A recent Gallup poll showed that 77% of Americans believe religion is losing influence in U.S. According to the same poll, 75% say American society would be better off if more Americans were religious.
I don’t necessarily disagree. It depends on how you define “religious.”
It’s a common misconception that atheists hail science as “king” and advocate the abolition of all faith. On the contrary, many—myself included—believe that human beings need not only reason, but also a sense of the transcendent, in order to live full, meaningful lives.
The decline of religious identification in the U.S., I think, is symptomatic of both our inattention to and our misinterpretation of the realm of myth. In her 2009 book The Case For God, religious scholar Karen Armstrong explains,
In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two.
Logos, Armstrong explains, was realistic, pragmatic, literal. People used it to plan and to solve problems, but it had limits: “It could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles,” she writes. “For that, people turned to mythos,” which was “focused on the most elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament.”
“A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event,” says Armstrong. “Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms.” According to her, the literal reading of religious text that we associate with fundamentalism is unprecedented in history. In fact, the modern Protestant doctrine of the literal infallibility of scripture wasn’t around until the 1870s, when it was formulated by anti-Darwinists such as Charles Hodge, a Princeton professor of theology.
Today we often use the word “myth” to mean something untrue; on the contrary, myth is truthful in the most profound sense. Maybe a mythic event didn’t exactly happen that way in the past, but that’s not important. What’s important is that it happens all the time, and thus tells us something valuable about the human experience.
For example, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, the “paradise lost” myth, appears in some form in many cultures. “To know pain and to be conscious of desire and mortality are inescapable components of human experience,” Armstrong points out. In the acts of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, we glimpse human tendencies. Overall, Armstrong writes, “The story shows that good and evil are inextricably intertwined in human life. Our prodigious knowledge can at one and the same time be a source of benefit and the cause of immense harm.” Nuclear power, anyone?
A myth was not meant to be “believed” in. It was meant to be experienced, as the initiates into the cult of Demeter who participated in the yearly rituals at Eleusis experienced firsthand the terror of death in order to come to terms with their own mortality. The way to benefit from religion is to commit oneself to living it, the way Jesus asked his disciples to commit to showing compassion and benevolence to all. This notion is of course diametrically opposed to the Lutherian idea of salvation by faith alone.
The paternalistic “God” that most Americans believe in is merely a more powerful version of themselves. Ascribing a personality to God, even using the pronoun “him,” reduces and cheapens what is transcendent. This is what people mean when they say, as Einstein did, they don’t believe in a “personal god.” I don’t. I don’t believe that this transcendent entity can even be called a “being,” much less that he’s a “father” who has a plan for my life, will intercede on my behalf based on my prayers to him, and will someday restore me to eternal life. This type of thinking might make people feel better, but it’s intellectually dishonest. My husband has said, “Who are you to take that belief away from people if it comforts them?” I’m not advocating the abolition of faith. But to paraphrase Patton Oswalt, I don’t have to respect your beliefs if you believe in something stupid. We’re here for such a short time. Where is the integrity in human life if we accept, and teach our children to accept, fictions as truths?
How do I experience “God”? Any time I transcend the self—through nature, through art, in the compassion others offer me and in the compassion I try to offer them. In the love I feel for my family. In some ways, I see “God” as an ideal, the best possible selves we can become through continued mindfulness and dedicated practice.
For these reasons, the terms “theist” and “atheist” are inadequate. Is atheism still a dirty word if I’m “without God” because I reject the traditional Christian god—a god who has been reduced to an idol? Or worse, because I reject orthodox theology that is in itself idolatrous? What Armstrong points out about the word “atheist” is worth noting. “In the past,” she writes, “people were often called ‘atheists’ when society was in transition from one religious perspective to another: Euripides and Protagoras were accused of ‘atheism’ when they denied the Olympian gods in favor of a more transcendent theology; the first Christians and Muslims, who were moving away from traditional paganism, were persecuted as ‘atheists’ by their contemporaries.” It’s time for us to divorce this word from its stigma. The ever-articulate Joseph Campbell says it best:
There seem to be only two kinds of people: Those who think that metaphors are facts, and those who know that they are not facts. Those who know they are not facts are what we call “atheists,” and those who think they are facts are “religious.” Which group really gets the message?