It was a Sunday morning and I was busy doing errands around the house. I had started a load of laundry and I was in kitchen preparing breakfast. Then I heard the doorbell ring. “Who could that be at this time?” I thought to myself rushing to the door. As I opened the door, I saw an elderly couple standing there with some flyers in their hands. They were well dressed with smiles on their faces. The man looked at me with his big eyes which were looking even bigger through his thick glasses. He enthusiastically said, “Good morning! Tell me dear, do you believe in God?”.
“Oh no! Not now!” was my first thought. I knew where this conversation was headed. They are here to have a small chat with me and leave me with an invitation to come and visit their religious organization. “Do you believe in God?” is the typical opening question of that old script.
This was not my first encounter. I have had people come at the door and ask me that question. But most of the times they were young men or teens and they typically were in hurry as well so it used to be over fast. But doing this routine with an elderly couple was new.
I had always thought that “Do you believe in God?” is a very loaded question and also very paradoxical.
You need beliefs for a phenomenon that you haven’t experienced directly.
For example consider these questions:
“Do you believe in rain?”
“Do you trust in sun that it provide you heat?”
“Do you believe strawberries exist?”
These questions seem pointless because we don’t need to believe in rain, sun or existence of strawberries, because we have experienced it firsthand without shadow of any doubt. Now, for phenomenons we don’t get to experience directly, say : aliens, yeti, loch ness monster, ghosts, for such we have nothing but our imaginations and logic to experience them indirectly. If you ask “Do you believe in ghosts?” That becomes a valid question to start discussion on ghosts, aliens and other such topics. You can have a rational, logical discussion on how you conclude such phenomenon is probable or not and then to imagine the experience.
But such questions with respect to God get paradoxical. Because we define word “God” as a pointer to omnipotent creator, timeless presence, essence of all good human qualities like love and compassion. If that is how we define it, we should feel the presence in every breath and would not need to ask each other, “Do you believe in this?”. “Do you believe God exists?”. Such questions paradoxically suggest the failure to feel the very goodness we should be living and breathing.
When people ask questions like “Do you believe God exists?”, “Do you trust in God?” etc. they want to assess your mental model about the world and meanings you have placed on life itself. They are interested in your mental formations: your thoughts, symbols, beliefs, models about the ultimate reality. Then they want to see how aligned your model is to their model and if they could potentially influence you to change your mental model to match with their’s. That is the game we all play with each other.
Any mental model about ultimate reality, no matter how beautiful, elegant, or popular it is, can never substitute for the doubtless certainty that comes only with direct experience.
A better question could be “How do you experience God?” or even simply “What are your ways to feel good?”. We have our own ways to feel that feeling we call “good”. That feeling which is partly happy, partly peaceful, at times energized with love and inspiration. That is the good feeling, the sacred feeling, the divine presence. Some of us feel it during prayers, some of us feel it during deep meditations, some of us feel it through love, some feel it in nature, some feel it when solving a mathematical problem. This is so because there has to be many ways, infinite ways to experience the good that is omnipresent, and timeless.
“Miss, Do you believe in God?”, the man insisted that I answer this question. I smiled at him and said “I experience God.” He looked shocked and confused. This was not the answer he was prepared to deal with. He asked, “What is your religion?”. I answered “I don’t have a religion.” He looked disturbed. “Where are you from originally?”. I said “I was born and brought up in India.” His eyes lit up. He said, “India has many religions. How could you not have one?”. I said “India has almost all religions, but chose neither.” He frowned at that. I could see what he was thinking. “She is probably an Atheist! Let’s not waste a flyer here.” He turned around to leave. I felt sad to disappoint an elderly couple. I wished I could invite them in to sit a bit and get some refreshments. The couple reminded me of grand parent like figures in India, who used to ask me if I have paid my respects to the deities and used to insist that I do so.
While putting the flyers neatly back into his bag, he said “Well, good luck and I wish your soul to be saved.” I bowed and said “Thank you Sir. I wish the same to you.” He abruptly turned back and looked at me with his big eyes filled with shock and slight anger. I then realized that I had unknowingly insulted him by wishing him the same. He was sure that his soul was already saved, he has been doing everything prescribed for that to happen. His soul was already insured, while mine was still unaccounted for, from his point of view. Who am I to wish him the same? He might have thought.
His wife who had been an observer to it all, looked at me deeply and gave me a knowing smile, then she took hand of her husband, patting it to comfort him. They turned away, hand in hand, walking slowly to the next house to ask the same question. I felt the love between them and felt their compassion for others. No matter what their mental formations about God are, their intention to help others was rooted in compassion. The fact that they decided to do this instead having a quiet morning in the comfort of their home, made me feel how much they care for this world.
When I feel so much goodness knocking on my door, does it really matter how my neurons fire when I hear the word “God”?