Politics & Policy

God & Me

Faith F.A.Q.

[I get a small but steady trickle of reader e-mails asking me various things about my thoughts & feelings in the religious zone. Goodness knows why anyone would care, but since some readers obviously do, here are the commonest questions, with my answers. I’ll confess, this is mainly for my convenience. Now, instead of writing out answers & getting into repetitive exchanges, I can just refer curious readers to this link. At least I can for a while; I’ve been going through some changes, as will become clear, and there may still be some moving targets here.]

#ad#Q. Are you a Christian?

A. No. I take the minimal definition of a Christian to be a person who is sure that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, or part-divine, and that the Resurrection was a real event. I don’t believe either of those things.

Have I ever? Well, up to about three years ago there were moments when I would have answered that question with a hesitant “Yes.” For the most part, though, I would rather not have been asked. My Christianity was of the watery, behavioral Anglican variety (see below) — an occasional consolation and a habit, not a core feature of what neuroscientists call my “BDIs” — that is, my mental system of beliefs, desires, and intentions — and certainly not a waterproof philosophical system that I relied on in decision-making and opinion-forming. My ability to reply “yes” to this question, even occasionally, ended sometime early in 2004. Since about the end of that year I’ve been coming clean with myself, and quit going to church. No, I am not a Christian.

Q. Do you believe in God?

A. Yes, to my own satisfaction, though not necessarily to yours. I don’t believe in a sort of super-guy with a human-ish personality (yes, yes, I know that’s the wrong way round: we are supposed to be made in His image) who can be put in a good mood by proper ceremonies, whose mind can be fathomed by reading scripture, and whose help can be enlisted through prayer.

I belong to the 16 percent of Americans who, in the classification used for a recent survey, believe in a “Critical God.” My God is at, or possibly just is, one pole of the great two-poled mystery of everything: the origin of the universe, which passeth all human understanding. He is the Creator. Since He was present in the cosmos then, I assume He is now (or “now,” since He is obviously outside spacetime); and since I can apprehend Him, I assume He is aware of me. The two poles of mystery, the Him and the Me (I mean, the invidual human consciousness, the I, the Me — that’s the second pole) are in contact somehow, and may actually be the same thing, as is hinted at by some by some religious teachers outside Christianity. I am, in short, a Mysterian.

Q. Do you go to Church?

A. Not since about the end of 2004. Just before Christmas that year, I think. (I never did attend the big, cast-of-thousands services at Christmas and Easter. I was the opposite of a PACE Christian — palms, ashes, Christmas, Easter. I used to most enjoy summer services, when half the congregation was away on vacation.) To say I lost my faith would be to over-dramatize it, since I was never a person of strong faith anyway. But I stopped being a churchgoer about then.

Downsides of ceasing church attendance: (1) I still owe my church $500, according to their accounts — I was quite conscientious about pledges and collections. I shall pay it when I can afford to, but I can’t just now. (2) My church is right on Main Street in the village, so every time I go down there I face the embarrassing prospect of running into my minister, I mean ex-minister. This has now become a family joke — you know, the kids offer to scout ahead for me, and so on. (3) Whether to go on saying grace at family meals — see below.

Q. What caused you to lose your faith?

A. I can identify four factors: age, parenthood, biology, and exile.

– Age. It’s counterintuitive, but often the case, that you get less religious as you get older. Well, perhaps it’s not really counterintuitive: Other passions fade, why shouldn’t religious feeling? Anyway, once the end of the show is in sight on the horizon, you get resigned to a lot of things you struggled against before, especially things to do with your own personality. You stop giving a damn about lots of things you used to care about. (“At 20,” goes the old quip, “I was obsessed with what people were thinking about me. At 40, I’d stopped being obsessed with what people were thinking about me. At 60, I finally realized that nobody had ever been thinking about me at all!”) You also just have more time to think; and religion, like sex, works best if not thought about too much. (Though perhaps that’s just an Anglican point of view — more on this in a minute.)

Kierkegaard said something like: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.” Well, I disagree on the first. I understand less about life now (I am 61) than I did, or thought I did, 30 years ago. I can remember being profoundly shocked, around age 25, reading James Boswell’s London Diaries, the bit where Bozzy encounters a very old aristocrat and asks him whether, looking back on life, he can discern any pattern or purpose to it. No, says the old boy, it has all been “a chaos of nothing.” I’m not quite ready to agree with that, but it doesn’t shock me any more, not at all. Perhaps the old nobleman was right.

I have the depressing example, in my own family, of an uncle who lost his faith at the very end of life. He’d been a staunch Methodist — a big thing in my home town, for historical reasons. Uncle Fred was, in fact, the only close relative of mine to be religious in a busy, dedicated way — helping with church functions, lay reading, that sort of thing. (He was an uncle by marriage, not a Derbyshire by blood, so this can’t be construed as a genetic anomaly.) Then in his late 70s he got esophagal cancer, and spent several months dying slowly. It’s an awful way to go: slow starvation and slow choking, simultaneously. At some point he lost his lifelong faith, and died an atheist, railing at the folly of religion. I’m not sure how it happened. My father said that Uncle Fred was disappointed that the people from his church didn’t visit him much, but that doesn’t seem an adequate explanation; and on religious topics, my father, an angry and militant atheist, was not a very objective reporter. Anyway, the example of Uncle Fred has been lurking there in the back of my mind ever since. You hear a lot about deathbed conversions, but not much about deathbed apostasies. Well, let me tell you, it happens.

– Parenthood. Again, this is counterintuitive, and I’m sure a lot of people go the other way, but the experience of raising two kids — mine are now 13 and 11 — was one I found de-spiritualizing. For one thing, it pushes genetics right in your face. (I recently heard quite-new parent Jonah Goldberg, in conversation, wonder aloud how anyone ever came to believe in the “blank slate” theory of human nature. I share Jonah’s bafflement.) See below for more on this. Again, it made me realize how perfectly natural religion is. We have a religious module in our brains, and with little kids you can actually watch it waking up and developing, like their speech or social habits. The paradox is, that to the degree that you see religion as natural, to the same degree it becomes harder to see it (and by extension its claims) as supernatural.

– Biology. This is the big one. I was never much interested in biology, all through my life up to my 50s. At my secondary school it was a low-prestige subject. It was kind of a niche thing, in fact. The boys who studied biology were the ones whose fathers were doctors, and who therefore intended to be doctors themselves. (Doctoring was pretty much a hereditary occupation in mid-20th-century England.) The biology teacher was very eccentric, a joke figure with a thick Australian accent we used to mimic mercilessly. I did a year of biology, then dropped it, taking away with me only a few random recollections of dogfish corpses stinking away sullenly in trays of formaldehyde, and the frustration of having to draw diagrams of complicated organisms like spirogyra. I liked the more abstract, thing-y sciences much better, the ones where you could draw diagrams using a ruler… and of course math.

Then about seven or eight years ago I struck up a friendship with Steve Sailer and joined his “Human Biodiversity” e-list. Through that I got acquainted with a lot of academic biologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and the like. I couldn’t follow much of what they were talking about at first, but I eventually got up to speed, at least enough so to be aware of the momentous discoveries of the past 50 years, and what they say, or suggest, about the human condition.

I can report that the Creationists are absolutely correct to hate and fear modern biology. Learning this stuff works against your faith. To take a single point at random: The idea that we are made in God’s image implies we are a finished product. We are not, though. It is now indisputable that natural selection has been going on not just through human prehistory, but through recorded history too, and is still going on today, and will go on into the future, presumably to speciation, either natural or artificial. So which human being was made in God’s image: the one of 100,000 years ago? 10,000 years ago? 1,000 years ago? The one of today? The species that will descend from us? All of those future post-human species, or just some of them? And so on. The genomes are all different. They are not the same creature. And if they are all made in God’s image somehow, then presumably so are all the other species, and there’s nothing special about us at all.

Now of course there are ways to finesse that point — intellectuals can cook up an argument for anything, and religious intellectuals, who cut their teeth on justifying some wildly improbable stuff, are especially ingenious — but the cumulative effect of dozens of factlets like this is devastating to the notion that human beings are a special creation. And without that notion, traditional religious belief is holed below the water line. The more you read and learn in the modern human sciences, the more your image of homo sap. fades back into our being just another branch on the tree of life, with all those wonderful features of ours — even language, the most wonderful feature of all — just adaptations, like fins or feathers, with an actual record of the adaptation written, and date-stamped, right there in the genome!

But doesn’t the I, the Me, that I mentioned earlier — the self-awareness that we humans uniquely have — doesn’t that make us special? Do tigers, toads, and ticks have an I? Do they have a connection to the Creator? I don’t know. Perhaps they have a fuzzier one — perhaps higher animals, at any rate, see through a glass as we do, but more darkly. In any case, that only makes us special in the way that an elephant is special by virtue of having that long trunk — more exactly, the way the first creatures who were able to register visible light as images were special. We are part of nature — an exceptionally advanced and interesting part, but… not special.

– Exile. The faith I was brought up in — my “faith tradition,” as Al Gore would say — was Anglican Christianity. This is an English, very English, variant of the great old Catholic tradition, with most of the intellectuality and authoritarianism of the Roman church stripped away. English people don’t much like intellectuals — to an English ear, the very word “intellectual” has an obnoxiously continental sound to it, cliques of self-absorbed Bohemian mischief-makers arguing about nothing important in smoky Left Bank cafes — and the Reformation convinced the English that intellectuals are especially pestiferous in matters of faith.

I was once hanging around in the National Review offices talking to an editor (since departed) who was also an Anglican, though an American one — which is to say, an Episcopalian. We got to talking about the Thirty-Nine Articles that define Anglican faith. Did she actually know any of the articles, I asked? No, she confessed, she didn’t. I admitted that I didn’t either. We looked them up on the Internet. There we were, two intelligent and well-educated Anglicans, a fiftysomething guy and a thirtysomething lady, gazing curiously at the articles of the faith we had professed all our lives. That’s Anglicanism. In England it is quite a common thing for some Anglican bishop to get into the news by saying publicly that the Virgin Birth, or some other point of doctrine, is most probably false, and worshippers shouldn’t feel bad about not believing it.

Working in America, and especially exchanging e-mails for several years with National Review readers, I lost my Anglican innocence. Take a fish out of water, it dies; take an Englishman out of Anglican England, his faith takes a blow. It doesn’t necessarily die — I know plenty of cases where it didn’t — but people of really feeble faith, like mine, need every possible support, and emigration knocks one prop away. In America, at any rate for most conservatives (taking my Episcopalian colleague as an exception), you are actually supposed to think about your faith, and even, for heaven’s sake, read about it! With the keen immigrant’s desire to be more native than the natives, I did my best with this, but found I constitutionally couldn’t. The books sent me to sleep; and when I tried to think about Christianity, it all fell apart.

Q. Do you believe religion is good for people?

A. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I thought so for the longest time. All those Golden Rules, those injunctions to charity, compassion, neighborliness, forbearance, and so on. Not only does the proposition seem obvious in itself, but we all know people whose lives were messed up, but were then straightened out after they got religion. I know one and a half cases — I mean, two people this happened to, but one of them relapsed after three or four years, and last I heard she was in worse shape than ever.

On the other hand, some religious people are horrible. This past few years, working at National Review Online and fielding tens of thousands of e-mails from readers, I’ve had my first really close encounter with masses of opinionated Christians of all kinds. A lot of them are very nice, and some are very nice indeed — I’ve had gifts, including use of a house one family vacation (thank you, Pastor!) — but, yes, some others are loathsome. I get lots of religious hate mail, some of it really vile. Often this is in response to something I have said, which I suppose is fair enough, even if not a particularly good advertisement for Christ’s injunctions about meekness and forbearance. Often, though, these e-mails come in from people who are not reacting to anything in particular, they just want to tell me that I am not religious enough to suit them, or to call myself a conservative, or to work at National Review, or to live in the USA, or (though this is very rare) to live at all. Half a dozen times I’ve had readers express these sentiments using four-letter words of the taboo variety.

The usual response to all that is the one Evelyn Waugh gave. He was religious, but he was also a nasty person, and knew it. But: “If not for my faith,” he explained, “I would be barely human.” In other words, even a nasty religious person would be even worse without faith.

I have now come to think that it really makes no difference, net-net. You can point to people who were improved by faith, but you can also see people made worse by it. Anyone want to argue that, say, Mohammed Atta was made a better person by his faith? All right, when Americans say “religion” they mean Christianity 99 percent of the time. So: Can Christianity make you a worse person? I’m sure it can. If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction. Again, I know cases, and I’m sure you do too. The exhortations to humility that you find in all religions seem to be the most difficult teaching for people to take on board. Mostly, I think it makes no difference. Evelyn Waugh would have been no more obnoxious as an atheist.

And then there are some of those discomfiting facts about human groups. Taking the population of these United States, for example, the least religious major group, by ancestry, is Americans of East Asian stock. The most religious is African Americans. All the indices of dysfunction and misbehavior, however, go the other way, with Asian Americans getting into least trouble and African Americans most. What’s that all about?

In the end, I think I’ve now arrived at this position: An individual might be made better by faith, or worse. Overall, taking society at large, I think it averages out to zero. But then…

Q. Do you think religion is a good thing, or a bad thing, for a society?

A. Having just said that it makes no difference to individuals on gross average, the mathematical answer ought to be “neither.” My actual answer is that the question doesn’t make much sense, as a question. Religious feeling just is, there in human nature, unremovably and inescapably. That’s the point of Chesterton’s famous, and true, remark, or quasi-remark. It’s there, and decent societies have to incorporate it somehow, to the general advantage. That’s all. You might as well ask: Is sex a good thing, socially speaking? Depends whether society is good at accommodating it. Pretty much all societies are — we’ve had lots of practice with that. Really formally organized religion is less than 3,000 years old, though. There wasn’t any need for it until really big human settlements — civilizations — came up. We haven’t all got it right yet.

Religion is first and foremost a social phenomenon. That religious module in our brains is a sub-module of the social one, or is very closely allied to it. To deny it expression is just as foolish, just as counter-productive, as to deny expression to any other fundamental social feature of human nature — sexuality, or aggression, or the power urge, or cheating.

The trick, if you want a reasonably happy and stable society, is to corral human nature into useful, non-socially-destructive styles of expression: sexuality into marriage, or at least some kind of formal and constrained bonding; aggression into sport or military training; the power urge into consensual politics; cheating into conjuring, drama, and games like poker. (I don’t mean you should cheat at poker, only that you need some powers of deception to play poker well.) Any aspect of human nature can get out of hand, as we see with these Muslim fanatics that are making such nuisances of themselves nowadays. That doesn’t mean the aspect is bad, just that some society has done a bad job of corraling it.

So I guess my answer is something like: If a society accommodates the people’s religious impulses well, it’s a good thing, and if not, not.

Q. Did you raise your kids as Christians?

A. Sort of. My wife’s not a Christian, and never had any inclination to become one, so there was never much question of us attending church as a family. I could have just taken the kids, I suppose, but it didn’t seem right, especially as I wasn’t a regular churchgoer myself. I did little things to jumpstart the religious modules in their infant brains. We read the picture Bible, we said grace before meals, I tried to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, and so on. I made sure they know that Christmas is not just “Winter Holiday.” (The results were sometimes odd. My daughter memorized the Lord’s Prayer, but my son couldn’t. On the other hand, my son loved the picture Bible, but my daughter got bored. They both had the Narnia books read to them, by the way.)

We still say Grace before meals, incidentally. I see no reason to confuse the kids by imposing my own loss of faith on them. And heck, someone might be listening… And at least they will know how it’s done, and have one less embarrassment to contend with in life.

Q. Are you anti-Catholic?

A. Yes, mildly. I say this with proper embarrassment. It’s really absurd, I know it is, to nurse remnants of those 17th-century prejudices up here in the 21st. And it’s doubly absurd in the U.S.A., where, despite occasional frictions, Christians of all varieties have fought side by side on behalf of liberty for 200 years and more. Still it’s there, and lots of readers have spotted it, so I had better try to explain myself.

A lot of it is just English mother’s milk. Our school history books, for example, were full of popish plots against the crown, Catholic traitors spying for Spain and France, and so on. Mary Tudor and James II did not get good press (though Bonnie Prince Charlie was allowed some romantic glamour, since he was such a pitiful loser), and we heard all about Pope Alexander VI. Those early impressions — scheming, hatchet-faced Jesuits lurking behind curtains, whispering treason in Latin, plotting to murder Good Queen Bess and hand us over bound and shackled to continental tyrants for the good of our souls — are hard to erase.

Of course, as you got older and filled out your understanding, you realized there was much more to it, that it wasn’t just white hats and black hats (I guess that second hat should be red). You came to understand how different people make different claims on history. Thoughtful English people have a very good lesson in this close to hand, their country being adjacent to Ireland. Now there are two different claims on history! If you mix with Irish people, work with them, and live in Ireland for a spell (I have done all three) you get a pretty good grounding in historical relativism, unless you are a person who likes either to wallow in racial guilt or to take a stubborn, fact-denying stand on national honor (I am neither).

Please remember, too, what Roman Catholicism was like when I was growing up, as seen from England. It was the religion of Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, chaotic and communist-trending Italy, recently-keenly-pro-Nazi Austria (don’t let The Sound of Music fool you — the Anschluss was more a wedding than a rape), Latin America as then personified by the buffoonish Juan Perón and his sinister wife, and, yes, Éamon de Valera’s nasty, corrupt, willfully under-developed, people-exporting Ireland. That’s not even to mention France. As I looked out on it from the England of the 1950s and 1960s, Catholicism was the religion of poverty, fascism, obscurantism, and bad government; and I don’t think you can say that this was a wildly distorted picture. Taking the Roman Catholic church as an institution, there just wasn’t anything to like about it, if you hadn’t been raised in it — or even, in countless cases of apostasy encountered by me from childhood onwards, if you had.

And to this day, to tell the truth, and setting aside the attitudes and sacrifices (which latter I gratefully, sincerely acknowledge) of individual Catholic Americans, I have trouble seeing the Roman church as an institution as being any friend of liberty. When I say this to my Catholic friends, they always say: “What about John Paul II?” Though I greatly admired the man, I am not completely convinced. Sure, he hated Communism, and hating Communism is a very good thing. It was partly by his magnificent courage and efforts that the Soviet Union collapsed, and the collapse of the Soviet Union was a very good thing. I don’t know that JPII’s thinking had much in common with Anglo-Saxon concepts of liberty, though — my concepts. He was mad that the communists presumed to think that they owned men’s souls because in his mind the Church was the rightful owner of men’s souls. That’s why he hated Communism. Well, nobody owns my soul. That’s why I hate Communism. That’s liberty, as I understand it.

The Holy Political Trinity of the 1980s, in fact — I mean, Reagan, Thatcher, and JPII — all saw liberty in different terms, terms characteristic of their backgrounds as, respectively, generic-Christian American, nonconformist-Christian Englishwoman, and Roman-Catholic Pole. You can’t escape your upbringing. Which is the excuse I started this answer with…

Q. Do you believe in an afterlife?

A. I am totally agnostic on that. I wouldn’t rule it out. Given what we know about the workings of the brain, it’s very hard to see how anything of the individual personality could survive death. As a Mysterian, though, believing that there is something unknowable at the core of human consciousness, and something else unknowable at the universe’s origin, and a possible connection between the two, I can’t logically rule anything out. Perhaps there’s a supermind, of which my I is just a detached fragment, waiting to be reunited — a drop of water returning to the ocean. (Did you know that the “Dalai” in “Dalai Lama” means “ocean”?) Perhaps consciousness is just a window looking out on the so-called material world from some other reality, and death is the closing of the window. Who knows? I’ve had the intuition, for as long as I can remember — since early childhood, I mean — that there is another world beside this one. I tried to express that intuition in a novel once. I can’t think of anything intelligent to say about that other place, though. “Of what we cannot speak, we must perforce be silent.”

Q. Do you think an individual human life has any purpose?

A. From a cold biological point of view, every living creature has the purpose of bringing forth a new generation, and of living long enough to do so. However, this question is usually asked by religious people with some such subtext as: Do you believe you are here to please (or obey, or glorify) God? Or to make yourself worthy of Christ’s sacrifice? Or the equivalent things in other religions — to help bring all of humanity into the House of Islam, to escape from the Wheel of Reincarnation, to live in harmony with the Tao, and so on? I guess it is obvious from my previous answers that, no, I don’t believe any of those things.

Q. Can an irreligious person really be a conservative?

A. Of course he can. The essence of modern conservatism is the belief in limited government power, respect for traditional values, patriotism, and strong national defense. The only one of those that gets snagged on religion is the second. But while traditional Western society has had a religious background, it has usually made room, at all points of the political spectrum, for unbelievers. Plenty of great names in the Western cultural tradition have been irreligious. Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer, was a complete atheist; and one has one’s doubts about Shakespeare. In any case, as Bill Buckley has pointed out somewhere, the key word is respect. Respect for traditional values implies respect for religious belief, even if you don’t share it. The really interesting question is not “Can an irreligious person be a conservative,” but “Can a militant God-hater be a conservative?”

I’d go a bit further than that. Conservatism, including (including especially, I think) religious conservatism, has at its core an acceptance of, a respect for, human nature. We conservatives are the people who see humanity plain, or strive to, and who wish to keep our society in harmony with what we see. Paul Johnson has noted how leftists always used to talk about building socialism. Capitalism doesn’t require building. It’s just what happens if you leave people alone. It arises, in short, from human nature, and only needs harmonizing under some mild, reasonable, laws and customary restraints. You don’t have to build it by forging a New Capitalist Man, or anything like that.

Leaving people alone, I like. Capitalism, I like. Social harmony, I like. Human nature… Well, it has its unappealing side. I don’t count religious feeling as necessarily on that side, though; and I do count religious feeling — stronger in some individuals, weaker in others, altogether absent in a few — a key component of the human personality at large. To be respected ipso facto.

Q. Have you ever had a religious experience?

A. No. I’m a bit miffed about this. I’ve read some of the literature on religious experiences, and they aren’t particularly uncommon. One informal study, by the BBC religious-affairs unit, found that a quarter of people reported some such thing. I don’t know why I’ve been left out.

I haven’t really tried very hard, never practiced meditation or anything like that; but then, neither did most of the people making those reports. In fact, you don’t even have to be religious to have a religious experience, though I’d guess that a really intense cultivation of your religious module must help some. William Blake seems to have had at least one religious experience per diem, yet he wasn’t religious at all in any conventional sense, certainly not any kind of orthodox Christian.

You can even be an atheist: Marghanita Laski studied 63 cases of religious experience in her 1961 book Ecstasy, and 25 of the subjects were professed agnostics or atheists! Of course, the religious people who had these “numinous” experiences described them in religious terms (“I heard angels singing”) while the nonreligious gave secular descriptions (“I heard wonderful music”). The experiences reported are all uncommonly alike though, even across cultures. It’s obviously the same experience — bright light, beautiful music, a loss of the sense of self (“dissolution”), and so on. It’s just that the mind interprets it according to familiar cultural referents, especially religious ones. If you’re a Christian you see Jesus; if a Hindu, then Krishna or one of those guys; if Chinese, some Taoist vision.

It’s plainly a real thing, and anyone who writes about the mind has to mention it. Freud called it “the oceanic feeling” (see above). David Gelernter has interesting things to say about it in The Muse in the Machine — including, if memory serves, a plan to build a computer that can have religious experiences!

Whether the content of the experience is real, in the sense of putting you in touch with the supernatural, seems to be a subjective opinion. I’d like to have one of these experiences so I could form an opinion of my own. Not having had one, I can’t. As I said, I’m a bit annoyed that it’s never happened to me. (Karen Armstrong — whom, by the way, I find highly simpatico — expresses some similar feeling in the introduction to her History of God.)

People often report that this encounter with the numinous changed their lives utterly — that they were kinder, gentler, more patient and forgiving afterwards, more compassionate, better spouses or parents. I could definitely use some of that. I don’t honestly think of myself as a very good person. Too selfish and lazy. Probably too late to improve now.

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