“The problem with religion, because it’s been sheltered from criticism, is that it allows people to believe en masse what only idiots or lunatics could believe in isolation.”
“While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.”
— Sam Harris, philosopher, author (“The End of Faith”)
I’m always on the lookout for a little religious illumination, be it the rattling Scientology documentary “Going Clear” to actually inviting a pair of Mormon elders to my home for an eye-crossing lesson in radical historical revisionism. (They were very nice young men, for the record, natty in ties and pressed white shirts. A wee deluded.)
Right now I’m returning to some tried-and-true texts: the four Gospels and Acts in the New Testament, along with “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders.
This hidebound agnostic isn’t going reborn, hasn’t “found” anything and anyway isn’t searching for religious enlightenment, a Damascus moment. I’m a minor history buff (literally: it was my college minor) and armchair theologian, which means I sit in an armchair and read about religion with skepticism and a giant cigar.
The cigar’s a jape, but I’m fascinated by ideas of mass worship, divinity, mysticism and the spread of religion through the ages. Seeking “truth” isn’t the object — I don’t believe it resides in a religious text — but merely intellectual stimulation.
(And I have gotten out of the armchair: I was raised Catholic — baptized, Sunday school, weekly Mass, teenage apostasy, the works. In 2000 I made a solo trip to Israel to, among other things, get immersed in monotheism firsthand. It altered none of my thinking on the matter, except to solidify preconceptions about faith and fanaticism.)
Curiosity killed the Catholic. The more religion I ingest, the warier I become. I thirst for facts, historical actualities, not myths or homilies or inspired conjecture. I want the relative power of knowledge, not the affirmation of faith.
What strikes me is how, outside of the academy, intellectual ballast is so often at odds with religion. Example: A good friend in college prided herself on her devout Christianity, chided me for everyday blasphemies, went to church weekly and praised Christ. But she never read the Bible and everything she knew about the religion was received wisdom, blind faith from the church and her parents. Once, when I described to her what Jesus probably looked like, she said, and I quote, “Didn’t he have those beautiful blue eyes?” Yes, and a brushed swoop of sandy-blond hair.
Maybe Jesus did look like Barry Manilow. But I care more about a historically accurate account of what he said and did. I especially want to know how he turned water into wine, a miracle that could save me bundles at Liquor Locker. No one seems to have a complete grasp on the actual Jesus. Even the Catholic Bible I’m reading is strewn with footnotes that cast troubling shadows over the “gospel truth.” Despite my reading, I’m still a grappling student. I’ll get back to you when the heavens crack open.