How can anyone possibly believe in God?

January 03, 2002|By Crispin Sartwell

THE OTHER day my wife attended a funeral of an acquaintance who had committed suicide.

The minister who preached the funeral sermon recounted the story of a period of despair in her own life, when she had thought about killing herself. But God intervened, she said, and saved her.

I suppose the man she was burying wasn't good enough to be saved by God. Or perhaps it just wasn't God's whim to stop him from blowing his brains out.

As the various interpreters of God's will appear and crash airliners into buildings, or on the contrary assert that God frowns on people crashing airliners into buildings, or that God will help our blessed nation in its quest for Osama bin Laden, or that God will help bin Laden to escape, one might ask again an epochal question: Huh?

Back when the Aztecs were immolating virgins atop pyramids so that God would bless the people, there was a little guy sitting at the bottom shaking his head and remarking to himself that folks will believe anything.

As Homer sang of Zeus becoming a swan and mating with Leda, there was a dude in the back of the audience with a cocked eyebrow.

When, on the Indian subcontinent, the elephant God of eight arms was being adored, there was a woman with her head in her hands wondering what they'd think of next.

When the followers of Jesus reported that after his death he hung out for a meal or two, there was a sad, faithless cynic listening and going: Say what?

And when Mohammed said that God was giving him dictation again and it turned out that he, Mohammed, was supposed to be in charge, there was a Bedouin who retreated to his yurt before he started snickering.

We won't hear about these blasphemers because it's the believers who ended up writing the histories.

And actually, if you mumbled your skepticism a bit too loudly, those same believers would make sure your voice was lost to history by silencing you eternally.

Even today in a relatively secular society like ours, it's rare to hear someone point out in the clearest way that systems of religious belief are more or less baldly arbitrary and obviously ridiculous.

I guess maybe I'm just a long way from a religious point of view, but my question isn't which one is right, but how can anyone possibly believe any of them? It's as if you decided that Harry Potter was inerrant or that the film version of The Lord of the Rings was a documentary.

The operation of religious belief in history has of course been unbelievably complex: war and peace, oppression and liberation, love and pain.

Trying to sort out where we'd be without it is bootless. So I'm not asserting that religion has been a disaster. But I am asserting that the stuff is just a wee bit cracked.

One of the most annoying arguments I've ever heard from believers is that actually, deep inside, everyone really does believe in God. And so, backatcha: No one really "can" believe it. Deep in your heart, you know it's false.

The great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard asserted that Christianity was the best religion because it was the craziest religion. "The eternal God has appeared in time and died." It's not that that's unlikely, as Kierkegaard pointed out. It simply cannot be true. It's an absolute paradox. So the only way you're going to believe it is to let go of your experience of the world and your rationality utterly and simply leap into the abyss.

I can respect that position, because it at least acknowledges the basic bizarreness of the belief system. What I can't get a hold of is the idea that this stuff makes sense. Maybe, just maybe, a dose of skepticism would be helpful to a world in which the clash of belief systems is a continual killing.

The world just doesn't eyeball to me like the creation of an all-powerful and perfectly good being, who saves ministers from suicide and condemns family men to utter despair and self-destruction and their children to live through it.

If you believe that, more power to you. But why should you?

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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