My younger brother Drew attended a corporate conference some time ago at which the featured motivational speaker stood behind the podium for a few long moments until the room fell silent and he had everyone's complete attention.
Then he asked:
"After you die, how long do you want to be remembered?
That got everyone thinking bedrock thoughts. Then he suggested that the world we live in is full of people, people with ample funds and determination, whose answers to those three questions would be simple:
For all of eternity.
Slaying the infidel.
Other than to create a sense of alarm, the purpose of this exercise was to suggest that most Americans would have a harder time answering such questions than your average Islamofascist - and that therefore we are in trouble.
I don't buy it.
The renewal of religious war - something most of us grew up thinking the human race had left behind centuries ago - has, for many, cast religion in an ominous shade. It turns disgruntled Arab men into suicidal jihadis, and Dover, Pa., school board members into Bible-thumping creationists. Faith is nothing but superstition, silly when it is not dangerous. The authors Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, among others, have sold a lot of books in recent years skewering religious faith as the root of many evils, and asserting a stern rationalism and materialism. I agree with a lot of what they say. I chuckled at Harris' suggestion, in his book
The End of Faith
, that embracing a belief without evidence is really no different from deciding to believe that you have a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried somewhere in your backyard. It is a nice thing to believe. Why not?
Religion is getting kicked around pretty regularly these days. Islam is bearing the brunt, with good reason, but the Catholic Church has also been through a pretty rough patch, what with its pederasty scandals and indefensible archdiocesan cover-ups. Attacks against fundamentalism and fanaticism have bled into assaults on the very idea of faith. Atheism is cutting-edge.
So I'd like to do something different here. I'd like to stick up for religion.
For one thing, beliefs are inescapable. Arguing against belief is like arguing against having a nose. Everyone has beliefs. Most of us never examine them, but they govern every move we make. No one who has ever drawn breath has failed to wonder why he does so, or if his existence has meaning or some larger purpose, or if when he breathes his last breath, he alters form or simply is no more. At its best, then, religion puts the problems of daily life in perspective. It insists on good behavior. It asks the questions none of us can avoid asking.
The Catholic Church claimed me at birth, educated me, and hovers somewhere over my shoulder at all times despite my best efforts to ignore it. I have heard all of the stories of nuns who smacked students with rulers and priests who liked to play naughty games with altar boys, but in all my years of Catholic school - first through eighth grade and four years at a Jesuit College - nothing like that ever happened to me. Just the opposite. I deserved to get smacked by a ruler more than once, and I once even stole a few gulps of wine from the sacristy before a Mass, but I was never treated with anything but kindness. The church was for me always a welcoming, nurturing place, an institution that didn't shove beliefs down my throat, but rather consistently challenged me to think.
Despite the best efforts of my father and mother and a long line of dedicated clergy, I remain zealously wishy-washy. I am not proud of it, but I assert my freedom to be that way, as would most of my fellow Americans, especially the Catholics. A great many are fighting and dying for that assertion right now. My parents' generation did so with enormous courage and success, although it faced not religious fanatics per se, but resolute Nazis and Japanese imperialists. Twentieth-century totalitarianism was defeated not by a competing "ism" or religion, but by an army assembled out of every religion, race and ethnicity on Earth. The American cause rejects the very notion of a single controlling leader, faith, ethnicity or idea.
Which is the point. You can't have real religion without free will, because belief involves choice - unless you are a strict determinist and don't believe choice is even possible, which is a separate argument (although, strictly speaking, if what we think is not our choice, why bother?). Freedom is necessary to that all-important first step in making the world a better place, which was explained by the wittiest of all 20th-century Christians, G.K. Chesterton. When asked to write an essay on the theme "What is Wrong with the World?", he famously responded with just two words: "I am."
I have never had the gift of faith, but I can reason my way close. In a vast, dead, cold, colorless universe, an unthinkable expanse of matter and energy, life exists. What is it? Maybe it is just an arrangement of matter so contrived as to capture, store and use energy - or, as Dawkins would have it, to perpetuate our genes - that over billions of years evolved into the Beatles. If you prefer your explanations free of supernatural agency, and I do, then science is working out a pretty good one for
we came to be here. But it doesn't answer
, and human beings can't help asking that question.
Life can be seen as a brief sojourn between nothingness and nothingness, a chance to blink open your eyes and look around with wonder. Since we cannot know why, it is just as easy to believe the trip has a purpose as to believe it does not. To my mind, it is easier to believe the former, which, of course, doesn't make it right. The religious man chooses to believe life has meaning. The best I've ever been able to manage is hope.
Which is why I was drawn to Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical, released Nov. 30 and titled
. I recommend it. The pope is dealing with first questions here. He covers a lot of ground but zeros in on the kinship between hope and faith. If life has meaning, if the soul lives on after death in some way, if the Christian message is true, then the idea of an "afterlife" need not be any of the cheesy human attempts to imagine Heaven, Benedict wrote, but "something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality. . . . It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time - the before and after - no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy."
It may not be the bevy of virgins promised in one of Muhammad's
s, but it sounds good to me. It sure beats simply fading to black. Religion can go bad, but it wrestles seriously with what matters most. Unlike the zealots training to blow up thousands in the name of their God, I might never achieve faith, but hope?
Hope I can live with.