“The chief virtue of religion,” Stephen T Asma writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “is as a ‘coping mechanism’ for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat.”
That is certainly true. It’s also true, however, that powerless people turn against religion. That’s the dynamic behind what’s known in theology as “the problem of evil.” Oh yeah sure, it’s easy to believe in a benevolent God when times are good, but let things turn ugly and people are just as likely to lose their faith as to use it. That, to me, has always been one of the mysteries of faith, or at least one of the mysteries of human psychology. It makes me wonder whether we’re all talking about the same thing when we talk about religion.
Yes, religion is a coping mechanism, but it is also, I would argue, when it is genuine anyway, much more than that. It is a way of looking at the world. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t already understand it. The best I can do, I think, is to offer an analogy. Say you’d been born very poor but that you had worked hard and achieved over time, through dint of your own efforts, great health and wealth, the respect of your peers, a beautiful and loving family and a large circle of devoted friends. You look around at the wonderful life you have created for yourself and you think: I have done this. This is all my doing! And from this you receive enormous satisfaction.
Well, the situation of the religious person is analogous to this, except that the religious person looks around at everything that is beautiful and wonderful in his life and says: I have not done this. This is all a glorious gift that had been given to me, as to all creatures, by a love that surpasses all understanding.
That, in any case, is how I look at my life. My awareness of myself is inexorably intertwined with the sense that I am a creature in a larger creation the beauty of which alone, without artifice, has captured and held in thrall better minds than my own. Sometimes I think there is nothing more glorious than my morning coffee or the view out the window of my study. God is as present in those things to me as in great works of art or expressions of love or self-sacrifice. Religion isn’t something I turn to only in times of trouble. It is for me, as for many other people, something that colors nearly every moment of my waking experience and many of my dreams as well.
I’ll be honest with you and confess that I do not see God in suffering. Even if I can make human evil cohere with the idea of a benevolent deity, which it seems to me, I can, it is much harder for me to make sense of natural evils such as disease and natural disasters.
I don’t live in fear, however, that the existence of such evils represents a threat to the truth of my religious convictions. Life is full of mysteries we can’t solve. Lots of mysteries remain in science, and will always remain, if the history of the discipline is to give us any indication of its future. These mysteries don’t discredit it, however, in the eyes of scientists. They discredit it only in the eyes of people who have a very unsophisticated understanding science, just as the problem of evil, or the conflation of religion with superstition, will discredit religious belief in the eyes of people who have a very unsophisticated understanding of religion.
I accept, by the way, science in its entirety. I accept it for what it is, an explanation of the behavior of phenomena, which is to say, appearances. I think it is one of the most glorious achievements of humanity. Religion, on the other hand, is concerned with a reality that transcends appearances. It is not opposed to science. Each has its place.
Religion has a larger place in human experience, however, than the one allotted to coping mechanisms. It is sad that even many of its defenders seem to be strangers there.