Just When I Was Ready to Discuss What We Could Do to Encourage New Thinking Skills in a Seminar at Her Employer, I Get This Question about Believing in God

I am accustomed to being questioned by prospective business clients on all kinds of issues. What I’m not accustomed to is having them ask me, unexpectedly and point-blank, as happened over dinner not long ago, “Do you believe in God?”

But it happened, and I replied immediately, “I don’t believe in your God.”

I think that’s the right thing to do in such circumstances, and the right way to do it. I encourage such a response, instantly and emphatically, if you find yourself in similar circumstances. It is certainly a return volley across the net that keeps the discussion from degenerating quickly into strained politeness, vague assurances or simply plain silliness.

What you believe about this nettlesome, never-seemingly-laid-to-rest-in-human-affairs-and-discussions issue should never, in my opinion, hinge on what someone else thinks. So I’m never going to encourage anyone to base their conclusions on the issue on my opinions. Over the eons, there have been a thousand and one opinions, multiplied a thousand and one times, voiced on the subject. Mine is just one more (and, to paraphrase critic Kingsley Amis, “a person’s view of what he is doing is no more valid than anyone else’s.”)

But this individual was put off only momentarily. After an instant, she said, “But are you a believer?”

“I don’t know about believing, “I replied. ”But I don’t believe in believers.”

“So you are a non-believer?” she inquired

“Let me tell you what I think I might be,” I offered as it became clearer that she was asking with a personal earnestness that seemed to have nothing to do with whether she was going to engage my services as a change agent and thinking skills authority.

“I think I might be an accepter.”

Blank stare. Good. A blank stare is usually a good place to begin when people are, even if not consciously, trying to see if they can categorize you and your slate of opinions using their own.

Then I told her what I was willing to accept:

• Most humans seem to be incorrigibly religious. Most want to believe in something “beyond” themselves. The search for “God”—or something out there or up there or in there—never ends. It has been that way from day one.

• What most humans think about God they’ve really never thought much about, if they’ve thought about it at all. What most humans think about God they’ve inherited. It’s a family matter or a neighborhood matter or a community matter. Saint Paul was absolutely right: raise a child in the family faith, and you’ve nearly always got them for that faith for life.

• The “theological history” that all faiths cite as their proofs for their view of God all eventually grows murky and, like the record of evolutionary biology, becomes riddled with gaps and uncertainties as the mists of time close in. There’s no real, dependable footing for anyone’s view of God. That’s why there is no one theology. It is always a Muslin theology or a Christian theology or a Methodist theology or a Christian Science theology. Really good, smart theologians understand this, which is why a Paul Tillich or a Pierre Teilhard de Chardin can be so maddeningly vague and full of double-speak so much of the time and, in the end, pretty much incomprehensible.

• Everything that has ever been said about religion or theology or God was generated by the same source: the human brain. There’s no getting around it. There is no other way to say anything. If God speaks in the forest and there is no brain, it’s pretty clear: there’s no sound—nothing said, nothing heard, nothing remembered, nothing recorded. So the brain first draws the outline and then colors in the spaces about everything, including all that has been said and thought about the issue of whether there’s a God and whether we can know anything worth knowing about such a being, if there happens to be One.

• What the brain thinks and says about God is simply one more assignment for a brain seeking to understand how it has come to be plopped in the middle of, to use astrophysicist Freeman Dyson’s apt phrase, “infinity in all directions.” The thing about this assignment is that explaining ultimate causes in such an environment is proving to be enormously difficult, perhaps even—no, I’ll say that stronger—probably even beyond our capabilities on many subjects, including this one. We simply don’t appear to have the brainpower to pull it off.

• So the issue of God has come to bore me. There are so many other interesting questions where I stand a chance of finding some answers. None of the answers offered up by any other brain that has ever spoken out or written something down on this particular issue that I’ve read—and believe me, I’ve read a ton of them—any longer interests me. I don’t mind people having strong spiritual beliefs if they will use them responsibly. I know from the research—brain research!—that having strong spiritual beliefs can be very healthy. The brain likes believing it can know. But then my brain knows it can believe almost anything about anything. And so can any other brain. So that makes my brain very leery of believing in believers.

“So this is what I accept, and why I think I may be an accepter,” I told my dinner guest.

“You’re right,” my guest replied. “I don’t believe you believe in my God.”

But I still got the job and, I think, made a new friend. And, she left the table looking very thoughtful.

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