"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not Sure God Exists? Better Not Take A Chance

I grew up Catholic in the Fifties and had plenty of Father Murphy’s fire and brimstone until he toppled over from apoplexy.  We all knew this particular end was coming, because even before he got up a full head of steam, his face reddened, and sweat streamed down his face and stained his vestments.  When all pistons were firing, the boiler fully stoked, and the great holy engine inside of him working at full throttle, Father Murphy was indeed a sight to behold.  We were all sinners, he said, a nation of vipers, screwing our way to hell, living a life of lewd thoughts and desires, debauchery, and perversion.  The bile spewed out of him like a goatish devil in a Bosch painting.  He flailed his arms, pointed to heaven, thrust his arms down at the Hell awaiting all of us.  “Sin, sin, SIN”, he hollered, his face twisted with rage.  “You all live in sin and you will burn in Hell for it”.

Father Murphy never changed his tune.  He railed and fulminated like a madman every Sunday.  He never got off on secular tangents like the Protestant ministers of my friends’ churches – injustice, dishonesty, or moral failing – and just kept hammering away at sin, lechery, and the torment of everlasting damnation.  I had no idea what he was talking about since I was dragged to church at a very young age – so young in fact that I remember getting my legs caught behind the kneeler during the consecration and thumping around on the floor while my mother tried to untangle me.  Other than that diversion, Father Murphy’s display was a little like the Mad Clown at the circus which came to town every summer.

As I got older I realized that Father Murphy was talking to me – all my dirty thoughts and unholy practices – but try as I might I could not banish the image of Nancy Bishop’s sweet nubile breasts from my mind, or keep my hands off my pizzle. No number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys said at the altar at confession could keep me chaste; and it was not much longer before I jettisoned the whole affair – sin, damnation, and Father Murphy.

I haven’t missed either religion or the community of churchgoers.  I am not an atheist, nor an agnostic, but only indifferent.  I have no mission to disprove the existence of God, nor the time or patience to parse Aquinas and Marx in an attempt to get off the fence.  Religion simply doesn’t matter to me.  I am just as fascinated, however, by Bible-thumping preachers as I was by Father Murphy, the whirling dervish, The Man Possessed. 

I recently went to a mega-church Sunday service in Mississippi, and was not disappointed.  Just like Father Murphy, the preacher warmed up slowly, getting the bile going, feeling the hot acids of God’s wrath start to bite.  When he hit his stride he was incomparable.  He strode across the stage – sometimes raving, other times quiet, reflective, waiting for the magma to rise up.  He would turn to the congregation, raise his Bible up towards heaven, and with a pained, tearful expression, shouted “Jesus” again and again until the crowd took up the chant, interspersing Jesus with Praise the Lord and Hallelujah.  Finally the whole congregation was on its feet, swaying in unison with the preacher, yelling “Jesus, forgive me” or “Come to me, Jesus”. 

T.M. Luhrmann writing in the New York Times (5.30.13) and author of a recent book on Evangelicals in the United States, explains that not all fundamentalists are as blindly faithful and slavish to Biblical entreaty as outsiders think.  Many of them, in fact, express their doubts about the existence of God, but figure it is a good idea to hedge your bets and assume that He exists.

In a charismatic evangelical church I studied…one devout woman said…: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”  It was a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real.

This covering all fronts – believing until you disbelieve – is not surprising.  Even if there is one chance in a million that you will ascend to a heaven filled with vestal virgins, cool brooks, and the radiant light of Everlasting Glory, you would be a fool not to take it.  Or, conversely, even a miniscule chance of burning forever in a sulfurous Hell, an eternity of howling and shrieking, unremitting torment in a misery without end is to be avoided at all costs.

In another charitable reference, author Luhrmann cites Emile Durkheim who “argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural.”

In other words, even if you don’t really believe in God, there is always the embracing, comforting community of religious followers to give your life meaning.  This same mega-church where I heard the ranting pastor catered to every possible interest group.  There was a pre-school program, a Christian academy, and events for senior citizens.  There was Bible-study for teens, spiritual rehabilitation sessions for those about to fall off the rails, Christian music lessons, prayer breakfasts, celebratory dinners, and much more. Outside of work, there was no need to go anywhere else but the mega-church.

Luhrmann closes by saying that the secular conception that belief comes before religious expression is false.  That is, you do not have to come to conclusions about the existence of God or the nature of divine intervention or heaven and hell or anything else.  You can still enjoy the congregation of like-minded souls and be spiritually aroused by passionate rhetoric.  In her years studying evangelical churches, writes Luhrmann, “I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it.”

This is all well and good, but Luhrmann avoids the central issue – that most evangelicals have rejected reason, rationality, and moderation in their expression of belief, however shaky it might be. Survey after survey has found that vast majorities of fundamental Christians reject Evolution and believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.  Such absolute a priori convictions eliminate any kind of reasonable dialogue on secular issues. If in their heart-of-hearts these rabidly conservative Christians harbor doubts about the existence of God, you would never know it; for the fabled community about which Luhrmann so fondly speaks has coopted and clotured debate. From what is heard from the pulpit, the podium, and the hustings, God is not only alive and well, but he loves America.  While many evangelical Christians may find joy in religion, many others find solidarity and political militancy.

Belief, whether it be full-throated or doubtful, has a very dark side; and it will continue to be the corrosive and negative force it has been through the centuries.

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