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missionariesThe time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage or the veneration of Mary?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant — just as the Islamist believes in the Quran or Republicans in Fox News — nowhere have I found a Bible verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I eventually came to feel bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion. I just don’t see the point; and now, I don’t see the point in arguing over it. You can have whatever supernatural beings you want, as long as you leave me out of it.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. But there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants your wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a creed that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

seventh seal knight

Can you choose to believe?

Some people seem to think so. You consider a menu of possible beliefs and choose which you like best. The American church scene certainly gives you a host of beliefs to sign up for: Not only Catholicism or Mormonism or Christian Science, but a hundred different versions of Protestantism, each with its heartfelt shibboleths. And there are thousands of varieties of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. And let’s not forget that Atheism is a belief, also.

So, you scan the menu and choose.

Blaise Pascal offered a bet: Believe and be saved. If there turns out not to be a God, then you have lost nothing. Fail to believe and maybe nothing happens, but if there is a God, then you lose your bet.

The problem is, of course, that the bet isn’t merely whether there is a god or not — putting your chips on the red or the black — but which god will save you and which will cast you to perdition: With so many choices, the odds are always against you: The house wins.

But you cannot merely choose. It sounds good until you try it. There is, after all, a difference between joining a church and believing what it teaches. seventh seal knight looks up

There are plenty of examples of people choosing one religion over another for political or survival reasons. Composers Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn each converted to Christianity to further their careers and escape the anti-Semitism of their time and place. It wasn’t at all uncommon in earlier centuries when one’s religion could disqualify one for certain jobs.

But did they believe in their adopted religions? That’s another question altogether.

For belief cannot be a matter of choice: You can believe only in what seems true. You don’t choose a religion and decide to believe its tenets; you decide what you believe is true, and look for a religion that offers those beliefs to you.

Believe simply isn’t volitional. You believe because you think certain things are true. Ineluctably true.

That doesn’t mean that what you believe is true — people can believe all kinds of odd piffle — but that those who believe do so because those ideas seem true to them. Whether it is religion or science, fiction or the ravings of a tin-foil-hat Tea Party Republican, you can only believe what rings true.

This is so even for those young academics who profess not to believe in any truth, that truth is all just relative. But of course, they believe it is true that there isn’t any truth. You cannot escape it: If you believe, you do so because you perceive it as true.

There are certainly people who wish they could choose to believe. There are those without faith who suffer from their inability to believe. They desperately want to believe, like the knight in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal.

What holds them back is that they cannot choose to believe something that doesn’t seem to be true, no matter how beneficial it would be if they could enforce that choice. Faith has, after all, many demonstrated benefits.

But if you don’t think there is a god or a savior, you cannot pretend there is.

Conversion happens when you accept that the religious tenets are true. It isn’t logic or reason that defines truth for us. We each have inclinations of genes and upbringing. seventh seal subtitle

Our emotions as surely as our syllogisms govern what seems true to us.

Some people are credulous and can accept as true any amount of silliness. I know a man who converted to a new religion every six months or so. He has been Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Hindu and Evangelical.

One religion he joined actually worshipped triangles and explained the entire universe in terms of three-sided figures. There was not an ounce of hypocrisy in him: He believed each religion in turn was the true one.

Yet, if you cannot choose to believe, you can nevertheless choose to be open to possibilities, to allow yourself to learn about things you had previously been closed to. You can choose to look and listen.

Maybe you’ll be lucky.