Let me say up front that I am an atheist and have been one pretty much since my teenage years. I’m not proud of the fact. I don’t campaign for atheist rights against the seasonal crèche, or think people who believe in God are somehow less diligent or intelligent. I just don’t seem to have the belief gene, or at least I have it in the recessive form.
But I think I understand why people believe in God. It’s built into our psyches. Among the mammals and most other animals, we humans are born early, before our full gestation is complete. Otherwise, our full-grown, solid heads would not pass down the birth canal. This anatomical anomaly imposes limitations. A newborn colt can run within a couple of hours. Newly hatched sea turtles can cross the beach and swim before the sun rises. But a newborn human won’t even crawl for a couple of months. In this state we are totally dependent on enormous, bright, dimly seen, benevolent figures who put food in our mouths, wipe up our messes, hold us close, and sing to us. The god of sea turtles must look like the full moon.
After we grow to reason, we can see evidence all around that our parents are not all-knowing and all-powerful, and they don’t always protect us. Mother and father have their bad days. They become lost on the road. They short-change the waitress. They become muddled with drink. They lose their tempers and lash out. In short, they are human and fallible just like other people. And yet, in a dangerous world with death at the end, we are conditioned to want, to expect, to know that a bright, dimly seen, benevolent figure will protect us.
Religion and a belief in God are natural to the human mind. The guiding hand of an unseen being makes sense of the world, provides order and reason, assures us that good actions are rewarded and bad actions punished, and tells us that our blind, groping animal life has meaning and purpose.
It is in this sense that all religions are true. The religious impulse is satisfied if the belief system places the individual in a mental and emotional framework that he or she perceives as knowable, predictable, equitable, and therefore comfortable. Religion takes us home to a safe place, much like the place mother and father once made for us as babies and tiny children.1
Some religions have their terrifying aspects, of course. They offer wrathful gods who are demanding and jealous. They set paths to heaven so narrow that most people slip off and fall to burn in hell. They belittle and demean those who don’t believe exactly as they do. And some people have terrifying childhoods, too, with angry fathers and neglectful mothers. For them, harshness and abuse seem familiar, and pain is a proof of existence.
All religions are true. … Until, that is, you begin to notice the details and track them, one against the other.
Our Judeo-Christian deity, the God I grew up with, was all-knowing and all-powerful. He stood outside of space and time. He created the heaven and the earth, by which we now understand a universe of 100 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars. Many of those stars have planets, and many of those planets must have life that our God knows about. But our God is first of all the God of the Hebrews—He speaks Hebrew; His secret name is Yahweh, or Jehovah; and He has a special pact with those who are Jewish and those who are willing to convert to the religion of his son Jesus, who was a Jew but was also something new. He cares for all humans on this planet, except for those who don’t know about Him, because they were raised in some other part of the world or before the time of Jesus. If they are merely ignorant of His all-powerful nature, He is content to let them tremble in limbo. If they know of Him and still refuse to worship, then they will burn in hell.
This is the god of small children. He has a name and place, likes and dislikes, and even a family. He is our “invisible friend.” A learned theologian of the Christian religion would argue that this is a childish and undeveloped view, and that a mature Christian relates to God very differently. Perhaps my defect is that I never learned how to do this. Perhaps the adult adopts a less detailed, more intellectual view of the God he or she once knew as Yahweh of the Hebrews calling out to Adam in the garden. Perhaps mature belief evolves into the cool abstraction of Aristotle’s prime mover, the “unmoved mover” who first caused the universe to come into being.2 Such a deity is by nature distant and unknowable, far removed from human concerns. You could no more pray to the Unmoved Mover for grace or divine guidance than you could pray to It for a red bicycle.
No, stripping the details away from religion is like peeling away the onion looking for a center that has no more layers. We look for a nugget of truth and meaning, and find only empty space. Remove the four faces of Brahma, remove from his four hands the implements of religion, remove the lotus he sits on—and what do you have? A cool abstraction. Perhaps the Hebrews were wise in this instance when they insisted that God’s name was secret. Perhaps Islam is wiser yet, to insist that the faces of Allah and Mohammad never be drawn and so provide no fixed form that can be worshipped in error.
But I can’t believe that those who profess a faith in God and take comfort in religion are actually, deep in their hearts, worshipping a cool abstraction. Of course, I have no faith myself, and so I cannot testify to what an adult might believe and feel during the practice of religion. Still, I know that humans are a story-telling species. We draw pictures. We cling to faces, places, and names. We define reality by its details. That’s how Ganesh got his elephant’s head and wisdom. It’s how Odin became the one-eyed man with two ravens, Thought and Memory, as his familiars.
Those details make the belief strong. They provide bread to the teeth of the mind. There is no loss of faith in imagining these details. Until, that is, the followers of Yahweh declare that followers of Odin and Ganesh are deluded and worship the false masks of a devil sent from hell.
God is in the details. And yet, in a most significant way, He is not. And in this sense, all human religions are true.
1. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3.
2. God as the densely packed and exploding nugget of the Big Bang? God as the naughty small boy who packed that nugget in the first place and lit the fuse? Don’t get me started on the Big Bang as just another creation myth!