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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Emptying Out the Shelf #4

Sorry to do this again, but I need more time than I have right now to write a proper review of the book I finished today. Today I had my interview for ACE in New York so I'm in a bit of a reflective mood. Here's a column I wrote last year for the viewpoint in which I wrote about my attempts to reconcile the fact that I felt so at home at Notre Dame even though I'm not particularly Catholic or religious in general.

Jesus is My Co-Conspirator

Why are you here?
At least a few times in my career here at Notre Dame, I’ve been asked this question in manners incredulous and inquisitive, hostile and hospitable.
Now, I can not read minds and so I can not speak as to the beliefs of other people with any degree of certainty, but I think it is a fairly safe bet that if religious belief were somehow quantifiable I’d probably be considered below average, to be cautious. Living in close proximity to other people means that this gets noticed, and occasionally questioned.
I try to brush off the question with something flippant or funny, such as “The weather was too nice to say no” or “I heard the food at North Dining Hall was great” but these are diversions, not just to the questioner but to myself, the questioned. You see, I’ve been trying to explain it to myself darn near every day I’ve been on campus the last four years. I like it here a lot, I really do. I’d stay another year or two if they’d let me (well, if they let me for free), but why? Yes there are friends and fun times and all that, and I don’t mean to dismiss these crucial considerations, but recently, I think I may have come upon an answer.
Ironically enough, I was attending mass at the time. Our dorm’s priest was delivering the homily and talking about the greatest needs human beings had. I found myself nodding along when the three he listed were to love, to be loved, and to be a part of something greater than themselves. The last of these three was referred to as the main reason most people believe in a religion. I believe it is also the main criteria by which I select my favorite movies.
Sitting there listening to the priest I realized that nearly all of the movies I love involve a group of people coming together and utilizing their individual talents towards the pursuit of a common goal. The preference stretches across genre lines. My favorite war movie is “The Great Escape,” in which the inmates of a POW camp undertake an intricate escape plan, hoping to free 200 people. The effort encompasses tailors, strategists, forgers, diggers, and Steve McQueen and, though ultimately less than successful, is inspiring. My favorite western is “The Magnificent Seven,” in which seven disparate gunslingers take very little pay to defend a Mexican village from an evil thief. Though mentioning the comparison in an article ostensibly about religion might strike some as curious, I think the same philosophy might apply to caper films such as “Ocean’s Eleven” and, of course, “The Great Muppet Caper.”
The point of all this is to say, in an embarrassingly inflated fashion, that although I might not agree with very much of the dogma, I still empathize with the need for that feeling of being a part of something greater. I want to feel that there is a reason for us to be here.
The more strident atheists, like Richard Dawkins, author of the provocatively titled The God Delusion, and his kindred spirit Christopher Hitchens fail to see religious belief in the proper light. They think of it as the complete acceptance of an utterly ridiculous story and thus view it unfavorably. I tend to think of religious belief as an attempt to come up with answers to the questions our own existence forces upon us, including the one which leads off this column: Why are you (or any of us) here?
I don’t doubt that Dawkins and Hitchens have considered these questions. My problem is that they have answered them so confidently that they seem to have moved on from them. We are here because of a random disturbance in the universe, leading eventually to the creation of all life. We fall in love because our genes want us to reproduce. People are happier or sadder than other people because of differing levels of certain chemicals in the brain. In short, Dawkins and Hitchens have dismissed the notion of a soul.
The problem with these answers, however true, is that they are too certain. Religion may offer similarly pat answers, i.e. we are here because of the will of God, and we are here to do God’s will, etc., but it does not, or should not, lend itself to the same degree of certainty, as the believer is forced to ask further, “What is God’s will, and how do we best enact it?”
If belief is a continuum, I myself may fall closer to Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s end of it than to St. Francis’s, but I don’t conceive of myself as an easily understood product of natural selection and chemical imbalances. I like to think more of myself, and the rest of us, than that. And that’s the reason I like it here. As Norman Mailer, a man with uncertain religious beliefs himself, once said, “You can say the word soul at Notre Dame and nobody snickers.”

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