When you’re thinking of buying a Volkswagen, you can’t leave the house without seeing one at every stoplight. I can’t seem to watch television without being clobbered over the head with religion.
Friday night I watched an HBO documentary about a self-ordained Catholic youth minister who has no theological training other than having attended mass, but he’s started a ministry to reach out to teenagers. He’s in his twenties and as I watched, I couldn’t help wondering if he was sincere, disturbed or if he was full of shit and looking for fame and fortune. I worried about the possibility that his odd message and rambunctious delivery might damage some of the psychologically brittle teenagers he regularly encountered.
Saturday I watched a movie starring Kate Winslet as an Australian who traveled to
In our culture, we tend to give a nod to religions deemed acceptable and to vilify cults and sects, but if I look at all of them as if I’d just arrived on earth from another planet, there doesn’t appear to be much difference.
Last week I exchanged emails with the Episcopal priest who ministered to my mother when she was dying and who officiated at her funeral. It’s been 35 years since the last time I saw him and at the time, he was a 32 year old Ivy League graduate with long hair and a stole appliquéd with “peace” and “love” and doves.
I didn’t anticipate such joy at discovering yet another soul who finds as much wonder and beauty in the natural world, but it makes me wonder about the billions of people who have a belief system and a faith that revolves around supernatural components that to the objective eye, just don’t seem rational.
Then there is Annie Dillard. Her book, Living by Fiction was among those I received as Christmas gifts this year and for two days I’ve been reading, brow scrunched up and bright yellow highlighter scratching nervously across the pages. Like The Maytrees, Living by Fiction taps into the core questions I have as a reader, a writer and a human being and it shines a beacon on new areas of thought about fiction and its meaning and purpose.
I started cataloguing the major world religions and belief systems in my head and I counted the charismatic leaders who have captured the hearts and minds of thousands, maybe even millions. David Koresh, Jim Jones, The Reverend Moon, Heaven’s Gate, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Jerry Falwell, Wiccans and Pagans all attract people who need to believe in something beyond what they can see and feel and hear and taste. The list doesn’t stop with religion. As human animals we are moved to something akin to faith when charismatic political leaders appeal to us.
I wonder about love, the emotion I associate so closely with faith. It makes evolutionary sense that love, or the affection and sensation of fullness that we associate with it would be a part of human nature. All but the most damaged human beings have felt love, first for parents and siblings and later for potential mates and children. Most people feel love from time to time for close friends, although it’s a more fickle and evasive bond. Romantic love develops suddenly, intensely and sometimes painfully, the way I imagine perhaps a spiritual transformation or an epiphany might occur. We attach magical significance to these experiences. Over time it either disappears as quickly as it came or it matures into something more comfortable and sustainable. It’s only love and faith that cause us to be self-sacrificing with no real guarantee or even a requirement that our investment will be rewarded in the end.
What is it about life as it is that isn’t enough? Whether it’s the fantasies we impose on the people we love, willing them to be people they’re not or whether it’s an abiding belief that something beyond our mortal lives – a paradise complete with the souls of dead loved ones – awaits us, human beings are overwhelmingly forward looking. Some people argue that without the carrot of eternity, there would be no basis for moral behavior and chaos would ensue. I haven’t directly observed any difference in quality of life between those who profess to believe in the supernatural and those who don’t. Neither camp seems any happier or unhappier to me than the other. Neither camp appears to be more compassionate or generous or moral.
All emotion and human action at its base level can be explained by hormones and evolutionary survival of the fittest, although it’s still difficult for me to fathom how, in a world with such access to data and fact there is still so much blind acceptance without comprehension.
It’s easy for me to dismiss religion and belief when I consider the nonsensical nature of ritual, superstition and simple acceptance of dogma as truth, without the benefit of scrutiny or investigation. It's probably unfair that I base my dismissal on what I see in other people.
Open issues remain that my current satisfaction with appreciating the natural world for what it is can’t address. Neither can religion.
And yet, I wonder and I keep turning pages.