If I believed

Sometimes, especially after conversations with religious people, I wonder what it would be like to believe that there was an all-powerful, perfect being that commanded my worship and obedience. To believe that there were texts, or prophets, or some way to achieve personal confirmation describing exactly what that being’s rules for my life were.

If I actually thought those things were true … I think I’d be one of the scariest fundies out there. I can’t imagine making time in my life for just about anything other than prayer and worship. I’d be a missionary, or a nun, or whatever my god had told me was the ultimate way to give my life to him completely. Sell all my possessions and give to the poor? Done! Make a barefoot pilgrimage through the mountains? Sure thing! I mean, if this god is the ultimate and perfect source of truth in the universe, I’d be crazy not to do whatever he said. And why would I even want to disobey him?

Yet so many of the religious people I know have or are pursuing careers in things entirely unrelated to religious worship.  Probably they’ve justified it to themselves as “their calling,” or, more likely, they’ve never thought about it at all. They go see movies. They have hobbies. They play sports. They believe that their god wants our utmost praise, that he’s told us to “walk with Jesus” or what have you … and they believe that their god is perfect and loving, certainly deserving of that level of devotion … and yet somehow, they’re able to be distracted from those incredible facts long enough to enjoy an episode of Family Guy.

The reason for this difference, I think, is the way we each understand what it means to believe. When these “believers” profess their faith, they don’t necessarily mean that they are living under the assumption that it is true. It’s something more casual than that — more like a club membership. Greta Christina expressed this well in her recent AlterNet piece thoroughly demolishing Pascal’s Wager.

Believers who propose Pascal’s Wager apparently think that you can just choose what to believe, as easily as you choose what pair of shoes to buy. They seem to think that “believing” means “professing an allegiance to an opinion, regardless of whether you think it’s true.” And I am both infuriated and baffled by this notion. I literally have no idea what it means to “believe” something based entirely on what would be most convenient, without any concern for whether it’s actually true.

This is why I’ve said before that I understand fundamentalists better than the liberal religious. Religion makes claims about the supreme, the infinite, the most important truths about our existence. I don’t understand how you could say you “believe” those claims and only go halfway with your follow-through.

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8 Comments

  1. I think I would highly dispute your implied assertion that the “fundies” are the only ones who are “serious” about religion.

    I’ve encountered this a lot among the atheist community online – they seem to think that the only “real” religious people are those who practice their religion in stupid or irrational ways.

    Perhaps because they find those people easiest to mock – which makes them feel better about their own choice not to be religious, I suppose.

    Also, you seem to have an odd view of “religious life” if you think all it involves is “prayer and worship.” What about raising happy children? Contributing to my community? Working to better my fellow men and women?

    You don’t consider these things to be worship? You think God is interested in you sitting on your butt all day and making puppy eyes at him? Do you think that’s the prime thing he’s after from you?

    You have a rather strange and twisted view of the life of religious devotion. It’s hardly any wonder you’ve decided it’s not for you.

    I’d leave too!

    P.S. I have yet to encounter a single Mormon or Christian who believes because of Pascal’s Wager. I’ve seen a lot of Christians try to USE the notion in debates (I’ve never seen a Mormon use it). But I’ve never found one who actually believes because of it.

  2. It’s interesting that you say that, Seth, because I’m thinking of lines in the Bible such as Luke 14:26,

    If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

    The explanation Christians have given me for this apparently hateful verse is that it doesn’t mean you should actually hate your family and yourself, but rather that you should love Jesus so much more than you love yourself and your family that it seems like what you feel towards them is hate. (Additionally, on families, 1 Corinthians 7 says that the best thing to do is to abstain from sex altogether, but if you absolutely must do it, get married and be faithful to your spouse … so I’m really not sure that “raising happy children” is something the Christian god is particularly looking for.)

    Or Deuteronomy 6:5,

    Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

    The word “all” seems pretty key here. If I used up any of my strength on some task other than loving God, I wouldn’t be able to love him with all my strength. Pretty simple.

    I’ve seen people cite Isaiah 43:7 and Matthew 21:16 in order to back up their belief that God created us “for his glory” or “to praise Him.” There are also many verses about eschewing worldliness and worldly pleasures in favor of greater devotion to God. There’s plenty of this in Romans, for example; I’d point you to 1:20-21 there in particular. But it’s all over the place.

    I know that many people who consider themselves very devoted to their faith do have these other interests besides worshiping God. Or they have convinced themselves that excelling in those other areas is a way of glorifying God. That’s sort of my point. If this life is just a test to see if we’re going to be tormented for an eternity or get to be with God and (?) Jesus (and the Holy Ghost?) in heavenly bliss for an eternity — an eternity — I think I’d have a pretty hard time focusing on anything else. But somehow, people do.

    Re: your P.S. — I didn’t mean to make this about Pascal’s wager in particular. Greta Christina happened to be talking about it when she was describing this sort of approach to belief. I think you’re right, that there are a meaningful number of people who try to convince others with it, but virtually no one who finds it to be the tipping point in their faith (… for the reasons Greta Christina explains).

  3. What I think the problem is is that you have too limited a concept of what constitutes worship and devotion.

    Living your life, going to your job, living with your family, even going to the beach IS a life of worship.

    If you do things with a sense of reverence and thankfulness before God – always prioritizing his guidance for you – you ARE living a life of worship. You ARE giving it your all.

    It is not the outer trappings that are of prime concern (though we should definitely expect to see some such trappings – like charitable giving, kindness, and such) – but rather the inner spiritual reality of the person living his or her life.

    Life IS worship – if you’re doing it right.

  4. I have no problem with Jesus’ statement.

    People have given up family, security and such – even endangered their families for the sake of a higher noble cause before in human history.

    Does anyone diss on Martin Luther King for putting his family at risk by his public stand?

    Is “family comes before absolutely everything else in life” really a stance you want to adopt?

  5. Seth:

    Living your life, going to your job, living with your family, even going to the beach IS a life of worship.

    If you do things with a sense of reverence and thankfulness before God – always prioritizing his guidance for you – you ARE living a life of worship. You ARE giving it your all.

    If God told you that his plan for you was that you would go to the beach, and so you go to the beach and have a great time, all the while thinking about how awesome God is and how thankful you are that he gave you this experience, I think you are taking the approach that I said I would take if I believed. I’m talking about people who go to the beach because they feel like it. Who aren’t considering God at all in that decision. I don’t think most religious people are watching Family Guy (to use an example from my post) “with a sense of reverence and thankfulness before God.” But a whole lot of them are watching Family Guy.

    Is “family comes before absolutely everything else in life” really a stance you want to adopt?

    When did I say that? You are fighting a strawman. Maybe go back and read what I actually wrote.

  6. I think you just kind of scared me off with the first few lines of your post. It kind of set the tone for the rest of the article. If you have a more nuanced view of things, fine by me.

  7. Aristarchus

     /  February 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Ok, I know some people think that going to the beach “is” worship – that that’s what God wants you to do, or whatever – but I really don’t see how that’s the most reasonable interpretation of most modern religions. Maybe God is ok with you going to the beach, but I’m pretty sure every modern religion thinks God would be happier if you donated that vacation money to starving Ethiopians instead, and that if you really wanted to show your devotion to God it would be good (though by no means mandatory) to become a priest/minister/etc. You might go to the beach and still not be evil, but you’re definitely not doing everything possible to be as good as possible in the eyes of the religion, and any effort to claim otherwise really seems like a desperate attempt at twisting the religion to rationalize your normal activities.

  8. I’m talking about people who go to the beach because they feel like it. Who aren’t considering God at all in that decision. I don’t think most religious people are watching Family Guy (to use an example from my post) “with a sense of reverence and thankfulness before God.” But a whole lot of them are watching Family Guy.

    Hopefully without saying nothing new, I think I would echo Seth’s comment that all sorts of actions can be worship. I worship a God that created the world, and I do believe that he is glorified when we rejoice in that fact by experiencing the world. And you’re right, the ideal is to experience these things “with a sense of reverence and thankfulness before God,” but I think the recognition is that that doesn’t come perfectly the first time, and my sense is that it’s better to work toward that actively than wait for it to show up before doing anything.

    For example, with a freshman studying general physics: obviously it’s much better to know conservation of energy laws by heart and not have to look them up every time you do a problem. But I think that it’s a much better policy to keep working on the problems and looking it up every time (i.e. reminding yourself of the truth regarding the situation) and eventually come not simply to know the equations by rote, but to see how their truth functions in application.

    A few biblical examples that I think are helpful here: In Luke 3 when tax collectors and soldiers come to repent and be baptized, he doesn’t tell them to stop doing those things, just to do them in a way that glorifies God. Paul, even alongside his itinerant ministry, fabricated tents to support himself. The obvious one is Jesus’ stint as a carpenter. Even at the very beginning, in Genesis 2, Adam is tasked with working in and taking care of the garden. My sense is that work and play are very good things, and the fact that we can’t do them perfectly (i.e. do them while thinking about and worshipping God 100% of the time) shouldn’t prevent us from striving toward that ideal.

    In case this wasn’t too longwinded, I have thought about this before and have written a few things on the subject.

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