Are You There God? It’s Me, That Guy Who Doesn’t Believe In You

Hector and I were talking in the Smoke thread about the phenomenon of atheists in Church. I think it’s not uncommon. I wrote:

Religion serves a purpose that isn’t diminished by disbelief. I go to the Jews again here, because they adhere to the roots of religion which are “to bind”. Many of the great atheists were Jewish because, of course, Jewish-ness transcends what one believes. Every Jew knows, I think, that when the next round of pogroms start, whether or not they’re practicing will not change their fate.

So the outside world binds them as well.

I think the need for the religious binding remains even when we can’t see God.

Hector responded with some interesting questions.

1) does Pascal’s wager imply some contempt for God’s intelligence? Isn’t it just a transparent ruse?

Pascal’s wager, of course, says (roughly) that there’s no penalty for believing in God and a tremendous penalty for not (believing in the Christian God), therefore belief is the safest choice. You can read the various rebuttals and apologetics, but I think the key to Hector’s question comes from a subtler view of the wager.

That is, Pascal is not advising anyone to pretend to believe in God; nor do I think that he came up with this wager to win converts. No, I think Pascal’s wager is meant to be a comfort to Christians who, like Pascal, lead logic-driven lives and then have to confront the challenges of faith.

2) is there a way that does not involve belief in God (or deities of some sort) to get the sort of social networks that churches promote, in which people care for, and actually help, people outside the group of their blood or marriage relations? Is this commitment of people to care for one another what you mean by “the religious binding?” If so, is belief in a God or Gods required to make it work?

I think people are bound by necessity. I think that’s why, for example, bonds are generally less powerful today in the developed world: Lower necessity means a weaker bond. (You can see this writ small on marriage: Women need men less, and men are more likely to see women as an unnecessary enemy.) So I think you do see a binding in, say, frontier towns that isn’t necessarily driven by religion. But it’s tied to the frontier. It wouldn’t survive a diaspora.

Does it need a God? Not exactly, I don’t think. If we look at the other things people could bind over (blood ties, geography, philosophy, God, ritual, occupation, military service athleticism, TV shows, etc.), it’s clear that some things work better than others. And if we look at the many forms of statism (including communism, socialism, fascism, etc.), you see that it doesn’t work at all, and in fact undermines other bonds.

I think that’s a clue. Statism places the authority of the state above all. Spiritualism tells Man that he is, in portion, greater than any temporal organization. That there are fates worse than death. And that he has responsibilities that go beyond his own body. (I believe this is what underlies the antagonism between Church and State.)

So, I think you need a powerful abstraction to unite people. People sign on to collectivist ideas because it’s fundamentally true that we are interdependent. But the State quickly–like, immediately–reduces to a self-aggrandizing monster, and so fails to bind people. (Except in the same way a natural disaster binds people.)

Modern libertarianism–probably the most logical approach to governance–also fails to unite people very strongly, because it describes a negative. Compare “the virtues of selfishness” to “All Men are created equal…[and]…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Both describe the same thing, essentially, yet Jefferson’s argument posits a noble Man.

Sidebar: I think this is the reason for Jefferson’s ascendance over Adams. Adams was probably a better President, a nobler man, maybe even a better human being than Jefferson, but Jefferson set the gold standard in appealing to our better nature. Adams was wary of us, Jefferson told us we were better than anyone had let on before.

God, in His various forms, unites people in much the way Santa Claus unites children: There’s a guy out there watching and judging your every move. This works because it’s true, because minimally you–your Inner Jefferson, if you like–are watching and judging your every move.

In summary, God isn’t necessary, but you need something huge–and there has to be some truth. Consider Selma and the Civil Rights Movement: Something huge has to be behind you if you’re going to stand up to the awesome power of the State. (See? The State knew the Church was trouble!)

3) do the Unitarian Universalists have the answer to #2? If so, why aren’t they more successful? In terms of membership numbers, or any other objective measurement.

Oh, I think the other major part of binding that’s necessary is missing with UUs: Sacrifice. Religions require sacrifice. Time. Money. Food. Sex. Public approval. It costs something to be Jewish. If you’re born Jewish, you carry that potential sacrifice with you all the time, even if you renounce the faith. If you practice the faith seriously, there are all kinds of things you can do, you can’t do, etc.

The modern attitude is “Why do I need all this? Does God really care if I keep my foreskin and eat ham sandwiches?” Thus completely missing the point. If you want to believe that a particular faith is right, you can without any other fuss. But you’re not a member of a religion till you make the necessary sacrifices.

Most religions deal with severe persecution. Christians with their lions. Jews with, well, practically everyone. The Druze are so secret, even they don’t know what they believe. What do UUs sacrifice? Not only have they no Big Idea, they have no shared sacrifice.

Look at evangelicals: At some level, they’re responsible for the soul of every living human. What are Unitarians responsible for? (You can translate this to the marriage debate pretty easily.)

This also explains why disbelief doesn’t diminish religion. Even if you’re an atheist, you can appreciate religion and what it does. Religious people are usually happy to share their experiences and welcome you in. You can fight alongside them in righteous causes. And the question of whether you are a True Believer is entirely separate from the actual practice of religion. (Consider me the anti-Bill Maher.)

4) Would you like to keep the tone of The Bit Maelstrom a little lighter than this? If so, feel free to delete this comment, I won’t mind a bit. (Won’t mind a bit! Hah! And I say things about Larry Niven’s prose style being telegraphic, when I do it myself all the time.)

You know, I tend to ramble, and I can go on for days about this stuff, which is why I tend to avoid it. I find it fascinating, but pointless without an interested listener.

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