In recent weeks a book has been published: the writer declares himself to be an atheist but, unlike his militant ‘brothers in arms’, he can see many useful aspects that religion as a whole provides to the life of an individual or the life of a community. He proposes the adoption of many religious elements like sacraments, assemblies and so forth, but the rejection of – as he calls it – superstitious and irrational ideas of God himself. The book has been hailed as a new, fresh idea. But it is not. In communist countries their people were ideologically deprived of religious beliefs; but to fill the void communist rulers introduced personality cult, party meetings, huge parades and rallies, indoctrination and so on. These are elements of religion, but without God. Latterly we saw the idea in action when ‘the Great and Beloved Leader’ of North Korea died.
We, human beings, have one unbearably embarrassing feature: the mind. More or less consciously, each one of us is constantly struggling to make sense of our lives. It’s our constant effort to make our own existence valuable. Making sense of our lives sometimes takes on a tragic or ridiculous form – but it’s the most important element that separates us out from the animal universe. We look for depth in our not-so-exciting lives, we seek understanding in time of trouble, we try to see beyond our inevitable death. We do all these things on our own and with the help of others as well. Science, art and religion are mutually interwoven in our ways to find the answers.
Most difficult questions are raised when we face personal tragedy or enormous disaster. For many people the very existence of evil, suffering and illness is an argument against God. Their belief is that, if God exists and is interested in our world, there shouldn’t be any pain. It seems that many people followed Jesus for a similar reason: they were understandably looking for cure and relief. As we hear in today’s gospel: ‘he cured many who were suffering […], he also cast out many devils’. Interestingly he cured many, but not everybody; he cast out many devils, but not all of them. All those cured would certainly die sooner or later. Why didn’t Jesus cure everyone? Why didn’t he cast out all evil spirits? And how did those not cured feel?
Later on that night ‘Jesus went off to a lonely place and prayed there’. On being found and informed by his disciples that everyone had been looking for him he replied: ‘Let’s go elsewhere […] so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came’. His task was teaching people about God and his plans. He was curing people from despair, hopelessness, unworthiness and so forth. He didn’t remove pain or simplify the complexity of life. But he made sense of it.
People can try to build an atheist equivalent of religion; actually, in many instances, it has already happened. But the greatest error is a belief that human relationships are the core of religion; the belief that non-religious sacraments and meetings would give identical results to the religious ones. In fact all such attempts have failed; because the very existence of God makes sense of human life only.