Q: I always read your article with interest even though I am an atheist. You have a lot of wisdom for all of us. According to your last article, the origins of faith are in gratitude, confronting our flawed nature and being in awe and wonder of “Creation.” I try hard to live all those attributes (except my creation is with a little “c”). So what’s the difference?
— T, via email
A: I am sure you are a wonderful person and that you do your best to live out all the attributes, so my question for you is this: Where does your hope come from? If you agree with me that gratitude is a foundation fact of human existence, to whom or to what are you grateful? It is hard for me to understand how one can be grateful to sheer luck. If you believe that we are morally flawed, why don’t you believe that this is our natural state? Thomas Hobbes wrote that homo hominis lupus, “each man is the wolf of his neighbor.” If we do not possess good and pure divine souls trying to do good, why are we all not just a pack of wolves?
Finally, if you believe in a small “c” Creation, what does that mean? Is there a moral order (what the Greeks called telos) embedded in the world, or is fate and chance all there is? Albert Einstein saw the universe and wrote, “Could so great a symphony have no conductor?” I’m with him. Of course, the atheists may be right, all my hopes may just be the weak-willed residue of magical thinking and I ought to learn to live within the limits of material existence. Perhaps. But I am in love with hope and I am in love with God.
I can freely and joyously say that I know and love many wonderful moral and optimistic people who are atheists, and I can freely and sadly say that I know many people who call themselves religious, but who give religion a very bad name. I am content to let our lives and God’s ultimate judgment settle the score. I am not interested in trying to convert atheists into believers. I am not interested in trying to convert Christians or Muslims into Jews. I am not interested in picking a theological fight with religions that believe in many gods like Hinduism or no creator God like Buddhism. My only goal is to find good people who want to do good things.
It is true, however, that most of those kinds of folks I meet in life tend to be religious. I have never been to an atheist soup kitchen, but I have been to many soup kitchens in the back of many houses of worship. The people I meet who are closest to the truth are also closest to God. This is not a proof for anything. It is just an observed truth of my life.
Now, I must also add in full theological disclosure that believers surely have a host of problems to sort out if religion is to reclaim its good name. The priest abuse scandal and the rise of jihadist Islam are not the best examples of how faith brings us to compassion, justice and truth. Nor, in my own faith, is the massacre in the mosque in Hebron by a Jewish terrorist.
It does no good to repeat over and again the true but irrelevant bromide that represent perversions of faith — not examples of faith. Religion, as I have said, is the residue of faith over time, but religion has also been contaminated over time with other residues — the residue of violence, bigotry, and cruelty.
The task of religious people in our time is to clearly and unequivocally purge these contaminants from our religious communities because the worst of all perversions is perverted religion. This is undoubtedly why many people of faith have taken to calling themselves spiritual rather than religious. Still, I believe in organized religion because I believe in the power of religious communities, communal rituals, religious education, and places where the word of God can be read and can be heard and can be studied and can be lived. The tragic fact that sometimes it is the very readers of the word of God who most need to hear it is not an indictment against all religion. It is an indictment of the sinful human condition that we cannot ever fully extirpate from our broken souls.
In the end, it is not our different questions about the mysteries of existence that fundamentally separate us. It is our lived answers to those questions that separate us.