Stephen King on God and complacency

Stephen King on God and complacency November 4, 2014
Photo by Aftab Uzzaman, (CC)
Photo by Aftab Uzzaman, (CC)

On Halloween, Rolling Stone featured a fantastic in-depth interview of Stephen King. The interview touches on a range of topics, from King’s struggles with addiction to his writing process, young adult fiction, and political involvement.

If you’re a King fan, I recommend reading the interview in full. But what struck me as particularly interesting was the part where King discusses his views on religion.

From Rolling Stone:

Switching gears, your new book Revival talks a lot about religion. Specifically, one of the two main characters is a reverend that turns on God when his family dies but also delivers a sermon about why religion is a complete fraud. How much of that sermon mirrors your own beliefs?
My view is that organized religion is a very dangerous tool that’s been misused by a lot of people. I grew up in a Methodist church, and we went to services every Sunday and to Bible school in the summer. We didn’t have a choice. We just did it. So all that stuff about childhood religion in Revival is basically autobiographical. But as a kid, I had doubts. When I went to Methodist youth fellowship, we were taught that the Catholics were all going to go to hell because they worship idols. So right there, I’m saying to myself, “Catholics are going to go to hell, but my aunt Molly married a Catholic and she converted and she’s got 11 kids and they’re all pretty nice and one of them’s my good friend – they’re all going to go to hell?” I’m thinking to myself, “This is bullshit.” And if that’s bullshit, how much of the rest of it is bullshit?

[…]

All that said, you’ve made it clear over the years that you still believe in God.
Yeah. I choose to believe in God because it makes things better. You have a meditation point, a source of strength. I don’t ask myself, “Well, does God exist or does God not exist?” I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, “God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.” And that works fine for me.

There are two reasons why I find this part of King’s interview interesting. First off, King’s view on religion provides a healthy counterexample to stereotypes about religious people that many prominent Atheists tend to trade in. Although he remains religious, he harbors the same kind of healthy skepticism that we seculars pride ourselves on having.

Many Atheists who write about religion, myself included, have experiences with organized religion similar to King’s. I was fortunate enough to spend most of my formative years in a fairly moderate religious community, but my brief foray into evangelical Christianity left me with serious concern about religion’s role in the world. On more than one occasion, I saw religious scriptures invoked to support discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Beyond that issue, some particular services stand out to me, like a contrived attempt by a pastor to explain why Jesus and his disciples – although seemingly socialist – would definitely be more like Tea Partiers today. There was also a 45 minute sermon on why congregants needed to give 10 percent of their income to the church, and why donating to other charitable causes just wouldn’t make the cut. And then there was the general tribalistic attitude, which juxtaposed “people of the World” with “people of God.” (Where being a “person of God” seemed to have everything to do with being a member of the church, and very little to do with actually making the world a better place.)

But for a lot of people, religion is a force for good. For King, belief in God provides a way of coping. For many others, religious communities provide a place to form meaningful relationships with like-minded people. And religious communities have been important avenues for progressive activism, from the Civil Rights Movement through today’s Moral Monday movement.

There are religious people with all kinds of political and philosophical persuasions. And I suspect that those who, like King, see the potential for harm caused by organized religion are greater in number than we think. These people are our potential allies in standing up against religious reactionaries. Mocking these moderates for their beliefs will do little to help our cause.

Which gets us to the second second point I want to highlight in King’s interview. King sees a tendency toward complacency among people who hold strong religious beliefs. This kind of complacency is probably as widespread among Atheists, if not more so.

Again, from Rolling Stone:

Do you wish you had stronger beliefs? Would that give you comfort if you had more certainty?
No, I think uncertainty is good for things. Certainty breeds complacency and complacency means that you just sit somewhere in your nice little comfortable suburban house in Michigan, looking at CNN and saying, “Oh, those poor immigrant children that are all coming across the border. But we really can’t have them here – that isn’t what God wants. Let’s send them all back to the drug cartels.” There’s a complacency to it.

Our complacency takes a different form than the complacency King describes seeing in his fellow Christians, but it is no less toxic. And like the complacency he describes, ours is also rooted in certainty about being right.

Instead of leaning on “God’s will” as a cop-out from doing anything to make the world better, we Atheists have convinced ourselves that we are doing our part simply by “being right.” By making quips about religious people, the rationale goes, we are standing up for what is Right and True. [1. The most perverse manifestation of this phenomenon is the Atheist bloggers who seem to pound away at their keyboards with glee every time religion is implicated in any kind of scandal or tragedy.]

But if we want to make the world a better place, “being right” is not enough. We need to get off our asses and do something.


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