One of the more beautiful claims made for religion is that it offers comfort in the face of misfortune and death. Of course, comfort in a world of pain, disappointment, and loss has immense intrinsic value. While the basis for religious comfort is suspect (even to the faithful, for they question the faiths of others), I consider the comfort itself to be genuine. Like you, I have seen human burdens lightened by religion-inspired peace and reassurance. Hope glows in the hymn’s lyrics, “His eyes see the storm clouds and the billows that roll. Yes, his ears ever listen for the cry from below. Then he whispers, ‘peace, be still now,’ and the winds must obey; then burdens are lifted away.”
In my life there have been times when comfort from whatever source would have been tempting. But I could no more accept the comforts promised by religion than those from astrologers. I don’t find stars in the sky more convincing than a god in the sky; they are both, to me, pie in the sky. My condition, no matter how painful, could not overcome lack of evidence. However, quite apart from my own point of view, we can come together on this simple statement: Religion, if helpful, can still be untrue; religion, if true, can still be unhelpful. Truth and utility are unrelated issues. Comfort testifies to our internal states, not to verification; religious apologists who argue that the proof of God is that he lives in their hearts are simply advertising credulousness.
Remember, I fully accept the genuine comfort gained from singing, “I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it someday for a crown.” It is comforting to recite Psalms 23. In the grip of bereavement, it is uplifting to find soothing consolation in the words, “Why should we weep when the weary ones rest/In the bosom of Jesus supreme/In the mansions of glory prepared for the blest? For death is no more than a dream.”
But the comfort offered by religion—by Christianity, at any rate—requires willfully disregarding important features of the faith. That is, the comfort necessitates ignoring other promises of the same belief system. Consider the most severe situation in which Christians seek and receive religious comfort: death of a loved one. It is then that scripture rises to the occasion with life eternal in the presence of God and the prospect of no pain, sadness, or error. Not only does the believer escape from death (“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”), but is guaranteed a new and better life to escape to (“High King of Heaven, my victory won, May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!”).
Despite there being no evidence that any of that is true, for sake of argument let’s assume that Christians’ faith is well-placed, that there truly is a God who offers blissful inducements to living a Christian life, to seizing tightly, in Paul’s term, “the evidence of things unseen.” Such a scenario provides comfort and, if true, elicits well-deserved praise for the God who makes it possible.
That unparalleled comfort is Christians’ reward for living and believing in a very narrowly prescribed way. However, as we can see in the beliefs and practices of Christians, the composition and width of faith’s pathway vary extensively. I’ve mentioned that I grew up in the Church of Christ with warnings not only that “infidels” were going to hell, but that Baptists and Methodists and Catholics were as well. We took seriously Matthew’s warning that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way….and few there be that find it.” In fact, even being in the Church of Christ (God’s only true church, we believed) would not suffice for heavenly reward unless the recently deceased had been in a “state of grace” at the moment of death. That state depends on one’s theology, but also on being sinless due to recently having been forgiven by God in answer to a prayerful request.
I understood that God expected me to be on a narrower path than what sufficed for other denominations (not God’s own churches). Methodists weren’t as exclusionary and Unitarians were broader still—all wrong, of course. In any event, though, heaven’s favorable reception rate was obviously quite low. Let’s see, out of seven billion people on earth—many if not most fairly good folks—even the broadest of these beliefs about the narrowness of God-determined acceptability puts the admission rate to heaven at a vanishingly small percentage.
Moreover, just being pious and devout is still not enough. One can never be certain he or she is not destined to miss heaven due to some seemingly small infraction or simply well-meant misunderstanding. And there is surely no way others who mourn can know the disposition of the recently passed soul. There are too many examples of monsters who only appeared normal and even saintly until found out, with many others never exposed. Many a “saint” has been buried with undeserved accolades and mourners misled about his or her ticket to glory. But among really good people, many must have missed those pearly gates anyway due to the strict, often seemingly trivial expectations of the all-seeing deity!
The Hebrews managed to create—and Christians continued with—a persnickety God whose ambiguous instructions made figuring out what he wants a distressingly difficult puzzle. Even for the sincere seeker, there is incalculably more probability for getting it wrong than getting it right.
So while Christianity promises for some a future of glory and eternal bliss, it promises for most an everlasting torment of unquenchable fire. You can’t take the comfortable promise and ignore the scary one. Incidentally, we have to keep saying such an unkind bully of a God is “loving” because the promise of hell and his Old Testament behavior convincingly show that it isn’t wise to piss him off.
The Psalmist said “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom.” Paul, ostensible source of most of the New Testament, spoke of “Godly fear and awe.” No wonder the term “God fearing” made its way into our lexicon, for this Jehovah God is surely to be feared. I’m not sure what kind of love Christians have in mind when they refer to fearing God and loving God simultaneously.
Humans are capable of living with loss and death without the fairy tales we tell ourselves we cannot live without. Actually, we do anyway. Do we need comfort? Of course, and we get more of it and at lower cost from our fellows than from our superstitions. Religion offers comfort, to be sure, but at an extreme cost to our belief in ourselves, our ability for philosophical reasoning, and the denigration of the comfort we can give each other. It requires the continual whitewashing of a cruel God in a massive Stockholm syndrome.
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