I don’t believe that any of the specific gods (Zeus, Allah, Yahweh, Vishnu etc.), in their contingent culture-based personalities, exist. But I do believe that the ontological mystery to which people direct their religious gestures (like prayer, candle-lighting etc.) speak to the ontological mystery (the mystery of being), and I believe that this mystery is puzzling and not easily dismissed.
In other words, I read off people’s weird and contingent religious beliefs a pointing toward an overriding question (first formulated, if I recall accurately, by Paul Tillich):
Why is there something when there might have been nothing?
Every one of us must come up against this perplexity: Was matter made by mind, or has it just always been, or did it make itself at some point from nothing in the beginning? Unfortunately, empiricism cannot resolve this “ultimate” question for us, and yet it is so profound and important that it is hard to imagine how to get one’s thoughts and actions in the world going in a meaningful direction without some sort of guess about it. And yet, whichever answer we give, we are driven into question begging.
It is easy to critique the ridiculousness of individual religious beliefs, harder to critique what all those human “fingers” are pointing to. Rhetorically blasting away at the quirkiness of religion is (from my point of view) like someone focusing on the finger pointing to the moon. The direction of all the pointing is a bigger thing to focus on—it’s us in our consciousnesses in a universe that seems “de trop.” What the hell is going on here? We don’t really know, do we? What does it mean to love and have kids? Does life have a purpose or is there a blind spider at the center of the universe (metaphorically)? This was a nightmare of Dostoevsky’s, by the way.
In any case, empiricism cannot settle these issues for us. Yet here we are.
I’d like to direct you to one of my favorite films of all time. It’s titled Baraka. Perhaps you know it. I once saw it at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, and to see it on a large screen is wonder-generating. I’d ask you to watch the first two YouTube segments. There is no speaking in the film. It’s a wordless meditation on the ontological mystery, and human responses to it. Here’s the first ten minutes:
And here’s the second ten minutes: