November 11th, 2015
Lately, especially since the terror attacks in Paris, I have read articles by atheists that not only condemn the violence of radical Islam, but also accuse religion per se as being the source of all the world’s problems. The essence of these essays is that all religions are based on absurd fairy tales and fuzzy thinking. The goal of the authors seems to be to drive out the darkness of superstition from human thought, and replace it with the light of reason. The idea is that, if only people saw things clearly (and in purely material way), all this violence and hate would disappear. There would be a godless form of the Rapture.
I suspect that this is wishful thinking. Humans are not rational beings. The universe is not a rational place. Reason and logic are of great value, but they can only take us so far. There is great suffering in this world, and every person, at some point, throws up their hands and cries out, “Why?”. Science cannot give satisfying answers that explain the death of a small child or the anguish of a person sick with cancer. Reason and logic can give answers that tell us how something happened, but they seldom can tell us why something happened. As humans, we are usually more interested in the “why”. Science cannot explain why I exist, or what my purpose is her on earth, or why life often sucks so hard. One possible answer could be: “We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.” That answer isn’t good enough for me or for billions of other people.
One of the reasons for existence of religion is to make sense of a universe that clearly does not make sense. Let me refer to the words of Carl Jung:
“There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. He can stand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; he is crushed when, on top of his misfortunes, he has to admit that he is taking part in a ‘tale told by an idiot’.”.
We need a story. We need a narrative. We need a myth. We need it to be human.
Religion often helps a person find his or her place in the universe. Religion provides a scaffolding for understanding life. In this sense, I would suggest that atheism is another form of religion, godless to be sure, but atheism (or humanism) also involves “thoughts that can never be proved”. There are assumptions in every tradition that can never be proven. Being an atheist requires an act of faith as much as it is needed to be a Catholic or a Jew. A system of belief, in whatever form, makes human life meaningful. It gives a person a reason to to persevere.
Are there things in religion that are absurd? Absolutely. I will not attempt to discuss other traditions that I have tried, but I can certainly speak for Catholicism, my spiritual home. Catholics believe in magic, pure and simple. We believe that a man rose from the dead, we believe in a virgin birth, we believe that bread and wine become God’s body and blood. These are pretty wild concepts, and we can’t prove any of them. However, although these beliefs may not make sense in the physical world, they speak to our hearts. They make total sense in a non-verbal, intuitive way. These beliefs make our lives livable. They become the truth that we need to become who we are meant to be.
“What is truth?” That was Pilate’s question to Christ, and it is a damn good one. To me, truth is a multi-faceted jewel, of which I can only perceive a small part. Others, be they Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists, see other parts of the truth. These are parts that are hidden from my view. This probably sounds like relativism, but I think of it as humility. I don’t know all the answers, nor does my faith tradition. The truth is there, but it comes in all different sorts of images and words and symbols.
There is a litmus test for truth. Edith Stein hit upon in it when she said that truth and love must always go together. Truth is never accompanied by violence or hate. The sectarian violence in our world is often based on the perception that one person or one group has a monopoly on the truth. Anybody who kills for the “truth”, does not have it. Truth is found when people are gentle and compassionate and tolerant. Look for it in those times and those places. Love and truth are two aspects of the same reality.
Humans will never be free of religion. It is part of our make up. I daresay that we are hardwired for it. Religion is often glorious, irrational, uplifting, infuriating, and silly; all at the same time. People are just like that.