A: It never crossed my mind that we could have so much in common and still disagree about this. Can we talk this through from the beginning? I’m spiritual, but not religious, and…
B: I’m religious but not spiritual.
A: Right. How is this even possible?
B: What’s so strange about it? I love going to services, being with fellow seekers, having a common belief, taking time to collect oneself and connect oneself… I look forward to it all week.
A: Yeah… but you’re an atheist, right?
B: I suppose so, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything. That’s a philosophical or scientific dispute. To be honest, I don’t see how anyone could ever do anything with that sort of question except argue about it.
A: So you’re an agnostic then?
B: Again, why is my belief only of value to you as something that needs to be put in the right file or bin? You are treating beliefs like some anal retentive office drone, who cares nothing about what he’s filing as long as it has the right number. You’d treat Shakespeare and Romance novels as just so much paperwork that needs to be filled out.
A: That’s not right. I’m legitimately confused about how you can do what you are doing. How can you talk about “having a common belief” with many people if you think that belief is false? When you “go to services” you are going to a service for God. Let me put it this way – you understand why some people would call you a hypocrite, right?
B: I suppose, but I think they all want religion to be something it isn’t. How many Dionysians do you suppose really believed in Dionysius? Do you think a priest in the temple of Isis would have thought that some wild Scythian should believe in Isis for the good of his soul? Picture this: Aristotle dancing around altars and sacrificing to all sorts of goddesses popping out of the head of gods, and then, later the next afternoon, he finishes his proof that God could only be pure actuality without a body and never generated. Are you saying Aristotle was irrational?
Religion is one thing, truth is another. We all think this. When something is true, there’s one version of it for all humanity, and everyone can see that it’s good for there to be one version for all humanity. If a Buddhist wants to shoot a rocket to the moon, we teach him Newtonian mechanics, and what’s more important, the Buddhist wants to learn Newtonian mechanics and knows that he should learn it. If he wants to have a spiritual or religious experience, we think it better to let him keep being a buddhist, and more importantly, he wants to remain what he is. Religion is about live and let live – it’s just a different sort of thing than truth. Truth is fine where it belongs – but it’s pure nonsense to try to force it where it doesn’t belong.
A: But how can one ever get away from truth? Consider what truth means when you speak about “dying for the truth”. Isn’t this something a person should always be willing to do, and isn’t it the sort of truth that we must have with respect to the question of whether God exists? If you don’t believe God exists, you shouldn’t be a part of a group that confesses that God exists. We can tolerate all sorts of things, but we can’t call someone good who doesn’t live in accordance with what she believes. Who cares about truth as “what is universal”. The more important sense of truth is living in accord with what you believe. So yes, if Aristotle sacrificed to Athena and then went off and proved there was no Athena, then he was a hypocrite. We might tolerate his hypocrisy, or even understand it, or even “live and let live” – but it’s still hypocrisy.
B: Listen to you! You’re a Christian, for goodness sake. Not a Christian like some of my friends, but like Torquemada! It’s Christianity that invented this crazy idea that religion was the sort of thing one has to die for. You know what pagans would do if his village was conquered by another one? They’d accept the gods of the conquerors, no questions asked! Gods are just part of the social structure – they’re bound up with the society in which someone lives, with its rulers and customs. This is why, whenever I travel, I try out the various churches in the area I’m in. In fact, I try various services here in town.
But let me get back to my main point. Do you know what happens when you start insisting that “the god question” (as you call it) is something that needs to be “true” or “worth dying for”? It becomes worth killing for too. Is that what you want? Because that’s what it is. All your high-sounding “dedication to truth” is just another sword at the throat of the powerless. It’s really just dedication to my truth. Believe in my gods, (or don’t believe in any of them) or else! It wouldn’t change anything about an Inquisitor to make him torture for atheism – which is exactly what your idea of truth calls for.
Look, I know you’re not “an Atheist” (as you would put it). You’re “spiritual”, and you have an idea of truth that convinces you that you should not be a part of a religion. All I’m saying is that, if you were really consistent with your application of this idea of “truth” that you are using to call me a “hypocrite”, then you are appealing to the same standard as an Inquisitor or a Communist. The whole problem with these guys is that they though “the God question” was a matter of truth. At the very least, you’re committed to this idea of “one religion for everybody”, even if you have prudential reasons for not insisting on it. Face it, you think that a Buddhist or a worshipper of Isis would be better off if they were “spiritual, but not religious”, just like you.
A: I don’t think that at all! I think Buddhists should die for their beliefs, Christians should die for theirs, etc.
B: And what about guys like me, who deny any connection between religion and truth, even why we still see the value of both?
A: I suppose you should die for that too.
B: But what do you have then? Anyone should die for anything? How is this any more noble than saying that no one should die for anything? That’s the problem, you can’t separate this idea you have of truth as personal commitment from the idea of truth as objectively true. This ties you to the idea that there is some sort of objective truth about religion.
A: But you think that too! You make all sorts of objective truth claims about religion!
B: Maybe, if you want to put it that way. But again, I don’t take any of these claims too seriously. You’re the one who wants to categorize everything and put it into truth boxes. I don’t see much value in all these labels and theories. Labels and theories have their place, and their indispensible in that place, but you have to know when to use them and when not to.