Here’s a question for you: is religion fundamentally about beliefs, or about something else? Most people in American culture, especially those likely to be reading articles and blog posts about religion online, are pretty convinced of the former claim. Read the comments section on any article about religion, and you’ll find a lot of fiery debate about evidence and belief, with the underlying assumption that religion comprises propositions we choose to believe about the world or not, propositions that may or may not be reasonable or backed up by evidence. You’ll find very little emphasis on behavior – on what people do.
I think this type of debate is off the mark. It’s based (ironically, since those who take part in it are often critics of religion) on a fundamentally Protestant assumption that people’s beliefs and mental states arise of their own accord, with behavior and actions merely tagging along like earnest younger brothers. Solo fide is the spiritual battle cry of Protestantism – faith alone is what can save you, faith alone is what sorts the redeemed from the damned. Ritual ornateness was one of Martin Luther’s many complaints against the Catholic Church, so he stripped away the emphasis on ritual and focused on what he thought really mattered: faith. Scripture. Grace. Internal things that related the individual to his or her God.
One legacy of his Reformation is that many modern Americans and Western Europeans – even the nonreligious ones – carry the unspoken assumption, handed down through generations of tacit cultural instruction, that what really matters in religion is the internal stuff, and most particularly the acceptance or rejection of propositions. It has thus come to pass that, in today’s world, if a person sees no prima facie evidence for a religious proposition, she feels pretty fairly justified in dismissing it out of hand. Christopher Hitchens gave pithy expression to this commonsense attitude when he harrumphed, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
But there are other ways to grapple with these questions. As William James reminded his readers a century ago, our internal mental states and attitudes are not sui generis – that is, they don’t arise independently of our actions. Quite the opposite, in fact; our internal mental states are as much the consequences of our actions as they are sources of them. Stand up straight, James admonished his readers, and you’ll find yourself feeling as if you are an upstanding person. Slouch and you will feel otherwise. Trying to convince yourself that you are such-and-such a type of person without actually acting like that type of person is a perfect exercise in futility. You won’t believe yourself, and for good reason: you’ll be lying.
And so I have a dangerous suggestion for those who find themselves baffled or shocked or befuddled by the beliefs of their fellow men and women. Try them out. I am absolutely serious. Be methodical about it. Conduct living experiments in different belief systems, emphasizing the actions over the beliefs. See what the actions – the behaving “as if” certain things were true – do to your perceptions of the world.
Spend a month praying every single morning to a divine being that cares about you and wants the best for you, even if you can’t always fathom what that might mean. You don’t have to believe the proposition that such a being exists – just carry out the action, reliably, rigorously. Sit in the same place every morning, take a few breaths, clear your mind to the extent possible in this age of Constant Blathering Internet, and start talking (silently, if you prefer) to the God you may very well not believe in. Say thanks for the day you’re about to embark on, express frustrations, take your interlocutor to task for the messed-up nature of the world He created (or didn’t). Say amen (again, silently if that’s your style). Then get up and go about your day.
The next month, forget about God. Sit down every morning and do 15 minutes of Vipassana meditation. Prepare yourself by reading from the Dhammapada or Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught. Ponder the nature of the life as dhukka, or suffering. Act under the assumption that the universe is an eternal flux, which makes human beings miserable and confused when they look for the flux to cease, for something permanent. Sit upright (cross-legged if you can manage it), close your eyes but for a slit, and breathe. Allow thoughts to enter boisterously into your mind and then shuffle mildly out again, and don’t get trapped by them like shy people get trapped by by boors at a party. Feel the sensations in your body – a cramp here, an itch there, a growl of hunger. Respect the transience of each of these experiences. When your timer dings, get up and go about your day. Don’t say amen.
The month after that, experiment with the pantheistic atheism of Spinoza or Einstein. Assume that there is a sort of gorgeous order to everything in the universe, and that this order requires nothing from us, offers nothing personal to us but its own beauty and austere perfection, is in fact the source of all the natural world’s manifold wonders. It can be poetically referred to as a sort of “God,” but it is not a Being and it does not care about you. Its dizzying eruptions of mathematical wonder and natural grandeur, though, more than make up for its lack of personal warmth. Go out every night and spend 15 minutes observing the staggering array of the stars, or – if the weather is inclement – seat yourself by a window and wonder at the sheets of rain, the stochastic patterns of the snow whipping across the street, the beautiful bulbous shapes of the undersides of cumulus clouds. Do one or the other of these things every single day, without fail, for a month. Worship the natural world through nontheistic contemplation in 15-minute sips for four weeks straight.
In each of these experiments, take copious notes. Journal diligently. By the time you get to Spinoza and Einstein, you will have forgotten what it feels like to pray to a personal God, or whatever experiment you started out with. Your notes will help you compare the textures of your experiences later on, and will help you identify patterns in your thoughts and behaviors you had not recognized while they were happening. This post-hoc record of your thoughts, perceptions, and realizations will be more valuable than you think.
You don’t have to and absolutely shouldn’t limit yourself to these suggestions listed here. Branch out. Be a Muslim for a month – learn how to conduct salat, or Islamic prayer toward Mecca, and actually do it each day. Try to keep in your mind the Muslim idea of God – beneficent, non-anthropomorphic, awe-inspiring – as you kneel and bow. Or be a Sufi for a month. Each and every day, write a love poem to a mysterious, mischievous God who wants nothing more than an all-consuming spiritual love affair with you. Then the following month, devote yourself to the Hindu god Shiva. Find a willing Hindu temple nearby and ask them nicely to teach you how to do puja (ritual worship) for the god. And then do it.
In any of these cases, the important thing is to do the thing, whatever it is, regularly, without fail, for as long as you are conducting the living test. You may be rolling your eyes inwardly, or even outwardly – but as long as you are showing up each day, you’re encountering some version of the world that previously was inaccessible to you.
I’m sure that many readers will find this suggestion ludicrous. Why, they’ll demand to know, should I bother bowing to a ganja-smoking Hindu deity who I know for a fact does not exist, when I could be out meeting girls or learning how to DJ? I already know what I believe! I don’t need to waste my precious time experimenting with other people’s beliefs!
But this is to mistake the nature of belief. The refusal, a priori, to conduct living experiments with religion is analogous a person who refuses to look through a microscope because the existence of rotifers in the water sample ought to be obvious to the naked eye. Such a commonsensical skeptic would argue that any modifications to our eyesight in hope of finding invisible microbes are an evasion of the proper conditions of the experiment. Rotifers, our hypothetical scoffer insists, are either there, or they’re not. You shouldn’t have to do anything to find them.
And of course this person would be embarrassingly wrong. The blunt fact is that both science and religion depend utterly on our willingness to alter our perceptual contexts by our decisions and actions. Praying to Mecca five times a day changes the way you experience the world. So does spending a 35-year career pointing expensive telescopes at quasars. And by altering the conditions of perception by doing things, we change the grounds for our interpretations of the the things we perceive. You take the action of looking through the telescope, and find that what you always thought was one star is actually a binary star system. You pray to Allah and find that Islam is not what you thought. The world, literally, becomes a different world. So if you want to make peace with the oddity of the various worlds other people seem to be inexplicably living in, start by stepping, even ever so lightly, into those worlds – and the concrete actions that make them possible.