Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Heal and Farewell

What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.

Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.

Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.

Autumnal Ashes

I once told someone that a book I was reading was a “good autumn book.” The friend looked at me quizzically and asked what I meant. Seasons have a feel to them, even as books do. When the days grow shorter and the chill seeps in through the storm windows, I start looking for a book that matches the mood of a year that’s dying beautifully. So it was I came upon An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet. While I like Amazon just fine, the magic of the brick-and-mortar bookstore is finding that book face out that you’d otherwise never have seen. I read a lot of fiction—more than I post about on this blog—and a great deal of it come from the unexpected find in the local indy.

The story’s difficult to classify. Set in a future that sounds quite a lot like post-Civil War days, two sisters, Marthe and Hallie, try to keep a living at Roadstead Farm. The last of the soldiers have made their way back from the war where the Wicked God was killed. We never see the Wicked God clearly. He’s from a parallel world and is championed by his prophet. The death of the Wicked God was largely thought to be the end of the war. The passage between worlds, however, isn’t as secure as they armies thought. Religion doesn’t play a strong role here, but it was the cause of the war that has devastated the nation.

Fictional worlds require believers. Stories need not be religious to include religion. Without it, many tales lack verisimilitude. People are religious creatures by nature. Belief drives us, whether secular or sacred. This novel about a family trying to pull together in the aftermath of an evil god’s death. There’s a purgatory here from which those who believe can be rescued. And Hallie, who believes, ends up saving her own entire world. Religious? Not really, but it is all about belief. We need books that encourage faith in dark times. Indeed, An Inheritance of Ashes is about a dark period of uncertainty. What used to be true is open to question in these days when one belief system is determined to wipe out all others for good. Not so much live and let live as it is give and not give back. Ashes, whether literal as in Bobet’s world, or figurative as in our own, are appropriate reflections as the year begins to die.

What Democrats Don’t Understand

Human evolution (while it still legally exists) tells us a considerable amount about belief. Brain science (while we still have it) has long indicated that our noggins evolved to help us survive, not “to figure out” the world. Along its long and torturous path to modernity, the human brain has developed the ability to believe what it knows not to be true. This doesn’t just apply to the study of religions, but, in reality, primarily to psychology. Patients with split brains have shown a mastery of rationalization that should make any Republican jealous. So far the Dems are with me. What Democrats don’t understand is that you can’t change beliefs with reason. I grew up a Fundamentalist. That past still continually haunts me. What brought me out of it wasn’t thinking. It was experiencing. Specifically, experiencing in the course of education.

Recent polls show that well over 50 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. You could show this 50 percent as many statistics as you like and you won’t be able to convince them. Belief doesn’t work that way. In my experience, higher education (typically characterized as liberal) doesn’t really care about understanding belief. They hire professors recommended by establishment friends, very much like cabinet posts are now being filled. They still believe if you talk at someone long enough with reason, they will change their minds. I can’t change that belief of theirs—I have an idea how belief functions. We’ve all seen how the system works. Not every 1930s German was a Nazi.

In other words, it is very easy to believe a lie is the truth. In the words of Jim Steinman, “everything’s a lie and that’s a fact.” Education may help you spot the contradiction there, but it won’t help you unbelieve it. The truth is power can’t be taken, it must be given. If people do not believe what the media tells them, it isn’t true. As someone who’s spend a half-century trying to figure this out, I’m always amazed that my own party can’t see what’s so obvious to a reformed Fundamentalist. Until the day comes when avowed rationalists admit that emotions matter just as much as orthodox reason we will all be at a loss to explain how otherwise intelligent people will insist that what they know to be lies are indeed the truth.

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Of the Night

August isn’t too early to start thinking about vampires. The nights are already noticeably longer than they were in June and some leaves are just beginning to change on the trees. I’m thinking of vampires because one of my readers sent me a link to some investigative reporting about the “Highgate Vampire.” I’ve posted about this before, but the brief story, if you don’t have time to browse through my “monster” category, is that beginning in the 1970s a group of people came to believe a vampire haunted London’s Highgate Cemetery. This led to the publication of written accounts of the hunt for the undead. On a trip to London in 2012 I visited the Highgate Cemetery as my host for the trip lived quite close by. Apart from being the resting place of many famous people, the cemetery is moody and Gothic and it’s easy to see how, in days when it was neglected, it could’ve spawned such tales. Thing is, we know vampires don’t exist. So we’re told.

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Back to the story. My reader pointed me to the website Vamped, and now I’m afraid my limited time has just grown more limited. More specifically, there is a story by Erin Chapman entitled “5 Reasons Why a Wampyr Didn’t Walk in Highgate Cemetery.” The article investigates claims made in Sean Manchester’s book on the subject (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), demonstrating that his locations, photographs, and narrative don’t add up. The piece on Vamped shows a meticulous level of detail, comparing notes and photos in a way some of us simply don’t have time to do. Now I’ll sleep more securely on my next visit to London. I hope. The conclusions are disputed.

At this point some may be asking why an educated, rational adult is even addressing such questions. Why worry about something that isn’t even real? This brings to mind the realm of religion. Archetypes, whether they have an objective existence or not, are part of our consciousness. Supernatural beings of many varieties inhabit our heads, no matter how much garlic or holy water we happen to have lying around. Ignoring them can lead to problems. Do I think there is/was a vampire in Highgate Cemetery? I don’t think so. Do some other people sincerely believe it? I have to think yes. No matter which religion people follow, there will be entities that other people don’t believe. That doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. The Highgate Vampire isn’t real for most people, but it is for others. And just in case, I’ll keep a bit of garlic around as the nights begin to grow longer.

The Survey Said…

Survey

There may come a time, perhaps “when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,” that junk mail will be no more, a mere historical curiosity. For now, in these days of declining postage prices, we’ll continue to put up with it. I suspect much of it targets my generation and those older—people who are modest about the time they spend on the internet, and who long to look out the windows when they’re at work. (The non-virtual windows, I mean.) Although I lament the waste of paper, and the cost to our literal dendritic friends, sometimes free amusement comes in my mailbox along with the occasional profundity. I received a survey the other day that had decorative check-boxes on the envelope for agreeing or disagreeing. “My beliefs about religion are nobody’s business but my own” the question read. My knee-jerk reaction, itself a religious term, was to think “Of course! Nobody can tell me what to believe.” An occupational hazard of being a religionist, however, is that the ready application of exegesis always stands to hand.

Are my religious beliefs nobody’s business? I suspect since the sender was looking for money that some manner of business was indeed involved, but beyond that are my beliefs nobody’s concern? Freedom of religion allows us to believe what we will, and since beliefs are very, very difficult to change, this is a central tenet of any form of democracy. You can’t have a free people without letting them believe what they can’t help but think to be true. It may, however, sometimes be somebody else’s business what I believe. If my religion is dangerous—and what religion isn’t, to some degree?—don’t hoi polloi have a right to know? Ah, but then aren’t we in danger of registering, profiling the believer? This is a violation of rights as well.

My pen hovers uncertainly over the paper. My views are something that I keep to myself. Few people know what I actually believe. On the other hand, day after day I post thoughts that in some way can be tied to religion. Is this a trick question? A junk mail survey shouldn’t be so hard. When did studying before checking the mailbox become a requirement? In my teaching days I had students who claimed they had a right to know what I believed. I had a right to keep my views private. Who’s right? Whose right indeed? Belief doesn’t come easy. It’s not as cheap as the media makes it out to be. Unless, of course, it arrives unbidden among the junk mail that makes up so much of our lives. And even then it might be something to take seriously, at least for a little while.

Vitruvian Savior

If memory serves, I was still in seminary when “Piss Christ” was first unveiled. As photographic art, I can’t say when the shutter snapped, but I seem to recall animated discussion over it and since seminary animated discussion has been at a premium, so I think I’d remember something like that. In any case, the artwork still has the power to shock and enrage as the world teeter-totters in its love-hate relationship with religion. Some people seem surprised when other people respond somewhat pointedly to what they perceive as affronts to their beliefs. The thing about beliefs is, well, people believe them. In this day of electro-chemical signals between synapses it may be hard to attribute any substance to belief. Still, if someone makes that claim, insult their mother and see what happens. Beliefs, by their nature, are sacred.

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I was reminded of this when my wife pointed out to me a story about Dartboard Jesus. If you’re not a Rutgers University person (as I no longer am), it takes only a little imagination to visualize this artwork. Conjure a dartboard in your mind. Then picture a crucifix superimposed on it with darts instead of nails. Red darts, if that helps. You’ve got it. The official name of the piece is “Vitruvian Man,” but the public outcry was enough to have the piece removed from public display. I taught (strictly as an adjunct, no complications, please) at Rutgers for four years. People sometimes expressed surprise that multiple sections of Intro to “Old” and New Testaments filled up every semester. I wonder if the university ever takes measure of its students’ beliefs. I had Seventh-Day Adventists in my courses. I had Jains, Muslims, and Hindus. I had Atheists and, God help us, Episcopalians. One thing all these people had in common was belief. Not beliefs, but more singular: belief.

No one in the world intentionally believes falsely. Indeed, should Oxford Dictionaries be trusted, belief is “Something one accepts as true or real.” By definition, it seems, beliefs are believed. Artists serve a valuable function in expressing ideas that words struggle to articulate. There is more going on when your crucifix is juxtaposed to a glass of urine or a dartboard than you might otherwise imagine. It says something about belief. In some cultures such heresy is punishable by death. It isn’t so much a matter, I would suggest, of freedom of expression as it is a matter of advocacy. Artists are teachers and even teachers sometimes don’t consider how their lessons will be taken. Respecting belief, perhaps, is something electro-chemical signals leaping tall synapses in a single bound simply don’t understand.

Religious Monsters

Some colleagues and I are working to meet a deadline. I suppose I use the word “colleague” rather grandly, since they both have teaching positions, nevertheless, we have a common goal. We are fascinated by monsters and we’d like to see the American Academy of Religion dedicate a small section of its large annual meeting to them. We’d do all the work. At first glance, this might seem an odd topic for the serious study of religion. The fact is, however, that monsters are a part of human experience—at least in our imagination—and the conceptual space overlaps considerably with religion. Many monsters have their origins in religious thought. Some theorists go further than that and suggest the very concept of “monsters” comes to us, courtesy of religious beliefs. We can see it time and again in popular culture; the movie or television show, or novel that features monsters ventures into the territory of religion.

The reason for suggesting that this relationship be formalized is the fact that, although this connection exists, it has not be given adequate study. Monsters are the denizens of childhood imagination. When we grow up we leave our monsters behind. But not really. We just stop talking about them. With our mouths. The film industry knows that a horror film will generally draw in the lucre. Halloween has become a major commercial holiday. Stephen King is a household name. I’m not sure why all of this is so, but I think it might have something to do with repression. When we grow up we are taught there’s no such thing as monsters. Those who refuse to relinquish those beliefs are ridiculed. We have more important things to do. Things like making money. Deep down, however, we may still believe.

The fantastic and belief are intimate companions. In fact, belief is at the root of much of our experience. That’s not to say there are really monsters in the night, but at some level we believe there are. And we also believe that infinite deities control this infinite universe that may be only one of many multiverses. It just seems likely. Evidence may point in the other direction. Empirical proof is lacking. And yet, we believe. I’ve discovered a number of colleagues over the years who share this academic fascination with monsters and religion. I don’t know if we’ll be approved by the powers that be, but at least we will have begun to raise the question. What lurks behind it is a matter of belief.

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Uisce Beatha

The idea of a state church, I have to admit, sometimes seems not so bad. Before you click off this page in disgust, please let me explain. Once in a great while, I think about what state churches really are. From the most ancient of times, religious institutions supported governments and governments gave money to state religions. It isn’t a perfect system, but the reason it sometimes appeals is that it might prevent the kind of religious quarreling that we see in the run-up to every election: whose religious vision will govern us? I get theological whiplash. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a state church and be done with it? After all, those who live under state churches really aren’t obligated to believe in the teachings, but just to pay for them.

I’m only being facetious here, of course. We all know that in reality where religions and governments get too intertwined human misery results. The Reformation should have taught us that, if nothing else. The crimes of ISIS continue to show that religious belief makes a poor basis for government. Another case that my wife recently pointed out to me is in the quiet and civil nation of Ireland. Ireland has the stereotype of being Catholic, but according to an article in The Guardian, more than 90 percent of state-run schools there are under the control of the church. For some residents, like the family featured in the article, this becomes a conflict when schools won’t admit the unbaptized. Admissions committees with holy water may be a concept that many people find strange, but the fact is churches can set rules just as strict as secular bodies. No baptism, no confirmation, no matriculation.

I would, I think, be concerned as such a parent. Once my child was admitted and enrolled, would not the teaching go against what was being taught at home? Do governments have the right to decide a child’s religious outlook? Here is the dark underbelly of the apparently benevolent state church. Belief, of all things, is an intensely private matter. Many church goers do not understand the deep beliefs of their religious body, and since we seldom stop to think about religion we just do as we’re told. Education, it seems to me, should be very much aware of religion. Instead we see the opposite happening, at least in this country. If we pretend religion doesn’t exist, it will just go away, right? There is a reason that the church teaches that baptism is symbolic drowning. Only for those, however, who pay attention.

Angel's view of Ireland?

Angel’s view of Ireland?

Living Undead

Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.

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Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.

As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.

Brains and Selves

TellTaleBrainThe Tell-Tale Brain is an ambitious, yet humble attempt to find the self. V. S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist with considerable psychology experience who is well equipped to take on, as the subtitle puts it, A Neuroscientist ‘s Quest for What Makes Us Human. The book will take you to some very strange places. And although he’s a scientist, Ramachandran keeps an admirably open mind. Right at the start he notes that he sees no reason for using “merely”s and “only”s when discussing brains and their realities. In fact, he knows that scientists aren’t qualified to answer the question of whether there is a god. Having grown up Hindu, he used to pray to many gods. A true scientist has no need to belittle beliefs. Belief, as Ramachandran demonstrates, is far more complex than most pundits would suggest. This is based on his close study of the brain and those to whom it has been less than kind.

Already in the first several pages it becomes clear that Ramachandran finds religion a useful trope. It illustrates something we all know. That doesn’t mean he (or you) has (have) to accept it, but we all recognize it. Studying how the brain works, in this book, means looking at patients with various disorders, most of which have tongue-twisting names, that are inherently fascinating. Phantom limbs, people who see the colors of numbers or feel the emotions of fabrics, or who can’t recognize their own mothers—all of these things really happen in the brains of intelligent people. For them these are reality. For Ramachandran, they can frequently be chased down to a neurological cause. And sometimes people even really think they’re God. One of the treasures of this book is to experience the non-normativity of western culture. The use of Indian art and religion as illustrations of what humans believe is refreshing.

Anyone who fears the loss of self take warning; we may not be who we think we are. Brain studies show that, in certain circumstances, brains can contain more than one self. Memories can be fabricated and the continuity that we call our life stories may well contain a healthy dose of fiction. Experiments on brains can change who we think we are. Descartes would, perhaps, go insane. Ramachandran doesn’t claim to have figured out the self, or consciousness. He may have ruled out some options, though. At the end of the book, however, he reintroduces the concept with which he started: science and religion. Quoting Darwin he shows that the main mind behind evolutionary theory refused to make an absolute declaration about the divine. Humility, it seems, may be just as effective in making converts as a Bible in hand. And to figure that out will take some brain power.

Credo

One of my seminary professors, who shall remain nameless, averred in class that Christianity in the first centuries was popular because it was exclusive. Like a country club. If just anybody can get in, why would you want to join? I’ve come to disagree with said professor’s analysis, but I have to admit there are cases where the idea does apply. Country clubs, for example. Organizations that intend to improve society, however, have it in their best interest to have doors as wide open as possible. Otherwise it’s a kind of hypocrisy. If Christianity wanted to make a better world, it soon realized, all takers should be welcome. That paradigm broke down fairly quickly, but at the beginning, I have the sense that all were welcome. So I was pleased to hear that the Boy Scouts have dropped their ban on gay troop leaders. Making a group that sets out to do a good deed a day exclusive heterosexual seems awfully backward. After all, gay leaders are nothing new. Why try to be exclusive?

Of course, the Scouts continue to disallow atheists. This is a fairly common, if medieval, marker of personal integrity. The Elks, last I heard, had few entrance requirements. One of the few stipulations, however, is that you have to believe in God. I don’t know how that plays out for Hindu Elks. Perhaps the more the merrier. Somehow, I doubt it. Exclusive belief entry requirements are a way of weeding out questions before they’re raised. Sheltering those inside from baleful influence among hoi polloi. We are better because we are different. Granted, these organizations go back to a time when theism, of sorts, was virtually a given in American society. Times have changed. Boy Scouts, it seems, are dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

I’ve always been impressed, by contrast, with the Girl Scouts’ openness. No creedal requirements are in place. Atheist girls, Buddhist girls, girls who climb on rocks, any girls are allowed to join. The last three presidents (including Obama) have been Boy Scouts. Two prior presidents have been as well. You might think the organization could meet its pedigree requirements with ease. In my view, they might look to the girls to take a cue on how to make the world a better place. When I was growing up, I knew no atheists. I remember attending a funeral of a family friend who hadn’t been a church goer, and that was pretty traumatic. As an adult I know many atheists and I trust them as much, if not more than, some of the religious I know. Would they be able to lead Boy Scout troops well? I have a suggestion—why not ask the Girl Scouts and find out?

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God’s Wormhole

Can God and science mix? I suppose that the third season of Through the Wormhole would be the place to look. The entire season has a distinctly metaphysical feel to it, so it is no surprise that the final episode is entitled “Did We Invent God?” It’s also no surprise that, like the other metaphysical issues explored, no resolution is really offered. Interviewing psychologists and neurologists, the show attempts to parse how scientists might address the question of God’s reality. God, of course, being immaterial, is normally understood not to be a subject discerned by science. So instead of putting God under the microscope, human perceptions of God will have to do. Everything from theory of mind to magical beliefs are probed to find hints of whence this strange idea of God might have come. The answer: we don’t know.

The more I pondered this, the more the same result reflected on science itself. When I was growing up I thought science was the truth. If science “proved” something, there was no arguing the point. I have come to realize, however, that science must be falsifiable to be science. That means it is potentially wrong. Not that it goes as far as Creationists take it to say that something is “only a theory,” but rather that science is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Future discoveries could falsify what we now know and the science textbooks would have to be rewritten. The difference here with religion is that most belief systems do not admit of this possibility. The truth has already been revealed, and there is no adding to or taking from it. God is not falsifiable. As stated above, God is not subject to science.

I don’t expect these observations of mind to change anybody’s ideas of the world. I do hope, however, that they make clear that science and metaphysics find themselves in similar situations. Both strive to know the truth. Neither can know if they’ve arrived. Both can believe it. The final episode of the season raises this point starkly. People are hardwired to believe. What they believe in is open to many possibilities, but believe they will. From my earliest days I have taken belief very seriously. What I have believed has changed over the decades, but at each step along the way I believed it was the truth at that time. I don’t know the truth. Nobody does. We all, whether scientist or religious, believe that we have found it. At the moment.

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Worn Out Religion

Truth claims are integral to religions. No one would join a religion not declaring itself to be true. Some months ago, I posted about the store True Religion that had recently opened at our local mall. I’ve always found such branding odd—surely the store wasn’t proselytizing those who had religious commitments to buy its jeans. Or perhaps it was trying to lure in the increasing generation of nones. I have seldom felt any kinds of truth claims applied to my apparel. I buy clothes at reasonable prices and wear them until they are no longer fit to be seen in public. Even then I continue to wear them at home until they simply grow too holey to be of utility. I seldom have clothes left in good enough shape to donate, and I’m only fashion-conscious in terms of a decade or two between stints of buying what’s on the bargain rack. Religions, of course, sometimes do dictate what it is appropriate to wear. Leviticus famously declares that fabrics of mixed fibers are an infraction. Perhaps True Religion carries only single fiber-fabrics? I guess I’ll never know.

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Since our local mall has mostly clothing stores (few whimsical shops appear any more), I seldom go. There is an Apple store, and since our family has used exclusively Apple products since the 1980s, we do have to stop in from time to time. On my most recent trip, I noticed that True Religion, right across the corridor from Apple, had gone. “There’s no more true religion,” my daughter quipped. I couldn’t help but think about the implications of all this. Surely this was not the first religion to die. Disused churches have been converted into businesses for years, and some religions die out entirely rather than just fade away like an old pair of jeans. What is the message, however, when a claim of truth is made, only to be closed down by the exigencies of finance alone? Something disingenuous is going on here.

Religions not only make truth claims. They also convey a sense of promise. If you believe, you receive something in return. But what does it mean to believe? Driving home we passed the Elks Lodge. Once, when my daughter received a certificate of merit from the Elks, we were invited to an award ceremony there. The president of the lodge, doing a bit of proselytizing, mentioned that very little was required to join the Elks. “You do have to believe in God,” she said. How do you measure such a belief? Did she mean to say “you have to say that you believe in God”? The Elks are, after all, not a religion, but a community organization. Although True Religion is gone, the Elks, with their minimal commitment to faith, are still around. My clothes are perhaps a bit too worn to join the Elks, but what else is there to do when there is no more true religion?

The Devil’s Dues

Belief, no matter how inscrutable, must be taken seriously. Although we frequently prefer to privilege that which we “know,” belief is one of our main motivators. Strangely, many who reach a certain level of education begin to denigrate belief as if it were an embarrassing indication of improper brain functioning. Belief is, however, all we really have. A case of this was recently shown in an interview with Justice Antonin Scalia. A piece in CNN Opinion by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza discusses an interview of Justice Scalia by Jennifer Senior where the topic of the devil arose. Buckwalter-Poza, as she makes clear, is no fan of Scalia, but when Senior began to treat the Justice’s belief in the devil with a condescending kind of incredulity Buckwalter-Poza called time-out. We need to take his belief seriously. Could such a powerful man really believe in a mythological figure? Yes. Belief will do that to you. Just the same, Senior’s non-acceptance of the devil is equally a matter of belief.

The devil is a problematic figure. Despite the certainty with which a recent demonology lecture treated the subject, the devil is scarcely present in the Bible. Indeed, he is somewhat a late addition, cobbled together from Zoroastrian beliefs and fragments of ancient mythology. The Hebrew Bible mentions the devil not once. By the time of the Gospels he has become a fixture representing an anti-God figure, clearly derived from the influence of the Magi (not necessarily the three riding on camel-back that first Christmas Eve). The devil was a convenient excuse for evil in a world where an omnipotent deity was believed to be entirely good. The devil is an escape-clause. Evil can exist in such a world and not be God’s fault. The idea stuck.

Today, sophisticated materialists (which is what some forms of science urge us all to be) have dismissed belief in anything not composed of atoms, electrons, quarks, or strings. Or, more recently, dark matter. The rest is all illusion. Sometimes the sophisticated don’t realize that other intelligent, sophisticated individuals don’t share their worldview. Materialism can’t be proven, and every true scientist knows that any theory is the best explanation given what we know at the moment. It is contingent. Science has a fantastic track record for explaining the physical world. Little in my experience has given me cause to doubt its efficacy. Still, I suspect that there is more to this universe than material. I have trouble supposing that some of that non-material universe is a horned, goat-footed, evil man with a tail and my worst interests at heart, but I can see how someone might believe that. Belief works that way. As much as we might want to eject it from the game, it will always be on the first string throughout the season.

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