Whenever I write about the decline of organized religion in America, I get a lot of emails expressing some version of this sentiment. Sometimes it’s couched in the form of regretful unbelief: I’d happily go back to church, except for one small detail — we all know there is no God. Sometimes it’s a friendly challenge: OK, smart guy, what should I read to convince me that you’re right about the sky fairy?
We all know there is no God.
Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.
The “new atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called “Breaking the Spell,” whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?
In that case, the title of Dennett’s book is actually a good way to describe the materialist defaults in secular culture. They’re like a spell that’s been cast over modern minds, and the fastest way to become religious is to break it.
So ... imagine yourself back in time, to an era — ancient, medieval, pre-Darwin — when you think it made sense for an intelligent person to believe in God. Now consider why your historical self might have been religious: ... because religious ideas seemed to provide an explanation for the most important features of reality.
First, the idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art.
Second, the idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why your own relationship to the world was particularly strange. Your fourth- or 14th-century self was obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view — constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment.
Finally, the common religious assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained why your world contained so many signs of a higher order of reality, the incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries) but never fully understand.
Got all that? Good. Now consider the possibility that in our own allegedly disenchanted era, after Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein — all of this is still true (emphasis added).