The other day there was a debate in a bookstore between a Mormon, who had written a book about faith, and a secular scientist, who writes a column in a journal about reason—regarding the existence of God. The scientist argued that given our knowledge of astrophysics there was simply no room for a Prime Mover, and agnosticism or atheism were the only positions one can take. The Mormon countered that we do many things—not just believing in God—based on faith alone, and they can be as correct as reason. We marry or invest in stocks based on limited knowledge and with faith. Belief in God is similarly based on limited knowledge augmented by faith, which is not necessarily wrong. In the question period, people sorted themselves into two opposing camps: either that there had to be a God or that there absolutely could not be a God. There seemed to be no middle position for argument. I felt a little sorry for the Mormon, who kept repeating his stock-investment parallel to faith.
What would I have said? Various things came to mind out of my own life. The fact that my parents were not religious. My father was born a Catholic; my mother was born a Protestant, in fact a Calvinist, the sect that converted the Transylvanians in the sixteenth century. When my parents married, the religion of their offspring followed a rule set down for such mixed marriages by the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand in the nineteenth century. This was that boys should follow the religion of the father, while girls the religion of the mother. As girls, therefore, my sister and I were Protestants.
My family never went to church, nor said grace, read the Bible nor otherwise practiced religion. (Actually, I was curious about my best friend’s Catholic religion and went with her once or twice to a white-washed church and admired the colorful saints painted on the walls.) Baby Jesus brought her Christmas presents, but a neutral angel brought ours.
The Communists were trying to discourage religion as much as they could, in line with Marx’s pronouncement that religion is the opium of the masses. They could not ban it entirely, but it was a black mark against you. Because it was a black mark, it was also a point of resistance. My family believed in the religious rituals of baptism and funerals for social reasons—it was what everyone in society did. But as soft resistance against the Communist system, they also encouraged my confirmation in Protestantism at the age of twelve. I had to read something in the Bible and answer questions in a church ceremony. I don’t think I understood much of what I had memorized, but I certainly was aware of the anticommunist resistance of the entire thing. Later, the school principal called me in and told me that if I continued with religion, I would not get into the university. I was proud of being a rebel. My experience was political, not religious. Also, I had a pretty new dress for the occasion.
My father was an architect with the education of a scientist. Later in life, he had strong opinions about the basic tenets of Christianity, such as the Resurrection of Christ. He read books like Why I am not a Christian by the English philosopher Bertrand Russell. He often said to me: “After the eighteenth century, an educated person could no longer believe in God.” To him, that was a fact, not an opinion.
My mother was a romantic. She believed that there might be a vague entity called “God” but not in organized religion. She had a belief in fate and often pointed up to the heavens to an imaginary “big book” in which all the future was already written. (Perhaps a remnant of her childhood of deterministic Calvinist teachings.) When in pain or in trouble she cried, “Istenem! Istenem!” which means, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
Now I actually agree with my father that since the eighteenth century no one can believe in God, and it is amazing to me that people still do. But when in pain or in trouble, I cry with my mother, “Oh my God! Oh my God help me!” knowing full well that there is no one up there to hear it.
I listened to the bookstore debate about the existence of God in some fascination. The ones on the side of atheism were articulate, made sense, and I agreed with them wholeheartedly. The ones on the side of faith and God were incoherent, fuzzy, even silly, and sometimes desperate. It was impossible not to agree with their desire. Too many people in the world throughout history have believed in some higher power to dismiss it wholly as idiocy.
And then I began to wonder, not so much whether there was or was not a God, but whether human beings were so constituted as to have an inborn concept of such a higher power. After all, we are born with the ability to have a language but no specific language. Could we not be born with the concept of something higher, something the opposite of the weak and limited beings we are, and fill that something with the specificity of our culture and personality? Could that not even have been an evolutionary advantage in the development of the psyche? Short of unleashing the scientists to find the “God-spot” in the brain, could it not be something in us? Not that we are gods, but that we have the ability to conceive of gods if we want to. In which case, God does and does not exist at the same time.