I listened to Christian radio on a regular basis, as I drive around town.
Why do I — an apostate — do that? Am I just picking at an old wound? Or testing the strength of my hard-won religious antibodies (or anti-God-ies?). I think I listen more as an anthropologist, taking in the words, the meanings and the impulses behind the beliefs and the need of believers to share them, confirm them, even question them.
Often, listening in this way helps me to better understand the how and why of religious belief. And so today, as I pulled up to the hardware store, it crystallized in my mind: God exists to make us feel better.
Make us feel better about what, exactly? Well, just about everything.
Our “sin”, for one, by giving us a useful term that gives definition to and, thereby, control over our less desirable impulses. Our fear of death is another, by promising a life beyond the grave for ourselves and those we hold dear. And then there is our life in general — by offering an external, ultimate source of validation that our individual lives have meaning and are part of an eternal “plan”.
Never mind, for now, how self-centered all of this turns out to be (even if the “feeling good” comes about through being made aware of a sin which we are then able to “repent of” and then, you guessed it, feel “better” about it!). Part of the magic of religion is that it rebrands our emotional need and solipsism as humility as long as we proclaim an adherence to a power “greater than ourselves” (who is, of course, deeply concerned about the same self that we are!)
But believing in God is useful because it helps us feel better about other things as well, such as our tribalism, cruelty and selfishness, all of which can be justified by the act of classifying just who are the sheep and who are the goats, meaning who are the believers (deserving to be blessed) and everyone else (many of whom have obviously brought on their troubles through some unconfessed personal or generational sin). Religion has been terribly useful in this less-than-pleasant way. It still is. Look at the Taliban, the Catholic Church, the Moral Majority.
This second batch of benefits is where religion gets us into trouble, for if belief in God were only about the first group, how could I really have a problem with it? For in my life I do innumerable things to make myself feel good and happy and content with my life, so how (and why, frankly) would I begrudge another human doing the same (in a slightly different, less rational way)?
The fundamentalists of the major theistic religions naturally oppose a Darwinian, scientific view of the world because it threatens their ancient hegemony — it eats into their market share of the “feel good” market.
Let me take a step sideways into an irresistible snide remark about how many preachers have lambasted the generation growing up in the 1960’s as the “feel good” generation. Where the “if it feels good, do it” ethos was the mark of the decline of Western civilization, as American turned away from God to follow their hedonistic pursuits. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! It would be like the board of directors of McDonalds launching an ad campaign against their former customers who were migrating to Burger King by boldly announcing that the deluded sots were only giving in to their base cravings for salt, fat, sugar and empty calories, and needed to return to the golden arches before it was too late!
So, I keep circling around religious belief again and again, revisiting old, familiar places with new eyes. And so today I see belief in God as a simple act of a human trying to feel better about life (for a great dramatic depiction of where religion begins, see “The Invention of Lying” — an otherwise average movie save for this one, bold concept that it presents).
Polls show that the number of “secular” Americans is growing. The problem for God is that there is now a better view on reality available for the masses who would seek it. Science does not replace religion, but it does give us the tools to undo it, to “break the spell” (as philosopher Daniel Dennett says). And in breaking that spell, we are freed to see the world as it really is, and from that create a new sense of meaning based upon a more accurate understanding of our place in the grand scheme of things.
That more people don’t take this route says more about the unfamiliarity of it than anything else. We are animals, which means we are not that different from rats that take the safest route from point a to point b, not the most direct. But recognizing even that detail about ourselves is useful and, well, comforting in its way.
Science does not set out to comfort or console, but it does so anyway, as a sort of by-product, because knowledge helps us to feel more in control (or at least less lost) in the world.
So, to be clear: I’m not anti-God. How can I be, when God exists only in the realm of the human consciousness? If there were an actual God behaving in the way that people say he does, that would be a problem, and we would all be well advised to organize a missile strike aimed at the throne of heaven. But God is actually a mental device of man to alter his emotional state. We don’t get mad at someone who eats an ice cream cone after a rough day at the office, or pours themselves a glass of wine in the evening, or listens to a favorite piece of music. So to that extent, I would not separate a fellow human from his or her God.
Ah, but if only we could separate the benign aspects of God from the cruel and inhuman ones. It is worth noting that many believers do manage to do this. Not many of them are fundamentalists, however, and are therefore in as much danger from the fanatics as the apostate. It is because of those fundamentalist believers that I openly express my atheism and disdain for irrational thought.
I can appreciate the unwillingness to believe that morality can exist without God enforcing it like a cosmic cop. But it does, and in the words of a friend of mine: “If we really understood that, I believe we would be more likely to make truly moral decisions”.
Amen to that.