There’s an argument going on in America about the “reasonableness” of faith. A quartet of “neo-atheist” authors, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, have argued against religion, and the faith in God that underpins religion. Their primary claim is that faith and religion are irrational because God is a delusion. (They have much more to say, too, of course, about what they see as the dangers and deficiencies of religion.) “Believing” authors have responded with defenses of the reasonableness of what the neo-atheists attack.
My book, How to Believe, is a “believer’s” book of a different sort. I’m a journalist, not a philosopher or a theologian, and what I tried to do with the 34 profiles of Christian believers in the book was not to prove something about religion or God but rather to tell the stories of belief and find out how believers deal with the admittedly strange things asserted in scripture and doctrine: a man who is God, a God who is One in Three, and so forth. I wrote as one pulled toward faith but not fully certain, aware of an immensity beyond this world but not comfortable with pat explanations of it, deeply respectful of science but dubious about the capacity of the five senses of one erect-walking primate (even augmented by powerful instruments) to fully and finally explain the universe.
My interviewees mostly came to faith because of powerful experiences, not convincing arguments. They did their best to understand these experiences, and for them religious tradition offered accounts of them that were eloquent and convincing, but not always in the strict terms of logic. I was struck by how often they rejected both mere rationality and mere anti-rationality, opting instead for an attitude of respectful awe before the universe. Prayer and meditation testified to a desire for a change of consciousness, a going-deeper into the mystery, not necessarily a clear and final certainty. They, like me, were and are “on the path.”
Are religious people the only ones who can possess this desire, the only ones who can feel this awe? Of course not. And I wouldn’t dream of denying the horrors perpetrated by religious bigotry. I would simply add that every suggested substitute for religion, emphatically including science, has blood on its hands too—and that healthy religion is nothing more (and nothing less) than a tool for maintaining and commemorating the evolving encounter with mystery.