By David Metcalfe
July 21, 2020
When I was in university, I thought that everything in life could be solved by studying and thinking. That was the solution to doing well on exams, essays, presentations, class discussions, and so forth. Our university motto was literally “think, research, communicate”; it seemed like that was the ultimate approach to life.
It’s very Western thinking to apply the scientific method of gathering evidence and applying logic to everything in life. It obviously works extremely well with physical objects to know their properties and how to use them in various ways for the purpose of technological development (aka science). It’s become a fundamental aspect of our legal system. We’ve tried to put the scientific method towards understanding human behavior in disciplines like psychology and sociology. The enlightenment period was largely the application of the scientific method to philosophy: all about evidence and logic.
This thinking, in my mind, translated to religion as well. When I was atheist, I felt I was atheist because it was where the evidence and logic weighted towards. I felt that, if I did come to believe Christianity or some other religion, that it would be because the evidence and logic took me there. I connected with Christian apologetics precisely because that’s their philosophy towards religion. They say things like, “Christianity is the only worldview that has coherent answers to life’s fundamental questions”.
But that thinking- in the context of religion- seems deeply flawed both theoretically and practically, in my opinion. Firstly, there are many extremely intelligent and logical people who believe a wide range of religious views. Every religion has people who are PhDs in philosophy, history, comparative religion, etc. If there was only one worldview that made sense intellectually, all of the most intelligent people would realize that, and form a consensus around the obviously logical view. No such consensus exists, of course. Secondly, what is “coherent” or “makes sense” to people is very subjective. Some people hear, “Jesus died for your sins” and it makes sense, but to others, that sounds crazy. Some people hear, “Buddha knows the path to enlightenment” and it makes sense, but to others, it sounds crazy. So on and so forth, different people find different things to be coherent.
But more importantly on a practical level, I’ve met many people of many different religious views over the last few years: at mosques, churches, synagogues, etc. When I ask them why they believe what they believe, it’s extremely rare they say, “because I evaluated the evidence for years and studied all of the worldviews and found that x religion is the only logical one to believe.” Very rare. But you will find the odd religious person who says that. The vast, vast majority of people say something like, “it gives me joy in my life” or “I feel God’s presence” or “it makes sense to me”.
I wouldn’t ask for, or want, every religious person to become some kind of lawyer, going around debating their religious superiority against people of other views. In fact, I don’t really want anyone to be like that. I don’t think it’s sensible or kind or understanding of what goes on in an individual’s journey of thought, life experience, and spiritual growth.
The reason people are the religious worldview that they are is because they connect with the religion in a variety of ways. There are people in their life- friends, family, teachers, etc.- who exemplify the religion and act as a source of community and mentorship. They connect with the scriptural texts and quotes from religious leaders. They live the lifestyle and feel more purpose and meaning in their lives. Some people think it’s because of the evidence, but really it’s primarily because of those things at work in the background.
Since joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I’ve found that whether I follow the religion fully or not does not really depend on the intellectual aspects. It’s about connection. Do I connect with people on a relationship level who believe the gospel and exemplify it in their lives? Do I connect with the things in scripture and words of the church leaders? Do I feel purpose and meaning in the lifestyle?
When I get less active- which is fairly often- it’s because I lack connection with God. I feel that God’s commandments are not meeting my wants and needs in life, and there are other ways on my own that work better. I feel that the church community sucks, and is not welcoming to me. I feel that scripture and church leaders are boring and do not relate to the struggles I am going through. I go to church and feel I get nothing out of it.
The process of believing and following religion is asking the question: what do I connect with? Or if you already believe in the religion and have trouble practicing it, the question becomes: how have I connected in the past, and how can I connect going forward?
It’s important to remember the things that built our testimony in the first place, and perhaps to work to re-create those things: read a scripture over again that was meaningful to you in the past, connect with an old friend who was influential in your spiritual journey, etc. And then to consider, in the fact that you’ve likely matured in your faith over time, to look for and be open to ways to connect further. Do you need to spend more time serving others? Be more consistent in prayer? Go through life a bit less busy so you have time to focus more on spiritual things?
Perhaps this article was a bit convoluted, and that’s fine. Was I supposed to solve religion and life in 1000 words? Philosophers have been thinking about that stuff for thousands of years, and they have not solved it.
My point is that religion is a matter of faith, and that faith should obviously not contradict the evidence, but should nonetheless not be synonymous with “evidence”. Faith is holistic- encompassing life and thought in a large variety of ways- intellectual, experiential, relational, and most importantly, how all of that connects the individual to a worldview. I invite people to learn about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but I also understand that some people really have found an amazing connection to a different worldview, and I’m happy for and supportive of them. A good faith should make sense to us, be consistent with our knowledge and life experience, give us a sense of meaning and purpose, and cause us to love others in a greater capacity.