Agnostics can rejoice at Christmas. Christmas is one brief period of the year when Christians at least pay lip service to establishing peace on earth. They do it, of course, against a backdrop of carnage in the Middle East where life for the ordinary citizens in several countries is a never-ending nightmare, where innocent men, women, and children are slaughtered every day. Americans cannot be troubled to envision the horrors of living where a trip to the market is to risk one’s life, or where children on the way home from school can be blasted to bits, or where the home itself can be the target of an errant missile. One of our greatest concerns is how to stimulate consumer spending to revive the lagging economy. Now, at Christmas, the nation considers peace as something that the God who became man in Bethlehem 2000 years ago would have wished for all mankind, but we become too lost in our merriment to give any thought to what is happening abroad.
The religions of the world proclaim man’s faculty for believing to be a greater gift of nature than his ability to reason and think logically. A belief system, either political or religious, enables a nation to rationalize any number of atrocities against mankind itself. Thus, Americans believe slaughtering civilians is an unfortunate but unavoidable by product of waging war. They believe that the deaths of their young people are heroic even though it cannot be proved that our country is any safer than it was before the conflict in which they fell began. We may, in fact, be at greater peril as we have angered countless thousands against us and built up resentment to an over-brimming state throughout the world.
Some Muslims promote the belief that any man dying in a holy war will be rewarded as a martyr and will be greeted by a host of virgins upon entering the next life. Thus their article of faith promotes a willingness to commit suicide in an indiscriminate slaughter of innocent fellow citizens and a discount of women whose place in the next life remains subservient to men as in many Muslim cultures it is in this. It perpetuates the conviction the sex with a virgin is more gratifying than with a woman of experience. Even in death, apparently, conquest remains paramount.
Few people of faith keep their beliefs in the forefront of their thoughts every day. Our beliefs are so compartmentalized that all reasoning and life experience must be suspended in order to sustain them. Religious authorities enjoin their flock from asking questions because doing so betrays a weakness in the willingness to believe. Ponder for example, why it was necessary for God to become man. Authorities insist it was to redeem man’s fallen nature. Not a bad argument, but it requires some agreement on the fact that man has a fallen nature. If the proof is the violence in the world today, I am inclined to agree, but that is not the usual argument. Violence today could as easily suggest that man has never been redeemed so as to be more pleasing in the eyes of God.
Proving that man has fallen from grace requires launching into the realm of myth and ancient tribal tales. The traditional beliefs about the birth of a savior must begin with the conviction that man needs to be redeemed. Otherwise, the entire saga, right through the crucifixion, comes off as unnecessary. It remains an open question for me, as do concerns about why an all-powerful God would choose such an inefficient way to redeem His children. A more proactive approach would set a better example. How much would it take to change, “God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten son,” to something like, “God so loved the world, that he declared amnesty for all mankind because it seemed very ungodly to hold a grudge against mankind for something an illiterate ancestor did under an apple tree.” I don’t suppose that sounds very biblical, but I am not claiming divine inspiration.
Beliefs, of course, for those who hold to them, provide the foundation for indignation whenever questions are raised about dogma. Time once was that those who inquired paid for it at the end of a rope, on chopping block, or roasting in an open pyre. The rationale of the day was that these martyrs to an open mind were slaughtered to save themselves from themselves. Logic, if not Christian mercy, might have suggested that they should be given a little more time to think things through and explain themselves. Why dispatch anyone to eternal perdition when what is professed is in error. Seems that a little patience might be just the ticket. The enforcers of religious order have been the heart of barbarism at different times in Western history.
Faith of our fathers, Living still. In spite of Dungeon, Fire and Sword. One hymn reminds us at the height of the season that the scoreboard shows points on the Christian side for sure. Heathen Doubters, 2,105,000; Christians Believers, 2,105,006, with at least another century or two to play. The painful fact is that most believers do not want to think. They want to believe and then go their merry way. Once salvation has been secured, nothing else is quite as pressing in life on earth.
I insist on a distinction between faith and belief, as I have written earlier. Faith, if anything, labors with reasoning in the mind of man. When reason asserts that we cannot prove whether our lives have meaning beyond what we can do for one another, faith reminds us that we do not know all that there is to know, that some things about man’s existence cannot be proved either false or true. Faith supports doubt. Faith reminds us that certainty of any kind limits possibilities and that possibilities can be positive and beyond what we have reason to expect. Faith knows that the appeal of beauty in music, poetry, dance, art, architecture, and nature itself draw us out of ourselves and toward a way of being that is greater than the simple tasks of survival. Faith prompts us to consider and strive for good outcomes in life.
Belief is not necessarily a product of faith. It can be as much a product of fear. It can limit our considerations. Doubt may lead a man to ask whether we know with certainty that there is life after death. Faith allows him to be open to the prospect that time on earth may be all than anyone is given. Reason would then suggest that, if that is a possibility—even a worst-case scenario— it behooves us all to consider how we should be making our way from one year to the next. We need to consider what is worthwhile in our existence if eternal life is not the reward. We might discover that living a virtuous life truly is its own reward, that honesty pays, and that the Golden Rule is a universal guiding principle. Until we find the courage to suspect our beliefs and look at the world as it is, our vision will continue to be limited. As we limit our vision, we also limit our possibilities. As we limit our possibilities, we limit the future of our race. Faith, freed of belief, may even lead us one day to discover more about God than the little we suspect we know today.