AUTHOR’S NOTE: This started out as a Corner post and it went long so I figured I’d turn it into a very short G-File. The inspiration for this was a query from Andrew Sullivan asking who at NR and The Weekly Standard are atheists (which was sparked by a whole other conversation about Nietzsche). Andrew Stuttaford responded, so I figured I would too, somewhat briefly.
I’d say once a week some reader asks me if I believe in God. I personally think it’s a rude question. It’s funny, most people recognize that asking someone if he’s gay is a deeply private question. Most people recognize that asking someone if his marriage is going okay is generally not a polite question to ask. Most people recognize that asking someone which kid he loves more, what he thinks of his father, etc., are deeply private issues. But on whether or not you believe the Almighty is the author of your being, who guides you in your life–many people think this is like asking what your favorite flavor of ice cream is.
Meanwhile, I have little reluctance mentioning my depth of religious activities. Religion strikes me as public, belief private. Indeed, when I recently admitted –not for the first time–to being “not very religious” (perhaps I should have said “not very observant”) I was inundated with e-mail from folks wanting to quiz me on my most private theological beliefs. Since I brought up the matter of religion, they saw no reason for me to get coy about God.
Regardless, this helped me to realize that I am a bit idiosyncratic–and probably a bit inconsistent–on this issue because only very rarely do I run into people who agree with me on this religion-public, God-private distinction. So many readers are proud to boast of or simply discuss their belief in God and their relationships with Him. I respect that. It’s their call (also, many atheists seem almost giddy about mocking people who believe in God). I sometimes wonder if it’s a Jewish thing because I have run into far more observant Jews who balk at the idea of discussing the existence of God. I think part of my bias is also a very serious belief that religion is important and necessary for a healthy society–whether or not God exists. This makes me something of an (Irving) Kristolian, I suppose. I always ask my atheist friends, “If you think religion is so stupid, would you like it everybody stopped believing in God tomorrow.” The honest ones shudder at the bloodshed that would follow such an “awakening” and argue instead for a slower process of revelation–or is that de-revelation?
I also detest the tendency of Americans, Westerners, or “Moderns” to boast of how they’ve customized their religious views to fit their lifestyles. “I don’t believe in organized religion, but I’m a very spiritual person.” Yuck. It simply strikes me as intellectually offensive to pretend that the engineer of it all goes out of his way to let individual people order off-menu their religious preferences in just such a way so as pretty much everything they do is exactly how God wants it. And, even if that were the case, even if God customizes the heavens, space, and time so as to make every personal indulgence divinely inspired, the trend of people being their own priests is not one I celebrate. I’d hate to sound like I’m lending my voice to that chorus–I’m not. Indeed, my belief that religion is important depends on it being a social institution. If everyone has his own church, each designating himself a personal messiah, we’ve slipped out of the realm of faith and, ultimately, into the arena of the übermensch where whoever has the religion which condones the most barbarity, wins.
Anyway, since this is now a column instead of a Corner entry I suppose I should figure out how to wrap this up. Particularly because I have to walk Cosmo now (who most certainly doesn’t believe I am God. “Behold: A God who snores!”).
So let me answer the question even though I find it distasteful. Yes, I believe in God. But I suppose I would emphasize my belief that He is a mysterious God–a very mysterious God–and that the best way we have to understand Him is through metaphors which we will, and almost always should, find wanting. God may be able to make a boulder too heavy for Him to lift, but even He couldn’t do better than “I am that I am.”/ “I am Who am.” Or He could, but we wouldn’t understand it.
So yeah, I believe in God. But I also think Alexander Pope was right when he said that the proper study of mankind is man. God doesn’t need me to believe in Him or agree with Him. What we should be concerned with is morality, because morality–whether you are an atheist, Hindu, or Jew–is the only criteria we can judge each other by. I can’t tell you whether a Christian man really believes or just says he does. Similarly, my motives to be a good person or a bad person are my own. If I get my morality from a can of chicken-and-stars soup, you shouldn’t care until that morality drives me to commit evil. At which point we can have an argument about whether or not soup-can religion is bad for America.
I think morality is universal (and if it’s not society still needs to think it is), but circumstances are fluid. A hammer is always useful so long as you always run into nails. Kindness is always the right course until you run into someone who doesn’t deserve it. Morality, in my own view, is what God has given us to work with.
I told you these metaphors were open to criticism.