My Basic Beliefs When It Comes to Religion

I recently had the pleasure of meeting two loyal blog readers who are both self-declared evangelical Christians (ambiguous terms I know).

Although we overlapped in agreement on many “life” topics, we didn’t seem to overlap on the polarizing social issues which dominate American politics. This made the conversation fascinating.

As we chatted I was asking myself questions such as, Why wouldn’t you let a woman have an abortion if she wanted to? What’s so bad about pre-marital sex? Why would I want to consider myself a “sinner” the moment I pop out of the womb? Why wouldn’t you let gays marry? Is it really that bad to have a divorce? How can you possibly, rationally convince yourself that you know the single Truth when, had you been raised by atheist or buddhist parents, you might well believe in some other truth?

All questions with obvious answers to me. I realized in this conversation that I had never really argued in support of my stances on the above issues with anyone who saw the answers equally obvious — and exactly opposite. It was an awesome, perspective-broadening experience. And it made me think about my general principles when it comes to these issues.

I hold the following basic beliefs:

1. I support anyone’s right to believe in anything they want (with only a few constraints). Moreover, the social issues above are hardly deal breakers for me. That is, I would never not be friends with someone because they see the matters of abortion or god or marriage differently than me.

2. I believe that religion does more good than bad in the world. (Although John Derbyshire of the National Review says in an interesting Q&A about how he lost his faith that he no longer believes this.)

3. I encourage everyone to sample from the smorgasbord of religious and spiritual options to find your center “pole”. Life gets crazy sometimes — we all need something to swing around. Check out all the wisdom traditions.

4. I find “evangelical” behavior terrifying — trying to inform or persuade others about your religious views without invitation. In other words, if I ask you about your faith, tell me. If I don’t ask, feel free to tell me what you are, but don’t go a step further. You do not have the right to impose your religious belief on me — even if you think it’s in my best interest.

It is a massively complicated, infinitely interesting topic. To make up for huge gaps in my knowledge I will spend time in college wrestling with the theology. In the meantime, maybe I should read C.S. Lewis, since every hard-core Christian (without exception – must be part of the playbook) has recommend him to me.

“But Ben,” you might be asking yourself, “What are you? You still haven’t told us!” Well, since you asked, I would call myself “Spiritual but not religious”. What does this mean? I have no idea. But I intend to spend my whole life searching for the answer! (And hopefully changing my mind several times along the way.)

19 comments on “My Basic Beliefs When It Comes to Religion
  • The real religion is free and easy.

    Fortunately, the true God is someone we can joke with.

    How could it be otherwise?

    Should I shake with fear at a Philistine God who wants to kill me?

  • I’m with you on the spiritual/religious distinction, but like you I’m at a loss to explain what that means. As a kid I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t get it today. Certain aspects of religion make perfect sense. Religion allows a person to have a set of beliefs, and it’s comforting to have those beliefs. But why the need to label a set of beliefs? When I was growing up, people would occasionally ask me my religion, and I’d say Jewish. I’d then spend some time thinking about what that meant.

    In other words, if someone asked me my favorite food, and I said Pizza, it was because I’d eaten Pizza, eaten other foods, and decided I liked Pizza more than other foods. I had formed my belief that Pizza was my favorite food. The same could be said for a favorite sports team, or a favorite subject in school.

    But if religion were the topic, it was different. Beliefs about how the world was created, or what happens when we leave this world, was not mine to choose. I was Jewish not because I had studied various religions, and decided that Judaism made the most sense. I was Jewish because I was born into it.

    A fair reaction to what I’ve written would be to think I have something against the Jewish religion. Although that would be a fair reaction, it would also be completely wrong. I have nothing against any religion. And I have beliefs. I think that when we die, a part of us lives on; also that a supreme intelligence, and not some random event, created this world.

    I think this stuff; I don’t at all claim it to be true.

  • Ben,

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing. I too, consider myself a spiritual person, but do not practice or follow a specific faith. But that doesn’t stop the religious entities from visiting my door. Last summer, I had three visits from local churches in one weekend. Frankly, I became a little irritated.

    Then my brain – in its never-ending curiosity – asked a question. Why do so many churches go door to door? The wife told me to find a bible and get an answer to my question. I fully confess I married “up” … I am so lucky to have found an intelligent & feisty woman.

    That’s when I learned of what is often referred to as “The Accidental Evangelist” in the passages Mark 1:40-45.

    ‘Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.’

    Now I understand why certain individuals proselytize.

  • “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis is a Christian novel, but applicable to everybody. A fast read.

    G. K. Chesterton was also recommended above, another “Christian” thinker worth looking into.

    I found a nice quote of his recently:

    “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision. Instead we are always changing the vision.”

  • I think when it comes to religion and defining our belief, we shouldn’t let external factors cloud our view of religious systems. By external factors I mean the people of that particular religion, what they do, the image they potray, the image the media potrays and our own assumption or impression about a particular religion. Go to its root belief system and find out what its really about. It is usually different from what it is made out to look like.

    Wish you all the best, Ben.

  • See this can of worms you’ve opened up?

    What a never ending conversation this could be. My first reaction:

    I wouldn’t ‘want’ to consider myself a sinner at birth. Very little of the way Christianity depicts reality jives with anything I would ‘want’ for myself. People believe in it because it is a framework for understanding the world. Can we agree that the world is not as it should be?

    Why not?

    The bible gives a reason. Frameworks that give people an understanding and interpretation of their world will always draw fans. And, perhaps, critics.

    My second reaction on “Is it really that bad to have a divorce?”

    I don’t know. But do you want to live your life with “Is it that bad?” as the underlying philosophy? Can we agree that divorce isn’t ideal? That it creates relational and societal problems? Even if they can be navigated successfully, Christ says “I want you to live an abundant life.” I follow Him because, selfishly, I think He shows the Best Way to Live. Talk about leaving no ecological footprint? How about leaving this world without hurting people? To the greatest extent that I can? Helping people, trying to love them because they have an intrinsic value, given them by their Creator? Maybe it’s where I’m coming from, but that sounds like a noble goal to me, one I can aspire to.

    In my mind, generally speaking, divorce is like taking the battlefield but having a route for retreat planned in case it doesn’t go so well. And what are soldiers thinking when they know how they are going to retreat? “I just want to get out of here alive.” In the HBO Miniseries “Band of Brothers” an officer tells an enlisted man that the reason he is able to be an effective soldier is that he understands he is already dead. I think that holds for a husband as well.

    Because when I know that there is no retreat, the bridges have been burned and my only choices are victory (successful marriage) or death (death/painful marriage) I’m going to be much more interested in coming to a compromise with my wife, subjugating my pride to our relationship’s needs, and making the personal sacrifices required to grow a strong marriage. Because there are no longer two people here. But one person. And the option of divorce doesn’t allow for that. Because one (or both) people can keep their eye on the escape route, and when it gets a little uncomfortable, they will bail.

    I can only imagine that the state of the relationship EVEN WHEN HEALTHY is different when there is a mutual understanding that divorce is off the table. It has been said that everyone wants to be fully known and fully loved at the same time.

    If I think my wife may leave me at some point in the future, I am not going to be vulnerable with her. I am going to keep walls up. I’m not going to let her know all of me and my insecurities. And that means that we won’t be in complete relationship.

    When we argue, there aren’t threats (explicit or implicit) that one of us is going to leave. That is awfully reassuring. To both of us.

    Is divorce so bad? I don’t know. But I think that a strong marriage has a positive effect on health and happiness for the participants, and that the option of divorce lowers the chances for a successful marriage.

  • Glad you had the experience, Ben. As I told you in our conversations, I grew up in that evangelical world and didn’t fully escape until my mid 20’s.

    It’s true that C.S. Lewis is the boilerplate response to any outsider seen as an intellectual. The funny thing is how his beliefs have been whitewashed over within the Christian community. Were he alive today, he would doubtless be opposed to the evangelical movement and rejected by it as a liberal.

    For example, he believed that God would accept the worship of non-Christians let them into heaven. “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.” (Mere Christianity, Ch. 10, pg. 209, also see the final chapters of “The Last Battle”.

    He was also a firm believer in evolution, and even claimed that Christianity could be the next evolutionary step. “Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea best if he takes it in connection with Evolution.”(Mere Christianity, Ch. 11, 218)

    Well I could go on, but I’ll refrain.

    Hope your road trip is going well! Greetings from sunny Boulder.

  • Ben,

    Two great books that are well worth looking at:

    “The Great Transformation” by Karen Armstrong – the absolute best book on comparitive religion I’ve read to date.

    “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell – a detailed examination of the role of myth / story / legend / meaning in human life and how the core myths are uncannily similar across cultures.

    Anything by Campbell or Armstrong is a great starting point, and worth its weight in gold. Hope this helps! 🙂


  • I grew up in a fundamentalist church. Tonight my son is attending Bible study at a church youth group (not the church I grew up in). If his friend had invited him to a youth group at any of several different denominations, I wouldn’t have let him go because I still view those denominations as fundamentally wrong. As an atheist, I find that fairly goofy. One friend put it this way: “You threw out the baby and *kept* the bathwater.” Yup, I did. I do view religion as fundamentally harmful, mainly because it engenders guilt in many adherents (and those who grow up in the church, but fail to believe).

  • Kevin Cherrick – that was an awesome response. Would that more people talk could speak like that.

    Ben – I’m in the midst of a spiritual renaissance myself. After discovering that joining the workforce and delving into materialism wasn’t going to answer all my questions in life, I’ve spent as much time as I getting to my spirit. Right now, this includes something that I feel I’ve missed: church. For someone who was almost untouched by religion growing up, the experience is wonderful. I’ve seen, from the outside, all the harm people say it does, and can agree when I think of the cruelty some enforce in the name of God. People will only see how someone’s religion intersects with their politics — and one thing I’m glad I learned early is that each person’s politics is where the worst in them comes forth. I still haven’t pinned down why, except perhaps that in witnessing the struggle for power, we’re each as susceptible as the politicians we hold contemptible.

    But seeing church from the inside, where people genuinely have angst over the sin they commit and want to be better (see if you don’t relate to the Lamentations of Romans 7:14-25), and strive each day to rise above that for something better than themselves, to realize how petty and selfish they are and try desperately to be the generous and kind to the least of these, to feel the incredible hope and love at the end of Job’s story, to feel the groanings of one’s own soul to find more than you already are…that’s the beauty of it that gets lost in the yammerings of those that don’t know at all – those outside the church and want to see it taken down – and those that know just enough to get it all wrong – those representing the church so poorly.

  • My sense is that religions have been loosely structured with a purpose- so that it could be progressively twisted out of shape to suit different times and thoughts – Could that not be its holy grail, one of flexibility and malleability ? That flexibility is needed because no two lives have faced or ever will face, identical set of problems to claim having discovered *the way to go*.

    How lovely.

    The central theme of any common belief system can only be “use it to find peace within self” – since there is too much evidence that no one else is going to do it for you, ever.
    You may label it for ease-of-use sakes, but don’t make it sound like a *Noun* – that’s when trouble erupts.

    It’s the radicals who should be blamed for desperately trying to *freeze* it as they would like it to be since they fear the onward march of powerful skeptics with sounder arguments to the contrary. In its fluid form, it serves everyone only too well.

  • interesting artticle on Einstein’s faith

    Einstein tried to express these feelings clearly, both for himself and all of those who wanted a simple answer from him about his faith. So in the summer of 1930, amid his sailing and ruminations in Caputh, he composed a credo, “What I Believe,” that he recorded for a human-rights group and later published. It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”,8816,1607298,00.html

  • Einstein’s response to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle:

    “God does not play dice with the universe.”

    And Stephen Hawking said:

    [The description of a particle by a wave function satisfies the uncertainty principle]. “We now realize that the wave function is all that can be well defined. We cannot even suppose that the particle has a position and velocity that are known to God but hidden from us…Even God is bound by the uncertainty principle and cannot know the position and velocity. He can only know the wave function.”


    “There is a probably apocryphal story, that when Laplace was asked by Napoleon, how God fitted into [t]his system, he replied, ‘Sire, I have not needed that hypothesis.’ I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of Science. That must be the position of every scientist. A scientific law, is not a scientific law, if it only holds when some supernatural being decides to let things run, and not intervene.”

    This might lend some credence to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s explanation for why bad things happen to good people– even God Almighty can’t break the laws of the universe he created.

  • Are there any universal truths? “I support anyone’s right to believe in anything they want (with only a few constraints).” Why have constraints? If you have constraints then you must prescribe to something that is of a higher order? Why not allow people to believe in genocide, or supremacy of a race or a whole host of other bad beliefs? Claiming to be spiritual is a soft position. Are you an evangelical person if you speak up about something you believe is wrong? Is it a matter of degree? You might say nothing about abortion but definitely speak up about infanticide? How about selling young girls as sex slaves – that’s bad right? What about a lady who kills her newborn girl because she wanted a boy? If abortion is OK why not allow for the killing of the child one second after birth? That’s ridiculous – so how about one second before birth, one day, one month, two months? Maybe we can look towards technology to help us decide when the child is viable outside the womb. What if technology allows for the baby to survive one second after conception? Tricky stuff – religion gives us the ability to answer these tough moral issues and to set standards of behavior. Without it we will have no common beliefs of right and wrong – no human rights – no basis for society. To be spiritual means that you adhere to some moral compass which has a basis in a higher power. To not give it a name or to not say you aren’t religious is simply being hip. You’re religious, I’m religious most of the world is too because we believe that there is more to the world than just us. Perhaps you are simply objecting to following all the tenets of a particular named religion. I get that position but I think it allows you to not really test your moral fortitude. Most religions offer guidance on how to live a “pure” life – an idealized existence. These standards are impossible to achieve yet set the standard for the moral man. Having an ideal to strive for is a great way to focus your spiritual development – without a standard you get to pick and choose what works for you at a moment in time. You then stagnate and become more absorbed in your own ideas of right and wrong – this is how governments can justify the wholesale killing of a race. Religion gives us the ideal to strive for and a community to help us improve our spiritual self. The good news is we’re all in the same boat – enjoy the journey it ends when you die, then you’ll really know the truth.

  • I agree with some of your points, Paul, but find them all provocative and wise. Religion certainly makes it EASIER to deal with moral issues. But I disagree that without religion, “we have no human, no basis for society”. I believe that there are “natural rights” that every human being from every walk of life deserves.

    I disagree that you have to believe in a higher power to be “spiritual”. I don’t believe in higher power and am spiritual. I think you can have spiritual experiences in nature or during special moments with friends. I think there are times when you can reach a higher form of living — oneness with the earth, or being totally present. To me this is spiritual without being “religious”.

    I do agree that having an idealized existence against which to compare your behavior is helpful. What religion does is provide an external accountability mechanism — ie if you don’t strive for the idealized existence you’re going to hell. But you definitely don’t need religion to construct the ideal, and some of us might not even need the external accountability mechanism if we are self-disciplined and self-aware enough.

  • Quote: “But Ben,” you might be asking yourself, “What are you?

    Quote: “But you definitely don’t need religion to construct the ideal, and some of us might not even need the external accountability mechanism if we are self-disciplined and self-aware enough.”

    The term for your belief system is humanism. You are a humanist. Humanism scares me more than Evangelicals or Jehovah’s Witness.

  • Hi Ben, wondering how your journey is going? I’m interested to see where you’re at so many years and experiences later…

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