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Religion and Relationship

This is a revised version of a letter I wrote to a friend after I discovered that she had (and has) a deep religious faith.

I offer this in the hope that it may be of some small help to others struggling to cope with the demands of maintaining a relationship in which radically different worldviews coexist. I know, now, how difficult this can be.

Although we had known each other for some time, I had failed to appreciate the extent of my friend’s very private faith. When she eventually corrected my error, it came as something of a shock. We had become romantically involved shortly before this discovery and although we were extremely close in many ways, we didn’t really connect in other ways. As our metaphysical differences became increasingly apparent, the question of respect started to arise, for both of us, which only heightened the tension.

It seems to me that respect is an essential ingredient in love, and yet I found myself claiming (sincerely) to love someone whose central worldview I considered ridiculous. At last, I felt my position on truth and religion had to be reexamined. This letter was part of my attempt to understand and explain that process.

As we both gradually and reluctantly came to realize, the kind of intimate relationship we both desired was too problematic to pursue while this metaphysical gap separated us. However, we could, and do, remain the closest of friends.

Dear Faithful Friend,

As you know, I have so much wanted to grasp what it is that motivates you, that informs you, that is your philosophical and spiritual bedrock–a position that feels very different from mine. I think, at last, I am a little clearer.

You were a little anxious I think, but you kindly talked to me the other night about Jesus and God, and Adam and Eve, and some of the technicalities of your faith. And while you patiently explained these things to me, I lay beside you in the dark, amazed, both at your encyclopaedic knowledge and your extraordinary commitment to these ideas. But as I listened to you, I was also getting ever more angry and sad. It felt almost as if you were telling me that you were still committed to someone else–worse, someone imaginary that I could never know. I kept saying “I hear you, but I just don’t get it. What do I need to do to get it?”

I so much wanted to understand. You are, after all, one of the most intelligent people I know, and it seems to me that if you get something, then there must be something to get. But I wasn’t getting it.

What was wrong with me? At last, you suggested I reread the Gospels. The next day you also gave me Sheldon Vanauken’s book A Severe Mercy [1] which I read on the plane home. What a moving tale! I have also spent more time with the Gospels.

When I said to you that I wanted the Christian story to be true, I meant it. What a tremendous prospect that would be! As the philosopher Mark Vuletic says: “[It would be] a wonderful thing if an all-good, all-powerful god existed. . . . Who would not want to kneel down and offer such a being one’s eternal service and devotion?” I agree. It would, I think, give me such a tremendous sense of enlightenment and purpose. So many questions would be answered and problems solved. But reading Vanauken, and particularly the letters by CS Lewis, I realize now that, for reasons I shall give in a moment, I also do not want it to be true. As Lewis pointed out, this contradiction is not really a surprise; conflicting desires are commonplace and we routinely fool ourselves into believing all sorts of nonsense. Centrally, as he says, wishing for something to be true is pointless; recognizing the truth (or, presumably, the falsity) is what matters.

When discussing or even thinking about the Christian story, my usual reaction has been one of frustration and anger–it all seems so ridiculous. And where anger is, as any therapist can tell you, fear will not be far away.

What then, is so frightening to me about the Christian message? Answer: It threatens me with loss. Genesis and contemporary science cannot both be right and if I am to accept your position, it seems I must abandon one of the things I hold most dear–reason–when reason seems to be the only means I have for recognizing truth. Frankly, the prospect is terrifying.

There are other disincentives too: even if I could somehow grasp “the truth” of the Christian message, and thereby gain that wonderful sense of purpose and illumination that I would like to have (along with the promise of eternal bliss in heaven), I would also have to assume a tremendous responsibility–a new moral burden–something I had underestimated. Also, I’m not sure I really want an omnipresent judge and witness to my every thought and deed. There is another, darker fear as well: what if your story is nonsense and yet I somehow still came to believe it? This is the fear of insanity–can I trust myself to distinguish truth from falsity?

It seems to me that even if one were to read all the books ever written on golf, one would not as a result be able to play the game. Likewise, no amount of reading is going to instantiate faith; one surely has to do something too. So, despite my fears, there I was, sitting, cramped in a Boeing 777, with tears in my eyes as I contemplated Van and Davy’s poignant story (in ASM), along with our own strange predicament. I meditated intently, looking for a place in my heart or mind that might resonate at all to the story of Jesus and your God. I have made this effort before, and have now done so again with the Gospels in front of me, as you asked; I have also consulted several of the better-known Christian apologists. As a result of all this, I’m afraid I’m more distant than ever from the whole matter. Sorry, I can go no further with it right now.

In ASM, Van has the conceit to say that he “chose to believe.” Could he, I wonder, also “choose” to believe that the world is flat, or that God is a little green monster that lives on the Moon? I don’t think so. Our beliefs are the result of a complicated mixture of experience, emotion, reason, intuition, and goodness knows what else. A belief that is arbitrarily “chosen” is an absurd notion. Davy, on the other hand, had an altogether different experience. She wrote what are perhaps the most poignant lines in the book for me:

All the world fell away last night,

Leaving you, only you, and fright. 

Her lines struck me deeply. It seems the nature of reality suddenly revealed itself to her in a new light. In secular language I suppose we would usually call this a moment of insight, but in her case it was something rather more severe–a kind of breakdown. For myself, it isn’t the world that has fallen away, it is the Word, in which I can discern no truth, leaving me facing not God but humanity, and in my case one of its loveliest examples–you. And I feel just as lost as Davy.

You no doubt remember my visit before last, when I foolishly said that I thought you were “some kind of Christian”–a rather na’ve assumption, to say the least. Sorry. When I assume, I make an “ASS-out-of-U-and-ME.” In mitigation, I can only say that most people who call themselves religious (and indeed some who call themselves Christian) seem to have pretty vague ideas of God as a “higher power” or “creator” or suchlike, and I can’t think of a single person I know, aside from you, who takes the Bible literally, if at all.

I see this common but halfhearted religious belief as mildly neurotic, but also essentially harmless; after all, who doesn’t have some odd urges and ideas from time to time? My mistake was to assume that you were somewhere near this position. How wrong I was. Your belief is clearly of an entirely different kind. Jesus is your personal saviour (whatever that means) and you read the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. You must be on fire for Him. This must be an all-consuming thing, a faith that is the very centre of your life: “the place,” as Lewis says, “from which all distances are measured.” I feel so idiotic for not realizing this. Sorry again.

But a belief like this must present tremendous problems too, especially for someone with your strength of mind. I imagine you feel obliged to either reject most of science, or else avoid as much of it as you can (except, presumably, for those scientific realities one simply cannot deny, or without which one could not, or would not, live).

Many difficult questions clearly arise. As a parent, for instance, how would you have advised Abraham? How do you read Psalm 137:8-9? How did millions of animals fit into Noah’s 450 foot Ark, and how did they return to and survive in their destroyed habitats after the flood? And what of Floria’s heretical questions to Augustine: what if there is no afterlife for us? What if reality is radically different in some way from what you suppose? [2]

The list of major problems goes on and on, and to my mind the sheer number of biblical contradictions, absurdities and injustices is so extensive as to render the whole text suspect. (There are many websites that raise countless problems like these. Some good examples are: One, Two, Three, and Four.)

I’m afraid I see this fervour–this insistence on the rectitude of biblical teaching, despite these difficulties, as at best problematic and at worst quite psychotic. I used to tut and think it all just nonsense, but now I’m afraid I see it as something worse: dangerous nonsense; dangerous, because it is born of a desperate need, a need we all have, for the dubious comfort of certainty. We want to know, we must know; why else do we have universities, fortune-tellers, and newspapers? We dislike uncertainty so much that a wrong answer, forced to fit, often feels better than no answer at all: what the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom calls a “miserable security.”[3] Indeed, it would appear that belief in the untrue is something of a human disease, an endemic problem that scientists are certainly not immune from. The danger lies in the fact that this need all too often leads to the justification of religion’s worst excesses: extremism and brutality.

God, if He exists, presumably doesn’t need us. But we certainly seem to need Him (or something very like Him), and it’s not difficult to see why. Our lives feel meaningless and empty without some higher, cosmic, or metaphysical purpose, the Feynmanesque Inspiration,[4] and it’s not clear where this will come from in a world without God.

Then there’s the misery of existential loneliness. Aside from God, nobody is ever, ever going to get inside this skin with me. How am I supposed to deal with that by myself?

And of course there’s the big one: death. As one of the philosophers once said, we are the only animal that dies. We, alone, can see it coming. We think about it and what it might mean, and the thought scares us. The idea of a godless, eternal death–complete nothingness–is almost too appalling to contemplate.

Other problems need answering too, such as how did the world come to be, and how should we behave in it? And to all these questions, historically at least, there have been no satisfying answers without recourse to God.

As I struggle with these metaphysical problems, just like everyone else, I sometimes feel I might perhaps go for some kind of religious explanation, but Christianity seems so unlikely: prophets, prayers, a messiah, an indisputable text full of incredible stories, a brutal moral system, and so on.

Why so complicated? Why all the riddles? Was it a competition with the Greeks to invent the most outrageous mythology? The more I look at the system of your religion (indeed any religion) the more contrived (in the Freudo-Marxist sense) and self-serving it seems.

And how cruel it is! To take just one of many examples, why is it that any kind and gentle person who does not accept your god is bound for eternal hell while faithful murderers are assured a place in heaven?

But I must not get carried away and drift into the problem of suffering. My aim here is to try to explain myself, not attack your beliefs; I have no mandate (or desire) to do anything which might provoke painful consequences–Irvin Yalom cautions us against “stripping those who cannot bear the chill of reality,” and he is quite right to do so.

What I will say is that I have made a sincere effort to understand your position. I have attempted to find your God, in the gospels and elsewhere. More precisely, I have opened myself, with humility, to whatever divine truth may strike me and I’m sorry to say that none has. I remain ignorant of your experience and understanding in this vital way, and that saddens me greatly. I wish it had been otherwise.

Do you, I wonder, feel you understand me? While your faith has been a constant thing in your life from the start, my secular existence has been characterized by ignorance and uncertainty and struggle to find whatever truth and meaning I can. Many of the big questions to which you have ready-made answers remain, for me, either completely or partially unanswered–or else I must find my own, provisional solutions. Hardly a satisfactory philosophy, I know, but I really have no other choice. I must live honestly, even if the cost is ignorance and doubt. To paraphrase Feynman, there is no point in deciding beforehand how things really are; the truth is what it is. If it turns out to be different from what I tentatively expect or believe, so be it; I will have made a mistake, but an honest one that I can admit to and correct.

I cannot in good conscience trade this admittedly poor scheme for one that appears so much richer on a say-so, not even yours, my love (and there is no one in the world whose views on these matters I would attend to more closely). And it would have to be on a say-so; after all, what other reason or evidence is there? Lewis’s argument on this point, about not needing “proof” from one’s friend as to whether he exists and is trustworthy is specious; he already presumes what he is seeking to demonstrate: that God-as-revealed-through-his-text is real, friendly, and trustworthy.

It seems to me that truth cannot be decided by democracy or rhetoric: “The testimony of many” as Galileo said, “has little more value than that of few.” In other words, the truth of a statement doesn’t somehow grow in proportion to the number of people who believe it, and no amount of believing, or insisting, or wishing, will make the sun go round the earth or the firmament fixed.

Galileo continues: “If reasoning were like hauling I would agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing, not hauling, and a single Barbary steed can outrun a hundred dray horses.”[5] Horace puts it more succinctly: Nullius in verba: nothing just because someone says so. Testimony alone will not do, no matter how much of it there is or who utters it. We must have good reason to believe. We should be committed to truth, not a particular claim to truth.

The modern Western tradition is built on this axiom: that we should only believe a statement when we have good reason to suppose it is true (cf., Pirsig’s three tests of truth)[6]–and by and large this plan has served me and much of humankind very well. It has also resulted in a more secular world than could have been imagined in centuries past, and those who lament this (rather limited) cultural apostasy might perhaps want to pause and reflect; would they really rather live under an atavistic theocracy where to think freely is to risk the charge of heresy? I doubt it. I certainly wouldn’t. As Vuletic says, “I do not want to have false beliefs, no matter how pleasant those beliefs might be. Therefore, I have to look at the evidence. And it is the evidence, in opposition to my innermost desires, that tells me that there is no god.”

Perhaps I lack the courage necessary to believe the things you believe, but I don’t think so. I think Lewis is right on that point; courage is sometimes needed to accept what we discover, and it is sometimes required to suspend belief (or disbelief) while we “try on” new ideas, but we must, surely, have some sense of the new thing first.

Do you have the courage to doubt, to question, to wonder whether we grossly overestimate our own importance? What if we really are no more than fragile little beings, lost in an unimaginably vast universe, devoid of any absolute meaning or purpose, struggling to make sense of it all as best we can? What if our astonishing consciousness and ethics are no more remarkable than life itself? And what of the dreadful possibility that after we die the only thing left will be the echo of our existence in the minds of others? Perhaps all we have are each other and a little time, in which case let’s make the most of it, yes? If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll give these ideas a try.

Much love.
Your dear friend,



All the C. S. Lewis quotes come from Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, all the Yalom quotes from Loves Executioner, all of Feynman’s from his Danz lecture, etc. Other citations are either referenced here or in the text.

[1] Vanauken, Sheldon, 1980, A Severe Mercy, Harper Collins

[2] Floria was for eighteen years the concubine of St. Augustine (as well as the mother of his child), before he dumped her for his beloved Abstinence. Jostein Gaarder’s wonderful book Vita Brevis is in the form of a letter from Floria to Augustine, in which she asks these questions (amongst others).

[3] Irving Yalom, 1989, Loves Executioner, Penguin

[4] The claim that the central purpose of religion is the provision of motivation and purpose. Richard Feynman, from his 1963 Danz Lecture on Religion and Science, variously reprinted, see, e.g., The Meaning of it All, or The pleasure of Finding Things Out

[5] Dava Sobel, 1999, Galileo’s Daughter, Penguin

[6]‘”As Einstein said, common sense–nonweirdness–is just a bundle of prejudices acquired before the age of 18. The tests of truth are logical consistency, agreement with experience, and economy of explanation.” (emphasis mine) Robert M. Pirsig, 1991, Lila: An Enquiry Into Morals, Bantam, p121

Merle Hertzler has put together a comprehensive critique of fundamentalism. His excellent site is here

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