I am beginning to believe that some people actually believe in God. It’s astonishing, isn’t it? Somehow I gather I should have figured it out sooner.
I have some excuse. I was raised United Methodist, the Northern variety, not the fire and brimstone breed prevalent in the South. We were a big tent. There were no creeds, let alone people that believed them. People came for the sense of belonging. I do not think many read their Bibles.
But even as I did my Bachelor’s in religion, and my Master’s at a divinity school, I never saw any reason to think anyone believed. There were people that aped at offense, that pontificated about their sincerity. The more I snickered, the more offended they appeared to be! It was just so much playacting.
Talk of God, religion, and the like was just the vernacular, a language game we played to advance our designs for social change or careers in academia or ministry. The whole lexicon of religion was essentially an utterance of the Lord’s Prayer, so habitual that the words are out even before we know what we are saying. With enough repetition, words have as much meaning as rustling leaves.
Nowhere did I see the perilous turn that indicates fixation of belief. Every Sunday morning was a spectacle, a competition among actors. Clergy played leading roles. But bored parishioners performed with greatest subtlety.
I thought I had made sense of the game of piety when I learned about Mimamsa, the tradition of Vedic ritual exegesis from ancient India. Mimamsakas believed that rituals–including such actions as circumambulating the sacred fire, staring at a pot of ghee, and chanting the prescribed mantra–ought to be done, in the same way that one ought to help a starving child. But as for the gods the rituals were dedicated to, they could be nothing and no one, mere names in a mantra. In the same way, the great bulk of people believed in the moral imperative behind their religious practice, but they had precisely no cognitive engagement with the purported deities behind their effusive gesturing.
After all, anyone who assents to wild notions like an eternal realm of suffering for nonbelievers, would be driven on constant flurries of evangelism. He would categorically refuse to bring children into the world (Especially today when teenagers commit to a different religion from their parents almost as a rite of passage). Indeed, he would lobby for the most stringent abstinence and contraception legislation to protect the unborn from the possibility of unmitigated suffering after death. I do not think “believers” in hellfire callous, sadistic, or insane. The only way out of the tangle was to divest them of the supposed belief. And so I did.
Everywhere I see people wary of investing their savings in stocks, wary of outlandish risks like terrorists thousands of miles away. They take such extravagant and seemingly irrational steps to protect themselves, I could only believe they are acutely averse to risk. Very well. That I can understand. But I cannot understand why, when it comes to the vertiginous risks inherent in one’s eternal destiny, the great bulk of persons invest essentially no effort in scrutinizing their (supposed) beliefs. Again, the only way out of the tangle was to divest them of the belief. And so I did.
It was much simpler to believe that, for us, God is like Santa Claus, only instead of playing the ruse on our children, we are (with a wink and a nudge) playing the ruse on ourselves. God might exist, but our practice is so at odds with the psychology of genuine theism that it’s almost unthinkable that there would be any bird so strange as a theist.
But all that was before COVID.
Astonishingly, the game continues! And not just online, in households, or private prayer. We still hear news of police breaking up gatherings in churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship. It is unthinkable that these devotees fail to recognize the public health risk, the risk to their own health and to that of their loved ones. And yet they continue?
Don’t you see? They believe what they do. Truly. In the same way that you or I trust that the sun will rise, they trust that God is in His Heaven. It it marvelous, in a way (because, again, I do not think them callous or insane). They are saints of self-deception, contortionists of the mind. On one hand, they recognize the tremendous wrong complicit in spreading a virulent pathogen, and on the other, the game of piety is so indispensable to them, that it cannot be a mere diversion or habit.
I thought that maybe, just maybe, they think the imperative to play the game so commanding that it dominates the moral imperative to prevent the death of millions. But I do not think them insane, and that would be madness. Like a Mimamsaka insisting that staring at a pot of ghee is of greater importance than forestalling genocide.