Chapter 2

Why religion?

As long as I alluded to Pascal, I think that the reason religions exist all over the world (they are a "cross-cultural constant," found everywhere humans are found) has got something to do with Pascal's bet: you have to bet that there's a God of some sort (and a life after death making sense out of the mess that's in our lives) or that there isn't. You can't as Pascal mentions, refuse the bet, because that's betting that this life is the only one.

I don't go along with Pascal, however, that if you bet that there's a life after death and so on as Christianity holds, you've got everything to gain and nothing to lose; because if you happen to be wrong and you try to be virtuous, you're going to get trampled on for your pains and miss out on a life that could have been quite fulfilling, and wind up with nothing. Besides, there might be an afterlife and no forgiveness, as my philosophical view would seem to conclude; in which case, all your future striving after virtue is going to find you still damned eternally. If you bet that there isn't a life after death and you're wrong, then you're in trouble; but if you're right, then you've got a better chance than the fool who tries to be consistent with himself. And even if you're wrong, who knows but what at the last instant you might see the light and repent, or maybe the modern Theologians' "loving God" will forgive you afterwards, and then you've had the best of both worlds. It's by no means as simple as Pascal makes it out to be.

Nevertheless, I think that what gives rise to religion has got to be something observable and in fact almost inescapable, or we would only find religion among the very learned--whereas it seems that it's the unsophisticated that have it more than the people who can make fine distinctions. That, it seems to me, needs explaining.

My view of what accounts for the universality of religion is a person's recognition, first of all, of his own finiteness, based on the fact that he can't do everything he would wish to be able to do, or even that some of the lowly creatures around him can do, such as fly or swim like a fish. Our desires can easily outstrip our limitations, in which case our finiteness is forced into our consciousness, together with its implied contradiction. We say, "I am, therefore I will be," and we find that we are, but we cannot be all that we will be. And finiteness, of course, is the effect that leads on to conclude to an infinite being, as I said in Chapters 6 and 7 of Section 4 of the first part 1.46 1.4.7. I am not by any means supposing that people go through what I did there; but seeing one's own limitations as an effect certainly would hint, to say the least, at the fact that its cause is something much more powerful than our finite parents.

Let me make a distinction here between the thoughtful and the sophisticated. Unsophisticated people are not necessarily unintelligent; they are people who haven't had much practice in explaining away the difficulties that confront them. Sophisticated people have discovered the art of making distinctions, and therefore "know" that you can prove anything you want, and have concluded that nobody really knows anything. There is a level of knowledge above sophistication, however, which recognizes that sophistication really is a way of closing your eyes and avoiding the problem by adopting a supercilious attitude toward those who see more clearly than you do, and calling them naive.

The second thing that gives rise to religion, of course, is death, which a person's very essence as living cannot accept, as I said in Chapter 3 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.3. We know from the very core of our being that death is unnatural and that it can't be the end, that it mustn't be the end or life doesn't make any sense and is a chase after wind. The sophisticated "thinkers" talk about its being "a fact of life," trying to make us reconciled to it; but there is no being reconciled to it. All of that "acceptance" of death makes no sense, when in fact our own unifying energy is irreconcilably opposed to it, and we can be reconciled only by stifling the drive that constitutes our very existence.

Thirdly, there is the manifest unfairness of this life, where we strive for goals that others have achieved and through no fault of our own cannot achieve them; where we see innocent people undergoing such horrible torment that it makes the agony and absurdity of death not the curse we know it is but a blessed relief. In short, for the vast majority of people--the overwhelming majority--life is upside down, and the only way you can get through it is to do what Camus did: turn your back on the horror and concentrate on the few moments that seem to be worth the trouble, or rebel and think that you are doing something noble by admitting the absurdity and raging against the fading of the light.

And finally, and I think this is the main impetus for religion as I understand it, rather than for just the philosophical recognition of the immortality of the soul and the existence of the infinite being, there is the need for forgiveness. When we see the mess we have made of our lives, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently, and especially the mess we have made, sometimes deliberately, sometimes thoughtlessly, occasionally accidentally, of the lives of others, even others we dearly and deeply love, we long and ache to be forgiven.

I personally find it easier to reconcile myself to the damage I have done to myself than to the damage I have done to others. I think of those I sinned with, and wonder what my acts have done to them. But in one sense, they cooperated in the damage; and I find it far more troubling to think of people like Rev. Francis Sweeney, my Freshman English teacher, whom I had kept up a friendship with all these years, until a few years ago when he was showing me the photographs of his being awarded an honorary doctorate--and I made some joking reference to it as not a "real" one. It was weeks later that I realized something that hadn't occurred to me until that moment, that he doubtless did not have an academic doctorate, and my remarks must have hurt him profoundly, a man I always looked up to and respected--and there is now no way I can apologize, because even to allude to what I did would reopen the hurt. True, I am not morally responsible for what I did, but what difference does that make? I did it, and I am no Superman, who can spin the earth backwards and redo the ghastly moment.(1)

I guess what I am saying is not that we need to be forgiven; I am sure that if I apologized and explained to him, he would forgive me (or would he? Would I, in the same situation?); but that is not what I want. What I need is either (a) never to have done such a thing in the first place, or (b) redemption.

By "needing redemption" here, what I mean is the need to understand that what we have done is better in the circumstances than the alternative; something like what St. Paul tells the Corinthians in his second letter: "If I did hurt you by my letter, I don't regret doing it; and if I did feel sorry about it--since I see that that letter did hurt you, if only for a while--I am happy now, not because you were hurt, but because your pain made you change heart; you were hurt in God's way, where no damage was done by what we did." That is what we need. That is redemption. To put it in other words of Paul's, we need to know that "everything works out to good for those who love God."

Let me give another example. I mentioned earlier that I had been reading War and Peace during the time I originally wrote this. I had read it before, and when I got to the part where Natasha, engaged to Prince Andrei who has been staying away from her, is about to be seduced by Anatol and break off the engagement, I found I couldn't go on; it was too painful to read, even though I knew there would a reconciliation with Prince Andrei as he was dying. But then I thought of how he had treated his pretty and superficial first wife, and it occurred to me to look at this aborted marriage, not through his eyes or Natasha's, as the novelist had been doing, but to speculate about what their marriage would have been had it taken place; and it was possible for me to see that their marriage could have been far more bitter than what happened--and then I could resume reading. That is redemption.

The sophisticated, of course, will simply scoff at this longing as building castles in the air. "It's just not the way things are," they will say; "you have to dismiss such things from your mind and get on with your life. You have to be realistic."

But why do we have to "dismiss things from our minds"? Why are we being realistic if we dismiss from our minds what actually happened? "Because no one can live that way, brooding on the irrevocable past," will be the answer. Precisely. No one can live being truly realistic; life is too much of a horror to face; you must "dismiss it from your mind" if you want to get on with life.

What is this longing? It is a manifestation of what I talked about in Chapter 5 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.5 in which I discussed our "fallenness." Just as we can't accept death, because in fact our souls are immortal, and were obviously by the logic of being an immortal incarnate spirit intended not to die; and just as we can't accept the unfairness of life in which we can't achieve our goals because we don't get "the breaks" while others do, because in point of fact our control over our lives means that we can control them, not that "the breaks" do, or self-control is a contradiction; for this same reason we can't accept that our lives and especially those of the people dear to us turn out to be horrors because of what we do--because in fact, the logic of our existence says that our control means that, just as we shouldn't be able to be harmed without choosing it, we shouldn't be able to do harm to anyone without his willing it also.

What I am saying here is that this longing to undo what we have done, or at least to undo the harm in what we have done, is not really what some people would think: an extension of an idea we had as a child that we were omnipotent. I doubt if any child thinks of himself as omnipotent, still less as in control of his life. It is as we get control of more and more of our life and can actually do damage to others that the people who see what they are doing also see the blatant contradiction this is; it is the mature who need redemption, and the childish who "dismiss all this from their minds" so that they can get on with life as if it had never occurred.

Why else is one of the "cross-cultural constants" the notion of a Golden Age, in which people could achieve their goals, and were (or will be) at peace, but that we recognize that our very natures are twisted as they exist, making the world, if faced fully, and our own personalities, if faced fully, something unbearable? Why else is one of the goals of psychology, in the name, of all things, of being realistic, the goal of "giving you a good opinion of yourself," and why are so many, many people desperately seeking that goal? Because they hate themselves and their lives; and they are the ones who have reason, not the psychologists who delude them into thinking that they're "really" pretty wonderful people.

Only a saint can face squarely the facts about himself and his world; because only a saint knows with what Cardinal Newman called "real" knowledge as opposed to "notional" knowledge that he and his world are redeemed; and so he can do what I did with War and Peace: he can read the book, knowing that, though it may not be the best of all possible worlds, since we are free and can willingly wreck our lives, it is better than the alternatives if we don't want to wreck our lives.

Thus, it is not the unthinking from whom religions arise; religion comes about because of the basic impulse from which science itself comes about: the refusal to accept things as positively self-contradictory. The unthinking person, watching a rock fall, says, "It fell; what's the problem?" It took a Newton to see that it didn't make sense and how it didn't make sense, and to have the conviction that something unseen (gravity) made sense out of it. Similarly, the unthinking person says, "Yeah, but on balance I'm a lot nicer guy than Joe"; and it's the realist who says, "What I am in relation to Joe doesn't matter; neither Joe nor I should have been allowed to do the harm we have done," and who sees that it doesn't make sense and how it doesn't make sense, and who has the conviction that there is something unseen by which it can make sense.

What I am saying is that a reasonable person who tries to face the facts of the horrors of this world is driven, by the same impulse that moves the scientist, to religion. Reason can't resolve the conundrum. If reason tries as hard as I have in this book, the best it can do is say that there is a God and a life after death, and the mess we have made of ourselves will remain forever. It makes sense, because the mess that remains was deliberate when we produced it; but it doesn't make sense because we had very little idea of the extent of the mess at that fateful moment. Reason cannot argue to redemption; all it can do is show that redemption is not impossible, that God could, if he wished, erase our sins and somehow straighten out our world--but that this would be a gratuitous act on his part, and philosophy can give no reason why he would bother.(2) But at the same time, reason can argue to a need for redemption, because if we can ruin our lives, it is positively unreasonable for us to be able to do it in even partial ignorance of what we are doing to ourselves and others.

People tend to accept science as "realistic" and "down to earth" when science refuses to accept the data that is in front of the scientist and explains it in terms of unseen forces. "But those are real," we say, "electricity, magnetism, gamma rays, and all that." But then when a person looks at life and says, "This absolutely makes no sense; there has to be a God who redeems it and makes it better not to cut my throat before I do any more damage," we say he's not being realistic because he doesn't accept life on the superficial level of "that's the breaks" on which it presents itself. I submit that this way of looking at things is just as realistic as the scientific one. There is not only no conflict between science and religion; the very same attitude of mind gives rise to both, depending on which facts you are looking at.

"But science can prove that what it says is true; religion can't." Nonsense. Newton's Theory of Universal Gravitation, one of the best-established of all scientific theories, has been proved false. And as I said in Chapter 4 of Section 4 of the fourth part 4.4.4, no scientific theory can ever be proved true, just because of the logic of science. "But science works." And religion doesn't? Henry James pointed out that religion works in allowing people to face reality and still lead happy lives; what could have a greater "cash value" than this? To be able to know that you don't have to kill yourself to avoid doing greater harm, because it is redeemed and somehow every tear, not only those you shed, but those you caused to be shed, will be wiped away.

Camus, by the way, missed half of the story in The Myth of Sisyphus, when after considering that the absurdity of the world demanded that we seriously consider killing ourselves to get out of it, he concluded that you might just as well not commit suicide, because life did have its beautiful moments, even if it was absurd. I counter with Dmitri Karamazov's answer: If my life in the future involves a million beautiful moments and one moment of my being somehow--deliberately or inadvertently--responsible for one little girl's being shut up in a closet and screaming for an hour to be let out, then these million beautiful moments are not worth the price, and let me kill myself now to avoid her pain. It isn't the harm I face in the future that horrifies me; it is the harm I do that makes an unredeemed life unbearable.

So again, Camus is not being wise in accepting the world as absurd and living nonetheless. The religion he tossed aside because he couldn't believe in a God who would allow the suffering he had seen would demand, by that logic, that he destroy himself to prevent his causing the slightest iota of that suffering to others. Living as a rebel doesn't redeem him, because his rebellion only stirs up others who will misunderstand his honest protest and twist it to their own ends and make the ideology of "existentialism" out of it and use his very book as an excuse to do harm--because people think primarily of themselves and the harm that is done to them and theirs, not the harm they do to others. They are not as thoughtful as he and don't make the distinctions he makes; and so his thoughtful work, his so painfully honest work, could be expected, if he had had his eyes open, to do the harm he sought to lessen by counseling being a rebel.

But in fact he is redeemed, and his honesty has not done all the harm it could be expected to have done as people twist what he said to their own ends. And he knows this now, I am sure, because he was honest and tried to face the facts (though their light blinded even him), and it simply cannot be that everything is absurd and a horror beyond Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

If you want to be able to accept religion, however, you have to expand the openness of your mind much farther than the sophisticates have; because essentially this need we have for redemption implies, as George Mavrodes said in a paper I heard at a philosophy meeting, that the present can alter the past; and the sophisticated simply dismiss this as balderdash.

But it isn't. In the discussion on time in Chapter 6 of Section 3 of the second part 2.3.6, I pointed out that time as such is not real, but is simply the comparison of the quantities of processes; and that what is the present from one observer's point of view can be the future from another's and the past from that of a third, as when we watch New Year's Day celebrations from Japan while it is still the old year where we are. I also said that in the sense in which the past exists and is irrevocable, the future also exists and is irrevocable; what will happen is what will in fact happen; just as what happened is what in fact happened. True, what will happen need not happen, since we have control over it; but even though it depends on our choices, what will be will be. And it is also true that what happened need not have happened, because it too depended on free choices and so on. The fact that we don't know what the future will in fact be doesn't make what will in fact be less of a fact than the fact that we don't remember what actually happened ten years ago today makes that fact less of a fact.

Further, and this is the key here, God is not in time, as I said. God eternally (timelessly, not "always") causes the whole of creation, including what is from our point of view past, present, and future, to exist as it actually exists (i.e. as dependent on himself and all the finite causes in it).

But if this is so, it is perfectly possible for God to redeem the past, if we wish it. If I do wrong and repent and pray to undo the damage I have done, God, when he eternally exerts his creative causality over the event two years ago I now repent of also eternally causes my act of repentance and prayer to have that event redeemed. For him, the two events are eternally present (i.e. "before him," not "now"); and if he is loving rather than indifferent, then it is perfectly possible for him to answer the prayer, not by making the event not what it in fact was, but by making it different from what it would have been without the subsequent prayer for redemption.

Just as my choice, with God's creative causality, doesn't make the future different from what it will be, but from what it would have been were I to make a different choice (and so the future is what it is, and part of what it is is dependent on my choice); so in the case of redemption, my plea to have the past redeemed redeems it in the sense that it makes what happened no different from what actually happened, but different from what it would have been if I had not afterwards begged for its redemption. I can't change the past; but in that same sense I can't change the future.(3)

All this does, of course, is show that redemption of the past is not impossible; it does not say that it happens, because, like the erasure of my sins from my eternal consciousness, there is no reason why God must or even should do such a thing. The fact that the past or the present or the future needs redeeming is due to our fallenness; in the state we could as incarnate spirits be expected to be in, we would not be able to be harmed against our wills, nor would anyone else, we would be in complete control of ourselves and could not be misled or blinded by insistent desires, and we would have access to all the relevant information about any choice we made, so that we could not inadvertently bring on ourselves or our world anything we did not foresee. But the fallenness itself makes no sense, as I said in Chapter 5 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.5, unless it was the result of a deliberate act on the part of the one who had the power to determine the human genetic potential; and since it was deliberate, he presumably had all the relevant information he needed and so on; and there is no reason why God should save him and us (especially since it would make no eternal difference to our consciousness, at least) from the consequences he chose along with his sin.

And so one again philosophy points in hope to something that is beyond itself: to something that it knows could happen, but something which it cannot know does happen; and this is why Hegel and those like him who subsume religion under philosophy are dead wrong. Religion is not a naive, imaginative picturing of the truths that are understood in philosophy; in its essence it is a trust that "the heart has reasons the mind knows not of," and in faith it hopes that the love of God which extended to the creation of the world when there was no benefit for him whatsoever in the act extends to the redemption of that very world in cooperation with the very creatures who have wrecked it often by their own deliberate choices and now are sorry for what they have done.



1. In case you care, I did get another person to explain the situation and we were reconciled before he died. We never alluded to this event, so I don't know whether it really bothered him or not.

2. Of course, reason can take some comfort in the knowledge that he created the universe, and there's no reason why he would bother to do that either. But it is brought up short with the realization that he made me free, and aware (at least to some extent) of the consequences of my actions; and I for the most part deliberately chose the damage I have done--and therefore, there's a reason why he wouldn't save me from it. But reason also answers, "But I didn't fully realize all the implications in what I was doing, and I wasn't totally in control of myself" and so that might provide a reason for God to save me if I later change heart--which again is countered by the fact that I realize that I don't fully see all the ramifications of what I do, and therefore I ought to think carefully before I act. So reason remains stuck in a conundrum.

3. If the future cannot affect the past, then obviously prophesy is not possible. David did not make Jesus' hands and feet be cut open by writing "They have cut open my hands and my feet," but insofar as this is prophesy, it is the future event that caused him to write his poem in these words.