observations and opinion
The Curious Mental Glaucoma of Religious Adherents
A lot of people don’t believe in God. They see a world full of random splendor, made beautiful and ugly by people but not by some unseen power. Agnostics are open to the idea of a God but figure he is writing in invisible ink – it remains to be seen. Then of course, there are many who say they do believe. Who and what they believe in seems to depend mainly on who believes it.
Among the believers, many imagine God as something like an all-powerful Bill Murray: detached, bemused and ultimately more interested in his next golf shot than the daily doings of humanity. Who you gonna call?
Some follow a more severe deity, a God who judges, smotes and commands His followers to cudgel infidel babies or shoot abortionists. This is the pissed-off, petty God who uses His worshippers to exact vengeance upon the not-so-worshipful. Joffrey Baratheon, basically.
And then of course, there are all those believers in the middle, whose idea of the Lord floats between the extremes. Serious, but not solemn. Someone you really should listen to. Morgan Freeman sits in that big chair much of the time.
Thus we find non-believers, various shades of believers and among the latter, all sorts of religions to believe in. In the West, where I hang my hat, the dominant religions are the Abrahamaic ones: one God only, in three flavours: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Take your pick. Islam is the newest of the three, hatched in the 7th Century A.D. (some Muslims think they’re still in that century, it seems).
Among the things these people have in common are their species, DNA, bodies, the planet they live on and an incurable appetite for sweet and salty foods. Around half are men, the other half women, a few somewhere between or are both. A disturbingly large number of them are fans of the New York Yankees. They say ten per cent of us are gay and if true, that means interesting things are happening under two in twenty burqas. And if you cut any of us, as Shakespeare said 500 years ago, we bleed.
We all have something else in common too: we are ALL non-believers. What?!!!? splutters the faithful, how dare you call us non-believers? Because it’s a fact: you are non-believers, my Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Zoraoastrian friends – each and all of you – because you don’t believe in what the other guy believes.
Disbelief in God is a universal feature of human beings. Sometimes we believe in another one God, sometimes in none, but we all don’t believe in some of them. This is a key unifying truth about human beings: they’re all non believers.
And they’re also neighbours. When Bobby Kennedy spoke soberly about what he called “the mindless menace of violence” plaguing America, he described the world in the simplest and truest of terms:
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Two months later, a man pumped bullets into Bobby’s brain, his eyes clouded and in days, he was dead. But of course, his words are still alive.
Yet those words would torment many among us. Many who cannot bring themselves to believe that they are, in fact, woven into a fabric of humanity made from many threads.
Scholars, clerics and psychologists spend lifetimes trying to understand why it is that men choose to ignore reality (that we are all basically the same) to imagine distinctions, differences imbued in them by the imaginary invisible God and His rule book. Maybe we just need to feel special.
Now in calling these gods “imaginary” that is not to say any of them aren’t real – heck, maybe they’re ALL real, not just the one I signed up with (that’s not what the rule book says, of course). When I say God is imaginary, that reflects the fact that God exists, largely, in our imaginings. The most ardent Baptist or Sunni or Sikh is unlikely to tell us that God is in her house, as touchable as a kitchen chair or as noisy as a hungry kitten. He’s not – He’s in her head. He may be everywhere, and everything, but He’s definitely in her head.
Indeed, the only thing we know for sure about God is that He never shows up in this world. Christians would differ, but even they only have one instance to point to when the deity made Himself corporeal. Many Muslims won’t even draw a picture of Allah, never mind point to him at the bus stop. And the Jews? Well, there was the Burning Bush once I guess.
All that being true, that ardent Shiite, Hasidic, Eastern Orthodox or whatever adherent, would have to admit that when he “sees” God in the world – in the pretty flowers, his baby’s face, the ruby red sunset, the ruby red grapefruit for that matter – when he “sees” God, he’s actually giving credit to the Lord’s handiwork. The believer sees God the way the listener sees Beethoven – a pile of sheet music to be played and appreciated.
Yet many among the religious would angrily dispute the idea that God exists in their imagination, because they would fear the implication that God exists only in their imaginations. Why fear the question of whether God exists? Perhaps because the world would seem lonely or barren without Him or perhaps, because that vengeful smoting version of God would turn you to cinders or sentence you to an eternity of anal rape with a hot poker. Who the hell knows (if you’ll pardon the pun) why people fear to think?
What we know for sure is that their God lives inside their head, and if they cannot even ask the question, “is there really a God outside my head” then theirs is a feeble faith indeed. To quote John Stuart Mill, an untested virtue is not virtue at all and that must, must be true of belief in God. If God is half the man (or whatever) believers think he is, you’d think God would be up to a little honest debate.
But no, most people’s God is a wizened-up, insecure weasel. What do you mean you might not love me anymore? !!! This God is the angry husband who punches out his wife when she suggests they go for counselling. And it is this God people credit with creating and operating the universe. How odd, when they wouldn’t let him near the cash register.
Which takes us to the other side of the puzzling religious coin: the believer’s incredible lack of faith in God.
According to the Abrahamaic faiths, there is a single God who made everything and everyone, knows everything, is everything and can do anything. Okay, let’s work with that idea for a minute. The all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful Lord put the whole universe in motion, including the peculiar hamster wheel that tumbles around inside your head. He even tells you how to live your life and He will judge, harshly or forgivingly, the choices you make.
If that is so (and all of the Big Three religions say it is), why do people keep trying to do God’s work for him? And why does He let them? If God sees it all and gets to decide, well, let Him decide. I’ve got my earbuds in listening to “Of Monsters and Men.” The girl next to me is pounding out an essay on her laptop, and who knows what her earbuds are playing? Most people in my city are at home or in a bar, watching the Ottawa Senators make (or miss) the playoffs. Somewhere in town this afternoon, probably, a woman is getting an abortion. Two men are having sex. Someone is drawing a cartoon of Mohammed.
Presuming that God even has preferences in music, sports, reproductive practices, sexual positions or graphic novels, isn’t that up to Him? In my view, it is titanically presumptuous – blasphemous in fact – for any human being to take upon him or herself the job of being God’s agent. First because they’re not God. Second, even if they are, they could be getting things wrong. And if I’m smart enough to know God’s self-appointed agent isn’t perfect, do you think God is smart enough to know it?
Sure, plenty of religious texts quote the Divine Authority as laying down some rules: stone your mom to death if she bakes bread at Passover, lop the hands off someone who illegally taps into the cable feed, and so on. Again, God may be perfect but who made the note-takers perfect? The people who wrote down these rules lived in huts, picked roots out of the sand for lunch and died of skin cancer at thirty. Maybe there were fifteen commandments, you know? You don’t know.
Besides which, and this is really the main point, if someone is a sinner she’s sinning against God, not against YOU. You aren’t God’s bodyguard or goaltender. God the all-knowing, all-whatever surely has it within his powers to set someone’s life in motion and to snuff it out, or to let lung cancer get them, or to reward them with great shoes. So why not let God handle it? Seriously.
Yet people won’t let God do His job – they do it for Him, as they dream it or are told it, and in so doing push themselves down, slowly or in deep dives, to new forms of depravity. For the rendering of God’s judgment and merciless justice, as it is imagined and inflicted, is a rendering not only unto the victim but also the believer.
Perhaps we need to believe in a cruel God, to justify not believing in our own best selves.
Imagine a world where every half-assed, hare-brained theory of the universe and idea of God has at least one devoted follower (you don’t have to imagine it,you live there already). Fine, believe what you believe, believer. Make note of my transgressions if you must (profanity among them) and don’t invite me over for dinner. Don’t visit my flower shop. But if my habits run counter to yours, don’t refuse to sell me a wedding cake and don’t cut my head off with a sharp knife, either. Let God decide about stuff.
Now, one argument in reply to this is “well, that’s anarchy – you’re suggesting we should have no rules.” And of course that’s baloney, I’m saying no such thing. We can readily develop a set of civil norms which allow us, among other things, to believe in whatever version of God we like – ask the Founding Fathers of the USA, for example, they managed it. Yes, we need some rules but as it turns out, human beings are perfectly capable of coming up with rules and enforcing them (just like the rules they yank out of their asses, put over God’s signature and try to force on each other).
As I said earlier, we are ALL non-believers in something. The Christian doesn’t believe in Allah and the Jew doesn’t believe in Jesus and the Muslim doesn’t believe in anything except what Mohammed wrote down or told his brother. The atheist doesn’t believe any of it.
Scepticism being a universal characteristic among all peoples, we can be certain of one of two things: (1) all religion is bunk and we’ve just dreamed the stuff up to make ourselves feel better, or (2) some kind of God may be out there, but it’s a God who made every one of us a non-believer in something.Maybe He made most of us wrong. Who knows? I know who doesn’t know – you. Or me.
This universal scepticism being an absolute truth about human beings, it is sublimely arrogant of any human – including atheists – to assert knowledge or authority of which faith (or non-faith) is the true faith. Hence my advice to friends and strangers alike, who have found or who are looking for God: let God do His job. You’re not God.
You’re just like me: a fan of Beethoven’s Ninth, or maybe even a piano player. Go ahead, play: I might listen. Or I might not.
To go back to Bobby:
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.