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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
I WAS SITTING beneath a tree at Me-Kwa-Mooks Park in West Seattle recently, with a notebook in my lap and binoculars around my neck, researching the behavior of crows for the book I am writing. The park, not far from my home, is a grassy spread across the street from a sand and stone stretch of Puget Sound, revered by tide-poolers for its variety of intertidal habitats. Anemones, enormous red rock crabs, sea cucumbers, and even small octopuses are found here. Me-Kwa-Mooks was named by the Coast Salish first peoples for its shape, the head of a bear. I try to see it, but fail. This was once home to the Duwamish tribe, for whom the wild nature of the place was unquestionably inspirited. I am sitting very nearly upon their midden, among the ghosts of their former longhouses. Eleven crows in the park take flight, and one remains on a branch. I lift my binoculars and look at her, make some notes on the state of her juvenile plumage. After a spring and summer spent spreading out and keeping to themselves, nesting and fledging young, the crows are beginning to gather again in the swirling flocks that will grow as the autumn progresses.
Earlier that day I was engaged in another avenue of research, reading an essay in Harvard Magazine by E.O. Wilson, the famed entomologist and spokesperson for wise biological conservation. His analysis of Darwin and “intelligent evolution,” was brilliant, as usual. In the end, Dr. Wilson left the realm of pure biology to construct a critique of religion, which he believes is irrevocably anti-scientific and fuels the worst of human bigotry, ignorance, and violence. While many “well-meaning” scientists feel that a rapprochement between science and religion is possible and perhaps even desirable, Wilson makes it clear that he is not among them. Between God-centered religions based in blind faith and atheistic communism, Wilson ventures a third alternative, which he calls “scientific humanism.” Still a species of atheism, scientific humanism “considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning…. It is the commonality of the hereditary responses and propensities that define our species.” I don’t see any absolute reason that such a view must exclude religious sympathy, but Wilson is insistent on the point. Scientific humanism is thoroughly biological, and to possess such an understanding is to “drain the fever swamps of religious and blank-slate dogma.” Surely I have some sympathy (my husband is just back from doing AIDS education in Tanzania, where pastors are not instructing the poverty-stricken victims of the epidemic to use condoms, because it is “against God’s Law”), and I wonder—what would it be like to live under the sway of such a worldview?
I decide to give it a try. After all, God and I have been on the outs lately. I am uncomfortable enough with the very word-name, and back any discussion of such matters with a hefty disclaimer—beyond childhood, I have never felt any belief in an anthropomorphized creator-god. My sense of God has always been of an entirely non-anthropomorphized source of life, the divine presence that both cradles and infuses all of creation, broad enough to embrace the expansive chaos that evolutionary science has shown us, the full breadth of biological life. This is an accessible enough vision of the divine. Still, in spite of a persistent effort to feel recollected in prayerful meditation, to tend to the symbolic framework that structures any meaningful faith, I am feeling completely bereft, adrift, dark, alone. “Aridity,” the Carmelites have called this state for hundreds of years—dryness regarding things of the spirit. And in spite of assurances from no less an authority than the Spanish mystic poet Saint John of the Cross that such periods are difficult but normal, and even necessary, I am uncertain. I feel atheistic, at least for all practical purposes. I see the beauty of the earth and the shiny feathers of the crow, and I love them. I write about them. But I sense, lately, no divine presence; any inkling of reverence I conjure remains remote, distant. And so I decide to slip, as well as a Catholic girl with Buddhist tendencies can manage, into a trial period of scientific humanism.
I close my eyes and try to settle into the idea. What I apprehend scientifically, rationally, is all there is. My emotions are real, but a function of brain and nerves. I must give up any pretense to the sanctification of time and life through the liturgy of the hours, the earthy bread and wine of the Eucharist, and regular prayer. We will no longer say grace before meals (perhaps we will pause in gratitude, but we will not “give thanks”), and I will not sing the doxology, Praise God from whom all blessings flow, to my daughter as she falls to dreaming each night. And if I am visited by tragedy, writ small or large? Will I still be able to seek solace in the solitary darkness of a church, lighting a candle there beneath a figure of sustaining maternal presence? I suppose not. Compiling this list of now-banned activities, I am surprised by the number of small rituals that almost unconsciously lace my days; I realize that for this experiment they are not merely externals, but part and parcel of the shift I am meaning to effect. As a scientific humanist I will have to consider such things superstitions rather than rituals. I resolve to take on the part as fully as I can, inside and out, to see if I can understand Wilson’s mindset and find what it might teach me.
I open my eyes, thinking I’ll bring my binoculars across to the beach, where the crows are chasing large gulls off the shoreline. But I am prevented from rising by an almost overwhelming sensation of what can only be called sweetness—another old word that has been abandoned because of its saccharine association. It is a loss, I think. Sweetness, dulcis, suggests a felt sense of harmony, of resonance, of sacred presence, the headiness of falling under the influence of a perfumed fragrance, a nibbling at the food of the gods. I was rooted, bright, glowing, and clear. Certainly I cannot write it properly, and feel clumsy in the attempt—this was the still small voice, and I knew it suddenly, again, afresh. The intensity passed, but the resonance remained. I was left with a renewed apprehension of the sacred interconnectedness that characterizes all of earthly existence, an understanding that has been given many names across times, cultures, and worldviews: in Buddhism it is called Indra’s net—a vast woven lattice, joined by jewels that each reflect the whole; in my own Catholic tradition it is called the mystical body; and in biological science it is called ecology.
And so I had to laugh. I didn’t know whether to believe that the threat of becoming an atheist could really provoke divine presence. I didn’t know whether the aridity was banished, or would be back with a vengeance. But I did know that my experiment was over as soon as it had begun—I couldn’t even try to be an atheist—and I was prevented not because of morality, or fear, or obligation, or tradition, or even habit, but because I dwell, naturally and at heart and with all of creation, in the presence of God.
To embrace a scientific understanding, as I do, and to proclaim a belief in God at the same time, is tricky business—even when one’s sense of God is expansive. And now it was worse that I thought, for my experiment taught me that if asked why I believe in God, I would have to answer with a seemingly insipid tautology that I should feel embarrassed to put into print. “Why? Because I believe in God.” The intellectual poverty of this statement should stagger me. But I stand by it with a knowledge that exceeds even the rich beauty of human logic, a knowledge for which scientific validation is wholly irrelevant. Whenever I abandon my inclination to listen for the “still small voice,” I am followed about like the one lost sheep in the parable, and taken up again into a recognition of the divine presence that infuses each, ordinary detail of earthly life. I have known it. I have known it against my better judgment, and even against my will. I have known it, in spite of the sobering human imperfection of the religions that give structure to such knowing.
Certainly I join Wilson and others in protest of the ideological “bigotry and dehumanization” that sometimes characterize modern religion, including my own. Reading yet another stinging utterance from someone along the ecclesial ladder, perhaps a bit of thinly veiled homophobia, I clunk my head down on the breakfast table and cry. My daughter comes downstairs, fresh and beautiful in a box-pleated plaid jumper—her second grade Catholic school uniform. “Mommy,” she deadpans, “your hair is in the milk.”
In his landmark short work Biophilia, E.O. Wilson wrote, “The study of every kind of organism matters, everywhere in the world,” that “Every species is a magic well,” a window unto all the others. And also, “We do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to become. This crucial inadequacy is not likely to be remedied until we have a better grasp of the diversity of life that created and sustains us.” He proclaimed that any subject in the natural world that you love and study can “be your lodestar and give sanctuary in the shifting mental universe.” The student of nature, he wrote, adapting Ortega y Gasset, is required to “prepare an attention of a different and superior kind.” Here in Wilson’s writings are all the musings of the spiritual pilgrim. The abiding questions of what we are, what we ought to become, and the form of our relation to all of life. Solace and wonder in creation. A sense that every being leads and connects to all others. A prayer-like attentiveness. I see that Wilson, too, knows this dulcis that visits me, and his writing is often infused with it. He may call himself whatever he likes. I stand alongside him, surrounded by the seething, chaotic, evolving, uncontrollable life on earth, and with him I feel awe, and reverence, and mystery. A scientist might wield Occam’s razor and ask, “Why overlay nature with another concept? With the un-necessity of God?” But I cannot see this as a superfluous conceptual layering. This is creation itself, twining ineluctably with the sacred like a vine run wild. It is that within which we “live and move and have our being,” the mysterious ordinariness of our richly biological lives. “We ate and talked and went to bed,” wrote poet Donald Hall. “It was a miracle.” After my gloriously failed experiment, I lifted my binoculars. Dark shapes on the shore were sifting sea lettuce, seeking invertebrates, the last crows of dusk.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is the author of Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks (Little, Brown).
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.