One question I get a lot is how I atheists like myself can light incense, cast circles, wake up to “Ganesha Sharanam” on their iPhone, attend a seder, hold an Easter vigil, or go around saying “blessed be” all the time.
It’s easy, really. And by “easy” I don’t mean “trivial.” Here’s what I mean.
I love movies. Maybe you do too.
If you’re like me, you love going to theaters. Ever since Star Wars came out, in fact, they’ve been my cathedrals (independent bookstores serving as churches). When kids came along, making trips out less frequent, one of the first things we did was get the biggest TV we could afford and a nice cable package.
When I do go to a theater — home or outside — I go to enjoy myself. But not just in the sense of entertainment; I go to literally en-joy — to fill myself up with something that moves and changes me; something that leaves me a more or less different person when I leave than when I came in.
Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t go just to hold up a picket sign outside, saying “don’t be deceived,” “only fools watch movies,” or “the images on the screen are not real.”
Here’s what else I don’t do, at least not since I was about five or so. I don’t pretend that what’s happening on the movie screen is either a videotape of real events or a window onto something actually happening in the here and now. I might if I’d never seen a movie before, but even then I suspect something might clue me in as to the images’ nature as images.
In order to enjoy the movie properly, I have to let myself into the world it presents me. Folded arms or beliefs in the literal physical existence of the images just get in the way.
For me, religion’s a little bit like a movie. It invites you to inhabit a world where you’re the object of an infinite divine love, someone bonded to a single omnipotent deity and others through a sacred covenant, or someone who hears the call to surrender completely to the will of the divine.
What I do with religions, then, is take any major claim they make and start asking myself a series of questions:
What kind of a world would it be if such things were possible?
What’s at stake for me as a believer of such claims? How would my life have to change to accommodate them?
Sometimes I the answer is rather pleasant. Sometimes it’s rather terrifying. Sometimes I have to just shake my head and admit I don’t have a good enough imagination to appreciate what a particular movie is trying to offer me. That’s when I place my trust in age, experience, or further reading to do the trick.
This is the existential side of religion, which Rilke put best in one of his most famous poems. This is the side that has the capacity to change, order, or restore a life, given the chance.
Fundamentalists might protest that I shouldn’t be making my own sensibility the judge of religious claims to truth. They might be right, but then again, I’m not sure we have any choice in the matter. That is to say, I suspect that not even the most devout believer submits to something they’re not already prepared to accept at some level.
Secularists might argue that I don’t fully appreciate how dangerous religious claims can be. I might have to agree here. Then again, all beliefs – including all the varieties of atheism – incur some sort of existential and political risk. For me, it’s just a matter of being as clear as possible with regard to which risks we’re prepared to take and for what reasons.
Most importantly, however, in a free country nobody bans the movies, forces you to attend them, or tell you which ones to go to. I like this approach. I think it allows me to be a better lover of the cinema.