Even a casual viewing of a television show like 100 Huntley Street gives the impression that religion (or belief in god) is almost all about feeling good. People sit around telling each other about their personal experiences. There’s a tremendous amount of smiling, punctuated with earnest empathizing.
Often these experiences involve some personal crisis – the sudden death of a child, grappling with a serious disease, addiction to drugs, etc. – and it is supposedly through a “personal relationship with God” that the affected people get through these crises.
But feel good reasons do not always come from hardships or difficult events in people’s lives. Here are some of the things I would include in a list of “feel good reasons” for religious adherence:
1. The pastor always has such a positive hope-inspiring message.
2. The people are always so friendly.
3. Involvement in the church makes my life so much more rewarding.
4. I love the music.
5. I love the ritual.
6. A “born again” experience turned my life around.
…and so on.
I don’t mean to imply that these feelings of social involvement, personal enrichment or spiritual rebirth are always illusory. Indeed these are some of the best reasons for being involved in a group like a church. My point here is to suggest that a person can be made to feel good about something for quite different reasons than he or she might suppose. It is when we get past the experiences and start talking about theological doctrine that things get dicey.
Personal Faith and Its Personal Impact
Many religious programs both in churches and on television focus on the way “faith” or “heart felt belief” results in a more fulfilling personal life. And many people latch onto this type of personal impact as their primary reason for attending a particular church, or even for their belief in the god as represented by that church.
Feel good reasons extend well beyond television programs, although many churches have adopted a television-like presentation. There is something about television that makes it particularly suited to wrapping the message up in pseudo-personalized feel good packaging.
This kind of presentation even has its own way of speaking. Feel good preachers and evangelists have long been known to take “god talk” and inject it into everyday occurrences as though “god” is their good buddy, sitting right over there at the end of the couch. “God told me who to marry”, “God showed me how to get out of financial trouble”, etc., etc., etc. This is a far cry from being in awe of god, or not “taking his name in vain”.
Results Oriented Approach
Feel good religion is results oriented in a peculiarly North American way. We expect a payoff, and many religious preachers are prepared to give it to us. After all, you can imagine them asking, why should someone believe this message if it has no direct impact on their personal lives?
So given that it may appear in poor taste to encourage people to join a church for some business advantage, to help you achieve financial success, or to help you get that personal jet you’ve always wanted (although some even preach this sort of thing) the message is usually toned down to focus on “softer” advantages like happiness, peace, personal fulfillment, and so on.
These things are conveniently intangible, but relatively easy to encourage in people, given an appropriately receptive and uncritical state of mind, supportive social milieu and not too demanding or mind-stretching set of supporting myths.
Television takes this tendency and milks it for all it’s worth. There is even an ad running on television in our area for something called Christian Mingle where you can find “God’s match for you.” Imagine that! God has plugged himself into a website and is helping people find appropriate mates.
Feeling Good and Truth
It does not take a genius to point out that cooking up stories that make you feel good has no necessary connection to truth. It is quite possible to have “faith” in a story, myth, or system of beliefs that gives you great comfort, but is utterly false and complete nonsense. Mormonism is a good example, but most versions of Christianity and Islam are not far behind. They only seem less fantastic because we are so familiar with them, and they have so many adherents.
In fact, given the number of competing religions, all with at least some features that contradict those of other religions, it is virtually certain that many, if not all the adherents of those “faiths” are taking comfort from doctrines, stories and myths that are completely false. At last count (according to Wikipedia) there were roughly 41,000 Christian denominations. Yes, 41,000! And that does not include all the other world religions.
Even if we are charitable and assume that many of these 41,000 have overlapping beliefs that do not contradict each other, we will still be left with thousands of significantly different belief systems for us to choose from. Even if there are only hundreds, the least we can say is that if you are a believer in one of these faiths, the odds are very good you are being misled, whether it makes you feel good or not.
Perhaps Feeling Good is Enough
But it is not difficult to imagine a believer saying “I have heard this kind of criticism before, and, in fact, my minister has told me to be on the lookout for people like you. Given the intensity of the relationship I have with this church and this god, my faith is strong enough to sustain me through any doubts you may raise in me.”
In fact the true believer will reject criticism even if it has the ring of truth. In the face of such seemingly blind faith all we can say is either this kind of true believer doesn’t care about truth, or he/she just assumes this is a peculiar feature of their belief: that it can prevail even if it appears to be essentially wrong.
In the first case (not caring about truth) the would-be believer is doing his or her faith an injustice. He or she is being disingenuous…hypocritical…pretending to believe something he or she knows is not true.
The second case (assuming his or her “faith will prevail”) is a bit more difficult, and I suspect is quite common. Many if not most believers do not want to do a whole lot of thinking about their faith. They are quite content to leave that to the experts – the preachers and priests and theologians who claim to have the details all figured out.
Trusting the Experts
This is a very convenient way to dismiss criticism. You can just say to yourself: “Yes, that seems like a potential problem, but I am not equipped to defend my faith when confronted by smart people like you. That is what my leaders do, and I have faith in them.”
This is exactly what many religious leaders expect of and even encourage in their adherents: “Go ahead and study the approved texts, with the assistance of approved teachers and study leaders, but stay away from ideas that bring your faith into question.” Closed communities like those of the Amish are the most obvious examples, but most religious groups do this to some extent or other.
So given this double-barreled propensity for adherents to trust and defer to their leaders, and for religious leaders to encourage this sheep-like adherence, it is not surprising that people will believe the most ridiculous things and “have faith in” the most outrageous claims.
The culprit here, I suggest, is the willingness of many religious adherents to substitute the feel good components of religious beliefs and community life, in the place of a critical evaluation of the truth of a particular set of religious claims.
This is what really separates the believer/adherent from the skeptic/atheist. The believer/adherent values the comfort or other advantages his religion gives him, and he is prepared to look past the intellectual issues – deferring, or pretending to defer, to the expertise of his leaders.
The skeptic/atheist, on the other hand, prefers to think for himself. He values truth more than the comfort he might get from uncritical adherence to some dubious set of religious doctrines. He will likely pay a price for this sort of honesty (Socrates is our model here) but he will at least have a clear conscience, and is convinced that even if some sort of god exists he/she/it will value the sincere pursuit of truth more than blind faith in some far-fetched doctrine.