Sunday, November 27, 2005

More about God and religion

During an edifying discussion this summer among people with several different types of religious belief or nonbelief, I said something that really made a friend of mine laugh.

I've forgotten the exact wording, but it was essentially: "I mentioned God twice in my thesis, which is kind of a lot for an atheist."

I suppose there are many lessons one can take from this. One of the most obvious is that "God-language" (for lack of a better word) comes very easily to us humans. It's an extremely natural vocabulary to resort to when marking one of life's big milestones, whether it's a wedding, a funeral, or a PhD thesis defence.

But let's look at the specifics. What did I actually say when I mentioned God?

The first deity reference in my thesis is on the dedication page, where I quote A.E. Housman:

And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

Now that might not be irreverent in the strong sense of being anti-God, but it certainly is anti-pomposity. I've been in love with those lines since I first encountered them as a teenager, and the passage of time has only strengthened my feeling that I can learn a lot more about the "big questions" by getting drunk with my closest friends than I can from somebody who's been dead for 330 years and takes 16 lines to finish his first sentence.

The second time God comes up is at the beginning of Chapter 3, where I quote Emo Philips:

When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord, in his wisdom, doesn't work that way. So I just stole one and asked him to forgive me.

What I love about this joke is how aptly it illustrates that even if you do believe in an anthropomorphic benevolent God, all it takes is a little cleverness and you can easily still rationalize naughty or bad things as consistent with God's will. Religious claims are so malleable, so vague, so versatile, that they can readily be used to justify good or evil. I won't go so far as to say religion makes people worse, but I will claim that religion, in many cases, serves as a way of underscoring or reinforcing whatever somebody already felt strongly about, or whatever they were just going to do anyway.

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