Religion: Belief vs. Practice

In our family, if and when I was home at bedtime, I was the one who put to bed our young son Avihai. One evening, around when he was seven years-old, he startled me: “Abba,” he looked me straight in the eye, “I don’t believe in God”. We then had a very interesting conversation…

That got me thinking. Several questions ultimately came to mind. First, what do people do if they are constitutionally unable to “believe” in a higher power? Second, is “religion universal” if there are people who honestly do not believe in God? Third, and for me a much more “practical” question: can one partake of a religion or be part of a religious community, if there’s no real belief in the Almighty (however defined)?

The first is relatively easy to answer: there are many “atheists” in the world – or at least “agnostics” (who are not sure there is or isn’t a God). And they manage to lead normal lives. There is no evidence that such non-believers are less or more “moral” than religious believers. However, I would personally argue that they are by far the most existentially “courageous” of all people, because they go through life feeling that there is no “ultimate”/metaphysical meaning to life or for that matter (pun intended), within the universe. It’s not easy to live a life where “this is all there is”.

The second question is a bit more complex. Religion is NOT “universal”, if we mean that all humans are believers in a higher power. However, it seems to be societally universal, i.e. we haven’t found any society – primitive or “advanced” – where religion doesn’t exist. And this statement goes back as far as we have any evidence regarding how homo sapiens lived: even tens of thousands of years ago they/we had burial rites, among other elements that we recognize as constituting “religion”.

The third question is (for me) the most interesting, for two related reasons. I have doubts regarding “God”, at least as He (I prefer “It”) is generally understood. But I am positive that in this I have lots of company – many people that I know who are to some extent religiously observant, clearly also have serious (and sincere) doubts about “God”. But notice the curious three words in this last sentence: “are…religiously observant”. How can that be – and why?

I can really only answer from a Jewish perspective. Indeed, it might well be that this is the antithesis of a Christian standpoint. Judaism is a religion first and foremost of PRACTICE. I once asked a few rabbis who I knew well the following theoretical question: “If a Jew came to you with the following completely dichotomous choice – complete belief in God but no religious practice, or complete acceptance and observance of all the Commandments but with no belief in the Almighty – which would you instruct them to follow? All the rabbis so queried answered: practice without belief. As best I can tell, Christian theologians would say the opposite, given that their religion is based primarily on the belief of Christ etc.

Nevertheless, how can someone practice their religion without believing in the supernatural foundation or source behind such practice? Several answers are possible (not necessarily contradictory). First, religion deals with moral behavior; just as we accept and hew to secular laws (written by human beings) because they enable society to function, so too we can follow longstanding moral strictures and commandments, even if they evolved from and were written by humans many centuries or even millennia ago. Second, many religious practices might have developed over time because they proved their utility. An example in Judaism: ritually washing hands before mealtime – long before the science of personal hygiene was understood by anyone. But such a “custom” might have morphed into a religious “commandment” as society began to notice that people who hand-wash before eating tended to be healthier than those who didn’t. In Judaism, one can find many such commandments, although we will never know whether “utility” was the original source of any specific one.

A third answer is probably the most profound one of all: religion tends to offer a respite from the travails of life. In olden times, people worked themselves to the bone – religious service enabled some rest and succor from fieldwork; in modern times, with its social anomie in an increasingly atomized society, religious gatherings enable steady social intercourse and building a solid “community”. Indeed, this is most probably the reason that recent research has found longer lifespans among communal “worshippers” than non “church-goers”: there is less loneliness when belonging to a religious community (the religious believer, of course, will argue that God is rewarding the worshipper…). In short, there are some highly utilitarian benefits to practicing religion – whether one “believes” or not.

This brings me back to the atheists. I fully accept their right to not-believe. However, they are doing a disservice by trying to convince others that religious belief is false. To the atheist, I put the following question: if you were a physician, and a patient came to you with what you understood (after a thorough checkup) to be a psychosomatic “ailment”, would you provide that person with a placebo in the hope that it will help (it usually does!), or tell them to “get real; there’s nothing wrong with you”. Similarly, the religious believer suffering (as most humans tend to do at some point) from existential angst about the meaning of life. At the least, religious belief provides psychological comfort – and in many cases, religious practice can do a lot more than that.

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