Wondering What to Believe (Part 4)

Posted on October 12, 2012


The Mormons came to the door again last night, and I didn’t handle it well. The last time they showed up – several months ago – I invited them in. Maybe I was in a better mood then, or felt sorry for them because it was raining so hard, or because it was late and they looked tired.

That evening in the middle of June, we sat in the living room and talked, the two young men and I, they dressed in suits and barely into their twenties, and me in my usual jeans and sweatshirt and now catching glimpses of sixty on the horizon. The conversation was more than civil. It was open and friendly, with both sides explaining their position. They said that God had led them to me, that they had come all the way from Wyoming to deliver a message that would change my life. I told them they must have misunderstood God, or taken a wrong turn somewhere, because they had skipped over a whole lot of people – ten states and two provinces – to get to me, when there seemed little chance I would become convinced of anything.

“It’s nine o’clock at night,” I had said. “It’s raining. You show up at someone’s home, looking like undertakers and wanting to talk about God. That’s weird. Do you see how you’re creating an impression that’s an automatic obstacle, even before you’ve said a word?”

“Yes,” they had answered. “But there’s no other way.”

I served them root beer, and said there had to be another way. We talked, a little about our diverging views, but more about how such disagreements and differences in faith tend to cause big problems. They weren’t going to convert me, and I had no desire to convert them. The Book of Mormon was their lifeboat, and they spoke of it with tears in their eyes. I was sure they would drown without it. But I was just as sure that I couldn’t unravel their faith, even if I’d wanted to. After decades of wrangling with myself and butting heads with others, I’ve concluded that this idea is at the core of everything:

We don’t decide what to believe.

A lot of people will argue with that, and will do so with a passion and certainty that may surpass my own. They can’t help it, because even when discussing belief in general, we all think our convictions have emerged from some process of sifting and analyzing the evidence – that we’ve followed a logical path and reached the only reasonable verdict. Most people seem sure that what they believe is the last step, or at least the latest step, in a series of conscious decisions.

I used to think so, too. That’s what I was taught. It’s a convenient theory, because it holds people accountable for the particular side of the fence on which they find themselves perched. It justifies holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, jihad, and the burning of books and human beings. In fact, if God is in your camp, any endeavor – no matter how unspeakable – becomes sanctioned by its own success. As we all try to understand the incomprehensible, the struggle seems a little easier if we can just get rid of anyone who refuses to follow the crowd. However, the less extreme will settle for changing the minds of those whose faith doesn’t match their own, or those who don’t rely on faith at all.

At one end of the scale we have genocide, based on which culture the victims happened to be born into; we also have threats on the lives of individuals because of a movie they produced, a book they wrote, or a cartoon they drew. At the other end, we have well-meaning visitors showing up uninvited, reciting the scripture that was used to brainwash them, and now hoping to employ that same scripture to cleanse the souls of whoever happens to open the door.

But if I’m right – if we don’t choose what to believe any more than we decide to love opera or despise broccoli – then it’s all a tremendous waste of energy. What we really should be doing is less talking and more listening, building bridges instead of blowing them up, practicing the tolerance every religion professes to cherish. Preaching isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Threatening them with physical harm or eternal damnation isn’t either. Those things may affect what someone does, or says, because you can coerce through fear and intimidation. But they won’t reach down to the level of belief.

This is written in the Christian Bible: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) In a similar way, Romans 12:3 instructs the reader to “think soberly, each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned.” In other words, God’s own book teaches that he either gives you the faith or he doesn’t. This isn’t the message being peddled door-to-door, of course, because it undermines the assertion that non-believers will be punished. Why would a loving, all-knowing creator deprive his children of an essential trait, then doom them to everlasting pain for it? He wouldn’t. Further, if heaven offers the promise of endless joy after death, why would anyone choose to reject it?

That last question, I realize, will be repeated by some. “Yes! That’s what we want to know!” they’ll say, shaking their heads in confusion. Their eyes will flash with genuine concern while their lips curve into a smile that says, “You poor idiot. I have the answer right here. I’m going to heaven and you can come too, if you’ll just wise up, and believe.”

Believe? Or say I believe? They’re not the same things, and if it’s true that God exists and hears my thoughts, I’d be fooling everyone except the only one who matters.

I don’t think a single person or group holds the answer. We’re all born into a pool of principles, or we fall into one, modifying our belief systems gradually, bit by bit, through experience. But the possession or lack of faith is beyond our control. It isn’t a choice. In this sense, all religions are equally valid, and equally useless. Each is no closer or farther from the truth than the convictions of atheists, the uncertainty of agnostics, or the philosophy held by anyone else.

It was a pleasant place for my mind to be, this cloud of shared ignorance, a feeling of tolerance, empathy, and peace. We could all get along.

Then the Mormons came back.

These were not the same young men who had visited during the summer. Those two had called me twice in August, wanting to know when we might meet again. I had told them that circumstances in my life had changed, and I no longer had the motivation to continue our discussion. Now two different well-dressed, smiling people were standing there in the dark. They’re sending in the SWAT team, I thought.

“God wants you to be happy,” they said. It was the smiles that bothered me.

“How old are you?” I asked them. I knew that had nothing to do with anything, but I said it anyway, as though it did.


“Well, I’m almost fifty-seven. I’ve read shelves of books on this subject. I’ve talked and listened to hundreds of people – preachers, evangelists, scientists, non-believers. What are you going to tell me that I haven’t already heard? Do you have some late-breaking news about Jesus?”

That’s pretty much what I said. Later, after I closed the door and sent them back into the night, I wished I’d said this:

“If the ultimate goal is to understand how we got here and what our role might be, we’re all at square one. Nobody knows what they’re talking about, and that should tie us together, not tear us apart. Let’s try to figure out how to do that. Would you like some root beer?”

I’d been given the chance to extinguish a small fire, but instead I had started another one. It’s the collection of such incidents that has led to the conflagration the world now lives with. All based on an inability – or refusal – to listen and accept.

At the same time, understanding and respect may be too much to hope for, and wishing we could all get along is as simplistic as saying that God wants us to be happy. Maybe tolerance is the best we can do. If we could manage to avoid killing people in the name of religion, and stop vandalizing churches, temples, and mosques, that would be a great beginning. Simply leaving each other alone would be an improvement.

Wherever we are along the spectrum of faith, it should be a private matter, and a humble one. When we insist on turning it into a show, an excuse to behave badly, or a reason to do battle, we defeat the purpose.

At least, that’s what I believe.