Last week my nine-year old daughter found out about Santa Claus. I had a close call last year when she questioned how Santa could deliver presents around the world in one night – but I was able to win her over with some fast talk about just-in-time supply chain management systems and different time zones. This year she just caught me at a bad moment. The conversation went like this:
Emmy (my daughter): “So Mom, I know there’s no Santa Claus” Me, replying distractedly as I put away the laundry and made the bed: “Oh really, how did you find out? Emmy: “Oh – I did just now.”
This moment of disenchantment happens to every kid, so I don’t feel so bad about it (although I was a bit perturbed to learn that she later cited me as an authoritative third- party source during a playground debate about Santa’s non-existence). Anyway, what happened next was the fascinating part. I asked her if she was disappointed to learn that Santa wasn’t real. She responded “No, of course not. I still get the presents!”
That’s when I had an ah-ha moment. As my smart daughter figured out, she’ll get her desired outcome – presents – regardless of what she believes. To put the situation into equations – both of the following statements are true:
In other words, belief is unrelated to the desired outcome. Now, atheist authors regularly compare belief in God to belief in Santa or the tooth fairy (check out this link for a fun example). So, if we convert the equations above into belief in God – does the same phenomenon hold true? In other words – are the following two statements also both true:
I’ve spent the past few days thinking about this question, and highly recommend going through this exercise for anyone who is a believer. The remainder of this post is deeply personal, because fundamentally I see faith as something that is (or should be) a personal choice that is rooted in the needs of the individual. I actually think some people (maybe a lot of people) really don’t need faith. But I do – and here’s why:
First – I need to define what I see as the “desired outcome” for my life (while tempting, it is not just to maximize my number of Christmas presents). One problem with this God equation I just set up is that what one believes can have a significant impact on one’s desired outcome. For example, someone who devoutly believes in Heaven and Hell may well define their desired outcome as getting to the former destination after death rather than the latter. If they later became atheists, they would need to revise both the left and right-hand side of the equation.
In my case, as I have mentioned in other posts, I am actually agnostic about the afterlife, and therefore my desired outcome for my life is actually the same as that defined by the atheist author Sam Harris in his latest book The Moral Landscape: to maximize my ‘well-being’ in this life. Basically – I want to be happy. Where I differ from atheists is in the role that God plays in achieving that outcome.
I have had a chance to test both of the equations above. As I describe in more detail in My Story, until recently God played no role in my life. And I was a kind, compassionate, law-abiding citizen who was frequently happy. In fact, I fully embraced Richard Dawkins’ advice for how to find meaning in your life without God: “The truly adult view..is that our life is as meaningful, as full and wonderful as we choose to make it”.(The God Delusion, p. 404)
Here’s the only catch: I have the good luck to be, by nature and upbringing, a deeply neurotic, insecure overachiever. As a result, this desired outcome of ‘making the most of my life’ became a continuous challenge to live up to impossibly high standards both personally and professionally. While these personality traits have helped me in all sorts of ways, they have also frequently led me to moments of deep emotional pain whenever I felt that I was falling short of my goals. Small incidents such as learning about a classmate who had already published her first book, or feeling that I had failed to be sufficiently sensitive to a good friend, would throw me into despair that I would ever make enough of my life to feel proud of it. My greatest fear was of what I just recently heard my father say disparagingly of an old acquaintance: “He didn’t make much out of his life”. As Hans Kung put it when discussing Descartes’ claim that we exist because we think/doubt (Cogito Ergo Sum):
Are there not people who perceive their existence more or less clearly and distinctly in the midst of doubt and yet deny that existence – people who are aware of the reality of their existence…but cannot accept themselves? I doubt, but what I am may still not be true; I do not merely doubt, I despair; and therefore the saying could be given a nihilistic turn: cogito, ergo NON sum. And this occasionally may be understood radically and even carried out in suicide. (p. 39, Does God Exist)
This was how I lived my life until my late 30s – like a house built on the San Andreas fault. Most of the time I was fine, but every now and then I would experience tremors that would threaten to plunge me into the abyss. The house of my life was built on sand, not rock (Matthew 7:26).
At the time God came into my life, I was experiencing particularly serious tremors. Chronically sleep deprived, having given up work because I was suddenly the mother of three children age 2, 0 and 0, I remember driving around in the minivan with a screaming toddler and screaming infant twins wondering with increasing urgency what methods I had at my disposal to just end it all.
Then I discovered God. Through reading, and something that I can only describe as a spiritual awakening, I came to realize that the way I had viewed my life was just completely wrong. The value of my life was not based on “what I made of it”. My life had inherent value, because I was a child of God – loved just because I was here, not because of anything I did. I saw that the way to happiness came through following the path laid out by Jesus – through his life, being and message. As part of this realization, I also discovered a palpable sense of peace – something that I can pull around me like a warm embrace when anxiety starts to well up. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes it:
…the idea in spiritual transformation is to integrate and reprioritize….so that our ordinary awareness is in alignment with and in service to our spiritual awareness (which in turn is in service to our divine awareness)….in that alignment our being flows rightly, from innermost out. When something needs to be done in the outer world, we have sufficient ego strength to do it. But unlike ordinary awareness, which is always doing things to assert itself or fulfill itself, action grounded in our spiritual awareness merely flows out the divine abundance without regard to outcome or any need to draw attention to itself (p. 15, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening)
God is now the foundation of my life – the core, the rock, that allows me to maintain balance even when I encounter life’s most serious challenges. This foundation has made me happier than I have ever been. It has freed me to pursue professional and personal goals without the paralyzing anxiety I used to feel that whatever I did was never good enough. Now when I do something – it’s not about me – it’s just about how the little that I can do can help make the world a better place.
So – couldn’t I have achieved the same outcome from psychotherapy? Interestingly – I have done quite a bit of that too – and I found that this helped me in identifying my negative patterns, but never helped me stop them. Probably at this point I would have been put on medication of some sort – but I do wonder why exactly taking prescription antidepressants is inherently a superior solution to the one I have found. In fact, from an economic perspective, it seems rather inferior.
Secondly – now that I have learned different behavior patterns – do I still need God to achieve happiness? The problem is that without God, this different world view just doesn’t make sense. If there really is nothing else to life but what we individually make of it, then I am back in my trap of worrying about what I make of it. Where is my foundation? Finally – the spiritual peace that I experience every day does not work without faith – I’ve tried.
Finally – I fully acknowledge that this doesn’t prove God’s existence in any way. The change I have experienced could be based on a complete delusion. But isn’t turning to alcohol, or antidepressants or any of the other myriad ways that we choose to escape from our internal pain – what makes those solutions any less delusional? According to science, our free will is probably a delusion too – but I don’t hear many people saying we should do away with that. So – for me, I am OK with letting go of my belief in Santa. But God? Yeah, I think I’ll hold on to that one.