Friday, July 22, 2011


Although I am an atheist, I do not dismiss religion; in fact. I envy a bit those who have it. But I don’t understand it; perhaps someone can provide me with a credible explanation.

I can see where people in the Middle Ages believed. But today? We have explored the universe and found no Paradise in it. It is said that space is infinite, and somewhere in it God may be ensconced. But the earth is far from infinite, and we can now affirm that it houses no Hell in its bowels. And even if it were a hollow sphere, how could there be room in it for all the baddies since the beginning of time?

Well, you might say we need not take everything in the Bible literally. But what would a nonliteral afterlife be like? And can you be selectively Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever? Can you partly believe in the multiplication table? Or in astrology? Can you be partly Vegan or halfway superstitious? Can you be semi-agnostic? Or half-humble?

I believe you must either swallow religion whole or you are not religious. So then how can persons with first-rate intellects be believers? Like, for example, T. S. Eliot.

Of course, intellectuals may seek recourse in Tertullian’s famous credo quia absurdum—I believe because it is absurd, I take faith on faith. But why should religion be exempt from logic? Falling in love is. True, but there, palpably, is the love object. Even the troubadour Jaufre Rudel, who fell in love with the unseen Countess of Tripoli, did so on beholding her picture.

I find incomprehensible, for instance, the belief of some perfectly intelligent people that they will be reunited in Heaven with a predeceased spouse. What of the man twice widowed and thrice happily married? Will he become polygamous in Heaven, even though he was perfectly monogamous on earth? And how will the three wives feel about it? Yet how many Christians believe such a thing, even though Holy Writ tells them that in Heaven no marriage is.

Still, I can sympathize with believers. It is human to be afraid of death, or unreconciled to it, and so invent a remedy: the afterlife, the soul’s immortality, its basking in supraterrestrial bliss. But can one perceive the soul as detachable from the body? And, by the way, when does the good Christian go to Heaven? Upon his demise or at Christ’s second coming? Both are advocated. Furthermore, what about those cremated by the family, hacked to death by a madman, or blown to smithereens by some fanatic?

What I have especial difficulty with is uniforms, the regimentation that rejects individualism. Must every Jewish man wear a skullcap, even if, for children, it can be motley rather than black? Must there be prescribed hair- or head coverings? Must a woman’s whole body be hidden from view in a standardized way? I can see wearing an artful cross on a necklace, but even that may be ostentation, zealotry, or proselytizing.

There is also the matter of ritual. I see no pressing need for circumcision, sitting shiva, weekend confinement and other restrictions. Or total immersion. To say nothing of practices such as human sacrifice, suttee, footbinding.

And then there is churchgoing at specified hours. This might seem harmless, except that it involves sermons by preachers who are not in the class of John Donne and genuflections and uncomfortable pews. But probably the most problematic thing about religion is that it breeds intolerance toward noncoreligionists (though it denies any such thing.) In the past, this produced persecution and burning at the stake, but there is unpleasantness even in the present. Is anti-Semitism dead? Far from it. And what about Muslim suicide bombers? Is there no developing anti-Islamism?

One of the arguments for religion is that it keeps the underprivileged from murdering the privileged, that it stops crime from running riot. I am not sure to what extent that still prevails. If it does prevent criminality, it is as good as the system of law, with which no one in his right mind would want to do away.

But what about its interference with our rights? To consensual sex, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, freely available contraceptives and, above all, abortion. The chances of forced parenthood benefiting an unwanted child are slim, and even adoption by the right people is an iffy proposition. Whatever doesn’t harm other people, not mere embryos, should be allowed.

That religion creates a certain clubbiness—favoring the coreligionists—is unavoidable and would, without religion, take other forms. As indeed it does, on the basis of the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or even your IQ.


  1. Provisionally, for now, I will note a quote -- parenthetically, for I cannot recall it verbatim and don't feel like "Googling" right now -- possibly kindred to (or "kindred with"?) Mr. Simon's general sentiment expressed in his various rhetorical questions; from the great actor Peter Ustinov:

    "I find the ambiance of a church uncomfortable..."

  2. Organized religion is a sly, carapace-shielded creature that has survived, and flourished, for millennia. At best religion fosters faith and provides a path to spirituality for many. Francois Mauriac's Roman Catholicism, John Updike's Protestantism, Iris Murdoch's Buddhism, other paths for other believers. Hats, skullcaps, whatever, off to those people. Make it to the other side, hope they toss me a rope. I'm not a bad guy.

    Should those not signing on the dotted line chuck organized religion? No. Too much of value. Too many geniuses on the job like Moses and Sakyamuni and Paul punching the clock. Do some selective spiritual shopping.

    Religious scriptures such as myths, testaments, prophecies, upanishads, sutras, gospels, etc. Spiritual autobiographers such as Augustine and Milarepa. The consolations of philosophy with Nagarjuna or the confrontations of theology with Karl Barth. Plenty of bosh, of course, but plenty of spiritual sustenance, too, if you're a good shopper.

    Religious practices such as meditation, contemplation, prayer, ritual, ceremony, sacrifice, etc. Tailored to you by you, not by some higher authority in a turned-round collar.

    Yes, there are many paths to spirituality beyond religion. Art, aesthetics, science, nature, emotion, sex, love, work, a belief in the eternal while accepting one's own ignorance of what one is believing in, and so on. For me, though, reason plays second fiddle to imagination. Time and place, perhaps, for my favorite creation myth from THE RIG VEDA, translated by Wendy Doniger for Penguin:

    "There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?

    "There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.

    "Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.

    "Desire came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.

    "Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.

    "Who really knows? ? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

    "Whence this creation has arisen -- perhaps it formed itself or perhaps it did not -- the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows -- or perhaps he does not know."

  3. Joe Carlson,

    I hadn't read the Rig Veda before. It sounds a bit like a midrash of Genesis done by a collaboration of the Gnostic Basilides, the Hindu philosopher Samkara, and the Buddha (though there's also an obvious modern twang to the quoted passage, I suspect injected by Wendy Doniger's loose translation).

  4. Game changer: scientists have discovered the "God particle" in, of all places, Illinois.

  5. To address Mr. Simon's implicit query in his first paragraph (from which the rest of his questions seem to unfold), I'd begin by observing that it seems that both atheists and theists tend to literalize "God" (and related symbolisms, such as "soul", "heaven", "hell", "eternity", etc.).

    I think preserved in the tradition of Judaeo-Christian theology (and pre- and para-Christian Greek theology from the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus) is a subtler more poetic attempt to express what these symbolisms mean: to wit, that "God" (and "the gods" collectively denoted as "the divine") is not one of the "being-things" (the translation of the Greek ta onta) of the cosmos, but is a something beyond the entire realm of things.

    Even that phrase "a something beyond the entire realm of things" reveals the difficulty in expressing transcendence, for language is inherently object-oriented, and it cannot properly denote the non-thing that is transcendence without implying thingliness.

    On an experiential level, these religious symbolisms denote, in great part, the ultimate questions we ask -- as Leibniz boiled them down: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are all the things of this something the way they are, and not different? Then there are the more existential questions: Where did I come from? Where does everything come from? What is my ultimate destiny? Why is there evil? Why is there good? Why cannot good prevail over evil? Etc.

    As the philosopher Eric Voegelin said, all these questions are basically permutations of The Question, which cannot be answered, but can only be suffered in the asking; and which either intends an answer or does not. If the latter, then existence is absurd; if the former, then what?

    Personally, I cannot understand the person who has no sense of paradox. To me, reality is shot through with paradox: and one half of paradox is, precisely, the intention of these religious symbolisms. The other half, however, is their continual frustration.

    Hence, I believe we are all agnostics. (A professor once defined agnostic as "I don't know".) But the agnostic, properly speaking, cannot be complacent -- unless, that is, he numbs himself with the Pascalian divertissements. He remains restless and disturbed; even if he may also seek to enjoy the pleasures of this life. As Dante wrote, man is the only creature who is oriented toward "two ultimates" (duo ultima) -- happiness in this life and happiness in the next life. But these two happinesses, if taken seriously, conflict, or at least set up a tension between -- if, that is, one does not settle for the simplistic smooth ride from Here to Eternity.

    Both atheists and theists are fooling themselves, I say, in that they think, or claim, to know (with the certitude either of Nay or Yea). Faith is not knowledge: faith is precisely the posture, the pathos that subists in the absence of knowledge -- specifically, of the knowledge one nevertheless experiences as fundamentally vitally viscerally necessary. Henri Bergson's l'âme ouverte remains open not to the Answer, so much as to the Question, whose tenuous transcendent substance is botched once its purport is belittled, rather than wondered at.

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  7. An interesting (if rather effusively gloomy) remark from the actor Omar Sharif (who, by the way, grew up a Christian in Egypt then converted to Islam when he married a Muslim actress -- as in Islamic law, a Muslim woman may marry a non-Muslim man only if he converts to Islam -- and later had his films banned in Egypt for kissing the Jewess actress Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (because she's Jewish, not because of her obnoxious proboscis), then was the object of death threats from an Al Qaeda website for playing St. Peter in a film in 2005):

    "I believe in everything and nothing... the first thing I was taught... at catechism was that God is justice and I don't see justice in the world."

    Source: an article in The Guardian:

  8. Robertson Davies in his final novel "The Cunning Man" portrayed an Episcopal church that looked very similar to Emmanuel Church in Boston, where a Bach cantata is performed in full every Sunday. Craig Smith was the music director there until he died, when he was temporarily replaced by John Harbison. Parishioners include Susan Larsen, who achieved fame in operas produced by Peter Sellars in the 1980s. I only wish I lived in the Boston area so I could attend too!

  9. My apologies, it's Susan Larson, not Larsen.