Saturday, February 23, 2008

Religion makes you sad

Don't believe any of those polls that show religious people are happier than secular people. R R Reno says that religious people experience more sadness at the thought of death than those who do not believe in an afterlife:

In his meditation on the sources of human community, “Death and Politics,” Jody Bottum makes a case for the foundational importance of death, mourning, and the grave. The dark universality of grief, he argues, glues us together. “We create true communities,” Bottum writes, “only when we have shared death.” We live as we bury.

Thoughts about death and its role in the affairs of the living take us into deep and, as Bottum rightly observes, “dangerous waters.” As a Jew or a Christian, the currents can be hard to swim in. Biblical faith denies the finality of death and trusts in the promises of God. For secular critics, this confidence epitomizes the self-deluding, reality-denying atmosphere of religious belief. “Of all things, death is most certain and cannot be evaded,” the critic says, “and this kind of evasion is exactly what makes faith so repugnant. It makes a mockery of the real experiences of loss and grief that we all feel when a loved one dies.”

Well said, but is it so? Does the promise of eternal life deny the reality of death and help us escape from grief? Is faith an evasion, a psycho-social narcotic developed to avoid the pain of loss?

If we turn to the Bible, then we will be surprised to discover that, in the primal history of humanity, death seems to evoke no strong emotional responses. True enough, death comes as punishment for transgression. But it is an affliction that seems readily accommodated in the subsequent generations. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, but the book of Genesis makes no mention of Adam or Eve mourning the loss of his life. The generations are recounted. Seth begat Enosh, Enosh begat Kenan, and so on to Noah. Each receives his full allotment of years, but we read no descriptions of weeping or wailing over the dead. It seems that men and women can feel jealousy, lust, ambition, and shame, but not the bitterness of loss. Death seems to become nothing more than a simple, nonnegotiable, and brutal fact of life, no more to be mourned than the setting of the sun.

But something odd happens. With Abraham comes the promise: land, prosperity, and the immortality of countless descendants. Here we find the first step toward Sinai and the covenant of life that Christians believe is fulfilled in Christ. Then Sarah dies, just as Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, died before, and just as her own son Isaac and his sons and the sons of his sons will die in their own time. And for the very first time in the Bible, we find a scene of mourning. Abraham enters her tent and weeps over his dead wife (Gen. 23:2).


As with trying to untangle a mass of knotted Christmas lights, one approaches untangling the mess of Reno's argument with the quandary "where do I begin?" First off, can we really expect Genesis to provide an objective anthropological view of the grief habits of pre-Biblical people? This is a tale that, we are told by authoritative Christians and Jews who comment on this blog on a frequent basis, is largely methaphorical and allegorical, and in no way records literal history. Now we are to believe that it can be used to derive the psychological habits of pre-historic human tribes and cultures. That's rich, it is.

But even if you accept Genesis as an authoritative text, are we to believe that primal people didn't grieve because Genesis didn't record that Adam and Eve grieved the loss of Abel? So now absence of evidence is evidence of absence?

I don't understand why Reno feels a need to make this argument, other than as a game of spiritual one-upmanship. Let it not be said that secular people can best the religious in any human endeavor. Christians are both the happiest and the saddest of people. So there!

I don't know how this new argument will help the recruiting efforts. "You think you fear death now? Come to Christ, and you will fear death like you never thought possible!" They might want to think about this some more.

2 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I agree Reno seems to have too much time on his hands and not enough on his mind.

I have, in watching people I loved die and their survivors, concluded that the consolation of religion is bogus.

All I see among the survivors is an intense anxiety that the decedent wasn't good enough -- perhaps he didn't make his Easter duty, forsooth! -- to escape hell.

Atheists -- my sample here is a lot smaller -- do seem to slip away quietly, like someone walking out of a bad movie that the other paying customers seem to be enjoying.

February 23, 2008 3:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

This is a tale that, we are told by authoritative Christians and Jews who comment on this blog on a frequent basis, is largely methaphorical and allegorical, and in no way records literal history.

Not sure who you are talking about, Duck, but would you tell them David and I would like to have a word with them?

You heathens were more interesting when you were sitting in Paris cafes telling pretty young girls about your heroism in confronting the terrors of the abyss of exisential nothingness.

February 24, 2008 3:58 AM  

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