Imagine how successful a candidate for President might be if he or she took a similar public stand. Given the overwhelming majority of Americans who claim belief in God and who are willing to judge character based on similar belief, they wouldn't stand a chance. It seems that every candidate must make this public avowal of piety as a prerequisite for running for office, and seek the favors of the Almighty with as much fervor as he (let's call him he, if only for convenience) is thanked by triumphant sports heroes or Grammy winners--or by those fortunate enough to have survived car wrecks or natural disasters.
I think that I have never "believed" in God. Even as a child, brought up in the home of a minister of the Church of England and taken to church every Sunday, I don't think I actually "believed" in that bearded old guy up in the sky somewhere who dispensed favors in response to the prayers I was taught to say, kneeling by my bed each night, and was reputed to reward good and punish bad behavior. Santa Claus was more real to me than God--and I was more ready to suspend my disbelief in this particular old man with a beard. His favors were more... well, tangible. At least by the time I reached puberty, with reason budding in the brain along with the hormones in an even more interesting organ, the God I was required to "worship" as a part of my school's curriculum mattered less to me than the cigarettes I used to sneak behind the hedges on the Sussex Downs.
Which accounts in part for my growing appreciation for Buddhist thought and practice. It's a religion that first addresses the practical realities of life. No sin, no guilt. Just an honest appraisal of what's going to work and what's going to cause harm. "Past mistakes," says Than Geoff, "do not mean that you have to suffer." Just be aware of the negative outcome of your action, and work to do better next time. No God. No need for one. At the day-long retreat that Ellie and I attended last Saturday, Than Geoff told the story of how he was accosted, in his monk's robes, at a local bookstore, by a man who wanted to talk to him about "religion." Than Geoff agreed to spare a few minutes, and the man's first question was the demand to know if he believed in God. Than Geoff's simple "No" put an end to the conversation, but the man continued to stalk him through the bookstore in evident anger, until our monk felt nearly threatened enough to summon the manager of the store.
Interesting, then, and not a little dismaying, to realize that the existence of God is a matter of such fearful importance to people who might otherwise appear relatively sane. And sad, too, because, as Sam Harris noted in his Op-Ed piece, "Every one of the world's 'great' religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos." How strange that any reasonable person, looking at the marvelously intricate workings of every aspect of physical reality, from the leaf of a humble plant to the miracle of the human body, to the solar system and the vastness of the universe, would want to understand it all in the simplistic light of a creation myth. I love the quotation from Carl Sagan that I have used before, in another context, and it seems to me that it's worth repeating here.
"In some respects," Sagan wrote, "science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better that we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more sublte, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge."
God must be even greater than we dreamed! A fine idea. My disbelief, perhaps, is directed at those "little gods" with whom believers seek to intimidate us or limit our potential.
On a related topic, I happened to watch a history program on public television last night--the story of the months between D-Day and VE-Day told with original color footage from the period and with the texts of letters between soldiers and their loved ones back home. Included, of course, was the liberation of two of the concentration camps--Buchenwald and Dachau--and the all-too familiar images of the innumerable dead and the relative handful of piteous survivors. The piece I had never seen before was the service for the dead at Buchenwald, conducted in Hebrew by a US army rabbi. The faces of the survivors as they listened to that ancient liturgy were one of the most moving scenes of the holocaust that I can remember--a mixture of disbelief, of indelible grief and pain, and of such tentative and mistrustful joy...
It's a well-worn speculation, of course, to wonder how any all-powerful God could allow his Chosen People to be treated in this way--and indeed how any God could stand by and watch his creations slaughter each other with such glorious abandon as they did in World War II, when sixty million people lost their lives in excruciating circumstances. It's man and his sinfulness, believers like to say, not God in his goodness that permits such things. Maybe so. Meantime, however, our various gods pursue their good work in this world, apparently inspiring humans to the most godless acts. The current occupant of the most powerful office in this country--I have difficulty bringing myself to refer to him as a "president"--apparently believes that his own infallible God is guiding his actions in the world, and look what they have brought about: the death of countless thousands of innocent souls and a chaotic situation that only promises more violence and death.
Let people believe whatever they want, I say. If they choose to believe that the moon is made of green cheese and that the Great Poobah rules the planet Mars, more power to them. But please let's be agnostic, at the very least, when we make public policy and put the lives of men and women at risk. Let's be more like the courageous Pete Stark and build our public policy on reason, not by surrendering to fantasies of some supreme being who avenges himself mercilessly on those who have the gall not to believe in him.
Far from God creating us in his image, it seems to me that we have created our various gods in ours. And it's none too flattering a self-portrait.