Thursday, October 1, 2015


The two men in the sauna this morning were conversing mostly in Russian, with a bit of English thrown in along the way. One was my age or older, and fair of skin. The other was a dark skinned young man who looked Arabic. As they spoke I heard several references to Kazakhstan. It was a friendly conversation between strangers who had ties to a common place far away.

At one point the older man said, “What is your name?” Long pause. The young man then answered, “My name is (pause) Mohammed.” The older man said, “My name is Wassily.” The conversation at that point reverted to Russian for a while. Then in answer to something the older man said, the young man rushed to interject, “I am an atheist.”

Wassily said, “Oh ok. Well I like everybody. It doesn’t matter. There are all kinds of faith. It’s all good.”

Unless someone had been tampering with his religion, Wassily was Russian Orthodox. They are usually a bit inclined to insist that they are “the one true Church.” But Wassily was an ecumenist. I wondered how that came about.

But I just couldn’t stop thinking about what it must be like to be an atheist named Mohammed. I wondered how much his atheism had to do with disbelief in God and how much he just meant, “I am not a Muslim. I am not one of them. I did not fly planes into the World Trade Center. I have never made an IED.”

I wondered why he chose to be an atheist instead of a Quaker or a Hindu or a Jain (though that does take a pretty demanding lifestyle if you are doing it right.) And I wondered if Wassily was really telling Mohammed it was ok to be an atheist -- or might he be saying, “Come on now Mohammed, it’s ok. You can be a Muslim. You don’t have to give me this atheist song and dance. That’s for white kids from Seattle, not you.”

The United States government survived 9/11 right well. Even some of our freedom that we sacrificed to “The Patriot Act” is being gradually restored. But religion did not fare so well that day. No kind of religion fared well. And there was the irony, that religious fanatics should set out strike a blow for their faith against a Western secular society, but the effect was to undermine and discredit their own faith.

Alper says in The God Part that religious belief is hardwired into the human brain. David Sloan Wilson says in Darwin’s Cathedral that religion is a necessary matrix for society evolved through the millennia.'s+cathedral+evolution+religion+and+the+nature+of+society&sprefix=Darwin's+Cathe%2Cstripbooks%2C213&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Adarwin's+cathedral+evolution+religion+and+the+nature+of+society Psychoanalysts tell us that we all have a god-image in our heads. It is an inevitable part of grown up as a human being. (Whether we choose to believe in it or not is largely a matter of how we feel about the people out of whom we constructed that image.)

So religion will most likely recover its market share in time. But what kind of religion will it be? Call me a Pollyanna, but I hope that religion will come back stronger and healthier than before. I hope we will learn that what we do in the name of our God speaks louder than what we say about our God. Karen Armstrong, in Fields of Blood, makes an overwhelming case from history that religions do not actually cause the wars and other atrocities committed by their adherents.

Jonathan Haidt supports her conclusion in The Righteous Mind. But they both agree that religions are all too prone to be coopted by powerful people with dark agendas. We become cheering sections for behaviors that are antithetical to what we believe. My hope is that we will disidentify with the powers and the principalities of this present age and speak from our own hearts, mindful that what we do in the name of our God must be worthy of our God.

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