Religious Differences, Act I

“God has become more remote and more incomprehensible, and, most important of all, of less practical use to men and women who want guidance and consolation in living their lives…However-and this is vital-the fading of God does not mean the end of religion.  God’s disappearance is in the strictest sense…a theological process; and while theologies change, the religious impulses which gave them birth persist.

“The disappearance of God means a recasting of religion, and a recasting of a fundamental sort.  It means the shouldering by man of ultimate responsibilities which he had previously pushed off on God…

“The prophesy of science about the future of religion is that the religious impulses will become progressively more concerned with the organization of society…”

Julian Huxley in “Man in the Modern World”



Act I, Scene 1

(The scene: A marriage counselor’s office.  Couple enter.)

COUNSELOR:  (rising from his chair behind a desk) Mr. Clayton, Ms. Hedges.  Doctors Clayton and Hedges, I should say.

HOWARD:  Howard and Alice, please.

COUNSELOR:  But you are both at the university, right?

HOWARD:  Yes, she’s a biologist and I’m in economics.

COUNSELOR:  I’m impressed.  Nice meeting you.  And I’m Bernie.  Thank you for coming.  How can I help you?

(They shake hands.  Counselor returns to his desk chair.  Following his lead, couple take their seats in front of the desk.)

 HOWARD:  As I mentioned over the phone, we’ve been in this relationship for some time.  All and all, we’ve been quite compatible, you know.  Enjoyed each other’s company.  Laughed at the same jokes.  Lot’s of common interests.  Then, just recently, we started seriously thinking of getting married.

COUNSELOR:  So far, so good.

ALICE:  So far.  But the idea of getting married raised an issue we hadn’t squarely faced before.  Our religious differences.


ALICE:  Frankly, it’s always bugged me a little to see Howard go off to church every Sunday morning and listen to somebody pretending to speak for God.  And I get a little ticked off at Christmastime with all that folderol.  Howard has his problems, too, of course.  My friends on campus are atheists and they’re not always the most tactful bunch.  So all along there have been these fairly minor glitches, but we’ve managed to live with them till now when…uh…

HOWARD:  When we started thinking about starting a family.  That’s when our real difficulties arose.

ALICE:  It’s ironical really.  The prospect of marriage should have made us happier, but it’s done just the opposite.  We both want kids but there are these perennial arguments about how we’re going to raise them.  And, for the first time, we’ve had to seriously face the question of how we were going to live together happily for years and years when we have such diametrically opposing views on something as fundamental as religion.  It kills me to say this, but it’s not only squelched our marriage plans, it’s undermined our entire relationship.

HOWARD:  The more we try to talk things out, the worse things get.  What it comes down to is that our views are simply irreconcilable.  So I guess we’re on the verge of just calling it quits.  Then I heard about you from some guy in the department, and here we are.  Frankly, I don’t know what in the hell you can do about it, but we thought we might as well give it a try.

COUNSELOR:  I’m glad you did.  Couples come to me with lots of problems: money, in-laws, sex.  But, believe me, religion is on the list too.  Right up there with the rest.  What I’m trying to say is you’re by no means the first clients I’ve had who are in this fix.

ALICE:  Have you been able to help them?

COUNSELOR:  I like to think so.  Some of them, at any rate.

HOWARD:  That’s a qualified answer if I ever heard one.

COUNSELOR:  I’m sorry.  It’s the best I can do.  Well, shall we begin then?  Good.  The way I like to start is to clear the air, so to speak.  Give both parties a chance to briefly state their case.  No interruptions, okay?  (pauses)  Let’s go ladies first.  Alice?

ALICE:  I believe in science.  First, because it strives for truth-honest, verifiable truth.  Second, because of what it’s accomplished.  It’s enabled us to lead longer, healthier, happier, more comfortable lives.  And third, because of its incredible beauty.  That may be hard for a nonscientist to understand, but the more you study how nature really works, the more fascinating it becomes.

That’s why this myth about a supernatural being bugs me so much.  ‘Supernatural’ means above nature.  Right?  So instead of appreciating this magnificently intricate machine that functions so perfectly on its own, these believers imagine there’s this…this…clunky thing out there bossing nature around.  As if that could possibly help anything.

Howard is not a stupid man.  Anything but.  Very analytical about most things.  But for some reason I can’t understand-the way he was raised, I guess-he’s swallowed this supernatural stuff hook, line, and sinker.  What’s so special about Christianity?  And why God for god’s sake, anyway?  Why can’t he just lead a good life without believing in fairy tales?  And, another thing, when you think back at all the horrible atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion, its not just baloney.  It’s poisonous baloney unfit for human consumption.  I guess that sounds kinda strong, but that’s how I feel.  I could say a lot more, but you asked us to be brief, so…

COUNSELOR:  Thank you, Alice.  Howard?

HOWARD:  I’ll make mine short too.  What I can’t get Alice to realize is that her philosophic contentions have nothing to do with how I feel.  I don’t care what she and her snide atheist friends say, religion does me a lot of good.  That’s all there is to it.  How?  It gives me a sense of peace, an inner harmony, you know.  When I’m down on account of something at the school or when my mother died, my faith in God is like a rock I can hold onto.  It’s a terrific help, it really is.  I feel more relaxed.  Churchgoing people live longer.  They’re happier, too.  Did you know that?

ALICE:  Baloney.

HOWARD:  No, it’s true.  They’ve done studies.  There’s another dimension, too.  We live in a sinful, dangerous world with people doing terrible things to each other.  Imagine how much worse it’d be without any moral beacon at all.  Without anyone even knowing what’s right and wrong.  Without there being anything to keep people honest and law-abiding, to hold families together, to raise children the right way, to help people find companionship, to teach racial tolerance, and to do a lot of charitable stuff besides.  That’s why God for god’s sake.

COUNSELOR:  Thank you, Howard.  Alice, any rebuttal?  Very brief, this time, please.

ALICE:  Sure.  Howard makes it sound like religious people are better off somehow.  Not in my experience.  The most confident, happiest people I know are those atheist friends of mine that Howard mentioned.  And let me tell you, they’re just as clean-living, honest, and altruistic as any of his church-going buddies.  The problem is that the church has fastened our value system to one of its pillars and declared that, God forbid, if you tore it off and moved it somewhere else, the pillar would come tumbling down and take the whole shebang with it.  That’s nonsense.  There are plenty of institutions that can do the work that religion does and do it better and cheaper.  The only way we’re going to build a better world is for everybody to turn their backs on religion and start thinking rationally.

COUNSELOR:  Howard, last word.

HOWARD:  It’s not nonsense.  Her highfalutin friends at the university are the exceptions.  Most people feel they need moral guidance and look to religion to provide it.  Alice may be willing to take a chance on a godless world but I’m not.  And history is on my side.  Just look at what’s happened to countries that have instituted atheism as their official belief system.  Every one of them has sunk into a morass of corruption and immorality.  Russia was a mess during the communist era.  Even China encourages religion these days.

ALICE:   That’s not…

COUNSELOR:  Never mind, Alice.  I’ve heard enough to confirm what I expected to hear.  Now…

ALICE:  Bernie, I’m sorry to interrupt but would you mind if Howard and I discussed things privately for a minute.

COUNSELOR:  Of course, not.  (leaves office)

Act I, Scene 2

(Couple stand in spotlighted corner of office.)

HOWARD: Now what?

ALICE:  I can tell where this thing’s going.  I want out of here.

HOWARD:   Why?  We’ve only been here a few minutes.  He seems like a nice enough guy.

ALICE:  They’re all nice guys.  I knew what to expect before we even came.  Why I agreed to go along with it, I don’t know.  The next thing will be.  Alice, how do you feel about what Howard said?  Howard, how to you feel about what Alice, said?  Alice, how do you feel about Howard’s feelings toward your feelings?  And now that you two understand each others’ feelings, why don’t you just kiss and make up.  They all play the same stupid game.  I’m leaving.

HOWARD:   I’ll have to pay for the full hour no matter what.

ALICE:   Just because you decided to waste your money doesn’t mean I have to waste my time.

HOWARD:   Calm down.  Nothing says he’s going through the rigmarole you’re worried about.  And even if he does, it’s plain rude to walk out on the guy.  Not just rude, it’s mean.

ALICE:   Not as mean as his pretending he can help us.

HOWARD:   He seemed pretty straightforward about that.  Surprised me.  Anyway, how can you be so sure he can’t help us.  Bill and Sally felt that he did them a lot of good.  At least give him a chance.

ALICE:  I don’t know.

HOWARD:  Think of all the students who would have liked to walk out on your lectures.  If they can stick it out, you can too.  Won’t hurt you to get a taste of your own medicine.

ALICE:  (laughs)  All right.  Let’s get this over with.

Act I, Scene 3

(Bernie is back at his desk.  Office is again fully lit. )

HOWARD:  So, what do you think, Bernie?  I suppose we ought to learn to accept our differences, value diversity of viewpoints, practice tolerance and all that sort of thing.

COUNSELOR:  Nope, I tried that approach for years.  Standard by-the-book therapy.  Trouble is it never works.  My experience has been that couples would go out the door holding hands and, two weeks later, the same old issues would arise and they’d be at each other’s throats again.

ALICE:  I can believe that.

COUNSELOR:  Now I’m taking a different tack.  I try to change my clients’ minds.

ALICE:  Really?  Change our minds?  You’ve got your work cut out for you.

HOWARD:  She means it, Bernie.  You have no idea how stubborn she can be.

ALICE:  Or how dense he can be.

COUNSELOR:  Apparently we all have our work cut out for us.  The truth is, my friends, having listened to your arguments, I find that you’re both partially right and partially wrong.  So what I’ll try to do is unite the right parts and leave you with something that you can both live with.

HOWARD:  What about the wrong parts?

COUNSELOR:  You’ll have to scrap them if you want this thing to work.  That’s a bit painful, of course, but we can get to it later.  Well, shall we proceed?

HOWARD:   I’m not so sure.  It sounds like this could turn into a real donnybrook.  We’ve had enough of them on our own without your help.

COUNSELOR:  But this time it will be with my help.  What do you say, Alice?

ALICE:  I kinda like the idea.  Maybe you can knock some sense into Howard’s head.  I’ve never been able to.

HOWARD:   And, at the same time, knock some attitudes out of her’s.  I’ve never been able to do that either.

COUNSELOR:  Then why don’t we just go ahead and see how things work out?  (taking a rather worn bench wig from the shelf and donning it)  As long as I am going to judge these matters, I might as well dress the part.  Client gave this to me.  I’m not sure what message he was trying to convey, but I know it set him back a few pounds.  How do you like it?

ALICE:  Not at all.

COUNSELOR:  Good.  You’re not supposed to.  Bitter medicine.  We’ll take up Alice’s position first.  Obviously, she’s devoted to her scientific work.  You’re not really opposed to science per se, are you, Howard?

HOWARD:   How could I be?  I use some pretty high-powered statistical analysis in my work all the time.

COUNSELOR:  Then don’t you think that, as a scientist trained to draw conclusions from physical evidence, she has a right to be skeptical about an entity she can not see nor hear nor feel?

HOWARD:  She has a right to feel any way she wants to, but so have I.  The trouble is she’s so damned intolerant.  My beliefs bug her.  That’s the difference between us.  She gets upset over anything that has to do with religion.  I say live and let live.  A lot of smart people-some scientists included-believe that science and religion deal with different issues altogether and can coexist harmoniously by operating in different spheres.  I agree with that.  Life poses a lot of moral and emotional questions for which science has no answers, period.  Nothing says you can’t have both religion and science.

COUNSELOR:  Sorry, Howard, but that’s one of your wrong ideas we’ll have to change.  It’s not realistic to think that anyone can compartmentalize his life in such a way that sometimes it’s governed by one set of guidelines and other times by a different set.  Real life situations never present themselves in such a well-defined manner.  Consider all the factors in the decision that brought you here today.  Obviously, religion played a part, but so did your affection for each other, the advice from Howard’s friend at work, the time that would have to be made available…

HOWARD:   Your fee.  Which I’m beginning to regret, by the way.

COUNSELOR:  My fee, by all means.  We don’t want to neglect that.

HOWARD:   I still don’t see why it’s not possible to harbor two philosophic schemes in one’s head and apply whichever one is better suited for the occasion.  Kinda like being bilingual.

COUNSELOR:  It can be tried, but not successfully.  It’s a problem for the individual himself because the two schemes are bound to overlap leaving him to wrestle with the conflicts.  And it’s a problem for those around him who can never be sure in which intellectual mode he’s operating at any given time.  Living with a religio/scientific might not be as troublesome as living with a manic/depressive, but the same kind of uncertainties arise.

ALICE:  Right on, Bernie.  I couldn’t have put it better myself.

HOWARD:  Stay out of this, Alice.  Look, I’ll think the way I want.  It hasn’t traumatized me so far and I doubt it ever will.  You can argue all you want, Bernie, but you’re not going to change my mind.  I have my faith and that’s the end of it.

ALICE:  ‘Faith’ meaning he doesn’t want to think about it anymore.

COUNSELOR:  The end of it, Howard, is that Alice is perfectly right when she insists that we view the world as best we can through a single scientific-rational, if you will-lens.

HOWARD:  So I’m all wrong and she’s all right.  Why didn’t you say so in the first place?

COUNSELOR:  Because she’s not right about everything.  And you’re not wrong about everything.  We’ll get into that next if you’ll give me the chance.

HOWARD:  Perfect Alice, wrong?  That I’d like to hear.

COUNSELOR:  Good.  Alice, let’s go back to a statement you made earlier to the effect that the only way we’re going to build a better world is for everyone to start thinking rationally.

ALICE:  I sure did and I thought you agreed with it.

COUNSELOR:  I agreed it would be nice if we could do that, yes.  But there isn’t a Chinaman’s chance that we can.  We’re simply not made to think rationally.  Every one of our decisions is emotionally-based.  That’s the way the brain operates.

ALICE:  Initially that’s true, but decision-making doesn’t end there.  It’s the logic oriented part of the brain that calls the shots.

COUNSELOR:  Within the bounds of the parameters handed to it by the primitive parts.

ALICE:  That’s your interpretation, Bernie.  You make is sound as though we’re nothing but a bunch of impulsive savages.  As a practical matter, most of us behave entirely rationally.

COUNSELOR:  ‘Entirely rationally?’  Surely you don’t mean that.  Granted most people are capable of thinking rationally on occasion, but…

ALICE:  Almost entirely rationally, then.  I don’t know what you’re driving at.

COUNSELOR:  What I’m driving at is that when it comes to important issues, when push comes to shove, it’s our emotions we fall back on: our choice of our life’s work, whom we marry, the vices we cling to, the prejudices we exhibit, along with, of course, the weighty decisions that determine our future.  Those are all cooked up in the muddy catacombs of the brain.  And that’s what you have to slog through if you want to influence anything.  Ask any advertising executive, any political strategist, any book publisher where he aims his message if he wants to sway the public.  They’ll all tell you the same thing.

ALICE:  You have a cynical view of things, Bernie.

COUNSELOR:  Not cynical, realistic.  You’re wrong, my dear, in thinking that we can rely completely on rational thought.  I profoundly wish we could, but we can’t.

ALICE:  Now I see where you’re going.  You’re going to sneak religion into this, aren’t you?  Is that where you think I’ve gone wrong?

COUNSELOR:  I’m afraid so.  But let’s take a short break here.  Will be back with you in few minutes. (exits)

Act I, Scene 4

 (Howard and Alice are alone in the office)

HOWARD:   Now what?

ALICE:  I don’t know what to think.  He’s a character, I’ll say that.

HOWARD:  All I know is that he’s a poor excuse for a marriage counselor.  If this is his idea of a reconciliation process, he’s doing a lousy job of it.

ALICE:  He’s opinionated enough, that’s for sure.  On what grounds, I can’t imagine.  He’s not the least consistent.  One minute he’s all for science, the next minute he’s knocking it.

HOWARD:  It’s his insults that bug me.  To both of us.

ALICE:  One thing I have to say for him is that he’s not the pabulum peddler I expected.

HOWARD:  Poison peddler, is more like it.  I could grow to really despise him and his stupid wig.

ALICE:  Maybe that’s his technique.  Force us to band together in the face of a common enemy.

HOWARD:  Clever.  The trouble is we’d have to keep coming back here to reinvigorate our hatred.

ALICE:  Once a year would do me.

HOWARD:   Me too.  During Hate your Counselor Week.

ALICE:  Sshh.  I hear him coming.

Act I, Scene 5

COUNSELOR:  (enters office carrying a tray containing a carafe of coffee and three cups)  How about a little fortification before we dig into Howard’s ideas?  (pours out three cups, hands them around, and then, glass in hand, stands)  Well, even the Religious Wars came to an end.

ALICE:  After thirty years.

COUNSELOR:  All the more time for counseling.

HOWARD:  That could get a bit expensive, couldn’t it?

COUNSELOR:   But altogether affordable.  I have a special thirty-year rate.  But we can discuss that later.  Let’s get back to work, shall we?  Howard, I liked what you said about religion.  Alice, don’t you think he spoke feelingly about the good he derived from attending church?

ALICE:  I’m sure you could find someone who would vouch for the pleasure he gets out of opium dens.  That doesn’t mean he should patronize them every Sunday.

COUNSELOR:  True.  But I would put churchgoing in a different category.

ALICE:  On what grounds?

COUNSELOR:   I’ll name two: for personal and social reasons.  You can’t deny that for many people, churchgoing satisfies a very deep seated instinct that is rooted in the very depths of time.  Evidence of religious rituals has been found among the earliest prehistoric sites.  And since that time-a span of say six-thousand years-every culture known to us has practiced some form of religion.  Think about that.  Cultures from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, equatorial to polar, landlubbers to seafaring, desert to rain forest, most wealthy to the most impoverished.  Religion in every time and place and under every condition.  What explanation could there be for that universality of belief other than it had performed a useful function for its practitioners?

ALICE:   I can’t imagine what.

COUNSELOR:  Let me try to help you.  Go back to the time when our proto-human ancestors first became conscious of their situation and realized how vulnerable they were.  Calamity could strike at any moment in the form of disease, accident, wild animals, bad weather, marauding bands of neighboring humanoids, and a dozen other life-threatening disasters.  It must have been terrifying.  Is it any wonder they sought protection by inventing powerful, supernatural spirits and creating ceremonies to ensure that these spirits would remain friendly.

ALICE:  Superstition in other words.  Witch doctors and tom toms.  You contend that’s a valid reason for churchgoing?

COUNSELOR:  Absolutely.  Back then and now as well.  All those millennia of dependence on religion have engraved religion in our minds, both psychologically and physiologically.  Researchers have even located a specific site in our brains devoted to spiritual inclinations.  I’m not in any sense a believer myself, but still I can’t walk into Chartres Cathedral or listen to Verdi’s Requiem without getting goose bumps.  I’m willing to bet that you’ve experienced these same kind of inner murmurings yourself.

ALICE:  I suppose I have.  A few times.  But I don’t go rushing around yelling ‘hallelujah’ when it happens.

COUNSELOR:  Just out of curiosity, what do you do?

ALICE:  I ignore it, of course.  I’m stuck with a lot of inherited traits, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily have to yield to them.  The other day, my instinct was to murder my dry cleaner when she scorched my best blouse.  You seem to imply I had an obligation to do so.

COUNSELOR:  I seldom recommend murder as a solution to my clients’ problems.

ALICE:   Pity.  You should have warned us in advance.  We would have looked for a more open-minded advisor.  Even if you’re right about this religious proclivity of ours-and I wouldn’t automatically concede that-it doesn’t say we have to indulge it.

COUNSELOR:  I didn’t say we had to.  Just that it can be a rewarding and beneficial experience for those that do.

ALICE:  Lots of animals have acquired superfluous adaptations they’d do better without.  Peacocks have more plumage than they have any use for.  They can’t chuck them, but we can chuck ours.  I bet if we really put our minds to it, kids born in the next generation would have to look up the word ‘religion’ in the dictionary when they come across it in some old, obscure text.

COUNSELOR:  Really?  Just like that?  In the blink of an eye, evolutionarywise?  As successful and as deeply-implanted adaptation as religion?  I suspect many of your peers would consider the hypothesis unscientific.

ALICE:  Unscientific?  You really know how to hurt a girl.

COUNSELOR:  Not my intention, I assure you.  Let me go on to my second point.  As I said, on a personal level religion offers an inspirational uplift for those who feel the need.  On a social level religious belief has been a necessity.  Howard himself alluded to this.

ALICE:  Howard alludes to a lot of dumb things.

COUNSELOR:  He’s dead right in this case.  Religion has been an evolutionary adaptation as indispensable to human development as tool making.  Mankind could not have advanced from familial clans to groups of hunter-gatherers and from there to settled agrarian communities without the disciplined social glue it provided.

ALICE:  Come on, Bernie.  That’s pure supposition.  You can’t speak with that much certainty about the whole course of human prehistory.  There may have been lots of cultures that professed no religion at all.

COUNSELOR:  Where are they?

HOWARD:  They’re extinct, that’s where they are.  They didn’t make it.  Good point, Bernie.

ALICE:  Even if you’re right about those primitive tribes, they have nothing to do with what’s going on now or in the future.

COUNSELOR:  I beg to differ.  Religion had everything to do with shaping modern history.  Practically single handedly, it preserved Western civilization during the Dark Ages.  Sponsored great art and music during the Renaissance.  And played a critical unifying role in the creation of today’s nation states.

ALICE:  Hold on, Bernie.  You’ve skipped over a few details in your paean to religion’s glorious accomplishments.  What about its little pranks such as initiating wars, inciting persecution, practicing torture, suppressing science, promoting intolerance, bamboozling people out of their money, and wasting incredible amounts of time and energy.

COUNSELOR:  All true, of course.  But as far as the future is concerned, whether religion at any given time and place had been helpful or injurious is immaterial.  What the past has demonstrated, time and time again, is that religion has enormous potential.

ALICE:  For what?

COUNSELOR:  For manipulating public consciousness on a vast scale.

ALICE:  And that’s a good thing?

COUNSELOR:  It certainly could be.  Think about it this way.  The fate of human society has only a tangential connection with bunches of nice people sitting around conference tables making rational decisions.  Our future lies in the hands of a wild herd of emotionally-driven creatures stumbling blindly around in the dark.  And, that being the case, the questions become: How can they be kept from junking the environment they depend on for their livelihood?  How can they be enabled to live peaceably with one another?  How can they be discouraged from over breeding a population beyond the carrying power of earth?  How can they be provided with the psychological crutch they need to hobble through their everyday personal problems?  How can they be convinced to educate themselves and their children?  How can they be encouraged to share the earth’s bounty with the less fortunate?  And, incidentally, how can they be prevented from plunging off the cliff at the slightest provocation?

ALICE:  And you say religion can handle all that?

COUNSELOR:  What other agency can?  Government?  Sure, as soon as you can find a bureaucracy that can tie its own shoelaces.  By moral suasion?  Not likely.  By police enforcement?  Perhaps, but I wouldn’t care to be around when it’s tried.  The one non-violent force-the only one I’m aware of-that has proven itself capable of dramatically influencing the behavior of masses of people is religion.

ALICE:  Oh, I’m aware of religion’s power, all right.  Reminded of it every time I open a newspaper.  But, from what I read, the effect of its pronouncements is not always as non-violent as you make out.

COUNSELOR:  Look at it this way.  Imagine that a pharmaceutical company has developed a very promising drug-an apparently break-though treatment for a hitherto incurable disease-but in test trials produced adverse side effects that prohibited its use.  Would you demand that the drug be banned forever or would you urge the company to continue its research in the hope that the drug’s disadvantages could be remedied?

ALICE:  It all depends.  If every one of the participants in its final trial keeled over, I’d put it on the shelf and forget about it.

COUNSELOR:  But what if religion could be tinkered with in such a way that its effects were unambiguously beneficent?

ALICE:  I can’t imagine how.  But I’m tired of arguing with you.  I’ll say this much for you, you carry marriage counseling to a new dimension

COUNSELOR:  I’ll take that as a compliment.  At any rate, the bottom line is that the arguments favor Howard’s churchgoing.  Shall we have another bit of fortification before we consider the more controversial part of Howard’s presentation.

HOWARD:  Do I need it?

COUNSELOR:  (pouring) It might not hurt.  Strictly as a precautionary measure, you understand.  All right, then.  A toast to Howard’s pilgrimage down the path hardened by the feet of millions of devotes over the ages.

HOWARD:  Now you’re saying you approve of my going to church?

COUNSELOR:  I have nothing but admiration for it.  It’s what you do when you get there that troubles me.

HOWARD:  What do you mean?  I pray to God just like everyone else.

COUNSELOR:  Just so.  You’ve put your finger on the problem.

HOWARD:  What problem?

COUNSELOR:  Tying the package and the content together as though they were an inseparable whole.

HOWARD:  I don’t know what you’re talking about.

COUNSELOR:  Let’s imagine that a friend of yours, who had never listened to classical music, was somehow induced to attend an all Mahler concert and hated every minute of it.  Never again would she darken the door of a symphony hall.  Wouldn’t you advise her that other classical music was much more digestible to the novice listener and that she should give it another try?  My point being that church going is one thing and the content one finds inside is another.  And since they are two different things, they can be unlinked in the same way that symphony halls can be unlinked from Mahler.

HOWARD:  That’s a pretty far-fetched analogy.  I’ve never seen a church with a ticket window in front.

COUNSELOR:  It’s not as far-fetched as you might imagine.  Not every religion worships a supreme being, you know.  And even among those that do, his persona and the degree of the devotion paid him varies widely.

ALICE:   Not widely enough as far as I’m concerned.

COUNSELOR:  Don’t jump to conclusions.  Just because some faiths pal around with the almighty doesn’t mean they all deserve your condemnation.  I’m a little surprised that a woman with your scientific credentials would indulge in guilt by association.

ALICE:  That’s ridiculous and you know it.

COUNSELOR:  (smiling)  Perhaps.  Let me get back to Howard.  No doubt as a child you were told-I might say, indoctrinated-that God is a loving spirit devoted to the personal welfare of all mankind and you’ve held on to that image as you’ve grown up.  It’s become permanent part of your life-a ‘rock’ you called it.

HOWARD:  Right.  That’s exactly what it is.

COUNSELOR:  But to a disinterested observer such as myself, that rock of yours has some slippery surfaces.  If, as you contend, he is a loving God devoted to our welfare, he has a funny-one might even say, perverse-way of showing it, doesn’t he?

HOWARD:  I know what you’re going to say.  It’s been asked a million times before.  Earthquakes, wars, destitution, disease, children suffering from cancer.  How can God tolerate it?  I don’t know.  Nobody knows God’s motivation.  I’m not sure the word’s even meaningful when it’s applied to him?

ALICE:  Are any words about God meaningful?

HOWARD:  Thanks, Alice.  You might as well join in the fun.  Ridiculing religious beliefs has practically become a national sport, anyway.  But to my mind it doesn’t change a thing.

COUNSELOR:  But you must admit Alice has raised an interesting point.  If, as you say, we can know nothing of God’s formidable dark side, how can we pretend to know anything else about him?  Can we really be sure he’s on our side to begin with and not allied with another, more endearing planet?  Does he really like being praised ad nauseam?  Does he really care if we eat fish on Fridays and pork not at all?

HOWARD:  Those are just peripheral matters that have nothing to do with my core beliefs.

COUNSELOR:  But those peripheral matters, as you call them, are part and parcel of the religious fabric.  You said you dealt with statistics all the time.  Can one of your economic models claim any accuracy beyond the least accurate of its components?  If the constituent parts of your Christianity are questionable, what does that say of the entire edifice?

ALICE:  To quote my esteemed colleague, good point.

HOWARD:  What you’re implying is that God doesn’t even exist.  Is that the idea?  You can’t prove it.

COUNSELOR:  No, but what I can do is considerably whittle down the odds.  If you can worship a figurehead based solely on faith, there’s no reason I can’t do the same.  I can, for example, hypothesize a monstrous god in the form of a purple  rhinoceros.  For that matter, nothing stops me from having a different god for every day of the year.  Some green, some orange, and some with black spots-hundreds of variations-no one of which is more or less legitimate than the other.  In other words, the image of god can be diluted to a point that its virtually meaningless.  Yes, it’s possible the God exists.  It’s also possible ten million others do too.

HOWARD:  The Bible tells me what to believe in and it doesn’t say anything about rhinoceroses.

COUNSELOR:  Let’s talk about the Bible since you brought it up.  It’s full of contradictions, you know.

HOWARD:  You’d expect that in a manuscript translated by different people at different times.

COUNSELOR:  And with different motives.  How can you have any confidence in the accuracy of any two-thousand-year-old religious document?  The ancient scribes were out to promote their faith and denigrate the competition’s.  And there’s every reason to believe they employed every literary device they could think of to accomplish their purpose including reshaping events, inventing characters, changing settings, and so on.

HOWARD:  The Bible contains some wonderful passages.

COUNSELOR:  I didn’t say they weren’t good at it.  They had dedication, inspiration, imagination, talent, and the poetic muse.  The only thing they lacked was scruples.  That certainly isn’t the kind of documentation you rely on in your research, is it?  I’m honestly sorry, Howard, but your belief in a supreme being is wrong-headed.  There simply isn’t any other way to describe it.  Your thinking needs adjustment.

HOWARD:  You’re asking me to trash the Bible, sign God’s death certificate, and convert my church’s altar into a chemistry lab bench.  You call that an adjustment?

COUNSELOR:  In a manner of speaking, yes.  A further step along a well established trend.  Think about it.  Over the millennia, man has worshipped hundreds of different gods in every shape and form imaginable.  We’ve worshipped mountains, stone idols, bears, monkeys, oxen, snakes, even planes carrying cargo.  You name it and, at one time or another, we’ve almost certainly prayed to it.

HOWARD:  That’s all ancient history.  The civilized world has recognized the truth of monotheism for a long time now.

COUNSELOR:  But that hasn’t put an end to God’s transformation, has it?   Compare the fiercely judgmental, intensely personal God of the Old Testament with the benevolent, ethereal God you worship today.  Over the last few centuries, God has either had a dramatic change of heart or developed a split personality.

The fact is that mankind’s concept of the divine has always been a work in progress-always being refurbished to satisfy the changing attitudes of its devotees.  And it continues to this day.  Look ahead and you’ll see that the image you have of a supreme being is not by any means the end of the road.  Further changes are in store.

HOWARD:  Maybe some time in the distant future.  Not in my day.

COUNSELOR:  Why not in your day?  Everything else is changing faster than anyone can keep track of.  Not long ago souls could take their time ascending to a heaven that was floating comfortably above cloud level.  Nowadays souls might have to spend thousands of years just getting there traveling at the speed of light.  Everything we thought we knew about the universe has completely changed in a single generation.  Information technology has turned commerce upside down.  Biology has undergone a revolution since the discovery of DNA.  All within the space of a few decades.  If your God’s not keeping up with all this, he’s not reading the papers.

HOWARD:  Why should he?  He’s made everything that’s in them happen.

ALICE:  That’s an accusation even I wouldn’t have made.

HOWARD:  I still can’t see what you’re driving at, Bernie.  You say my going to church is fine so long as it’s empty when I get there.  What am I supposed to do?  Admire the architecture and go home?

ALICE:  I gather he thinks religion is some kind of blank slate on which we can write anything we choose.  Is that it, Bernie?

COUNSELOR:  Not altogether blank but you’re getting close.  As I said after you each expressed your opinions, both of you made a number of valid arguments and you needed to unite those to establish an acceptable common ground.  You’re not there yet, but you’re off to a good start.

HOWARD:  I’m glad you think so.  I don’t see it.

ALICE:  Me either.  I’m just as confused as Howard is.  Where are we supposed to go with all this?

COUNSELOR:  I’m sorry but I’ve done the best I can.  Go back home and think things over.  If what I’ve said makes any sense at all, you might want to take a look at this place.  (handing each of them a brochure)  The SG Church.  Not too far from here.  Drop by and see what it’s like.


Part 2 of 2

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