God Versus Godless—a False Choice

Extreme views on religious belief—or lack of it—may make for lively theatrics, but they ignore the dynamic complexities of behavior and faith.

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The Ten Commandments monument is seen in front of the Dixie County Courthouse in Cross City, Florida, July 27, 2011. (AP/John Raoux)
The Ten Commandments monument is seen in front of the Dixie County Courthouse in Cross City, Florida, July 27, 2011. (AP/John Raoux)

Depending on which pundits you follow, America is either a nation that’s drenched in religion and hostile to nonbelievers, or a severely secular place that hates people of faith. On either side you’ll find plenty of examples to support your claim.

You may be convinced that we’re becoming a theocracy, pointing to religion’s steady intrusion into public policies in the fields of science, public health, and foreign aid, just to name a few. Add to that the stigma many atheists claim to face, and it’s clear that America is on the verge of dumping the Constitution and making the Bible its governing document.

Or maybe you’re certain that we’ve abandoned the spiritual values and moral principles that made this nation great. Just look at the high numbers of children born out of wedlock, the attacks on religious liberty, and the attempts to erase God from the public sphere. Check out the hostility toward religion from elites in journalism, universities, and the media, and it’s obvious that people of faith are being victimized for their beliefs.

If you resist choosing a side in this debate, however, you’re not alone. Such simplistic extremes don’t begin to reflect the way actual people live in the real world. Sure, these views make for lively theatrics, but they ignore the dynamic complexities of behavior and belief.

In the real world people don’t fit into such tidy boxes. Morality can be in the eye of the beholder. Good and evil are rarely simple. And faith and doubt are most often intertwined.

In the interest of acknowledging these realities, here are some instances of people who live—as most of us do—in the malleable and mysterious middle: a believer who harbors doubt; a nonbeliever who harbors faith; and a believer turned nonbeliever turned back to believer, who embodies all of the above.

Let’s start with a devout woman who goes to a charismatic evangelical church. If ever there were a person who should hold a firm unwavering belief in God, it would be someone such as this, right? Not necessarily.

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann spent years studying this charismatic church for her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann found that some church members, despite the church’s conservative theology, wavered about a number of core religious beliefs, including the issue of God’s existence. The devout woman evidently belonged in this group because at a prayer meeting one night, she blurted out, “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

Luhrmann calls the woman’s outburst a “modern day version of Pascal’s wager.” Similar to the 17th century French philosopher, the woman had evidently decided that, given the impossibility of proving God’s existence, it was smarter to live as if God were real rather than succumb to doubt. In much the same way as Pascal, she decided that “belief is a wise wager.”

Next, let’s look at a nonbeliever—writer Mark O’Connell, who in a recent essay for The New Yorker expresses unbound admiration for the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whose books are infused with religious sensibility and grace. O’Connell is somewhat surprised at his embrace of Robinson, given his “borderline hostility” toward religion, which he associates with self-hatred, boredom, terror, and suffering.

O’Connell finds himself captured not just by the grace of Robinson’s prose but also by her moral intelligence. He writes:

[Robinson] makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace. … I’ll never share her way of seeing and thinking about the world and our place in it, but her writing has shown me the value and beauty of these perspectives. …

[Her writing] feels like wisdom. Perhaps not the kind of wisdom I am used to acknowledging, but wisdom all the same.

Finally, let’s hear from someone who grew up in a conservative religious community, left the fold to be an inquiring intellectual and artist, and then came back—poet Christian Wiman, who in his recent book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, helps narrow the gap between religious and secular sensibilities by claiming both qualities within himself.

“To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative,” Wiman writes in his book, “any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”

Two major jolts—falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer—sent Wiman back to Christianity. “It took a radical disruption of my life to allow me to see the sanity and vitality of this strange and ancient thing,” he writes. Wiman acknowledges how strange a return to religion seems, even to him. “Live long enough in secular culture and at some point religious belief becomes preposterous to you,” he admits. “I know this was true for me.”

And yet the way he describes his faith, as spurred by a search for meaning and a need to get beyond himself to inhabit a larger reality, as well as a desire to understand those moments when everyday reality spills into something beyond rational comprehension and human understanding—well, you don’t have to be religious to understand that.

To point out the commonalities between the people in these three examples is not to say that there are no significant differences between religious and secular people or that that these differences do not matter. Of course they do. But these days, when each side squares off and sees its respective opponent as inherently suspicious and even evil, it is worth acknowledging that we all hold beliefs of one sort or another, and that our human longings, though they may go by different names, may not be so different in the end.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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