I’ve been told that I should just shut up and go away. Well, not in quite such blunt terms, but that how I understand the reaction I sometimes get to my well-intentioned words of wisdom, especially in religious settings. I’m as welcome in a Christian Bible study as a skeptic at a magic show. You know, the one who has figured out how all the tricks are done, and has to share it with everyone. A buzzkill.
The Magic Show
Most of the audience at a magic show knows that it is based on illusions rather than actual supernatural powers, but it works because everyone plays along with the story. When you see a trick done well, no matter how thoroughly you are convinced that there is a reasonable explanation, there is a part of you that sees the magic happen; and while your intellect is trying to work out how it was done, the child in you is giggling in amazement.
I guess that’s why there aren’t many who like to chat with me about religion. I have figured out how the tricks are done. By that I don’t mean miraculous healings or prophecy. Such “supernatural” manifestations are indeed used by some, and they are no doubt fake. I don’t need to take the time to disprove those claims. James Randi does a great job of that, and no one has beaten his million-dollar challenge.
Participating in games and stories is satisfying. Imagination is a wonderful part of life, and I not only approve of it, I love to participate. Imagination begins to be a problem when individuals have difficulty distinguishing reality from the story. As children grow, they learn that magicians can’t really generate bunnies from thin air, while they also learn that it is okay to play along as if it were true, to be part of the game.
Religious doctrines and ceremonies are based on a story. Religion is a kind of game, a serious one at times, that has its own raison d’être. It is satisfying for the participants, it brings comfort in times of need and encourages community. It can benefit us in many ways, but it is important to remember that it is a game. If we are not permitted to question the official storyline, even within our own minds, then we are forced to participate in what is no longer a good magical story, but a mass delusion.
Delusions have consequences. For instance, modern Christianity and Islam share the mythology of eternal life after death—reward in heaven or paradise and punishment in hell. If this “afterlife” goes on into eternity, that means that our present life is an insignificant blip in the uncountable trillions of years of time. That diminishes the value of actual human life in deference to the supposed life to come. Worse, if people are tortured forever in hell, that makes the god of this particular storyline a sadistic monster,which means the story is not only unhelpful, but leads people to make terrible decisions.
Keep the Faith
I have no desire to be a buzzkill. Mythology can be a good thing, if it relates truths about human nature and the nature of the cosmos in a way that touches our souls, and if it is able to evolve to be compatible with our discoveries of the nature of things. We need a good story of why the world is here and what our place in it should be, something that gets us through the rough times, and inspires us to work together. We just need perspective. We can tell each other the story and enjoy the game, while we pursue the truth. Then the truth we discover can help us refine the story.
I’ll admit that the truth can be upsetting. It may require us to adjust our mythology in ways that we didn’t want. That is the nature of truth. It leads you to where it is, not to where you wanted to go. When you get to that point, you can either adjust the rules of the game, the storyline, to be compatible with the part of reality you have discovered, or you can ignore reality and continue the same old game, pretending that the audience doesn’t see through it. Challenging your faith by holding it up against reality doesn’t destroy it. In fact, it is the only way to preserve it.