G.K. Chesterton said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” I like that. It’s always around the holidays that everybody seems so serious: Bill O’Reilly telling Jon Stewart that he is headed for hell. Fox News’s blatant blowing “attacks on Christmas” entirely out of proportion. (Melville writes in Moby Dick, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Probably some truth to that.)
As Eric Weiner wrote in the New York Times this Sunday, “God is not a lot of fun these days. . . All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers.” When it comes down to it, our society isn’t really that good at talking about things like God and religion. This failure is probably symptomatic of a broader one: a book that came out earlier this year contained the research of two sociologists interviewing thousands of college-aged Americans to find out their views on morality. They found that we are quite horrible at it; in fact, we lacked even the vocabulary with which to meaningfully discuss moral topics.
Given such a dire situation, how can we hope to raise the public discourse about religion? Weiner thinks he has at least one solution:
“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones [those who do not affiliate themselves with a religious denomination, yet still believe in God] among us. And for all of us.”
Although I appreciate the cultural reference, I am not at all sure that going to church should be like using my Mac. Don’t get me wrong—I love my Mac. Just not in the same way that I love religion. Religion fascinates me because it at times is the least intuitive endeavor one can undertake. It is at once messy and complicated, riddled with metaphysical questions. To believe—to really believe, and to consistently believe—and to grow and improve is a constant struggle. I am not sure how comfortable I would be with a populist religious uprising of the kind described. It could be a good thing, but I don’t see how it could ever escape being a fad. A religion that never requires you to look into its history and ask hard questions doesn’t seem to be much of a religion at all. At least, it wouldn’t be a religion that did much for people–anymore than the thrill of attending a Super Bowl would do for them.
Additionally, I am not sure what a religion would look like that celebrated doubt. Doubt (no doubt) can play a crucial role in acquiring belief—I have always loved Dostoevsky’s line: “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”—but is doubt something to be desired in and of itself? Telling people that it is okay to question and to doubt is different than celebrating that doubt. To place doubt on a pedestal as an object of desire is to ignore the greater issues behind belief.
We can still laugh about our religion while at the same time taking its claims very seriously. Interestingly enough, I actually think that the Mormon.org campaign is an effort to make religion more unencumbered and straightforward. The whole message is—“Look at my life. This is what I am. This is why I worship. It is normal. Anyone can do it.” I think that is a great introduction to our Church. But if you don’t think you are going to face tough issues in any religion, you are dreaming.
Weiner is right that most of what gets said comes from opposite ends of the spectrum: It is a Muslim fundamentalist. Then it’s a Republican Fundamentalist who hates Muslims. Then it’s a Koran burning cretin, followed by the Westboro bigots. Then it’s Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher and their caustic, naïve, and deleterious comments. There is this huge gap in the middle, between avid believers and rabid atheists, and it seems mostly to be filled with apathy, that great master of our day. To raise our level of discourse would do many a service, indeed.