An increasingly tiresome argument against religion is that the only reason people believe in God or choose to be religious is that it makes them feel better. It’s a subset of the “religion is just blind faith without evidence” argument, with strong ties to Karl Marx’s “opium of the masses” sentiment. Secularists and atheists, who fancy themselves the most rational beings on the planet, frequently assert that people remain religious more or less for utilitarian reasons: usually because it gives their lives meaning, or comforts them when they are afflicted, or because of they crave a sense of belonging and community. People choose to remain or become religious because it satisfies some emotional need.
This may indeed be true for a lot of people, but for myself and for many Christians this could not be further from the truth. The assertion that religion gives life meaning and purpose has always sort of baffled me. You see this kind of nonsense in atheist literature such as Albert Camus’ The Stranger in which the atheist protagonist is constantly assaulted by a Christian who simply cannot grasp how a person could not believe in God. “Do you want my life to be meaningless?” is his refrain throughout the text. I suppose I’m too much of an existentialist to really care about meaning. The Bible itself says that everything is meaningless vanity. People are very capable of assigning themselves meaning entirely apart from God. They find meaning in their career or their family or in TV or video games. All of these seem entirely arbitrary to me, and I don’t know why finding meaning in God’s alleged “plan” for one’s life ought not to be considered just as much an act of bad faith as finding meaning in more mundane things. Maybe some Christians are concerned with the so-called purpose-driven life, but this kind of thinking strikes me as treating God as an object among many which exists only to satisfy an emotional or psychological deficiency on the part of the believer. If your God’s function in your life could easily be replaced by a husband or a good hardy dinner, he’s no God at all. Meaning – who cares? It’s an empty pursuit.
It’s often said that religious people desire a strong sense of community. This assertion definitely has a basis in reality. Churches spend half their time trying to figure out new ways to be more “welcoming” – which is just code for keeping them in the pews. I hear this sort of sentiment a lot from secular Jews who couldn’t give a Flying Wallenda about God or religion, but remain practicing Jews for such dubious reasons as “tradition”, “heritage”, and “family”. Mormons have their version of this too with their emphasis on eternal marriages (“for time and all eternity” > “till death do us part” they say). The argument from a secularist or atheist perspective often goes hand in hand with the amazingly flippant assertion that people usually stay in the religion in which they were raised. “If you were born in Saudi Arabia you’d be a Muslim!” This of course is only an equivocation, and as a convert it obviously does not apply to me or to the millions of other people every year who leave their faith of origin for whatever reason. Again, if your religion merely fills a void which could easily be filled by a book club, you’re probably in it for the wrong reasons.
The idea that Christianity or religion in general is somehow comforting or anesthetizing, that it makes life easier, is particularly foreign to my thinking. I’m of course the most pessimistic Christian on Earth, and I have to say I don’t really find Christianity comforting at all. There are consolations of course, but this is a far cry from comfort. I’m with Kierkegaard, Christianity is all fear and trembling. Stepping into the majesty of God in prayer or through the Holy Mysteries is a perilous thing – he’s not a tame lion after all. The character of Jesus Christ, simply from a dramatic point of view, is profoundly bizarre and unenlightened, and the way he chose to redeem the world is altogether frightful. We worship a very strange and terrible God indeed who chose to go to such lengths to save such unimportant and unimpressive creatures as human beings. This is no fluffy and docile deity with which we are dealing. This is the God for whom men sold everything they had to live starving in the desert for decade, who demands martyrdom, who is just as likely to bless you with riches as to afflict you with debilitating poverty. You don’t jump into this God without reservations.
Most of the time, I’d rather be an atheist. The only good reason to believe anything is because it’s true. I remain a Christian because I know the Gospel is true, not because of how it makes me feel. I would like to live in a world where I can live how I want with no consequences in the afterlife. I would also like to live in a world in which I can jump off a cliff with no parachute and not die, but such is not the world in which I, or anyone else for that matter, live. In the end, I know that a relationship with the Holy Trinity is the highest and most perfect good, and so that is the goal for which I strive, but I cannot say it is always easy, enjoyable, or even rewarding. Maybe I’m a bit masochistic when it comes to faith. The more it hurts, the better I say. If I weren’t a Christian I would be a nihilist atheist of the Nietzchean or LaVeyan strain, no moralistic Sam Harris-style poppycock for me. Unfortunately these philosophies do not match up with reality. The only reality is the Trinity, and to him we must conform our lives or be reduced to near nothingness.