Our society, it seems, has become so confused about religion that we don't really seem to understand what a religion is. Because of that, we don't really seem to understand what it means to experience God, either.
Seeking God and identifying with a religion are different experiences. Yet, many people seem to think that a person who does not identify with any particular religion must, therefore, be an atheist. That is an insult both to God and, I suppose, to true atheism. Religions are human institutions that, at their best, help people to experience and be close to God. However, the relationship between a religion and God is like the relationship between a radio and music. Just because you don't have one does not mean that you can't experience the other.
I am thinking about this because a reader of this blog recently sent me a message (you can, too, by going here), wondering what I thought about the growing number of atheists in our society. The reader identified himself as an atheist and wondered how I "remain true to [my] faith."
You don't need to be a mind reader to realize that a true atheist would not be concerned with the struggle to maintain faith. Atheism is the conviction that there is no God or gods; no ultimate source of meaning, truth or morality in the universe. How could a true atheist struggle with faith when atheism denies the very basis of faith? I had to assume that the message I got was from a person who wanted to experience faith but was frustrated by an inability to find a meaningful experience of God in any religion. Here's part of what I wrote back:
It is my belief that many people who call themselves atheists are really just anti-religion. Maybe that's true for you, too. I think there is a difference between faith and religion.
A true atheist would be someone who believes that our existence is a complete accident of chance, that our lives serve no purpose and have no meaning, apart from what human beings ascribe to their own existence. A true atheist would believe that there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about any human action—from the perspective of the universe, a murderer and a humanitarian are equals.
I don't believe that and I don't think that there are many people who do if you really push them on it. To me, faith is just the gut feeling that our lives continue to matter even after we have died, and that the way we choose to live matters, too—not just because of our biologically programmed preferences, but because there really is such a thing as right and wrong.
Religion is another matter. Religions are systems of beliefs and practices that are designed to enhance the experience of faith. Sometimes they help people to uncover deeper levels of meaning in their lives; sometimes they are just a tool people use to justify the beliefs and behaviors they would have chosen anyway. Religion can give people insight and provide a framework for making good choices in a difficult world. Religion can give people an excuse to hate and be greedy. For the most part, religions, like people, do a little bit of both.
I got back a grateful response from a reader who acknowledges a desire for spirituality to fill the emptiness of life. Is that where you are, too? What do you believe?
I encounter a lot of synagogue-going Jews who say, "I don't believe in God." That seeming contradiction is certainly a possibility. The synagogue is a place where people connect with Jewish community and ethnic identity, not just God. But I can't help but think that many of those "atheist Jews" are people who are frustrated or confused by the way that our society defines religion and belief in God (and that puts me in their camp, too).
If being religious means believing that your religion embodies the perfect truth, then I will choose not to be "religious," either. If believing in God means holding that there is a mighty being at the top of a religious hierarchy, then I'll be an "atheist," too. That kind of God, to me, is like the cartoon God from Monty Python.
But that is not how I define religion and it is not how I experience God. For me, having faith in God is the experience of accepting that my life matters beyond the satisfaction of my desires and beyond the frailty of my body. To me, God is manifest in the realization that I am here, and so are you, to fulfill a purpose and truth that is greater than any one of us individually.
No religion, and no human institution of any kind, can pretend to know the entirety of that purpose and truth. Rather, religion is a system of concepts and practices that help us discover the experience of God. Religions that work, don't work for everyone. Religions are not necessarily the best way for everyone to experience God. I believe, though, that they can help most people.
And I notice that most people who say that religion does not work for them have never really tried one. Religions require discipline and practice to work. You wouldn't claim that exercise has no effect on your strength and endurance after only doing a few push ups. Don't claim that religion doesn't work for you after only enduring religious school as a child and attending a few services. If you don't make a commitment, you are unlikely to experience a benefit.
We struggle to know God and to experience God, even though we can never be certain how God will touch us or be revealed to us. That experience, that process, is the way I understand what true faith is. It is a journey that we can each travel, and religion can be a map to help guide us on our way.
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