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Essay

Why Believe in God?

Over the past few years, the Image staff contemplated assembling a symposium based on this simple problem. But we hesitated. Should we pose such a disarmingly straightforward question to artists and writers, who tend to shun the explicit and the rational? Or were we hesitating because the question itself made us uncomfortable?

Then, over the past year, a handful of manifestoes appeared criticizing religion as a corrupting social force, as vengeful, nonsensical wish-fulfillment, as closing people’s minds to science and leading to war and environmental destruction. Christopher Hitchens and the “New Atheists” have much to lay at the door of the faith traditions of the west. Hitchens calls religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

And so we were spurred into action in spite of ourselves. We put it to a group of writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians: At a time in human history when, at least in the worlds of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe? Our goal has been neither to publish rebuttals to Hitchens et al. nor to host a debate, but instead to seek out brief meditations from the artists and writers who make up our extended community. Their responses are collected here.

 

Doris Betts
The Renewable Vow

IN A RECENT syndicated Bizarro cartoon, a man at his open front door is holding a tract he has just received from two well dressed urban missionary types. “But this pamphlet is blank,” he is saying.

Their answer: “We’re atheists.”

American atheists have lately been seeking their own converts as avidly as other evangelists: on websites, in “free thought” magazines, via recent books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, and while planning the Atheist Alliance International Convention for September, 2007. Two years ago, the Encyclopedia Britannica estimated that 12 percent of the world’s population is irreligious, while only 2.5 percent are atheists—but lately these numbers may be growing.

I don’t need atheist missionaries knocking on my door, especially on a bad day when my immune system has faltered and that old infection of disbelief is causing familiar symptoms, complete with a serpent voice whispering that belief in God is not only naïve but a defect of both character and intellect.

Far below Jacob’s ladder there’s a worse basement where steps go down and down into doubt and loss, and I’ve descended to those lower rungs before. I could easily sink again, by stages, first into agnosticism; I could linger at a chilly deism or mentally cooler Buddhism, make one more passionate try at embracing pantheism, and finally plunge to the dark bottom where every scripture page is as blank as that cartoon pamphlet.

Why so susceptible now? Will I never achieve the certainty of a Billy Graham?

Church history is crowded with saints whose faith never wavered even while they burned at the stake. Today many contemporary believers shed radiance on lives far darker than mine. Mine, in fact, is becoming ordinary to millions who care daily for someone they love who has grown elderly or disabled.

§

His first symptom was a slight hand tremor. No, before that, a spring went out of the way my husband walked. He’d always given an unconscious twist to one foot, recognizable from blocks away as his distinctive strut. And in retrospect I realize, too, that even earlier, his facial expression had very gradually lost affect, acquiring that mildly blank look that, in a long marriage, can semaphore that a spouse is annoyed but has decided not to make an issue of it. I would notice his withdrawn face, misinterpret, ask, “Something bothering you?” His “no” seemed sincere. But his smile kept growing smaller and more rare.

When Parkinson’s disease was diagnosed and neurologists prescribed the first of what would be many medications, his physical symptoms seemed manageable. Even if someday he should lose mobility, together we could handle the cane, the walker, the wheelchair. Married since 1952, we had acquired long practice in how to be partners for better or worse.

But more years passed, and weakened muscles proved not to be the worst of it; not even falls and broken bones were the worst. The disease progressed until neither equipment nor pills could subdue growing brain damage, as forgetfulness flared into dementia with hallucinations and hostility. Perhaps thirty percent of Parkinson’s patients suffer this gradual erosion of selfhood. Other patients afflicted by stroke, Alzheimer’s, or head trauma may also—like him—be present in body while the real but diminished person is only there intermittently, with longer absences between. Mr. Hyde became the usual resident, Dr. Jekyll the rare visitor. Doctors and I kept trying to find the magic potion of carbidopa/levodopa that would keep Mr. Hyde at bay.

Where has he gone, my husband of fifty-five years, this father and grandfather, lawyer and judge, this lover and logician, reader and chess-player, horseman, the durable companion who meant to retire and go world-traveling with me?

If not where, doctors do know why. Unrecognized by either of us, his true nature started to fade years back when cells in one part of the brain—the substantia nigra—began dying. They are still dying, their loss depriving the brain of dopamine. Materialism explains my missing spouse by recasting him as a physical mechanism and nothing more. Materialism says that the good and complex man I married was never more than the sum of his chemistry; so naturally the sick man at home with me now is the result of its loss.

Some days a materialistic outlook seems plausible. Call those the urine-and-feces days. Even if no atheists bring nihilist tracts, I can postulate all by myself an evolution without divine guidance, a universe whose big bang exploded for no reason, a meat computer in every skull that’s prone to decay. If this man’s fine mind and character can be so easily wiped out, realists know that’s just how it is. A soul? It was only the functioning of matter I had misidentified, a functioning easily destroyed whenever that matter is not smoothly fed.

Receiving this bleak news, there awakes in me a spiteful, pessimistic inner child who’s unsurprised to learn that the battle and kingdom were lost all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

But her twin survives in me as well, insisting, “If there’s no God, there ought to be.”

In 1982 I and others offered what was dubbed “testimony” when Billy Graham preached at UNC Chapel Hill. Afterward, a campus atheist wrote the student newspaper complaining that none of our five-minute testifying had convinced him to accept Christianity. We had not, he scolded, even tried to prove our case.

He was correct. No arguments, persuasions, evidence, nor facts can be marshaled to convince the disbeliever. Proofs of God’s existence are thin. Though C.S. Lewis later wrote extensive apologetics, his own change from doubt to belief came almost casually, on a motorbike ride, at the point when he had unconsciously already decided to change.

I keep deciding to believe in God, even on bad days.

In this, my seventh decade, faith seems to me not certainty but commitment, a renewable vow.

Has that faith grown easier or deeper in hard times? Truthfully, no. I can rarely attend church these days, and my private prayers have neither increased nor improved. Often they’re more like conversation, a repetitive call for help for both of us, not always free of whining nor its afterthought, apology. I perpetuate my awkward prayers because I need to. An admission of need no longer embarrasses me as it did in youth when I thought Marcus Aurelius was tougher than Christ and I was innately as stoic as Camus.

Easy enough, in the years when so little stoicism was required.

While it might be efficient to work and play twenty-four nonstop hours, I need sleep. A single nourishing daily pill might eliminate meals, but my body needs food. Time and experience have taught me to recognize many needs, fallibility, failures. As the saying goes, the school of hard knocks offers the advantage of individual instruction.

So the atheist’s typical sneer may be vindicated—faith can lift wishful thinking all the way up to eternity.

But that’s how I’m made. I need, so I believe.

And when friends and family behave like unawares-angels, when there comes like a flash blessing from nowhere a return of my husband’s former self, some of my host of needs are met, my clumsiest prayers are heard.

There hangs in our front hall a framed broadside of a poem, “Meaning,” by Czeslaw Milosz, which offers a needy grownup’s version of “If there’s no God there ought to be.”

The speaker in the poem begins by saying that when he dies he’ll know at last if life and the world had any meaning. (Or, perhaps, if a man is no more than his substantia nigra.) On the other side of death, truth will be revealed. But what if the speaker should find himself on the loser side of Pascal’s wager?

Here is the final verse:

Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, the revolving galaxies
And calls out, protests, screams.

 

Doris Betts taught for thirty-three years in the English Department at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the author of nine books of fiction and won the Medal of Merit in the short story from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Weeks after this was written, her husband died.

 


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