My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and there are some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.
– Donald Miller
In educated circles, science is god. And by god, I really mean king, because if you are smart then you only believe in real people right in front of you who you can hear and see and smell and sense as their hands reach out to slap you across the face or their arms reach out to hold you or as their legs carry them right past you. You believe in logic and reason and that blood works through your body and water filters through the world in all of its stages to keep us all alive and that what a microscope can’t show us, then a computer can. If you can prove it, it exists. Logically then, if you can’t, it doesn’t.
It seems that being educated, unless you attend a religious college (which by regular college folks standards isn’t even the same thing), means having outgrown god, if you ever believed at all. God is a tool that is used to hold people down. God is a crutch for weak people. God is like a childhood blanket that you leave behind once you are big and strong and know better.
And in educated circles, we are beat up all of the time for who we are and what we believe by people who hide behind religion, who believe in ghosts and miracles and stories about yeast and sugar and flour becoming living breathing fish. Crazy stuff. Unbelievable stuff. Magic stuff. We are busy fighting off the mandates of people who tell us that God knows best. We are busy trying to live our own lives. As a woman, as a queer, as a person who believes that god and government should be separated, Religious People are like a clone army sent to shackle us all to their religious texts.
I get the aversion. I was so anti-religion in my teen years that I threatened to writhe on the floor of every classroom at the beginning of every period, ‘foaming’ out of my mouth directly under the crucifix, when my mother threatened to send me to a Catholic school.
I got older, though. And I encountered people who I greatly admired who were smarter than me, more informed than me, more brilliant. People I deeply respected as intellectuals. As liberals. As humanitarians. And some of them believed in God. With a big G. Even, sometimes, a Christian one – the one I held in the most contempt, personally. It was one of the loudest, most trembling moments of cognitive dissonance I have personally experienced. I could feel and hear and almost smell the heat and smoke and burn of cogs grinding together and locking up and motors starting to wrench themselves inoperable. In my own head. In my own heart.
Does. Not. Compute.
That’s when I started the slow and very personal journey of reconciling my own misguided notion that smart people aren’t religious. That educated people don’t believe in god. That to be rational and reasonable means you deny faith and, certainly, Religion. I listened to the ways that these smart people interpret their religious texts, to the way that they work to better their churches, really listened to what it is they believe and what it means to them.
It is a continual journey, really, in the way that we all need to be aware of and alert for the insidious ways that we fall back on old, weathered and mass-mentality notions of groups and cultures. That moment, though, shook loose the idea that one belief precedes the other on some sort of intelligence barometer and that the only way to move further along the path is to become educated. I lost the need to hold onto the idea that using your smarts and believing, in any god, were two particular stops on the same evolutionary line.
I have never been an Atheist. Even in my most angry, combative, anti-religion phases, I have found it impossible to believe that all that exists is what we can see. There is too much in life that is real that cannot be seen or touched or slid between two slides and studied. So I fall back on the term Agnostic. The shape of my agnosticism has morphed many times in the last two decades. All kinds of shapes and densities. It has veered remarkably close to sidling up to a notion of Jesus that has nothing to do with Pat Roberts or Fred Phelps or Al Sharpton but might startle anyone who knows me well. I don’t know where it will go in the decades to come, but I do know that it will be something my brain and heart work out together. I do know that intellect will not dictate the journey no matter how hard it tries.
You can talk to me of science and reality and make-believe and weakness. You can make a logical and rational case for atheism. And still I will know deep in my human body and brain and soul (yes, soul) that there is more, for me, than science. There is more to this world and universe and life than a human ant farm that just magically appeared out of space dust. And I could try to argue with you about that. I could try to sway you to believe, in anything at all, in any kind of force or nature or power besides science. But I don’t. I won’t. Because I don’t care if you think there’s nothing. If, deep in your core, you know that to be true. I don’t need evangelism. I recoil from it. I believe in something and you can believe in nothing. And I don’t gauge your intelligence by that difference. I don’t decide whether you are a good, caring and righteous person based on your non-belief.
But sometimes you do. Gauge my intelligence. If you are Atheist. If you also fancy yourself smart and rational and a good thinker. If you believe something must be proven in order to be true.
All kinds of religions judge me as well. But I care less about that. I am used to Baptists thinking I am going to Hell. I am fine with that idea – me as Toto in Dorothy’s bike basket headed straight for Satan’s lair. I am used to Mormons thinking I am dangerous and lost and misguided. I am used to the Bible being wielded like a sledgehammer against my right to live as I see fit.
But when my friends make blanket statements about the foolishness of believers. Of those who have faith. Say things that make us out to be small brained, developmentally retarded, delusional people who believe in caped crusaders for salvation – that hurts. And worse, it is insulting. To me. To more people on this planet than not. It is as belittling as being made out to be a child-molesting moral-less pervert for wanting to marry the person you love.
It hurts me, yes, but it also pains me on behalf of the people I know and love who are not robots, are not sheep, are not unthinking weaklings who forsake intelligent thought and critical thinking in favor of an easy how-to guide to life. Who do not use their faith as a weapon against anyone unlike them.
Election seasons are particularly rabid in this area and we have just weathered a doozy of an election season where the Religious Idiots were thick and loud and full of some of the most ridiculous and shockingly offensive misinformation. But they are to believers what they are to humans – cartoonish and extreme and not the mold. The Mitt Romneys and Pat Roberts and Ann Coulters create a compassionless vacuum into which falls the voices of people who I care about, who I believe care about me, saying believers are dumb and they’re all idiots or various versions of: faith and intellect are exact opposites.
These politically charged times create a climate in which the insults are thrown from both sides and to be an agnostic who fancies herself rather enlightened and intelligent and rational is to feel bruised from all sides. To feel as though your very core is being dismissed. Someone like that, like me, is drawn with loose pencil loops into a squat, awkward cartoon – a Mr. Magoo-like befuddled caricature who stumbles around reciting facts and data while going home to kneel at the altar of superman, offering rocks painted green that are set under a light to make them look like genuine gems. A bumbling idiot dressed as an intellectual.
It is to be called stupid, over and over and over. As though I have to make the choice between being smart and having faith. I must give up one to keep the other. I must denounce uncertainty to be considered wise.
It is not a large leap, in fact hardly a leap at all, for me to move from believing in love (all sorts, all types), that inexplicable, almost magical truth of life – to move from that to having faith that there are invisible, unnameable, unseen things at work in this world. The gap between those two things is smaller than the jump a single synapse makes in my brain. I feel things that cannot be quantified. I know things to be true that have no place in a lab. Even science, God to the Godless, is an imperfect thing. Is an evolving thing. Is a process in the process of becoming more and more useful and precise and fascinating.
I want to say: how is emphatically declaring that there is no god any different from a religious fanatic declaring there is one and you are wrong for not following? Is it simply because you are smarter? Because not believing proves that?
I believe in science. But I believe in other things, too. I have the ability to hold a variety of beliefs that, for me, do not preclude each other. As we all do. Two of the ones I can hold in one hand just happen to be two that a lot of my friends see as being at odds with each other. For me, though, one without the other makes me incomplete, unsettles me, leaves my world askew.
I find a very precise kind of beauty in letting go of reason, as a straight-jacket or a scaffolding or a restricting litmus test of real versus nonreal – in letting go of knowing if it’s true and allowing myself the space to believe that it just might be. There is a grace in it, and not the strict definition of religious grace, but a type of slope and swing and levity that makes my life better, that feels a lot like the look in someone’s eye who thinks you are lovely and brilliant and funny, a kind of thin cotton cloth that feels safe and soft, that feels like home.
I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns
– Anne Lamott
Sometimes I pray. And I can hear a voice in my head that says this might be useless. This might go nowhere. But it helps. And if that makes me weak – well, I am. But so are you. We all are. We all need. Different things. In different ways. If praying to something when I can’t even decide what it is makes me weak, I am fine with that. I really am.
But it does not make me stupid. Or uninformed. Or laughable. Certainly not dismissable. I analyze down to fine points. I see nuances and patterns and connections and if there is a way that I consistently think, it’s critically. To a fault, sometimes. And I am educated. More than some, less than others. I am smart. Not the smartest, not by a long shot. But I am one of the sharp tools, that is one thing I will not disavow, ever. And my faith that there is something beyond science and the dirt I can hold in my hand and press between my fingers, something more than the invisible (without technology) electrical impulses that shoot through my entire being – well, that doesn’t say shit about my intelligence. And if you think it does, you do yourself a disservice and underestimate not just me, but millions of other people, of all kinds of faithful persuasions.
There are sheep. There are wolves. There are people who misuse religion for their own gain. There are people who are hungry to be told how to treat people, how to live, how to make meaning without having to work at it. There always have been and there always will be. And I pray, in silent and unorthodox and non-ritualized ways, that people will think for themselves. That each person will use their brain and their heart and not allow other people to tell them how to live or not to live.
I pray, in a hazy and shadowy way, that evangelism goes the way of Betamax.
I pray, sporadically and selfishly, that hate gets sliced clean from religion, a scalpel of intelligence and compassion rending it from faith like the slimy viscera of a chicken breast being cut and then ripped loose.
I pray that Fred Phelps’ family and his followers find themselves face to face with someone they should hate but, for some reason, for any reason, they cannot. And they then have to pull themselves out of that fabric long enough to see that god (big G, little g, whatever) doesn’t have to be venomous.
Sometimes, I pray that I never ever accidentally hear another Celine Dion song. (That alone should prove that faith and smarts are not mutually exclusive, right?)
The truth is that I will believe whether my book-smart or street-smart or punk rock friends think I should or not. I will continue to believe in something even if the religious right thinks I am unworthy. I will be who I am in all of the ways that I am, regardless, because it’s all I know how to do.
I get tired, though. Of being reminded that my friends either assume I have no faith (if they think I have brains) or think that I have a good deal less smarts than I do because I believe in something that cannot be proved. It is tiring, and heartbreaking, to feel that for friends to know the truth means they re-categorize you. Faith really is the Evil Gay of intellectual circles – the biggest academic closet. I am sure that you all have really smart friends who believe in God, whether they feel like telling you that or not. Who they pray to, whether they pray or not, is to their intelligence what atheism is to yours – a whole separate issue. Plenty of stupid people are atheists. Some really smart ones, too.
No matter what, I pray. Silent prayers like blades of grass pulled up mindlessly while sitting out in a park alone. That those I love are happy. That those who don’t love enough stay far enough away from me to let me live my life. That my family sleeps well and makes it through another day. That fewer people are sad tomorrow than today. That I do my best to be good. That I do my best not to hurt anyone. To remember that everyone has their shit. I send out words of thanks: for what I have found, for what I have survived, for the people I have in my life who stand with me and hold me up. And on and on.
But instead of dropping those prayers like blades of grass, letting them fall to the ground as I walk away, they float up and over and away from me: dark, messy, hopeful fragments of words. I am mostly unaware that I send out those filmy gray bubbles, wobbly and imperfect and unsure, permeable pockets of wishes and hopes and blessings. It is, at this point in my life, just like breathing or thinking or looking.
And whether you call it god or karma or positive energy or compassionate humanism doesn’t matter at all to me. We all send prayers out into the sky, we all send wishes and hopes and pleas. A prayer by any other name is still an invisible thing that can’t be dissected or graphed or filed. It is apart from intellect. Apart from science. Apart from learning. It is private and sacred and real, if only to the one saying it. I am smart enough to know that. Whether you see that in me or not.