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"Choose a faith"? Why would anyone even want one?
Faith sounds dangerously close to religion-and the rock band R.E.M. pretty well expressed the feelings of a generation when they released their infectious anthem "Losing My Religion." Never mind whether anybody, including me, ever really understood what the song was about. Michael Stipe, the guy who wrote and sang the lyrics, said in an interview that the phrase "losing my religion" is actually a figure of speech that means "coming to the end of your rope." "And," he added, "it's a secular song and has little or nothing to do with religion."
But that hasn't stopped countless people from singing their hearts out whenever the song plays on the radio:
That's me in the corner That's me in the spotlight I'm losing my religion Trying to keep up with you
I looked up the song on YouTube.com and read the comments people had written about it. Even now, roughly two decades after the song was first released, people are still trying to figure it out:
animeMMA (3 months ago) this is a good song b/c religion is false Nakasi100 (3 months ago) animeMMA, losing my religion is southern slang for being fed up, idiot
Not that there aren't plenty of reasons, with or without R.E.M.'s song, to feel ambivalent about-or even negative toward-the realm of religion. Most of us have at least a few reasons of our own. Mine, admittedly, are not all that weighty.
For me, it's the memory of having to get up every Sunday, earlier than it seemed any kid should have to on a weekend, and rushing around trying to get ready, putting on what my family called "Sunday clothes." These were articles of apparel I'd never think of wearing any other day of the week. They were usually too small, or too large ("It's okay," my dad would say. "You'll grow into them."); out of style (as if they were ever in style); and often itchy. Sometimes, my parents even made me wear a sport coat and tie! I'm pretty sure that today, particularly where I live in Southern California, the Department of Children and Family Services would take kids out of a home for that kind of abuse-especially when the top button on my shirt was always too tight and would choke me whenever I tried to breathe. Occasionally, even now, thinking about going to church can give me a pinching sensation in the front of my throat.
Almost without exception, after finally getting ready, I'd bound down the stairs to find the house empty. But that didn't mean I was off the hook. It meant I had to run out to the street to discover that my family was already in the car, waiting impatiently for me.
"Hurry up, Mark, we're running late again!"
By the time we got to church, I'd be so out of sorts that it was really hard to think about lofty things like God or serious spiritual stuff.
Later, when I was in junior high and then in high school, I became increasingly aware of how strange most church music was. The organ produced notes that were eerily similar to the sounds I'd heard in low-budget haunted-house movies. In fact, most of the traditional church songs (hymns, to use the proper word) were written by people from another era, apparently for the people from another era-people who liked to sit in pews and sing hymns before going to hang out with their friends in the church "narthex" or "vestibule." I remember one service in which none of the nine songs played had been written within the past one hundred years-and some dated back several centuries. Nothing against relics or antiques, but it struck me that there was something anachronistic and culturally out-of-sync about much of what I was experiencing in my religious environment.
Increasingly, I came to view my life in two categories: normal and religious. Normal related to everyday, ordinary life, like school, spending time with my friends, and having fun. Religious related to weighty things like faith, beliefs, teachings about right and wrong-and a Sunday experience with nice (often overly nice) people, who meant well but sometimes seemed to come from a planet far from the world I lived in. And that world-the normal one-was the one that was becoming more and more exciting to me, while the religious one was becoming ... well, increasingly distant and boring. I reached the point where I was rapidly losing interest in all things spiritual and wanted to minimize my exposure to religion in general.
I still had to go to church services during that time, however, so a couple of my renegade friends and I would do whatever we could to make the Sunday experience more bearable. Sometimes, we'd hide out in the furnace room in the church basement until the service was over. We'd sit quietly, listen carefully, and try to time things so that we could nonchalantly emerge and blend into the departing crowd.
Other times, we'd sit through the service, but we'd look for ways to amuse ourselves as the minutes slowly ticked by. For instance, sometimes we'd take turns seeing who could hold his breath the longest. I can only imagine what the people sitting around us must have thought as my friends and I hyperventilated to collect maximum levels of oxygen in our lungs, and then took a huge, time-me-on-this-one breath and held it for as long as we possibly could. A strange way to pass the time, I know-but one fine Sunday morning I did manage to break the three-minute barrier!
* * *
As I mentioned, my adolescent problems with religion were trivial compared to those of many other people, perhaps even your own. For some, the issues are really serious, like those of my friend who, as a young man, left his church after experiencing abuse at the hands of religious leaders. These were the very people who should have been nurturing and protecting him, not to mention setting a good example. That was many years ago, but even now he's not showing any interest in ever going back.
Reports of abusive clergy have grown increasingly frequent in recent years. And as awful as they are, I don't know which is worse: the crimes themselves, or the cover-ups at higher levels of leadership-where often those in charge merely reassigned the perpetrators, time and again, to new territories, foisting the offenders upon fresh, unsuspecting parishes.
When it isn't sexual impropriety making the news these days, it seems it's financial corruption. We've certainly seen enough of those stories over the years.
But problems tied to religion are not isolated to Protestants and Catholics. In recent years, the Muslim world has been rocked by horrendous events such as the 9/11 attacks and increasing instances of terrorism around the world. It's to the point where the concepts of "Islam" and "terrorism" have become inseparable in many people's minds. Though this connection may not be fair to many peace-loving Muslims, the perception is a reality that colors the way we all look at the subject of religion, and it may affect whether we'd ever be willing to actually consider choosing a faith of our own.
Add to these examples the many cults and religious groups that stand on street corners or show up uninvited to knock on our doors, as they try to sell us their materials and recruit us into their flocks. University students in particular have to be cautious. There was a time when, with one weak moment, they could find themselves off somewhere at a remote retreat with a bunch of smiling, zombie-like zealots. These people promised them happiness but systematically robbed them of their identity, individuality, and relationships-as well as their dreams for the future. And while these groups' followers gave up everything they had to serve and spread their message, their leaders often indulged in material excess and outright immorality as they privately, and sometimes even publicly, modeled everything that was contrary to the religious piety they claimed to represent. Today, many of those aberrant religious groups have become more subtle in their approach, but they can be every bit as damaging to those they snare.
This hypocrisy and abuse leave such a strong taste in people's mouths that they have helped foster a new movement of authors and influencers who not only reject religion for themselves but teach that all of it-from the bizarre cults to the benign corner congregations-is dangerous and evil for everyone else, too. Examples include books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. Or consider the words of Rosie O'Donnell, who declared on the national TV show The View, "Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam."
The message is clear: If you mess around with religion, you do so at your own risk. And if you get too serious about it, the effects can be devastating. So why even mess with it at all?
But here's what's interesting: Though antireligious sentiment seems to be spreading throughout society, there's a simultaneous resurgence of interest in spiritual matters. Just look at a few examples:
the growing roster of TV specials and news programs discussing Jesus, the history and background of the Bible, archeological discoveries, claims of the miraculous, and Christianity contrasted to other world religions the increasing number of faith-oriented films showing up in local theaters-some of which, like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, have become worldwide blockbusters the array of religious themes featured on the covers of newsmagazines, especially around Christmas and Easter, as well as on Internet blogs, podcasts, and Web sites the scriptural subjects of some of the songs on the popular music charts, from the once ubiquitous "What If God Was One of Us" to many of the songs by religiously oriented bands such as U2, Creed, P.O.D., Lifehouse, Switchfoot, and The Fray
Apparently, spirituality sells. But it wouldn't sell if it weren't scratching an itch. As it has often been observed, people are, generally speaking, "incurably religious."
The studies and statistics bear this out. A recent Gallup poll found that 94 percent of people in the United States still believe in God or in a universal spirit. In an average week, more people attend American churches than attend all American sporting events combined. And the Bible, even after so much skepticism has been spread about its message and historical validity, continues to be the best-selling book of all time-by a long shot. Karl Marx said that religion is "the opium of the masses." I guess people are having a hard time giving up the addiction.
But at a deeper level, don't you feel the pull yourself? After all the bad raps and beatings that religion has taken in recent years, why is it that so many people are still so interested? And why are you yourself drawn to spirituality enough to be willing to pick up and read-at least this far-a book about faith?
Why do we so often look at the beauty of a sunset or observe the wonder of childbirth and sense that there has got to be something undergirding all of this at a deeper level?
What is it that makes us aware, at least in our more honest, lying-awake moments, that there really must be more to life than the flurry of activities that keeps our heads spinning but our souls shrinking as we slog along, day after day, year after year? Why is it that we often feel a longing for a truly calm and centered life, one that is more in tune with the transcendent and less caught up in the tumultuous here and now? Where does the guilt that we sometimes grapple with emanate from-and what can we do to alleviate those guilty feelings and the sense of spiritual inadequacy that so often weigh us down?
It's easy to criticize and even write off organized religion with some of its incompetent or even corrupt spiritual leaders and their annoying antics. These targets are obvious and hard not to hit-but focusing on them fails to address the deeper aching of our souls, the inescapable awareness that life as we know it is not as it was intended to be, the knowledge that we need some kind of outside help to really get things right. What do we do with all that?
Maybe you can relate to some of this, but because you're suspicious of all faiths, you don't feel ready to hear about how to choose one for yourself. You'd rather wait it out until you can "just know"-rather than put your trust in anything. If that's how you feel, I've got to tell you something that might be a bit surprising and even unsettling: You've already got a "faith," and you're living by trust in that faith daily. Really!
* * *
Think about your day so far. This morning, you got up and had breakfast-by faith-trusting that nobody in the house had laced your food with poison. You stopped at a coffee shop and somehow trusted those characters behind the counter (is that really a good idea?) not to put some kind of harmful substance in your triple-shot, extra foam latte. You got to work-maybe even took the elevator?-and sat in a chair, by faith, without testing it first to see if it was still strong enough to hold you. You started your computer and typed in confidential information, even though you knew that the latest Internet virus could take that information and broadcast it to everyone in your address book. At lunch, you went out for a walk and paused to bend down and pat a stranger's dog, believing you wouldn't become one of the 4.7 million Americans bitten by a dog each year (of whom 1,008 have to go to the emergency room every day). Then, at the end of the day, you aimed your car toward home and drove down the street, trusting-but-not-really-knowing that some sixteen-year-old NASCAR wannabe wouldn't be out drag racing his friends, careening toward you at a high rate of speed.
No doubt about it-you live your life by faith every day, even in the mundane details. You may have what seem like good reasons for your faith, which is fine, but you could also be wrong about some of your conclusions. And some of those mistakes could be serious, even life threatening.
More than that, even if you're a thoroughly nonreligious person, you're living with the hope that your nonreligious beliefs are accurate, and that you won't someday face a thoroughly religious Maker who, come to find out, actually did once issue a list of moral requirements, which you routinely failed to pay attention to.
"Oh, I never worry about things like that," you may say. But that statement itself is an expression of faith that it's okay not to concern oneself with such things. You don't know that they are unimportant-you just believe that to be the case. That's part of your own particular version of nonreligious faith.
Even well-known atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris live their lives with an unproven assumption that there is no God and that the opinions they express are ultimately helping and not harming themselves and others. They don't know that they are correct-they just hope so.
In fact, Dawkins, who is probably the greatest evangelist for atheism of our day, admitted in an interview recorded in Time magazine that "there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding."
Biochemist Francis Collins, who was arguing the other side in the interview, shot back, "That's God."
Dawkins replied, "Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small-at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that's the case."
Whether the chances are large or small, the important thought to catch here is that Dawkins doesn't know there is no God-and he even concedes the possibility that some kind of God might actually exist. Rather, he takes it on faith that there actually is no God. Now, I'm sure he would argue that this is an educated conclusion, supported by the preponderance of evidence. But even if he turned out to be right, it doesn't change the fact that his conclusion is based on faith. In other words, it's a conclusion that seems to him to be the right one, based on the data he has examined-but one that goes beyond what can be proven or known with complete certainty.
Excerpted from CHOOSING YOUR FAITH by MARK MITTELBERG Copyright © 2008 by Mark Mittelberg. Excerpted by permission.
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