Listening to Poulenc’s Stabat Mater as I knead bread, I feel a sudden strong surge of affection for Christianity, which ordinarily I am neutral to or even vaguely repulsed by, depending on my mood. Poulenc makes me almost wish I were Christian, in the same way that the poems of Rumi, Hafez and Khayyam make me wish I were Muslim and the temples of Kyoto and Nara once made me wish I were Buddhist.
Perhaps it sounds shallow to admit that the purely aesthetic or sensory expressions of a religion make its traditions come alive for me, but I think the kind of gestalt such expressions can produce is central to the religious experience, at least as I understand it. Philosophically, I am a materialist and a naturalist: there is no room in my worldview for the supernatural. Something either exists, and is therefore part of nature, or it doesn’t. But although I’m unashamed of my agnosticism in regards to the specific truth-claims of any given religion, I still think of myself as religious, inasmuch as I share a basic set of intuitions and practices that I think can only be described as religious. “Spiritual,” with its overtones of woo, doesn’t do as good a job of characterizing such habits as:
- Relating to each entity and event as if it were unique and unrepeatable. Whereas in mathematics we are taught to treat sparrows (say) as interchangeable, so that they may be assigned some arbitrary value, from a religious standpoint, each sparrow is ultimately irreducible to any abstraction. Our generalizations fail to capture what is truest and most precious in the world.
- Cultivating wonder and awe, even at the patterns unveiled by the aforementioned generalizations (which are essential to scientific understanding). Instead of taking a dismissive attitude about reality — x is no more than y — a properly religious person marvels that x is no less than y.
- Remaining humble in the face of all we cannot know. To pick one example, I sometimes find myself echoing the Muslims and saying insh’allah (“God willing”) about any planned-for future event, because it just strikes me as unpardonably arrogant to state definitively that such-and-such will happen on such-and-such a date and time. There’s a presumptuousness about the way we post-modern consumer types relate to time and place that I find really disturbing.
- Gratitude for our own existence, a feeling of having been blessed no matter how dire the circumstances. Deists may have a hard time accepting that it’s possible to feel a generalized gratitude to whoever or whatever unknown forces may have brought us into the here and now, but trust me: it’s not only possible, but really quite easy!
- A kind of double vision that on the one hand sees the world as irredeemably broken or sinful or full of dukkha, but on the other hand sees it as already perfected, even paradisiacal — and tends to feel this latter vision is truer, if much more difficult to sustain. (In some religions, of course, this insight is reserved for those with more advanced training, or is restricted to mystical sects.) Thus though I believe strongly in evolution by natural selection, I feel no contradiction in also seeing the world as Creation, by which I mean: wondrous, unpredictable, and capable of exceeding itself at every turn.
- A willingness to suspend disbelief without necessarily submitting to the tyranny of creeds. I think it was Sam Johnson who memorably characterized the necessary precondition for appreciating secular works of fiction as the suspension of disbelief. In many indigenous belief systems, conscious clowning and make-believe are vital ways to keep the imagination from calcifying and preserve that sense of awe and wonder mentioned above (see “Laughing in Church“). “Holy fools” are honored in most traditions; some Sufis maintain that Nasreddin was the subtlest and wisest teacher who ever lived. There is a playfulness to the best theology.
- Feeling and showing deep respect toward other beings, to the point of seeing ourselves in them and placing their needs before our own. Empathy and compassion are at the root of ethical behavior. They’d be impossible without the humility and imagination already mentioned, but I don’t think they are simple corollaries, either. As social beings, I think we’ve evolved to respond in specific ways to the faces of others, as Levinas has argued.
- Cultivating a healthy skepticism about one’s own wants and needs.
People hostile to religion often seem to feel that if they can simply demolish the arguments for supernatural realities, that religious people will see the error of their ways. Their belief in the persuasive power of reason is touching, and smacks a little of superstition itself. I gather that modern psychology has found little evidence to suggest that people are ever persuaded by facts in this manner, unless they are already looking for things to justify abandoning beliefs that have become uncomfortable for other reasons. But be that as it may, I think critics sometimes fail to understand the appeal of religion in the first place — and fail to recognize the extent to which science does not and can never explain away the wonder and mystery at the core of existence. Whether organized religion is the best way to preserve this intuition is of course a completely different question.