I’m currently taking Religions of the West in college, and one of the texts we read recently was The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade. In the introduction, Eliade defines the sacred as that which “manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from ‘natural’ realities” (10). In other words, in the minds of the religious, there is a dichotomy of the natural world (the profane) and that which transcends beyond the natural world (the sacred). Even material things become sacred in the minds of the believer. Eliade writes:
A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or, more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. (12)
For example, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the bread and wine of the communion ceremony literally become the body and blood of Christ. The “profane” (i.e. non-Catholic) point of view sees the bread and wine and remaining normal bread and wine. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that anything supernatural occurs during communion. However, the bread and wine become sacred to those who believe it.
So basically when Bill O’Reilly told Richard Dawkins the Christian faith “is true for me” because “I believe it,” he actually made a good point. In the mind of the believer, religious claims are capital-t Truth because of the power the believer gives them. It doesn’t matter what the facts are; if it’s true for the believer, then it’s capital-T truth. The Bible is the Word of God because Christians believe it. The Qu’ran is the Word of God because Muslims believe it. The bread and wine are literally Jesus’ body and blood because Catholics believe it. Circumcision is a sign of being God’s chosen people because Jews believe it.
You may ask, “So what? If it’s true for the individual and it helps them get up in the morning, who’s to say they’re wrong? You claim to be a pragmatist, and didn’t your boy William James say religion is useful because it helps people get up in the morning?” While it’s true that faith does inspire people to get up in the morning and do good deeds, the opposite is also true–unchecked beliefs can be just as harmful.
For example, I have a mental illness cocktail of depression, anxiety, and ADD. One of the worst parts about this mental illness cocktail is that I often give way too much power to false beliefs. “I’m stupid.” “I’m worthless.” “Everyone hates me.” “Something terrible is going to happen.” I have a thought, I obsess over it, and it eventually becomes capital-T Truth for me. It gets to the point where I am literally unable to function because I’ve convinced myself the bad thoughts in my head are Truth.
Ten years ago, for example, I was convinced the world was about to end. I picked up a book called The Bible Code that claimed if you rearrange the original Hebrew text of the Torah in a certain way, it reveals predictions about the future. One such prediction was that the world will end in 2006 in a nuclear war. Even though all my Christian friends said it was hooey because Jesus said no one will know when the world will end, my mental illness cocktail convinced myself that they were wrong. I had no reason to doubt it. Iran was enriching uranium, North Korea tested a missile, and Israel was fighting Lebanon. The stage was set for an all out nuclear war, I thought. Plus, didn’t Jesus say the Son of Man would descend to Earth in a cloud? Could it be a metaphor for a mushroom cloud? Looking back, it’s all ridiculous, but at the time I believed everything I thought. I spent the entire summer of 2006 in crippling fear of the upcoming apocalypse. And when it didn’t happen and I realized The Bible Code is a crock of shit, I was embarrassed.
So even though religious beliefs may help people get up in the morning, they can also hurt people because people give way too much power to religious beliefs. As David Silverman told me last week on my podcast, people put religion on a pedestal as something that cannot be touched. Yet the more we perpetuate the whole “It’s true for me because I believe it” mentality, the more we enable harmful religious beliefs. Which is why I’m finally starting to understand why a lot of atheists say liberal religion enables fundamentalism.
Bottom line: don’t believe everything you think, even if it’s a “good” thought.