When I started writing this article, I did not realize how loooong it would turn out. I toyed with the idea of splitting it into multiple posts but I’m unable to do it without fracturing the line of thought itself. Consequently, I have put all of it in one post and I request your indulgence.
I’m given to understand (from all the polls) that America is full of religious folks (around 90%) and that atheists are a small minority. Even atheist books and blogs seem to carry the mentality of an outnumbered (though valiant) minority.
But I wonder if this is indeed true or are our cultural parameters for ascertaining “belief” misleading? I would like to posit that most people DO NOT actually believe in God although they sincerely profess to. And that’s what I’d like to explore in this post.
So – let’s start! I doubt any sane person actually believes in God. Not you, not your spouse, not your parents, not your devout cousin who is also a priest. Not even the Pope believes in God!
What is God?
I think most people know what I mean by God but I am forced to clarify it because some folks have adopted a weasel-ass Deepak Chopra-esque technique of disguising God as some nameless, faceless energy-field that is infused in our cellular biology and saturates our consciousness with virtue and beauty…. blah blah.
Nonsense! No matter how well the faithful try to deflect scrutiny, the God they are droning on about is the same one that is most widely perceived as an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient entity that made the universe and all that is in it. The God that has prescribed some virtues and forbidden some vices. The one that has a keen sense of justice, listens to the prayers of the faithful and intercedes on the behalf of the worthy. THAT is the GOD I’m talking about irrespective of the name ascribed to Him or the book that is brandished as His publication.
What is Belief?
Since there is no handy tool to measure and ascertain religious belief, we usually take a person’s word as the final arbiter. In fact, societal norms of politeness dictate that such statements are beyond scrutiny because it would trespass on the individual’s domain of private thought. As a result, any statement that is prefixed with “I believe” builds a moat around itself which fends off any inquiry – let alone challenge.
I submit to you that this is how we get a whopping figure of 90% Americans saying they believe in God!
How about verifying “belief”?
Consider what would happen if the subject of “belief” were different. For instance, what would happen if someone were to say that he/she “believed” that their bank were about to go under? Or that the stock market were about to collapse? For us to be convinced that they *actually believe* what they say they believe, would we not expect their conduct to reflect that belief? Would we not expect the person to withdraw all deposits or sell existing holdings if he/she truly believed that the investments were about to tank? Would we simply accept their claim to belief if their conduct were inconsistent with the stated belief?
(NOTE: It is possible to be mistaken in one’s belief. In other words, it is possible to believe that the stock market will crash even though it really does not. But if one were to truly believe it, one’s actions would definitely bear testimony to such a belief).
However, this is NOT the case with religious belief. When a person says he/she believes in God – that is taken purely at face-value even though his/her actions are incongruent with the stated belief. We seem to have convinced ourselves that “religious belief” is so sacrosanct that it ought not to be verified and thus the chasm between stated belief and actual action remains un-bridged.
Is it really true?
If 90% of us (as a society) believe in a God that watches over our lives, listens to our prayers, and occasionally intercedes on our behalf then our conduct must reflect that. But does it?
When we are unwell, we go to the doctor and not the Church/Mosque/Temple. When we want to fix our car or home we go to the appropriate professional. When we seek justice, we turn to the courts and lawyers. When we seek security we call upon the police…..
Why is it that we turn to fellow-humans and appointed civil officials when we need something? Why do we not take our petitions directly to Big-Daddy-in-the-Sky and bypass the bureaucrats totally? We almost NEVER choose the path of exclusive prayer . Why?
Why would we need the law-enforcement establishment, the legal establishment, the military establishment, the governmental establishment if we were under the vigilant eyes of God Himself? In other words, if God has laid down some rules and can visit retribution upon those that flout it, why do we need to legislate or litigate at all?
Could it be that although we talk about God’s prowess, deep down we are unconvinced by it. Could it be that although we get satisfaction and consolation (and possibly strength) from the notion that we are under the protective care of the Almighty, we cannot count on it? Could it be that it just feels nice to “believe”? Could it be that years of conditioning has ingrained the need for and a value of a security-blanket in us? Could it be that we are exhibiting the religious equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome where captives (the flock) tend to view their captors (their faith) in a sympathetic light?
The Pope & Vatican do not believe in God!
The Pope never tires of telling us about the benign, beneficent and benevolent God whose power is infinite and whose wisdom is beyond reproach. But he does not seem to notice the irony of using a bullet-proof glass while extolling God’s greatness.
If the Pope really believes that God is super-wise, ultra-benevolent and uber-powerful and if He really intercedes on behalf of the worthy and the deserving then why does the Pope need the services of a bullet-proof screen and the Swiss Guard?
Could a wise and all-knowing God not alert the Pope if danger were lurking nearby? Could an all-powerful God not halt a bullet in its path? Better still, could a decent God with a sense of justice not inflict a fatal heart-attack on a would-be assassin? But is the Pope or the Vatican counting on such a God or His alleged prowess?
The simple truth is that the Vatican is acutely aware that the alleged awesome might of God is no match for the simple physics of a firearm and that is why an enormous security infrastructure is in place to see what the Holy See cannot see.
Proof of the pudding!
Some may recall that on May 13 1981 an assassination attempt was made on Pope John Paul II by Mehmet Ali Agca. Was the Pope taken to a Church? How about a Cathedral? A Chapel? No – as a matter of fact, he was rushed to a hospital where surgeons worked tirelessly to save his life.
What would the faithful have said if the Vatican authorities had decided to taken him to a church / cathedral / chapel instead of a hospital? Would this not be the ultimate test of God and the power of prayer, faith and belief? But when push came to shove, the Vatican, despite its enormous reserve of “faith-capital”, decided to rely on the skill of scientifically-trained surgeons. What does this say about the Vatican’s professed “belief”?
After several days of recuperation, the Pope made his first public statement, where he gave credit for his hair-breadth escape to Our Lady of Fatima – saying that he believed that she guided the bullet away from his vital organs. Prof. Richard Dawkins has astutely observed in the The God Delusion, that if Our Lady of Fatima was in the business of guiding bullets, why not guide it away from the Pope’s person altogether? I would like to advance the same premise and ask if the Holy See would approve of his wounded self being left to the kind benevolence of Our Lady of Fatima instead of summoning the surgeons?
But of course, such a question is never asked. In fact, it would be terribly unseemly and cruel to ask such a thing. So, we just ignore the baseless-ness of the Pope’s stated belief and occupy our time gushing at his devotion.
So – what does all this mean?
This is *exactly* indicative of the norms of our discourse. Stated beliefs are NEVER examined for veracity. Instead, they are treated with fawning indulgence. Game, Set and Match to God!
This is also what happens when ordinary folks reply to polls. We are raised in the cultural context of faith and belief. A big part of the belief-system is that faith itself should not be examined. In fact, faith is often brandished as a “certificate of character”. We are asked to demonstrate faith by doing things for God. We are NEVER asked (or encouraged) to validate faith itself by checking if God will return the courtesy.
We are so culturally conditioned to “belong” to one faith or another that we NEVER call into question whether we truly HAVE faith in the things that we profess to. Since it is unseemly to inquire / validate whether we truly have faith, it becomes the default position. Is it surprising then that almost 90% of us claim to believe in a personal God?
True-believers and the soft-believers.
In my opinion, true believers are only those whose conduct is consistent with their stated belief in some meaningful way (just showing up at church on Sundays, singing in a group and handing out money does not count). Moreover, it should be clearly evident that their conduct would have been markedly different if they did not actually believe in the things that they say they believe in.
For instance, if a person believes in prayer and miracles, and does not turn to a doctor if he/she were to be afflicted with disease and only resorts to prayer then that would be “true-belief”. It would also be stupid – but that’s a different story.
Despite having a reasonable life, if you were to resort to Jihad as a religious duty at great cost and misery to yourself and your family (and of course, the infidels) then that would be “true-belief”. It would also be genocidal – but that’s a different story.
If you were to engage in suicide-bombing infidels on the belief that martyrdom is mandated by God and for which a reward of eternal carnal pleasures await you (72 virgins) then that would be “true-belief”. It would also be sexually-induced suicidal dementia – but that’s a different story.
And here is my final point:
If you see the pattern in the examples above, “true-believers” are the same ones we ordinarily call “stupid”, “genocidal” , “demented”… – in short, “extremists”. If it is true that extremists are a fringe-minority, then why are we inflating their ranks by lumping the non true-believers with them?
Of course, these non “true-believers” aren’t always innocent country bumpkins either. Indeed many of them are cynical manipulators that prey upon and profit from the emotional neediness of ordinary folks. We can call them fraudulent scoundrels and deal with them separately – but we certainly don’t need to call them “true-believers”.
My point is that the numbers of “true-believers” are extremely over-exaggerated. The composition is more like:
- There are some true-believers (stupid, suicidal, genocidal and demented people).
- There are some fraudulent rascals (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggart, Satya Sai Baba…).
- And there is a LARGE number of people that are simply part of a group they were born into and have not fully reasoned their way out of the contradictions of “belief” as yet. Maybe many never will – but that is a different diagnosis than being a “true-believer”.
Since societal norms place a high value on being “a believer”, and provide no encouragement to examine whether they “truly believe”, a person typically does not hit an inflection point where he/she can break out of the normative state of “being a believer“. Thus, an average Joe/Jane, born into an average family, goes through life being counted as a “believer” without really being one.
The framework of our discourse sanctifies such a shaky construct by drawing conclusions based upon it. If, for the sake of argument, a poll were to examine the veracity of claims and then pencil them into the category of true-believers and others based on the broad outline above, we might find that atheists actually exceed the number of “true-believers” (how many people are willing to forgo medical intervention in favor of prayer if they have an about-to-rupture appendix?).
Intellectual progress is a battle-of-ideas between those that court reason and those that court scripture / tradition. Any critique of religious ideas seems to take the complexion of scorning a vast populace. Sadly, the framework of our discourse, has enabled the religious right to not only claim a larger base, it has also also enabled them to be used as human-shields (because you cannot criticize a religious tenet without being told that you are hurting the sentiments of the multitude).