What Religion Is For

Some time ago I was in a pub in Australia when two cheerful men stopped by my table. They were older, friendly, both professors, and both, it turned out, professional philosophers. We got to talking, a wild conversation about how thoughts are actually electrical explosions in the brain, how genetics is a form of mathematics, and how religions are biological constructs, formed by the human need to gather into tribes, and informed by the human urge for awe, respect, and prayer.

But there our opinions diverged like the Yarra, the Don, and the Dee. They believed that religions were only evolutionary urges at heart, whereas I believe religions are hints and intimations, lodestars and compass points, possibilities and verbs hurrying us home to the sea of mercy.

The philosophers were brilliant men, and with words like Inquisition, Shoah, and Troubles, they flopped dark history on the table between us like an ugly shark. And yet, gentlemen, I said, are there not also stunning prophets and visionaries: Maimonides and Merton, the Dalai Lama and Teresa of Calcutta? Did not Gandhi forgive his assassin, and a pope recently kneel and apologize? Are there not more than two hundred references to the holiness of forgiveness in the Qur’an? Is not the point of all religion to push us past our easy violence into some new country?

They smiled, they demurred; for them, religions were merely corrals, gathering points reflecting the human urge to crowd together against predators, to cluster for warmth. Religions, said one, are finally no different than football teams and nations and sewing clubs; we are made to collect in clans, and will do so on any excuse, which explains heavy metal concerts and Star Trek conventions.

We laughed and soon parted, the philosophers back to parsing Kierkegaard, I to my own country. But I have continued to think about that conversation, almost every day. I still have faith in faith, despite the philosophers’ evidence that religions are merely nutty hobbies, like being a Cubs fan. I keep thinking that under the rituals and rigmarole, there is in religion a crucial, wriggling sense of what human beings might someday be. It’s what you experience sometimes, for an instant, in patriotism or sport or family: a humor and mercy, a camaraderie and ease, a grace and mercy, a warmth beyond all reason and sense. Sometimes, for a second-at a game, a meeting, in line at the bank, at a park by the river-you get a flash of connective energy with your fellow beings, just a flick of it, a quick shiver of inexplicable peace and joy in the company of your fellow travelers.

That flash is what religions are for. Yes, we gather because deep in our mammal hearts we are in awe of whatever it is that sparks life, and yes, we are desperate for definition so we drape explanations on the Unnamable, and yes, we gather in groups because we must, because we are mammals just down from the trees, as the great American sage Peter Matthiessen says, and we are afraid of death, which is why we deliver it to others so easily. But what if, as Matthiessen says, our moral evolution ever caught up to our breathtaking physical evolution? What if?

We can move mountains, fly to the moon, murder millions, and map the mystery of our genetic making. But what if we dropped the dagger, plucked the beams from our eyes, and grew up? We already have maps of that bright country in the brilliant bones of religion. There are and have been many thousands of religions, stridently different, all flawed and greedy, but in their essence all about the same thing: praise for the miracle of life; awe for the mysterious force that creates it; yearning for life beyond death; and, most of all, inarticulate desperation for a future in which mercy trumps murder. More than any other force on this bruised earth, religions keep that desperate dream alive; for which I celebrate them and bow to what is best in us.

Published in the 2006-11-03 issue: 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland.

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