Belief girlThe Anglican church is in trouble. The church, which has 80 million members worldwide, has become increasingly liberal and thus increasingly diverse. Its members believe a wide variety of things, a fact which is ultimately spelling disaster for the denomination. I began to ponder about why the synchronizing of beliefs seems to be linked so closely with the success or failure of churches.

Last year, my friend William Crawley interviewed the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, during which he asked him this question: “If God does exist and you do meet him in the life to come, if there is such a thing, and he asks you ‘Why didn’t you believe in me?’, what would you say?”

Dawkins has been asked this question many times in interviews, often giving the response made infamous on YouTube in which he throws the question back by asking what the asker will say when they come face to face with Thor or Zeus or Allah and that particular god asks them the same thing. In response to Crawley’s asking of the question, though, Dawkins paused after his standard answer and appended it with an even better reply, one that made me sit up and think:

“In any case, why would you suppose that God values belief above [being] a good man, [being] honest, [being] kind.’ Isn’t that more important than belief? What’s so special about belief?”

A great answer. What is so special about belief? Why do the religions say that God requires us to believe in him without evidence, that he requires us to believe a conclusion in the absence of certainty about any of its premises? Here’s the only good answer I could come up with:

Let’s suppose that there was an alternative to Jesus in the first century, like a Monty Python version of 1st Century history in which Brian is believed to be the Messiah, and he begins to teach his followers. And, rather than teaching them that belief in him will give them everlasting life, Brian teaches that belief is ultimately irrelevant (as Dawkins suggests). He tells his followers, “Whether you place your belief in me or not has no eternal consequences for you or for anyone else.” He does not connect the salvation of his followers with their faith or lack thereof. There’s no talk of how belief in him will give the believer everlasting life, or of how followers who stay faithful to the words of Brian will gain eternal favor.

Brianity has gotten a good start, and it’s an alternative to Christianity. But does it survive? The answer is… no, it doesn’t. Owing to the fact that ‘belief’ is not considered to be important, adherents to Brianity are not bound together to defend it. Adherents believe many different things, theologically (like Anglicans today). No spreading of the good news (‘gospel’) is necessary to ensure the salvation of the masses, meaning that fewer people hear about Brianity in the first place, meaning that fewer people become adherents.

What happened? Brianity became extinct, because it failed to evolve the attribute of belief necessary for its survival.
It is natural selection of the religions (or ‘memetics’, as Dawkins suggests). ‘Belief’ – an orthodox adherence to a creed – is an attribute of most major religions today precisely because it is responsible for making them the major religions of today. In other words, the successful religions are the ones which emphasize belief. In the same way that human beings exist today because they evolved a brain fit enough to help them survive, the major world religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism – exist today because they evolved a doctrine of belief. And that we must use fictional, hypothetical examples of religions which lack this doctrine of belief constitutes good proof of its importance in the success of religions.

“What’s so special about belief?” Do Christians hold that belief is so special because it’s true that it’s so special, or do Christians think belief is so special because Christianity wouldn’t exist unless they had believed so? After all, ‘Brianity’ is merely Christianity without the requirement to believe (or to act upon belief). There have been many such religious ideas throughout history; ideas which don’t require orthodox belief for salvation, like universalism and pluralism. None of them have been very successful on a broad level.

Brian teaches that there is a heaven (and possibly also that there is a hell), but he doesn’t chatter on about who will get there or how God will decide. He teaches that there is a God of love and of justice and of peace, but doesn’t proceed to describe God’s lifestyle or living conditions or character with great detail or with much certainty. He doesn’t assert that there are exactly three persons of the godhead or give rundowns on the hierarchy of angels. He answers many theological questions with a firm but thoughtful, “I don’t know”, and seems comfortable with doing so. He lives a life of decency, honesty, with a quest for truth and good character.

But he doesn’t tell you you must believe to be saved. And that’s why no Brianians exist today. Except me. You see, I am a Brianian, in many ways. To be more exact, I’m an un-orthodox Christian. I answer Dawkins by saying, ‘Belief is not that special.’ Like Anglicans who have come to believe different things from one another – a process which is currently demolishing their denomination – I don’t value the synchronizing of belief with fellow Christians very highly. I’d love to find a church which is content to differ on every aspect of theology, and in which preaching is the asking of good questions and the making of good arguments, rather than the dogmatism of certain answers.

And if Dawkins is one day proven wrong to be an atheist (and presumably his meeting face to face with God would constitute an experience which would change his mind), I’d say it’s reasonable to be confident that he would not be punished by any deity possessing the attributes of the Christian God for his earlier lack of belief. A God interested enough in humanity to create him and give him an afterlife would not punish him with eternal damnation merely for using his reason to pursue a quest for truth which led him elsewhere. Isn’t it God that places him in a life without certain knowledge of those things in the first place?

Religion’s need to keep followers pinned down to a certain orthodox belief may be best summed up by Monty Python’s Life of Brian itself:

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes, we are all different!
Man in Crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Shhh!

And accordingly, religion relies on the collectively rigid belief systems of its adherents to survive.

Human beings use their free will to pursue truth, because it’s in our nature to pursue truth. Some actually find it in Christianity, some in Islam, some in Scientology, some – like Dawkins – in atheism. But in the great, eternal scheme of things, whether we find it or not may not really matter. After all, what’s so special about belief?