What I Believe About Religion

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:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to What I Believe About Religion

  1. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    I can’t help but notice that you seem warmer to religion/theism now-a-days (maybe I’m wrong about this). I know that you still don’t care for organized religion. But why not consider making the move to something like theism (of some vareity)?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    I’m comfy with agnosticism for now. I simply don’t feel the urgency to break the tie, and theism still feels like a premature conclusion for me. Because I’m a doubter and an ironist, I’d make a horrible believer anyway. Atheism feels equally premature. But I’m always thinking.

    I was talking with my wife about religion in the Sierras this past week (when we were on a little trip with our kids). I told her that I saw three options in life (two of them based on Camus, one on religion): (1)suicide or Buddhism/Stoicism; (2) rebellion against the universe’s indifference and the absurd ala the myth of Sisyphus (rolling the rock of your projects in the full knowledge that they must ultimately fail); or some form of transcendence (meaning belief in God or telos, praying for escape, faith in Jesus’s resurrection, things like that).

    Can you think of a fourth human option? Don’t they basically all come down to these three moves in one form or the other (resignation, rebellion, transcendence)?

    One thing that’s causing me to put some pro and neutral religious stuff on my blog is as a reaction to illiberal and narrow atheists I’ve encountered on the net. I think that they are, in many cases, giving the humanist/enlightenment tradition a bad name. They are too often only superficially critical thinkers, ill-read, smug in their certainties. Their epistemic arrogance, and refusal to even reflect back upon the metaphysical and epistemic premises underlying their own positions are annoying to me. Of course, were I ever to join a religion, I’m sure I’d be put off by the stupidity and smugness of theists. The flies change, but the shit is the same.

    And I’m a cat, not easily herded.

    —Santi

  3. charleyjk4 says:

    Nietzsche once proclaimed that God was dead(Thus spake Zarathustra,1883-1885).
    Christianity was the one great curse.The one blemish on mankind.
    Zeus-Amon was worshiped by Alexander the Great and no one else.
    Islam has been hijacked by extremists.Which religion how exists?.None,I fear.

  4. charleyjk4 says:

    Now exists.Typo error.Sorry.

  5. Chris says:

    Charley,

    A groups misuse of a good thing does not therefore make the good thing bad or untrue. We wouldn’t call fire something evil, just because men have burned houses with it. Men, either fortunately or not, have certain tools which can be used for great goodness, but can also be used for intolerable evil.

  6. Pingback: Therapy for Angry Atheists: a Sense of the Mysterious « The world is all that is the case

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