TO BELIEVE OR NOT TO BELIEVE, THAT IS THE QUESTION
‘I'm normally not a praying man, but if
you're up there, please save me Superman.’
-------- Homer Simpson --------
Try telling people you don’t believe in anything and see what happens. I do it often. Like at my writers’ group the other day while standing around the tea-and-biscuit counter during the mid-session break.
“Oh, so you’re an atheist,” one of the women says to me after I make my declaration.
“Well, no,” I reply. “It’s not that I just don’t believe in god. I don’t believe in anything, god or otherwise.”
“I believe in love,” she says. “Surely, you believe in that.”
Emma is the type of woman who walks around with a perpetual look of holy adoration on her face. Her curly ginger hair falls in ringlets well past her slender shoulders, and she has the kind of angelic smile that would wipe the frown off a demon. She’s into positive affirmations and writing poetry that oozes goodliness. Or is it godliness? Either way, my guess is she’s a born-again Christian suppressing a mass of underlying anger and fear.
“No, I don’t believe in love either,” I say.
“Don’t you love anybody?”
“Sure. I love my parents, but I don’t believe I love them; I know I do.”
“What’s the difference between knowing and believing?” Emma asks.
The answer to this question is as obvious to me as an elephant sporting sun-glasses at a party. No belief required - I know an elephant when I see one, sun-glasses or not. Unfortunately, in order to answer the question, I’ve got to put my left-brain into gear and crank out some sort of sensible response. It’s unlikely to be adequate, but that’s the nature of verbal communication - it always falls short of the mark. Nevertheless, we’re in a writers’ group, and I’m here to develop an emerging literary vocation, so I figure now is as good a time as any to get in some practice. Who knows, I might even get some decent material for a piece I’m writing on religious absurdities.
“It’s like this,” I reply. “When I say I know something, I’m coming from a place of certainty; like, I know I love my parents. Or, if I see an elephant at a party, I know it’s an elephant, not a Chihuahua.”
Emma’s mouth widens revealing perfectly white teeth. She’s about to laugh before lowering her eyes and closing her mouth. She lets out a muffled snicker instead.
“With beliefs,” I continue, “there are always two internal, opposing forces. Belief in something, anything, like the existence of god for example, always comes with its opposite, the non-existence of god. Beliefs are indicators of an underlying dilemma and the struggle to have one side win over the other. Christians do it habitually; like trying to make good triumph over evil, or god defeat the devil. New Agers do it by asserting positive affirmations in order to prevail over negativity and unwanted circumstances.”
I cringe at the formality of my speech, and having a go at Christians and positive affirmations. Perhaps I’m doing it to stir the pot with Emma in order to get some interesting dialogue for an impending memoir. Maybe I’m on a mission from god. One way or the other, I’m struggling with trying not to sound arrogant or preachy. If there’s a problem, however, Emma isn’t letting on. She produces one of those angelic smiles, wipes a strand of hair away from her blue eyes, then looks at me earnestly.
“Well,” she says, “I believe in positive affirmations. Jesus said, ‘All things are possible for him who believes.’ ”
I’m impressed. Although somewhat confused, Emma has succinctly combined the ideas of beliefs and positive affirmations with a major teaching of Jesus in less than ten seconds. The only problem is that as coherent as it sounds, it’s got as much to do with the truth of the matter as the tooth-fairy has to do with money under kids’ pillows. Even my 10-year-old step-daughter knows the tooth-fairy is actually her mum tiptoeing into the room while she sleeps. Likewise, this notion of being able to achieve anything by believing in it with sufficient conviction is fanciful idealism. As much as I wanted to be on the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, no amount of positive affirmations or beliefs was going to change the fact that I only made it to five feet eight in height. I would further have had to defy the laws of physics and manifest a rather pronounced change in the colour of my very pale-white skin. It wasn’t going to happen, and not just because I didn’t believe strongly enough. It’s simply not the way the universe works. Explaining that to a "believer", however, is fraught with hazards.
As I’ve been discovering most of my life.
The thing is, as far back as I can remember, I’ve found all beliefs, especially those underlying Western-based religions, to be absurd. As too the stories of the Bible - like Jonah who was supposed to have inhabited the belly of a big fish for three days, or Lazarus whose comeback from the dead trumps Muhammad Ali’s return to take the heavyweight title twice more. Even Moses parting the Red Sea smacked of fanciful nonsense, on the same level of reality as Santa Claus climbing down chimneys and Frankenstein meeting the wolf-man. And as a document offering insights into the truth, I consider many books have far exceeded the Bible’s endeavours, including ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ by Robert A. Heinlein and numerous Eastern and Western spiritual texts such as the writings of Lao Tzu and The Conversations With God series of books by Neale Donald Walsch. I even regard Shakespeare’s writings as showing a greater appreciation of the moral imperatives of humans than those presented in the Bible. Hell, according to the Old Testament book of Leviticus, I can possess slaves (providing they’re from neighbouring nations), but I’m not allowed to approach the altar of god because I don’t have perfect eye-sight! And although I would like to uncover my neighbour’s ass, the possibility of rotting in hell forever with the devil breathing fire down the front of my pants, has me thinking more than twice about exploiting such lustful desires.
None of these arguments, however, is likely to sway Emma. As with every other believer, she will make all sorts of rationalisations in order to try and keep herself insulated from reality - the reality that existence is an incomprehensible mystery with no finite point of reference; that the physical universe is a destruction machine of gargantuan proportions chewing up every thing and every belief in its wake. And, like squirrels hanging on to their last acorns, Emma will no doubt try to hang on to her faith in Jesus and what he supposedly said two thousand years ago, even in the face of all indications to the contrary.
I should know – I’ve been there myself.
“So,” I respond to Emma’s conviction about positive affirmations, “You quote Jesus. Do you think he can cure my arthritis and dicky knee?”
“Sure. Come to our healing centre in town - all sorts of ailments have been cured there. You know, only through Jesus can we actually be saved. He said ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Coming from a Jewish background, I’m inclined to tell Emma that Jesus was a nice Jewish boy who went into his father’s business. But I refrain. Contrary to past inclinations, I must be in a conciliatory mood.
“Look, “I reply,” I was brought up in a culturally Jewish environment, and I’m not interested in what Jesus had to say. What’s it matter what anyone had to say two thousand years ago anyway? Here we are now.”
“I feel sad for you,” Emma says. “You are a lost soul. Maybe that’s because the Jews killed Jesus.”
Once again I’m impressed. Emma is playing the role of a fundamentalist Christian down to a tee. The brand she’s portraying is up there with many of the other brands going around. Each believes their religion is privy to the one and only true revelation; which means, one is right, the others necessarily wrong. That’s basic maths. Except, instead of the equation adding up to something useful, the end result is at best religious folly, and at worst, the nastiest elements of sexism, racism, homophobia, inquisitions and wars.
It’s also not very good for human relations.
I look at Emma with an angelic smile of my own. “You’re a righteous fundamentalist," I say.
A hush envelops the room. I can see with my peripheral vision a number of people are now listening to our conversation.
“But I know where you are coming from. I was a devotee of a guru myself for around ten years. He also told us that only through devotion to him could we be completely free of our suffering. I learnt a lot about fundamentalism back then, especially my own. These days I don’t refer to others’ teachings about the truth, nor do I identify with any particular religious or spiritual group. I also don’t find the need to have an intermediary act as a conduit for the Divine. But I am interested in you, here and now, and what you’re going through.”
I feel satisfied with myself. I’ve been clear and concise, without being condescending or offensive.
Or so I imagine.
Unfortunately, people with beliefs construct elaborate shields around themselves hoping to fend off unwanted truths. Challenging those beliefs is usually perceived as a threat, triggering defensive mechanisms that often snowball into hostilities and aggression. It’s an automaticity, like that of a Pavlovian dog. And just like Pavlovian dogs, it’s not possible to persuade believers set in their ways to go against their conditioning. A much greater force is required – perhaps the very god such people profess to believe in.
Emma’s shoulders recede and a wrinkle appears on her forehead. She turns the other cheek and speaks in a more hushed tone.
“The holy spirit of Jesus lives through me. I am only a vehicle for his will.”
At least she’s not openly hostile, I say to myself.
“Look,” I reply, “I’m not interested in Jesus. Whatever he said or didn’t say is irrelevant to me. We can’t really communicate so there’s no point in talking anymore.”
I turn around and take my coffee and biscuits over to the large table in the centre of the room, where I sit down next to one of the other writers. He congratulates me on being so calm and tolerant in the face of such difficulty. I tell him I’m grateful for the conversation with Emma; how it reminds me of my own righteousness and emotional dissociation, and how awful it must be at times for those around me, especially friends. I also tell him that not having any beliefs is not always easy, but I don’t seem to have a choice in the matter.
The rest of the meeting is taken up with a number of five-minute writing exercises around prompts. On the topic of "mosquitoes", I write about my aversion towards them and how people have told me the blood-suckers wouldn’t bother me if I was truly spiritual. On the topic of "boredom", I take a humorous swipe at the facilitator of our group for organising a recent poetry seminar that reminded me of what boredom truly feels like. Finally, for the phrase "loose camels", after discussing the amorous habits of said camels, I conclude that I am going completely inane.
I must be.
I have more faith in Homer Simpson and Superman than I do in god or Jesus.