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By David Bornstein
The Good Word 

Abandoned by faith


I came in on the middle of an interview on National Public Radio recently. I didn’t catch the name of the interviewee, but he did catch my attention. “Religions,” he said, “are too beautiful to be abandoned to those who believe in them.”

And early last year another program cited statistics that showed more and more young people moving away from religion. But why? Was the next generation really moving away, or merely cherry picking the aspects of faith they liked? And what did the speaker mean when he, in effect, challenged non-believers to pay attention to the finer points of religion? Was it doctrine he spoke about, or miracles? Was it the lessons of morality we are taught in Sunday school, or the ability, through examination, to explore the fundamentals of human existence?

Miriam Nissly, raised Jewish, considers herself basically agnostic, and yet she loves going to synagogue. “I find the practice of sitting and being quiet and being alone with your thoughts to be helpful, but I don’t think I need to answer that question [about God] in order to participate in the traditions I was brought up with.”

Yusuf Ahmad, raised Muslim, says he’s an atheist. “Today if some guy told you that ‘I need to sacrifice my son because God told me to do it,’ he’d be locked up in a crazy institution.”

Melissa Adelman, raised Catholic, said “Starting in middle school we got the lessons about why premarital sex was not OK, why active homosexuality was not OK. I remember a theology test in eighth grade...where the right answer was that if you are homosexual, then that is not a sin because that’s how God made you, but acting upon it would be a sin. That’s what I put down, but I vividly remember thinking that that was not the right answer.”

I put myself somewhere in this mix. Not an atheist, but my interpretation of God tends more toward the spiritual “power of the universe” than a religious manifestation. I question scripture. I don’t believe easily. I’m an iconoclast, a doubter. And I know I’m not alone. Many of my peers fall into the same category, and even more members of younger generations don’t abide easily with blind, even half-blind faith. But they want to believe in something, as do I.

Too often the world batters us with reasons to be bitter, with more evidence that our lives are made of unequal parts evil and good, chaos and order, pain and suffering and healing and enlightenment, and there is no way to tell which part wins, what comes out on top, what there is to believe in. Someone commits suicide. Someone’s parent drinks and abuses his or her children. Someone is taught that God is good, and then watches the news.

Why is it difficult to believe in religion? How could it not be?

If it is so difficult, so problematic, perhaps the first speaker on NPR makes the greatest point. There are many who believe blindly, virtually thoughtlessly, and those bearers of the cross, those devout followers, are grounded in a faith they deem undeniable and unquestionable. They may allow for interpretation of religious text, or take the word literally. They may believe in angels and devils, miracles and the voice of God speaking through people. They may believe so strongly because it makes them feel safe, or happy, or saved, sure of something in an unsure world.

But maybe it’s the rest of us who, in our own way, need to pay more attention to what religion has to offer. You don’t have to be an unyielding follower to get the best out of faith. Without dismissing our upbringings entirely, perhaps what we need to do—what the skeptics, cynics, individualists, subversives, free thinkers and rebels need to do—is look more closely rather than dissociate entirely. For it’s religion that has taught us that everything is holy, that life is worth protecting, that doing good creates good, that miracles are possible. And it’s faith that gets us out of bed on the darkest days, when it’s hardest to believe in anything, and we need to believe the most.

And that’s the good word.

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