Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Who still trusts in God?

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, What's God Got to Do with It? Michael Shermer reports that last week the House of Representatives voted to keep "In God We Trust" as the national motto. He writes that Congress originally adopted the phrase in 1956 when many Americans were afraid of godless communism taking over the country, but Mr. Shermer asks what the reason is for keeping it now. He argues that since we're no longer fixated on communism and 90% of Americans solidly believe in either God or a greater spiritual presence, there's no need to keep this phrase stamped into our coins and buildings.

I say there's more reason than ever to keep "In God We Trust" imprinted on the American imagination: because we're terrified.

I was raised Catholic, but weaned myself from it while an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley (it happens). While I no longer think there are gods or spirits, I've remained conflicted about the value of religion itself. Before I settled into atheism, I went from the Catholic church to a gospel choir to a synagogue to a Unity Church and then back to Catholicism. I have believed and I have believed. Having faith got me a community, a place in the believing majority of Americans, a sense of safety in the world, and the feeling that if I followed all the rules, I would be okay.

Following all the rules, no matter which version of god I used, did not guarantee my safety and I eventually dumped it all out the window, but I sometimes envy those who know "He's got the whole world in His hands." Religion isn't just a blanket to clutch in the night; it's a point of contact for human companionship and love. It's a shared history and life view that gains you access to a global community. And, yes, it provides a powerful source of comfort when you lose your job or a family member or just feel overwhelmed by life. Religion is a beautiful thing.

Sure, it's caused countless wars and bloodshed, but humans would do that no matter what. We can't blame religion for our violence. Many conflicts are called religious, when the true problem is land rights or other forms of control. Being human causes violence, not religion.

Michael Shermer has also considered the timeless question of why a benevolent being would allow endless suffering and he mentions it as he argues against the continued use of "In God We Trust." But Mr. Shermer, you won't get anywhere using logic because trusting in God isn't rational and, in these hysterical days, reason often makes less sense than ever.

But if you need one, Mr. Shermer, here's a rational reason for the motto: research shows that people with a spiritual belief system survive life-threatening circumstances better than those who don't believe. Believers have a greater ability to make sense of tragedy and overcome adversity. Now I don't think that I, as an atheist, am at greater risk of dying in the street than my Christian cohorts, but I accept that I'm not as emotionally resilient or content with life as they. The world is scarier to me, but unfortunately, after all my faith-hunting, my brain is too rational and focused on the unresolvable parts of religion to find peace in another spiritual practice.

We feel like the ground has disappeared beneath us, Mr. Shermer. That's why we still need to trust in God. Of course Congress wants to drum this motto into our hearts and minds, now more than at any time since 1956, when it was adopted. If we don't trust in God, what have we got? An unpredictable, unfair world of endless pain and inexplicable circumstances. I as an atheist know that bad things happen to good people because life is godless and random and there are no payoffs for good behavior. But most Americans can't accept that and to swallow it would be the last gulp before they go under. So sure, let's say we trust in God because, at this point, that faith might be the only thing holding many of us together.

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