If there were a genuine interest, on the part of the new missionaries of atheism, in enhancing the public understanding of science, they would say that there is a deep, vast, fluent complexity in reality that precludes nothing at all—neither unexpressed dimensions nor multiple or parallel universes. It is by no means a closed system, nor can it be recruited to the support of any final statement about the nature of things. My own faith is inductive and intuitive, I suppose; in any case, it has been consistent through the whole of my life, poured into the cultural vessel of a particular religious and intellectual tradition which has engaged me for years and satisfied me very deeply. And this is no proof of anything. I do not recommend that anyone do more than follow whatever inkling she or he might have that existence would be a better experience minus this curious nostalgia for an old, illusory disillusionment. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Cioran, the schoolroom poets of disillusion, should be left to retire into their centuries as Pope and Dryden did into theirs.
Of course, Renaissance thinkers did wonder about this, and they tended to conclude that a human being is a microcosm and like an angel, like a god. This high opinion of the species is generally agreed to have served them well, but no doubt in part because we can no longer employ such similes, and because philosophy has ceased to be metaphysics. The meaning of meaning has been radically curtailed in the modern period. A given of modern thought has been that we are made aliens in the universe by our understanding of it. To me, this makes no sense at all. Even granting us, for the sake of argument, a kind of understanding that we don’t and can’t have. With all respect to science, our situation is as Einstein said it was: we are “children playing on the edge of a limitless sea.” This atheist worldview is a pastiche—an agglomeration of responses to a variety of questions, the credibility of theism being at the center of them all. The reputation of the idea of the holy is framed in a language of merely, only, simply. The religious have merely projected their fears, hopes, and puzzlements on a vacant sky. Humankind are only the creatures of biology and evolution. Science simply precludes the naïve forms of wonder as its light falls into the dark corners that remain.
I am religious not because I find rationalist refutations of religion to be illogical, uninformed, and ill-considered—though I do. I am religious not because in sharing a tradition of learning and belief, specifically in the mystery and grandeur of things known and unknown, I am helped to an understanding of thinkers like Descartes, Newton, and Locke, and writers like Milton, Melville, and Dickinson. I am religious not because I fear a cold and disorienting godlessness which I cannot, in fact, imagine, and cannot credit enough to fear. I’m not even religious because the drama of human life on this planet holds meaning far beyond any suggested by the species’ long march towards its own disillusionment. Nor am I religious because theology allows me to integrate human dignity and brilliance with human crime and error, the turbulent cosmos with an unspoken thought, beauty with meaning, life in every form with the impetus of a sacred intent. I am religious and all these things follow. At the same time, the way of the mind through the world is a great and holy mystery, and I am entirely ready to respect an atheism that does not come armored in hackneyed and implausible argument.
One of the things that I think is characteristic of religion—and I’m not talking about any local variety of it—is that in architecture, or music, or chant, or poetry, religion creates another language for expressing this intuition that we have of (is there a word for it?) the spectacular quality of being beyond what we can express or articulate within the terms of ordinary language. The world is full of all the variety of expressions of this kind of intuition that we would not have access to in the same way if people had not built their temples and cathedrals, and written their music, and so on. If you lop off what religion has contributed to the world—again, I’m not talking about any local religion—it would be an almost unthinkable impoverishment; this is part of what the Islamic State is doing. In other words, if you are the student of a particular religious tradition, there’s a way in which you know more about any other tradition than you would if you had not explored the phenomenon of religious thought seriously itself. But, of course, one is always speaking from the perspective of a particular tradition, just as you speak from a particular philosophic tradition. But you’re not speaking to the exclusion of the legitimacy of the very much larger, very much more diverse, kinds of religious intuitions that are active in the world. One of the things that you can say about human beings is that they have a tendency to go off the rails. It’s opportunistic to associate it with one religious culture. It’s the history of the world. Read about what happened in Congo during World War I; there was no religion involved there. And it was Europeans, of course, who wanted rubber—and that’s about the worst thing that has happened in the history of the world. We have to accept the fact that human beings are scary creatures who become inexplicably irrational under certain circumstances that we can’t describe or anticipate. Having a sort of “this, therefore that” association with cause and effect—as if religion were the exclusive cause of particular unwanted developments—is simply convenient retrospect. We don’t know when the next unwanted thing will happen, which is a cautionary word for us all as we go to Wal-Mart to buy our weapons.
On the other hand, we are confronted by doctrines, or forms of religious behavior, that raise questions. Aberrances, perhaps. Is this, we ask, an expression of Islam or a failure of Islam? Is it Christianity that is buying the Kalashnikovs, or is it a failure of Christianity? Should a Muslim be president? Well, it looks to me like a good Muslim would be a great president. Should a Christian be president? Well, a good Christian would be a great president. Any religion, so far as I know, makes demands through doctrinal statements that create responsibility in the individual and, at the same time, liberate them by stipulating obligations that pit them against the grain of the world.
In my encounter with others, I do find this experience through the rituals, through the sense of community, and through the friendship and fellowship. I never experience this with my colleagues. They are friends, and I experience with them a different sort of bond, but religious people—at least the ones that I associate myself with—talk a lot about fellowship. It is important and meaningful, and one can experience this fellowship ritually. It is very odd. The language of ritual is, in a sense, a non-cognitive mode of communication, which can be quite powerful. I find that, cognitively, the Christian Eucharist is really strange—drinking the blood, eating the body, and all that. And yet, it is a very powerful ritual. One can experience that sort of fellowship with others in a way that is, existentially, very meaningful. Meaningful also, socially, is the experience I share with my own family members, when very powerful emotions and feelings of the numinous are felt, moments when we all get the sense of something beyond ourselves, and the two hours we spend together—once a month or so—in that sort of fellowship do seem enriching and necessary.
There is a wonderful Tocqueville passage in Democracy that I especially like. After observing this American republic in the 1830s, he said, “Well, if the religion of a people gets destroyed, they lose their bearings, and their orientation, and each man becomes confused about the large subjects and he ignobly submits to think no more about them.” That kind of lapse snaps the strings of the will, leaving people to surrender themselves to some kind of strong man. Tocqueville was warning us of this. He saw it—the inherent tyranny of democracy—and he said that if this happens, people choose some other bastard. He ends by saying that if a person wants to be free, he must believe, and if he can’t recover his faith, he must be subject. Now, I don’t actually believe this, but I see the logic. He also called the American an idealist working on matter. He felt that the Republic could continue to cohere only through the persistence of faith and doctrine.
I think somebody said something about particularizing these things. This arrangement that I’m talking about doesn’t exist anymore. The story I’m telling you is a story about the fifties and the sixties, in a particular place, in a particular time. Practice, ethics, theology, the things people say, the things people think are important to believe, the things that people actually use in order to explain the world to themselves, the things that happened in my Christian aunt’s life when she was praying: These were all packaged in a particular way in a particular place. I think that religion is the wrong level on which to make generalizations. If we want to understand what’s going on in the things we call religion, we’re going to have to understand them in particular places, and we’re going to have to understand our religious context. Religions are so diverse that I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere if we make vast generalizations about them. But belief is a good word.