Conversation with a student

Why do you teach religions if you don’t believe in one?

The ways in which we construct religions- myths, beliefs, rituals- is an incredible window into what it means to be human.  You could say that I believe in them all.  I just don’t believe in the superiority of one over the others.

But don’t you find it hard, not believing in a god?

I find great comfort in my belief in other people.

People often suck.

(I had to laugh.  Truth is truth.)  Yes, yes they do.  But they also demonstrate extremes of compassion and wisdom.  I try to stay focused on that.

But god is ALWAYS compassionate and wise.

I’m not sure to which god you are referring, but my studies would lead me to believe otherwise.  Gods are as ‘human’ in their nature as those who create and follow them.  The gods of Greece and Rome were as capricious and jealous and fallible as any human ruler.  Those of the Ancient Near East created humanity so that their burdens of work would be alleviated and so that humans might worship and provide for them- food, clothing, and burnt offerings… The Egyptian deities fought amongst themselves like children- or earthly rulers- seeking land and riches and the obedience of all who were below them.

But I’m talking about GOD.  You know, the one from the Bible?

And you think that the god of the Bible was not capricious and jealous and often petty and self-serving?  How else would you describe a deity who would charge a human with delivering his Chosen people from bondage, then deny that same person entry into the land promised to them for one act of disobedience?  One who toyed with the life and family and possessions of his most devoted follower and when asked, honestly and with feeling, why, basically told him ‘because I can and who are you to question me?’  Or one who destroyed an entire city in a blast of fire and brimstone because of the breach of hospitality protocol demonstrated by one group?  And then there’s the act of hubris that caused the most complete disintegration of communication in history.  Making the people of the world speak in different, unintelligible tongues, for the perceived hubris of reaching for the stars?  None of that strikes me as coming from a place of compassion or wisdom.

Okay, not THOSE stories.  The NEW Testament.

It’s either the same god or it isn’t.  And if it isn’t, that would make you a Gnostic- and a dualist ‘heretic.’  (I smiled to soften that blow.  He was a student in my Gnosticism class, so if he had been paying any attention he’d understand what I was getting at.)

I’m talking about Jesus.

Who is described as ‘of one Being with the Father.’  A father who, many generations before according the mythological continuity, had destroyed the entire world- save one nautical family- and then sent his son to be tortured and sacrificed by the ruling Roman authorities to ensure the salvation of humanity.  This son was a man pushing for social change who worked to reform his cultural and religious reality and protect those that most needed protection.  I have no argument with you there.  If even a small portion of what has been written about Jesus is historically true, he was a great activist and a man of extreme wisdom and compassion.  He is, to me, one of the representatives of the very best of humanity.  He needs no claim to godhead to be loved and respected, and to be considered a great role model for others.

He was the Son of God.

This is what some strands of tradition and history tell us.  Others hold him in great esteem as a prophet, but one that was fully human.  To me, believing that he was a paragon of humanity offers more comfort and optimism than believing that he was part of a three-pronged deity.  We can follow his example, and that of other, equally wise and compassionate people, without assigning superhuman qualities to his mission or the message.  As I see it, making him a god diminishes, rather than enhances and celebrates, his compassion and wisdom, and takes away from his overall goal: that we treat others as we wish to be treated, and take care of one another.  We are, after all, all that we’ve got.

(The student was quiet, so I continued.)

I am not seeking to change anyone’s belief in anything.  Beliefs are intensely personal and precious.  You asked how I cope without the belief in a god, and I’ve given you part of an answer.  A complete one would take more time than we have this afternoon- or this term, probably- but it’s a start.  The Scientific Study of Religion is about objective examination of beliefs and the constructed realities that we create around these beliefs.  It’s about world- and society-building.  What we’ve discussed today is just one piece of my worldview.  It is a living, developing thing.  One of the goals of education, and part of my role as your teacher, is to aid in the development of yours.  That does not mean I am here to shatter any of your beliefs or ‘make’ you believe what I believe.  The best I can do is offer you another lens thorough which to view the world and its history.  And, most specifically, its people.  What you take away and evaluate and accept or discard will depend on many factors, all of them personal.  All I ask is that you keep an open mind and view the examinations of these stories and systems as part of a journey to develop your own view of the world that is based in your comprehension and interpretation of the wealth of resources we have available.  Critical, thoughtful examination and an open mind are what I’m looking for.  Nothing can take you farther or enrich your life more than those keys.

This was the first of many discussions we had after class and in office hours. Large class sizes often don’t allow for the use of the Socratic method, but our conversations allowed me, as an educator, to truly mark his developing compassion and wisdom, as he retained his core beliefs while expanding his worldview.  He got an A in the class.

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