I don’t believe it, but you go right ahead

Bible fundamentalism has received a lot of well-earned intellectual scorn in these pages.

Now seems a good time for a “recalibration,” for an acknowledgement that there are other religious impulses that make more sense and deserve more respect.

There’s little need here to rehash all of the faults of fundamentalism — belief in the literal truth of sacred writings and in the infallibility of their holy interpreters. Fundamentalism is an easy target, and it’s already bleeding from its many wounds. So let’s move on, and take a look at some of the reasons why people who don’t buy into the full mythology might reasonably entertain a version of the God hypothesis.

First, it must be said that none of the spiritual motivations discussed below has any basis in the empirical evidence available to science. However, this lack of evidence, while fatal to the fundamentalist’s belief in a six-day creation or the transubstantiation of the Host, is not much of a problem for the kinds of religious feeling which are the subject of this posting.

As has been ably pointed out by others elsewhere, “faith in God” and “religion” are not synonyms. The first is an assertion of fact, a statement of what is; the second is an attitude, an approach or response to life. Religion is, in this sense, the framework for and the outcome of a sense of divinity, whether or not this divinity is perceived as a traditional, personified God. The distinction is critical, for the absence of evidence for the existence of God does not invalidate all of the experiences, intellectual and emotional, which we call “religion.”

Everything that can be explained can be explained by some form of reason — but not everything can be explained. “What is the chemical composition of our atmosphere?” is not at all the same kind of question as is “What is the purpose of the universe?” (Whether or not the second question is even a question is best left to Peter Hacker and the other descendants of Wittgenstein.) Thus, some aspects of religious belief are a matter more of personal sensibility than of empirical fact.

I won’t waste time with talk about the “My Personal Saviour” crowd, the ones who think that a magical super-being has reached down out of the sky and has picked them out individually to enjoy the glories of salvation. The kinds of religious people I respect are not as irrational as that.

Nevertheless, I do claim that even the most thoughtful believers create God out of their very human ways of perceiving, relating to, and interpreting the world and their lives within it. So I also believe that whatever reasonable impulses lead people to assert the divine comes not from God inspiring them but rather from them positing God. On that point the believers and I will just have to go on disagreeing.

I don’t at all pretend that the impulses to belief listed below are the only reasons why thoughtful non-fundamentalists turn to religion — but they are the impulses which seem to me to be the most reasonable and therefore the most deserving of my respect.

Probably the most common motivation for entertaining a spiritual sense of the world is the impulse to find and understand purpose. This impulse can be both intellectual — how does it all work? — and emotional — why am I here? For people who base their faith on a belief that there must be something that explains our existence, the search for meaning leads to the supposition that something outside of ourselves makes the universe, if not entirely comprehensible, at least not entirely pointless. Most things have causes, most actions have purposes, so why should life, including the believer’s existence, be different? There’s no need for archaic mythologies or fanciful creatures here, just an impulse to find meaning, to reject the idea of deep randomness.

Why should human life exist in an inconceivably vast universe? How unlikely is it that human life rose on this planet by accident? Why here, of all places? Why us, of all creatures? Surely there is some one, some thing, some force, out there that is responsible? It all makes sense to people who ask these questions only if their own improbable existence makes sense. Again, there is no need for magical beings — but to people who respond to the universe this way, there is a need for an explanation, for a cause.

For others, a similar question is presented in a slightly different way, with slightly different results. All of us respond with awe and wonder to the size and complexity of the universe. These feelings can only continue to grow as our awareness of the sheer scope of the cosmos increases. How can something so vast, so intricate, so powerful, exist? What — who — could be behind it all? That there might not be anything — anyone — who created such endless beauty and power seems to many people inconceivable. Doesn’t there have to be an agency, a First Cause? Again, this is a natural and universal human impulse. The awe and wonder many people translate into a belief in a divine creator is just as strong in those of us who don’t take that next step, that cosmic leap of faith.

On an earthly scale, many people cite the social benefits of religion. For them, religion provides a cultural anchor, a communal cohesion that provides much of the moral force that guides us to act on our better rather than our worse impulses. Take away the moderating influence and positive example of a common, religion-based moral code, they fear, and our social customs and civil law are merely arbitrary conventions. Without a “validated” morality, respect for accepted and traditional ways of acting will inevitably diminish, with potentially disastrous consequences.

In this view, religion is less an expression of divine truth than it is the spiritual glue of civil society. In Daniel Dennett’s words, people who are religious in this way do not so much believe in God as they “believe in belief.” People who view religion like this often cite the good works, the charity and community, that they attribute to the positive influence of a religion-based moral code. Church people are good people, they reason, so church must be good, too.

Finally, and somewhat related to the appreciation of tradition above, is the emotional power of many forms of religious ritual. When a religious impulse is expressed creatively, the result is often transportingly beautiful. You don’t have to be a believer to recognize the profoundly human feelings expressed in the art, poetry, and music of religious expression. Since these works are the high human achievements of talented people, it’s only natural that other people, including many dedicated non-believers, respond to them with equally strong emotions. For some people, this intense emotional experience is the very essence of their religiosity, and it can be a powerful motivation and justification of religious practice. (On a personal level, I know that despite my fervent atheism the evensong service sung by the choir at Westminster Abbey was the highlight of my first visit to London.)

All of the spiritual impulses outlined above seem to me to be both reasoned and reasonable. Unlike the most aggressive of the “New Atheists” who have captured wide media attention, I do not presume that good works that come from good people who happen to believe, as I do not, in some kind of God, are deserving of condemnation — or that these believers should be reviled as “fellow travellers” of fundamentalism.  Their faith does not depend on magic books, or speaking shrubbery, or the sun standing still in the sky. Their faith does not, as do the dogmas and children’s stories of fundamentalists, get my hackles up.

When someone tells me that the Earth is 6,014 years old because “the Bible tells me so,” I know that I’m dealing with someone whose mind has closed — which is what I wish his mouth would do. If he persists, and I haven’t walked away by then, I can point to all the evidence that proves him wrong, because his statement comes within the purview of empirical investigation. It’s a statement of how things are, and that’s an assertion that science can test.

But when someone tells me that she believes in God because the universe is beautiful, or because she admires the good works that the faithful do, she is talking about her response to the world, and that’s not so simple a matter. I may have a different response, but that’s no proof against hers. All I can say to her is:

I don’t believe it, but you go right ahead.

One thought on “I don’t believe it, but you go right ahead

  1. Well done . The equation is still religion = belief in “God”. God is then diversely explained in terms of what each of the believers considers important. I wonder if a new explanation of God will come out of the new evolutionary neurobiology explanations of brain operation.
    There are a lot of equations:
    Religion = spritual impulse
    Religion = social cohesion
    Religion = individual morality
    Religion = artistic impulse
    and so on. I do think some of these have been useful and will continue to be.

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