There’s a lot about religion (particularly of the Judeo-Christian variety) that makes me angry. But there’s two (related) aspects of religion I genuinely don’t understand. So let me try to think it through…
1. In America, and likely elsewhere in the world, it seems the “default” is to be religious. Even if someone’s not Christian, of some type or other, it’s assumed that he’s just a member of another religion; why do I have to “come out” as atheist?
2. How can people actually believe in a god? I mean truly believe, not just go through the motions–church, ritual, prayer, etc.
Ok. Let’s see… I guess the straightforward answer to the first question is–simple brainwashing. I think it’s pretty clear that children are not born belonging to a religion. I suppose we can’t say that babies are atheists, since babies aren’t really anything yet. But it’s fair to say that babies are agnostic–open minds ready to soak up knowledge.
When parents, instead of teaching knowledge, preach ideology and dogma, I suppose it “sticks”. And if many people are religious, it makes sense that their children will be as well.
Still, why are so many people religious in the first place? This ties in with my second question–why, and how, do so many people believe in god?
Belief in god just doesn’t make sense to me; I can’t wrap my head around it. Growing up, I never had religion forced down my throat, but I was aware of it. I also wasn’t raised an atheist–my parents just left me alone, never telling me that god did or did not exist. Nonetheless, I was aware that I was “supposed” to be Jewish: my grandmother prayed weekly over lit candles; my parents took me to the occasional Jewish holiday party at a local synagogue; we’d buy our “New Year’s Tree” the day after Christmas, so that no one would think we celebrated that holiday (though I suppose my parents’ main motivation might have been the much-reduced price of Christmas trees after Christmas).
My parents would take me to art museums from a young age, where I’d see countless gruesome paintings of crucifixions, endless halos, and an embarrassing number of naked winged babies. I was 4 or 5 at the time, when I tried to replicate one of the crucifixion paintings (I think I was overly confident in my drawing abilities). When I showed a classmate my scribble of a stick-figure on a cross, and asked her to guess what it was, she told me “it’s God”. When I showed my parents, they told me that Jews are not supposed to draw Christ, so I put it away, ashamed (I don’t think they knew just how guilty I felt).
I knew most of my Kindergarten schoolmates did believe in god, and I felt left out. I wanted to believe in god too! So I decided to give it a shot. I closed my eyes and thought to myself “ok… now I believe in god.” Then I opened my eyes, looked at the maple tree outside my window, and realized–I don’t believe in god! My attempt had failed. I understood how I could participate in a religion, but no matter how many candles I lit or how much Hebrew I recited, I still wouldn’t actually believe in such an entity as god.
So that was that, I settled my crisis-of-faith at age 5. Pascal famously decided to believe in god, just in case: if god doesn’t exist, as he suspected, his belief wouldn’t matter anyway; but if god did exist, he’d have insurance against hellfire. Logical, sure. But while I can imagine making such a decision to believe, I can’t imagine truly believing.
Now, since I’m trying to actually understand how someone could believe in god, rather than dismissing this belief as below the intellect of a 5-year-old, I’m going to temporarily withhold judgement and try to consider similar and more general beliefs.
The deities of polytheistic or pagan religions are a bit removed from “god”. In fact, I “get” those religions a bit more, if only because their deities are a bit more sensible: they’re fallible, their motivations are clear, they’re not omnipotent; all in all, they’re just more relatable. Often, they resemble forces of nature, and I’d be so much more ok with worshiping them than the bloody, hypocritical, psychopathic Judeo-Christian god. Yet, while I do think Loki is totally awesome, I still can’t imagine literally believing in his existence…
What about belief in the supernatural, generally? While I don’t believe in ghosts or monsters or witches, I think I can imagine believing in them… If I turn off the light in the basement before walking up the stairs, I do get that feeling that something’s watching me. Sure, intellectually, I know there’s nothing there, but my body betrays me: my heart rate increases, my hands sweat, my muscles tense–all in all, a typical fight-or-flight fear response. I’m afraid of the monsters I know aren’t real, because it feels like they are.
This makes sense: an innate fear of the dark is incredibly beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. At night, we are vulnerable; at night, nocturnal hunters open their over-sized eyes, and we can’t even see them coming. So when the shadows on the ceiling seem to morph into grotesque figures, or when the creaking of wind-swept trees sounds like footsteps, we’re afraid–alert in the case of real danger.
With this in mind, I can understand how someone might be afraid of the ghost in an abandoned, “haunted” house, or the monster under his bed. Even if none of these supernatural beings are real, the fear certainly is.
So what does this mean about god? Since I can imagine believing in monsters, can I empathize with belief in god?
I still can’t. If fear predominantly motivates belief in the supernatural, I imagine that believers in god are by nature “god-fearing”. But I’m not afraid of god. And if god cannot inspire terror, he’s powerless.