One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling our, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express
is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
Sermon: Credulity: Why We Believe
We concluded last week’s sermon on Credo (“I Believe”) with Philip Appleman’s snappy poem, which makes a nice bridge to this sermon on Credulity: ‘Why’ we believe:
O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will & wit,
purity, probity, pluck & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
0 and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice —
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good —
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.
We Unitarians, who like to refer to ourselves as ‘the thinking person’s religion,’ need to allow room for belief; so we would do well to switch the words in the last line of the poem: ‘teach the thinkers how to believe.’
In the Credo sermon we talked about what we believe—that is to say, we talked about our individual beliefs – where they are now, and how they may have changed over the years.
I talked about my own struggle with this issue, and I went through the Apostle’s Creed, putting a positive spin on each of the twelve belief statements that are included in that creed.
Today I want to probe a question that I’ve consciously and intentionally puzzled over for four decades: why do we believe whatever it is we believe?
There are many dimensions to the question ‘why’ we believe what we believe, and why we say we believe certain things without thinking very much about them, and why we say we believe things that we don’t really believe. Credulity is multi-layered.
Early in life we believe what we believe because we were told to believe it. Telling us what we’re supposed to believe not only informs the list of things we say we believe, but on a deeper level it tells us that there are certain religious things that we’re supposed to believe – saying we believe them brings rewards…such as the love of parents and grandparents, the approval of clergy and teachers, etc.
So there’s a sense in which our very survival depends on saying we believe certain things.
Those who don’t assent to certain beliefs that are essential, like believing in God and an afterlife, are called heretics or infidels. There are little inquisitions built into the process and we may feel threatened, sensing that if we reveal our truth thoughts, if we’re honest about our beliefs and doubts, we will be criticized, shunned, cut off, excommunicated, and so forth.
We are social animals, and from a Darwinian survival point of view, our stated beliefs, or agreed-on beliefs, keep us connected to our group or clan, on which we depend for our survival.
We speak the language we speak, for the most part, because of the language of the family and culture in which we were raised; we learned language by imitation. It works: it got us fed and nurtured in lots of other ways.
The early religious language we speak is, for the most part, a function of the same kind of enculturation.
I’m not talking here about hypocrisy — we all know about that; we all know about religious leaders and politicians who say they believe certain things for very basic, and base, reasons.
It’s not my intention to talk about something so obvious as the various kinds of hypocrisy we see almost daily, except to acknowledge how our credulity is stretched daily.
(Last week a group of presidential candidates were asked to raise their hand if they did not believe in evolution. Three of the ten raised their hands. This is called ‘pandering.’ The Christian Evangelicals hold a big block of votes.)
There’s a wide variety of reasons why we believe what we believe, as well as the unfortunate set of reasons why we say we believe things we either don’t actually believe or haven’t thought about them enough to say whether we believe them or not.
We understand why children feel compelled to tell their parents and teachers and clergy people that they believe certain things in order to get the love they need, the grades they need, the gold star or the approval from religious leaders.
We also know about teenagers who feel compelled to say they don’t believe any of the things their parents, teachers and clergy believe because they need to distance themselves from the things of childhood.
We remember Paul’s famous lines in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘when I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child I reasoned like a child; when I became 15 I stopped believing…’
What is it that makes a child believe in him or herself? What is it that gives us a sense of self-respect, a sense of integrity, and a willingness and courage to dare to be different?
Having to say you believe things you don’t really understand, or things that are in conflict with your rational mind, sets up a deep inner conflict, and takes away from self-respect.
There’s integrity, or even a kind of heroism, in the willingness to express your doubts out loud when it might cost you.
I feel fortunate that I didn’t have to do that. I owe that to my parents and some special teachers, and to the Unitarian church that accepted me without demanding assent to some theological creeds or doctrines.
The message I got from my parents is that I could be whatever I wanted to be, whatever I decided to be. When I was considering coming to this congregation 23 years ago and talked with my mother about it, and acknowledged some apprehension, she said, simply and lovingly, “Oh, Frankie, just be yourself and they’ll love you.”
I found my way to the Unitarian church in part because of what I admitted to myself and my minister that I didn’t believe, or no longer believed, or no longer was willing to recite a creed with a list of beliefs that were in direct and obvious conflict with my rational mind.
One of the early church fathers, Tertullian, said, “Credo quia absurdum est — I believe it because it is absurd.”
At first glance this statement sounds like an admission that religious beliefs are simply irrational. We depend on scientific knowledge. But we’re not only rational. There’s an aspect of the human experience we call religious, or spiritual; we believe or feel things that are not rational, not reasonable. It’s as if we live in two worlds at the same time, and we have to keep them balanced.
We believe things because we do not know the answer and can’t prove ‘beyond a reasonable-rational’ doubt.
Just before she died my mother asked me to confide in her; she said, “Tell me the truth, do you believe I’ll see dad again?”
I wanted so much at that point to give her reassurance, to tell her what I thought she wanted me to say, but there was something in her voice, something in her tone, and I heard myself say, with complete honesty, “You know, Ma, to tell the truth, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.” She winked and said, “That’s what I think, too.”
There’s something in us that wants to believe – to believe in God, and in an eternal heaven. It’s not rational or reasonable, but it can have a separate-but-equal category in the human mind – it’s spiritual. Religious.
There’s something in us that naturally doubts what others tell us we should believe, or we must believe if we want to get into heaven, which translates simply as, “If you want me to love and respect you, then you have to say you believe what I believe.”
There’s something in us that allows us to believe and not believe at the same time; it sounds like a contradiction, I know. Spirituality requires the ability to hold opposing thoughts in the mind simultaneously.
We choose to believe in God, and to believe that God is accessible and available, and that God cares, when we are in times of trouble. The fox-hole God is easy to understand; we simply suspend our disbelief.
While I want to support healthy skepticism, I also want to encourage the necessary suspension of disbelief; we need to allow ourselves the benefits of belief; we need to allow one another the opportunity to explore every room in the house: ‘in my fathers house there are many mansions.’
I have a basic, non-scientific answer to the question about religion and ‘why we believe.’
The basic need for a generic form of religion begins at birth when the chord is cut and we become separated from mother and begin a struggle for survival, like all the other forms of life on earth. We need help. From the moment that chord is cut, all the way to our final breath, we need to re-connect. The etymology of the word religion, the Latin root ‘legare,’ ‘to connect.’ Religion, in its most basic sense, is the life-long process of re-connecting to other persons, to an ever-changing, aging self, and to Nature, or God, if you prefer.
For prefer to see God and Nature (capital ‘N’) as synonymous terms. I’ve never been comfortable with ‘the supernatural’ version of the gods.
Religious belief is simply about connecting, not only with other persons, and with Nature, and with an ever-changing, failing, fallible self; but we need to feel some connection to that which we cannot understand with the rational mind; with the endless-beginningless-eternal Universe in which we live and move and have our temporary being.
Our Unitarian forebears asserted, simply, God is One. In some ways they were distinguishing themselves from the Trinitarians. But that distinction is limited, and it has a negative quality: we don’t believe in the Trinity; we don’t believe that Jesus was God or the son of God in some exclusive sense.
The positive aspect of that basic theological assertion is that God is the One-ness of all Creation; we’re a part of that One-ness; we’re a part of Creation, which is more verb than noun, since Creation continues to evolve or emerge. We’re evolving along with all life on this fragile planet.
Religion is at the very core of our human-ness. The religions of the world were invented and developed to speak to the human need to feel re-connected.
The religions are neither true nor false, any more than a piece of music is true or false. We don’t respond to a piece of music by saying, “That song is wrong.” We don’t respond to a poem or painting by saying, “That poem is true, that painting is false.” (Except that a painting may be falsely attributed to a particular artist – but that’s another story.)
Jackson Pollack’s painting are highly values by some – worth millions, because people have decided they are worth millions. I don’t get it. To me they are simply color-splashed canvasses, randomly thrown or spilled.
Perhaps Pollack is to the painting world what Unitarianism is to the world of religion: random parts of all the world religions thrown onto a canvass we call Unitarian Universalism. All parts borrowed, or some would say ‘appropriated’ or ‘stolen.’
Perhaps every religion can be associated with an artist: Michelangelo would, for example, most readily be associated with the Roman Catholics. With what religious groups would you associate Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt? Rodin’s thinker might be claimed by Sam Harris and the modern-day anti-theists.
Artists need inspiration. Where does that come from? Though the religions are all human creations, they were each ‘inspired.’
Religion serves very human needs and purposes. Each of us moves through stages of religious or spiritual development, and sometimes we have to leave the religious system we grew up in, the way Jackson Pollack stop coloring within the lines, probably at a very early stage – if he ever colored within the lines to begin with!
The religions are not wrong, in and by themselves, any more than a painting is wrong, or a symphony is wrong; the religions are vehicles invented to move through life, from birth to the inevitable death that each of us faces from the time we realize what death is.
The vehicles we’ve invented can be dangerous, they can be misused and abused; fanatics fly planes into buildings in the name of some warped idea of the gods, or overly zealous willingness to die in order to get a gold star from some deranged religious leader. That doesn’t mean we should ‘do away’ with cars, trains and planes, or suggest the need to ‘do away’ with all religion.
Generic religion, however, is akin to walking. The religions are simply vehicles to help us move along life’s long and often-weary road. We have to beware of believing that the vehicle is the destination.
“The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon; it’s just a finger pointing.” Buddhist.
I’ve been intrigued with the two different parts of the 23rd Psalm. It begins with the shepherd talking about God: “The Lord is my shepherd,” let me tell you about Him. Then something happens: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for Thou are with me…” Instead of talking about God, the shepherd goes direct, and he talks to God, or his Creator and Preserver, or, what I would call Nature (with a capital ‘N.’)
Religious leaders too often talk about God, as if we could convince people what they ought to think or believe. But each of us has a mind of our own, and that mind continues to evolve, which is to say, move from childish thoughts toward a hoped-for maturity.
May our evolutionary process help us to fulfill the Biblical injunction to ‘have dominion over all the earth,’ which means to be responsible caretakers of this planet; to behave in ways that prevent its destruction; which means we have to make a sharp turn in the road and get off the highway to hell that we’ve been traveling…the hell that will be visited upon future generations.
We are capable of that turnaround, partly because life on earth depends on it, and partly because of our moral nature.
Mary Oliver’s poem, Messenger, sums it up nicely:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
End Notes: I’ve chosen to include the following passages from a recent The New York Times Magazine, Darwin’s God, by Robin Henig. Some of these thoughts prompted me to prepare the above sermon on ‘why we believe.’
“In the world of evolutionary biology, the question is not whether God exists but why we believe in him. Is belief a helpful adaptation or an evolutionary accident.”
“Call it God; call it superstition; call it…’belief in hope beyond reason,’ – whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and other-worldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science.”
“…scientists search for an evolutionary explanation for why belief in God exists – not whether God exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does.”
“This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge.” (The God Delusion, Dawkins; The End of Faith, Sam Harris; Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett.
“…fervor that seems almost evangelical.”
“What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.”
“Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?”
“For the group, it might be that a mixture of hard-headed realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that ‘what seems to be an adversarial relationship between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that ‘keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.”
“Stephen Jay Gould, who called for a truce between religion and science said, “The net of science covers the empirical universe. The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.”
“Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people.”
“Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.”
“Our psychological architecture makes us think in particular ways, says Jesse Bering.
“Religion makes people feel better, less tormented by thoughs about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with ‘a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life…an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.’”
“This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the ‘God of the gaps’ view of religion. The presumption was that science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural.”