In Part Four of this sequence, I will argue that there are more and less sophisticated concepts of “God.” Before I make that argument, I want to point out the virtue of an un-sophisticated concept of God. The genius of the great popular religions, and Christianity in particular, is that they have rejected a “sophisticated” notion of God in favor of one that is readily understandable and approachable by everyone. They have rejected spiritual elitism, and I think this is a good thing.
I worked for several years at a prominent drug and alcohol rehab center. Over and over I heard the stories of people who after hitting rock bottom, finally in desperation cried out to God for help; this began a process of “turning their life over to God,” which gave them a path to recovery. (Before I had met these many different people in recovery, I had a certain notion of what “rock bottom” meant. But “rock bottom” for the alcoholic is in fact many levels below what you might think. I was often astonished at how bad things have to get before an alcoholic can perceive his or her situation as “rock bottom.”)
The whole idea of Christ may strike the rational, sophisticated person as ridiculous. To a large extent it strikes me so. But most people access the power of the concept of God through their emotions, and the image of a God as a human being like ourselves makes the myth of Jesus a particularly accessible way to find that strength. (For thousands of years before Christianity, many people had found the idea of the Goddess more accessible than the idea of a male deity, and the early church adopted itself to this situation by emphasizing the simple logic that Mary is the mother of Jesus, Jesus is God, ergo Mary is the Mother of God. So the church offered both a humanized male and humanized female access to the concept of God.) Ridiculous perhaps, but for the people in a troubled situation, which is probably most people a good deal of the time, it is salvation. The idea of God provides the meaning that makes the suffering and degradation of life bearable. It provides the moral orientation and the moral strength to aspire to a better life, such as the alcoholic’s recovery. And it helps one recognize and accept one’s fate.
Another personal example: my son was a rather wild teenager, and caused me a good deal of anxiety during his teen years. There were nights when he would be out all night and I would be unable to sleep worrying about him. Sometimes in desperation, I would pray. I certainly did not believe that some being in the sky was going to help me out, but I found the prayer comforting.
One night, while I was praying thus, I started to think about all the other people in the world who were sitting up, anxious about somebody whose fate they were unsure of. I felt myself a member of a community of anxious people. As I thought about these people, my prayer changed; I started to pray for these others -- that their prayers would be answered. My whole perspective had changed from a worried individual, to a person filled with compassion for the sufferings and worries of others. From this perspective I could see my situation more clearly, from a larger perspective. I could accept fate, and in that acceptance I could relax and find my way to sleep.
In these days of rabid fundamentalism, it is easy to feel hostility toward religion because so much of what motivates these religions is hostility. But I try to keep in mind the individuals who find great and enduring solace in their religious beliefs. Religion may well be “the opiate of the people,” but when the pain is great, a great pain killer is just what the Doctor ordered.
The prominent atheistic writers today, sophisticated and rational as they are, all seem oblivious to the needs of the masses of people. I suppose they would recommend Prozac and two aspirin instead. This is why I have little sympathy for their cause.