Recently I was in a pub in Melbourne, Australia, when two men stopped by my table. They were both, it turned out, professional philosophers in that sprawling shaggy lovely city, and we got into a great wild conversation about how religions are biological constructs at base, formed by the innate human urges to gather and to pray, but right there our opinions diverged like the rivers Don and Dee, for they believed that religions were only evolutionary urges at heart, whereas I believe religions are, for all their violence, still hints and intimations, lodestars and compass points, possibilities and verbs hurrying us home to the sea of mercy.
The philosophers were brilliant men, waaay more learned than me, and they flopped dark words on the table between us, words like knives: Inquisition, Shoah, pogroms, Troubles.
And yet and yet, gentlemen, I said, are there not also stunning visionaries, Maimonides and Mertons, Tutus and Tukurams, brave Dalai Lamas, tough tiny Teresas? Does not Islam, for all the seething madness of the modern murderer cowering in his cave, say that forgiveness is justice? Did not Gandhi forgive his assassin with his last breath? Did not a pope recently kneel and apologize? Did not the Prophet himself, peace be upon him, ask for forgiveness and sing the endless mercy of the One, a song maybe old bloodthirsty bin Laden ought to learn the words to? Are there not more than two hundred references to the holiness of forgiveness in the Qur’an? Is not the point of all religion to push us past our normal violence into some sweet new world?
They demurred; for them religions were merely ways that we crowd together against chaos. Religions, said one, are finally no different than football teams and nations and sewing clubs; we are made to collect in clans, and will do so on any excuse, which explains heavy metal concerts and Star Trek conventions, for example.
We parted amicably; but I have continued to think about that day, because I still have faith in faith, despite all the evidence that religions are merely nutty hobbies, like being a Cubs fan. I keep thinking that under the rituals of religion there is a crucial wriggling possibility for what we might someday be. It’s the same possibility you see sometimes under patriotism or sport or families; a humor and mercy, a grace and mercy, a warmth beyond all sense. Sometimes, for an instant, at a game, a wedding, a park, you get a flash of connective energy with your fellow beings — just a hint, a shiver of inexplicable peace and joy.
That flash is what religions are for. Yes, we gather because we are in awe of whatever it is that sparks life, and yes, we are desperate for definition, so we drape stories on the Unnameable, and yes, we gather because we are mammals just down from the trees, as the great American sage Peter Matthiessen says, and are afraid of death, which is why we deliver it to others so easily. But what if, as Peter also says? What if our moral evolution ever caught up to our physical evolution? What if we ever dropped the dagger, plucked the beams from our eyes, and finally grew up? What if?
And we have maps of that bright country already, in the brilliant bones of every religion. There are and have been many thousands of religions, all flawed and strident, but all, at heart, are about awe for what is and yearning for what might be. More than any other force on this bruised earth, religions keep that desperate dream alive; for which this morning I sing them, and bow toward the holy light, and pray.
Brian Doyle (email@example.com) is the editor of this magazine. His most recent books are The Wet Engine, about hearts, and The Grail, about a year in an Oregon vineyard.