get as many other people to believe it too, all the better to enhance the appearance of its truth?  What’s wrong with that if it makes everyone feel good?

At some point, a leap is made from the purely private to the very public.  As Harris says in his reply to Sullivan,

“… your claim about God really does not appear limited to your own experience. You are not saying—“Sam, I just don’t know how I can convince you of this, but when I close my eyes and think of Jesus, I experience a feeling of utter peace. I’m calling this feeling ‘God,’ and I suspect that if more people felt this way, our world would be radically transformed.” An assertion of this sort would give me no trouble at all. But you are saying quite a bit more than that. You are claiming to know that God exists out there.”[4]

This leap is what links the private part of religion with the public part.  It is what makes religion so much more than a collection of separate private experiences – so powerful a force to shape people’s attitudes about the world and each other.  And it doesn’t go in only one direction.  I suspect that without the public part, without the story we are told over and over again, the private experience would be interpreted differently.  The fleetingness of an oppressive fear might be a cherished sense of calm or a great relief but not a representation of God’s love.  But if we want God’s love, if we want there to be a God who will love us no matter what, we can feel it and “know” it; it can be “truer” to us than anything that we know through our mere five senses.

I have come to think of religion and God as the greatest stage production that was ever put on.  We easily suspend disbelief, caught up amidst the glorious scripture and cathedrals and mosques and the milennia of human tradition, because we are so emotionally invested in the story.  Yes, there may be a God, but nothing in this world gives us cause to believe there is – least of all the internally and externally inconsistent stories we tell each other.  It’s as if we think that if only we tell these stories often enough, loudly enough, with enough conviction and fanfare, they will be true.

Atheists are the most reviled group of people in America today, and I cannot help but wonder why.  A teeny tiny minority, they pose no real threat in terms of numbers.  But they decline to believe something – something for which there is no empirical evidence, but for which no empirical evidence is ever required – that the vast majority of people do believe.  It’s as if, amidst a crowd of people cheering and waving, a single person is whispering, “They’re just actors, after all … it’s just a human production, all our doing … there is no God.”


4 comments on “Religion: A Useful Fiction?

  1. chicagoja says:

    Props to you; this is the best take yet on a subject that has been written about ad nauseum. Unfortunately, religion does a great disservice in trying to define God in finite terms; by definition that’s impossible. The Problem of Evil, as stated by Epicurus, doesn’t fully solve the matter either. Since the days of the Greek philosophers, no one has mentioned a different scenario for God; namely, that God is not generally reflected in religious dogma. That God exists, as you said, completely outside of man (and outside of Nature). The laws of Nature and the physics would no doubt be completely different in that other reality and our use of logic to solve this problem would, therefore, be rendered completely fruitless. In that case, evil could be viewed as a necessity in the evolution of good. As for the god of the Old Testament, it’s an established fact that man labels things outside of his conventional wisdom as miracles or acts of God. So too the gods of the bible were revered to be gods when all they were was a highly-advanced civilization capable of genetic experimentation. Today, homo sapiens sapiens stands on the brink of being gods themselves one day.

  2. Leon levin says:

    Because religions are based on delusions, the belief is inherently vulnerable and therefore leads ultimately to violence to defend the needed irrationality.

  3. […] [6] Belief in a personal God was appealing to me for many years; even though I did not actually fully believe in such a God, I wished I could. See: Religion: A Useful Fiction? […]

  4. […] But people need hope. Even in a world that often seems crushingly hopeless, we persist in our hopefulness. Many people turn to religion, the ultimate provider of hope – for many, the provider of last resort. For a realist, however, religion – especially the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) may be too much of a stretch. As I wrote elsewhere, […]

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