Faith of a Skeptic

Your correspondent fesses up... somewhat.

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When reporting about religion, I am often asked about my own beliefs. My response is usually evasive, though at an unspoken level, it runs something like this: "Hey, I'm the neutral observer here; I don't have to account for my religion!"

To which a more truthful inner voice replies: "Baloney! You're no Martian anthropologist. And even if you were, you'd still have beliefs about ultimate matters, and those beliefs would inevitably affect what you thought about those quaint Earthlings."

There's no escaping the fact that where we come from colors what we see. So where do I come from?

Starting most superficially, I come to the job not as a "religion correspondent"—a grandiose title if there ever was one—but as a journalist who has devoted much of his career to writing about culture, ideas, society, and the recurrent follies of human experience that collectively we call history.

To say that religion is part of all this is, to put it mildly, an understatement, though I am always a little wary about the appropriateness of the word religion when applied to many of the traditions, beliefs, spiritual practices, and worldviews held by people around the world and throughout history. The word comes out of a very specific Christian tradition, and its connotations poorly suit something like Taoism, Confucianism, and even Buddhism, not to mention the worldview of American Indians or Australian aboriginal people. But because the roots of the word mean to bind together, it's probably a serviceable term, though not one with which I would want to be professionally associated.

I say that for a further, more substantial reason: I don't think what we call religion can be put into a box neatly labeled religion and relegated to one part of the academic curriculum or one area of journalism. It seems to me that one of the lessons of 9/11 is that the influence of religion is virtually limitless and ubiquitous, and the sooner we figure that out, the wiser we'll be.

Proven, too, is the myopia of those theorists of secularization who held (as a matter of faith) that the world was leaving religion behind as it became more modern. Sorry, secularization gurus, it just ain't so. Religion is everywhere with us late and soon, nowhere more obviously than among those militant atheists and secularists who worship in the Church of God Without God, and you know who you are, Pope Dawkins, Bishop Harris, and Father Hitchens. May the blind force of energy, matter, and natural selection be with you all, now and forever, amen.

Just as troubling is the way other folks—I mean the self-styled religious folks—think about and use the word. They are the people who claim that they are religious and that you others aren't: you meaning just about everybody who doesn't subscribe to their version of spiritual correctness. This is a crude way of thinking, to be sure, but there's also a high-end version of it. Think, for instance, of those sociological studies that set out to determine how religious journalists are. Surprise, those studies always find that journalists as a group are not very religious. Indeed, they're very secular. No one thinks for a minute about what this simple binary opposition, religious/secular, really means. It just becomes one of those pseudofacts about the world that we accept as meaningful.

By the way, mea culpa. I retail such pseudofacts about religion all the time. It's almost impossible not to. Journalism requires shorthand and shortcuts. Use the shorthand long enough, and you begin to think it's true, even the whole story, when the real story is what that shorthand obscures: the granular, contradictory reality of what we humans hold to be the ultimate truth and how those convictions shape our lives.

Take those secular journalists. Having worked among them, I will say this: We are just as ignorant about religion as everybody else in the modern world is, though in some ways less excusably so. We have long underestimated the reach and force of religion in politics, society, and, well, you name it. We shouldn't have. We are paid to be empirical. We fell for the myths of secularization just as blindly as any of the academics did. Shame on us.

But irreligious? I don't think so. Journalists are trained to be skeptical, and even if their skepticism is unevenly applied to what they write about, it is their instinctive orientation. Ask a journalist if he or she is "religious," and this skeptically oriented creature will most likely say no. To say yes would be to imply a level of credulity with which he or she would be uncomfortable. But journalists, as a lot, are as religious as any other group of professionals I have known, including scientists, dentists, and lawyers. Besides, name somebody who isn't religious, and I would say that person is effectively dead.

Let me put it unequivocally: We are all religious. We all have different religious formations and different expressions of our faith, belief, or convictions. These beliefs bind us to others (even if only imagined others) who share these convictions.

So how am I religious?

First, my formation. I was raised a Protestant Christian—Episcopalian, to be exact. I received fairly serious indoctrination—regular Sunday school and confirmation classes—and reached a peak of devotional intensity around age 14. From that point on, the intensity waned. Church attendance fell to almost nil by college. It resumed during the years that I was helping to raise my son, and I tried to recapture my earlier belief. But there was, for me, no real going back. The orthodox Christian teaching simply did not convince me, much as I read, and continue to read, the works of great Christian theologians, apologists, and philosophers. I love the beauty, brilliance, and wisdom produced by this great tradition, but like Goethe's Faust, "I hear the message well, but lack faith's constant trust."

Still, that lack of faith has not killed my religious longing. I believe that ultimate truth is sacred, possibly even divine, and that it is beyond our full knowing. Yet seeking after that knowledge, that truth, that God-shaped absence that abides deep in the imagination, seems to me to be what a human life is all about. We are all meaning-seeking creatures, and even those of us who claim not to give a fig about meaning are just as implicated in the search. You can't escape it; it's embedded in the very nature of language, that unique expression of human consciousness. In the beginning was the word.

While Christianity remains the tradition I know best, I am curious about almost all traditions of religious and spiritual longing. This does not mean that I see them all as basically the same—not even the three great monotheisms of the larger Abrahamic tradition. The differences, even the small differences, are important—though never so important that they should drive people to acts of violence or even to intolerance. (I agree with the new atheists that all religions should be subject to evaluation by the criteria of what we now call universal human rights, even if those rights were ultimately derived from religious traditions.)

Knowledge of many religious and spiritual traditions does not necessarily lead to relativism or religious universalism (though it can). But it should lead to a sobering modesty about one's own tradition, its strengths and weaknesses, as well as an awareness of how religions, as human-shaped if divinely inspired institutions, can sometimes go woefully wrong, even to the point of contradicting their core teachings.

Such knowledge may not be enough to spare humanity from further follies—including clashes of civilizations and the murderous acts of religious zealots—but it should make us mindful that our religious nature is something that can never be denied or explained away, something that will not disappear with the forward march of progress and the steady advance of science and knowledge. Accepting all that may even help us mitigate the harmful potential of religion, even while acknowledging its undeniable blessings.

Or at least, that is what I believe.