Tonight I heard a man describe how he got through a tough time in his life — a time when he lacked the emotional resources he needed. He said, “A priest told me I needed to ask God to throw me back on the potter’s wheel and shape me into something new.” This is a powerful metaphor. Quite apart from the use of the G-word, which always makes me wince, the metaphor suggests that this man was willing to undergo a personal transformation at a fairly deep level. The metaphor itself seems to have supplied what he needed — the metaphor and his sustained focus on it.
As much as I admire the writings of Richard Dawkins and other atheists, I’m not sure they understand just how efficacious a belief in God can be for those who are in need of such a transformation. Believing that a supernatural entity of some sort can reach down and remold you, that such an entity has the power to replace your suffering with joy, give your life new meaning, and guide your footsteps into healthier pathways … that sort of belief can and does change people for the better, quite irrespective of whether the entity to whom they turn for succor actually exists.
It’s also the case that some people (perhaps, indeed, most people, though it may be condescending of me to say so) need to have a simple, clear, externally imposed structure in their lives. They need to know the rules in order to avoid making bad choices. For such people, conventional religion may provide an effective way of life. Quite possibly, nothing else would do the job. If you believe you’re being watched over by an invisible entity who both cares about you and has provided instructions about right and wrong behavior, you have a structure that, in spite of its being ultimately grounded in absurdity, makes sense at an immediate personal level. And that’s what matters. If you get to sing a few good songs and hug your friends after the service, so much the better!
Of course, the human faculties that make these transformations and well-structured lives possible also leave us terribly vulnerable. The suicide bomber, in his descent into madness, quite likely feels that God has thrown him back on the potter’s wheel and reshaped him into something new. And the rules for daily living laid down by conventional religion are as likely to cause awful suffering as to prevent it. For every husband who resists the urge to commit adultery and remains a responsible head of the family, we have parents driving their gay children to suicide and doctors in Catholic hospitals letting pregnant women die rather than perform life-saving abortions.
The real-world effects of religion seem almost random: A mixed bag of good and evil. Perhaps more evil than good, but that’s because religions are entirely human creations. Sometimes very sick people are the ones making the rules. In fact, the structure of religion — that its value system is absolute, and is based on revelations received from unseen entities — gives sick people opportunities that they would find in few other places.
The question that I’m not sure many atheists are willing to explore is this: Is religion, in spite of its manifest absurdity and manifest dangers, a necessary component of human happiness and social stability? If religion vanished tomorrow, would tens of millions of people be far more confused, ineffective, and depressed than they are today?
If the answer turns out to be “yes,” then atheists need to shoulder quite a different kind of responsibility than what we have done up to now. Rather than tearing religion down (or at least, while we’re tearing it down), we need to look at it quite objectively and ask ourselves, “How could a new religion be developed that would resist a deterioration into cruelty and exploitation? What would a healthy, appropriate, life-affirming religion look like, and how can we bring it into being?”
It may be that only atheists are equipped to address this question, because only atheists are prepared to look at religion objectively, without being seduced by the trappings and blinded by the delusions of our current hodge-podge of faiths.
What would happen if we threw the clay of religion back onto the potter’s wheel and reshaped it into something new?