Not all conversations are worth having. While sharing our thoughts is basically the only way we have of connecting with each other, most of the encounters in our daily lives are banal and trivial, the exchange forgotten moments after conclusion. There are many weighty matters worthy of a robust discussion available to us, but one I rarely enjoy anymore is a discussion of religion. There was a time when I yearned to have it, early on in my emancipation from religious dogma, but not everyone shares this desire to be freed from the supernatural claims of religions. With that in mind, if I’m going to engage I have to ask myself what the point of it is, and not just for me obviously, but what is the point for the other party. I’ve found that religion is not a topic that can easily be discussed superficially. Rarely do we find ourselves conversing about where one attends services or whether there’s a bake sale this weekend. The conversations are usually a bit more esoteric; for example I’ve been witness to heated debates about whether the Virgin Mary ascended bodily into Heaven, or if her Son remains the only physical being in the Kingdom.
If I’m going to engage in a discussion about religion, and let’s just take Christianity because it’s the predominant belief system in the world (for now), I think I’d set some parameters first to determine if it’s worth diving in. Will the discussion be about Christianity as a candidate for objective truthfulness about the world we inhabit, or will it be a discussion about the concepts of Christianity as philosophical principles to live by? The former no longer holds my attention for very long, although it’s the first discussion that must be had. The reason I can’t quite relish the discussion anymore is because Christians have had centuries to provide evidence of the claims they make regarding the origins of the cosmos and that of life, as well as the purpose of human life on this planet just to name a couple, and they’ve never been able to provide it. It is in point of fact, not possible to provide evidence for the claims they make because they are all based on revelation. Either you believe that the first century texts from remote areas of the Middle East represent telepathic communication from God to a handful of men or you don’t. There is no way to prove this communication. I can tell you that God is speaking to me right now in my mind and you can believe me or not, but there is no way I can prove it to you. The Church doesn’t even try to prove any of what they say because they know it can’t be done, which is why it’s called faith. You just have to believe. The Catholic Church for example, claims that when one of its priests says the right words over a plate of crackers and a glass of wine, the food items are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is not a metaphorical claim by the way, but an actual, physical truth, and I mean truth in the verifiable objective reality that the word implies, not a “profound truth” one applies to ideas and concepts in order to sound intellectual. We’ll get to the Christianity as Philosophy conversation in a moment. Everyone reading this knows, as do the priests, the Pope and all his bishops, that after the words are spoken and the transubstantiation has allegedly taken place, that if we were to test the crackers and wine for their chemical composition, they would be crackers and wine, not human flesh and blood. Yet the claim is still made.
If the claims made by the faith cannot be shown to be truthful claims, then the conversation becomes rather pointless from my perspective. I do not actively attempt to persuade people that their chosen faith is untrue. I’ve found this to be a decidedly unwelcome conversational subject matter for a believer. If someone has doubts they wish to delve further into, they have many means at their disposal. I think I would have to be asked by a believer to help them with their efforts to shed the faith for me to actually get interested enough to participate. You may be thinking I am not open to a believer giving me reason to join them at the altar and you would be correct. This discussion has been going on, in the case of Christianity, for almost two thousand years. There’s nothing new to bring to the conversation. I’ve gotten the indoctrination as a child, I’ve read the books and sang the songs, I’ve been baptized, I’ve confessed and I’ve been confirmed. The only thing a believer can do is attempt to persuade me of the virtues of faith, which I have considered and cannot support. Faith in things unseen, in supernatural beings and kingdoms, in demons and angels, Heaven and Hell, the existence and immortality of the human soul, are all sadly misplaced. There is no virtue in believing without evidence. There is no pride to be had by claiming to believe because you want to. No, faith of this kind is not something to boast of, so for me, the faith perspective is a non-starter.
Might it be worth setting aside the truth claims of Christianity and having a fireside chat about its precepts and moral underpinnings as a useful guide for living one’s life? Could one not suggest that while humans may not be immortal, our souls living on in a Heavenly afterlife, or suffering in an unquenchable fire, that the teachings of Christ are philosophically worth studying and contemplating? Perhaps, however this kind of discussion is typically not structured around any one religion, but more around the broader concepts of God, or the nature of good and evil, the ethical implications of religion generally, and perhaps a conversation about the miraculous and what we mean by the divine. It would be a contradiction to claim not to believe in the fundamental claims of Christianity, but to still claim to be a Christian. If you don’t believe in the redeeming death of Jesus Christ, who died to offer salvation to humanity by accepting his death as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of one’s ancestors, you’re not a Christian. But for argument’s sake, let’s say you find the concepts put forth by Jesus of Nazareth the man, not the miraculously born Son of the Jewish God Yahweh, to be compelling and worthy of discussion. I devote a chapter to this in my book, which I hope you will read, and there are many worthy proponents of this kind of philosophical melding of Christianity with humanism. But you’ll note that it hasn’t gained much traction, which is likely why the conversation doesn’t happen. Without a reward to offer for following Jesus, or a threat to propose for not, his contribution to the long conversation about human life is not a particularly noteworthy one.
I think it disingenuous to propose that someone finds Christ’s suggestion to turn the other cheek to one’s enemies, or to love everyone as they love themselves to be worthwhile life goals. Hell, most believing Christians don’t even do those two basic teachings of Jesus, and they consider him their Lord and Savior. Jesus preached to not worry about tomorrow, yet concern about the future is one of the primary causes of human suffering and anxiety. Staying present in the moment is a powerful tool at our disposal to let the past stay past, and hold the future’s uncertainty at bay, but these concepts are not Christian creations. If one were to truly delve into the complexities of living as conscious beings, with all the joy and elation, angst and fear, greed and jealousy, loneliness and despair, and the ever-present search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless existence, Christianity, like a long line of other religions, would serve only as our first attempts to deal with those existential concerns. It attempts to solve the problem caused by the uncaring and unreasonable Universe we find ourselves in by creating order and structure. It tries to resolve the existential crisis that exists in all of us by giving us a God-given purpose and an everlasting destination. There are some who can accept these proposals as truth, who can use them to allay their gnawing fears. But there are some who are just not wired to believe, who need to know, and for them the solutions proposed by the chieftains and gurus of the supernatural realm serve not as a balm, but as an irritant to the psyche.
There are conversations worth having, but surrendering to the easy answers offered by wishful thinking isn’t one of them.