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A Magazine of Ideas

Taking Religion Seriously

Friday, April 18, 2014

A good way to jar yourself out of unreflective atheism is to read about contemporary science.

The following is an excerpt from Charles Murray’s new book, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.


If you are a high-IQ recent graduate from a top college or university, here is where you probably stand when it comes to religion: It’s not for you. You don’t mind if other people are devout, but you don’t get it. Smart people don’t believe that stuff anymore.

Perhaps you are explicitly an atheist. Even if you are an agnostic, you don’t spend much time worrying about God, because there’s no point. If a God exists, it cannot be the kind of God who has anything to do with this flyspeck world, let alone with the lives of the individual human beings on it.

I can be sure that’s what many of you think because your generation of high-IQ college-attending young people, like mine 50 years ago, has been as thoroughly socialized to be secular as our counterparts in preceding generations were socialized to be devout. Some of you grew up with parents who were not religious, and you’ve never given religion a thought. Others of you went to Sunday school as a child (I’m going to use the Christian context in this discussion) and went to church with your parents in adolescence, but left religion behind as you were socialized by college. By socialized, I don’t mean that you studied theology under professors who convinced you that Thomas Aquinas was wrong. You didn’t study theology at all. None of the professors you admired were religious. When the topic of religion came up, they treated it dismissively or as a subject of humor. You went along with the zeitgeist.

I am describing my own religious life from the time I went to Harvard until my late forties. At that point my wife, prompted by the birth of our first child, had found a religious tradition in which she was comfortable, Quakerism, and had been attending Quaker meetings for several years. By the early 1990s, I was occasionally keeping her company. That was 20 years ago. Since then, my wife has become an increasingly serious Quaker. I still describe myself as an agnostic, but I’m shakier in my nonbelief. Watching her has taught me some things that I pass along to you with the recommendation that you don’t wait as long as I did to get serious.

Taking religion seriously means homework.

If you’re waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you’re kidding yourself. Taking one of the great religions seriously, getting inside its rich body of thought, doesn’t happen by sitting on beaches, watching sunsets, and waiting for enlightenment. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree. Even dabbling at the edges has demonstrated the truth of that statement to me for Judaism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I assume it’s true of Islam and Hinduism as well. In the case of Christianity, with which I’m most familiar, the church has produced profound religious thinkers for two thousand years. You don’t have to go back to Thomas Aquinas (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea). Just the last century has produced excellent and accessible work. But whomever you read, Christianity considered seriously bears little resemblance to your Sunday school lessons. You’ve got to grapple with the real thing.

A good way to jar yourself out of unreflective atheism is to read about contemporary science.

The progress of science from Copernicus until the end of the 19th century delivered one body blow after another to simplistic religious beliefs. First, it turned out that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. It wasn’t even the center of our solar system. Then the Newtonian laws of physics set up the image of a clockwork universe that didn’t need a God to make it run. Then Reason with a capital R was enthroned during the Enlightenment, in direct conflict with the intrinsic nature of religious faith. Then Darwin destroyed the creation myth. Then Freud destroyed our confidence that we were autonomous beings and told us that faith was nothing more than wish fulfillment.

If you’re waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you’re kidding yourself.

But in the late 19th century quantum physics was born, and with it began the story of an underlying physical reality that was not only stranger than we knew but stranger than we could have imagined. That story is still unfolding — dark matter is just one of the mysteries left to be solved, and entanglement is now accepted as proven with no one having the slightest idea how it works. The 20th century also revolutionized our understanding of the universe and its origins. Suppose at the beginning of the 20th century an astronomer had announced that the universe began with a big bang in which space, time, and the raw materials for the stars and planets suddenly emerged out of a timeless, spaceless singularity. He would have been laughed off the platform, because obviously what he had done was drape scientific language over the creation story in Genesis — “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” But it turns out that my imaginary silly astronomer was right. That’s how the universe really did get started.

After the Big Bang became accepted science, astrophysics began to calculate the infinitesimally small probability that any Big Bang would produce a universe capable of sustaining life — so infinitesimally small that the theory of multiple universes has become the necessary default explanation. Unless you posit multiple universes (and a whole lot of them too), either we are a one-in-a-billion chance or some power created the universe explicitly so that it would produce life. It sounds weird, I know, but check it out. Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, who is not himself religious, is a good starting point.

The more you are around people who are seriously religious, the harder it is to think there’s nothing to it.

I say this mostly out of my wife’s testimony, because she has been around some impressive examples, but to some extent from my own experience. You will encounter people whose intelligence, judgment, and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends — and who also possess a disquietingly serene confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas. They have learned to reconcile faith and reason, yes, but beyond that, they persuasively convey that there are ways of knowing that transcend intellectual understanding. They exhibit in their own personae a kind of wisdom that goes beyond just having intelligence and good judgment.

If any of these propositions has intrigued you enough to start taking religion seriously, here’s a short reading list for Christianity (if you’re Jewish, a sympathetic rabbi can get you started). My favorite entry point is Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. The book is a compilation of radio lectures on the BBC during World War II. It is effortless to read, is charming, radiates intelligence, and will get you thinking. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain is a classic account of a spiritual journey from youth to maturity. If you want an example of a book that will show you how much more there is to the Gospels than you realized, read The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault.

None of this material is boring. On the contrary, it’s riveting. I could legitimately say, “Have fun,” but there’s more to it than that…

Excerpted from The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray. Copyright © 2014 by Cox & Murray, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. AEI hosted a forum on his book on April 17. See Murray discuss The Curmudgeon’s Guide on “America’s Newsroom.”

FURTHER READING: Stan Veuger reviews “The Curmudgeon’s Guide”; Murray writes “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism,” “Are Too Many People Going to College?” and “Abolish the SAT.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group