Posted by
• 03.29.14 10:28 am


Charles Murray is one of my favorite writers and he’s got a (probably) great book out next week called The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life,

Instead of his usual sociopolitical fare, this book purports to be a “How to be a Man” tome that helps these castrated millennials forge through their formative years. He did a teaser for it in the Wall Street Journal and his point about religion is exactly how I feel…

4. Take Religion Seriously

Don’t bother to read this one if you’re already satisfyingly engaged with a religious tradition.

Now that we’re alone, here’s where a lot of you stand when it comes to religion: It isn’t for you. You don’t mind if other people are devout, but you don’t get it. Smart people don’t believe that stuff anymore.

I can be sure that is what many of you think because your generation of high-IQ, college-educated young people, like mine 50 years ago, has been as thoroughly socialized to be secular as your counterparts in preceding generations were socialized to be devout. Some of you grew up with parents who weren’t religious, and you’ve never given religion a thought. Others of you followed the religion of your parents as children but left religion behind as you were socialized by college.

By socialized, I don’t mean that you studied theology under professors who persuaded you that Thomas Aquinas was wrong. You didn’t study theology at all. None of the professors you admired were religious. When the topic of religion came up, they treated it dismissively or as a subject of humor. You went along with the zeitgeist.

I am describing my own religious life from the time I went to Harvard until my late 40s. At that point, my wife, prompted by the birth of our first child, had found a religious tradition in which she was comfortable, Quakerism, and had been attending Quaker meetings for several years. I began keeping her company and started reading on religion. I still describe myself as an agnostic, but my unbelief is getting shaky.

Taking religion seriously means work. If you’re waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you’re kidding yourself. Getting inside the wisdom of the great religions doesn’t happen by sitting on beaches, watching sunsets and waiting for enlightenment. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree.

Even dabbling at the edges has demonstrated to me the depths of Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism. I assume that I would find similar depths in Islam and Hinduism as well. I certainly have developed a far greater appreciation for Christianity, the tradition with which I’m most familiar. The Sunday school stories I learned as a child bear no resemblance to Christianity taken seriously. You’ve got to grapple with the real thing.

Start by jarring yourself out of unreflective atheism or agnosticism. A good way to do that is to read about contemporary cosmology. The universe isn’t only stranger than we knew; it is stranger and vastly more unlikely than we could have imagined, and we aren’t even close to discovering its last mysteries. That reading won’t lead you to religion, but it may stop you from being unreflective.

Find ways to put yourself around people who are profoundly religious. You will encounter individuals whose intelligence, judgment and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends—and who also possess a disquieting confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas.

They have learned to reconcile faith and reason, yes, but beyond that, they persuasively convey ways of knowing that transcend intellectual understanding. They exhibit in their own personae a kind of wisdom that goes beyond just having intelligence and good judgment.

Start reading religious literature. You don’t have to go back to Aquinas (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea). The past hundred years have produced excellent and accessible work, much of it written by people who came to adulthood as uninvolved in religion as you are.

(italics mine)



  1. Mark says:

    it’s easier to take down atheism when you equate it to being unreflective

  2. kgjh says:

    You often write about being respectful of religion, but are you actually a religious person? (by which I mean: attending services regularly, praying, truly believing in and worshipping a deity, following the tenets of a faith, tithing to a church, partaking in charity/volunteering) or do you just “appreciate” religion on an intellectual level? I know that online atheism advocates can be quite annoying (possibly because they remind people of their younger selves, trying desperately to rebel against every establishment to look cool), but is there a religion whose rules you follow?

  3. Ryan says:

    Keep on reflecting, Gavin. Atheist chicks are proudly fat and their male counterparts the type to create online petitions.

  4. jim says:

    Read stuff from Dietrich Bohoeffer. His work on the Sermon on the Mount is stunning. Love Letters for Cell 42 is a collection of things he wrote his fiancee from a Nazi Prison. Yep. More people should read his stuff.

  5. Calvin Candie says:

    I’m not sayin’ it’s Jesus but I am sayin’ there’s enough shit out there to make you at least reflect.

  6. Cosmo says:

    All religion is fiction, and guidelines on how one should live. Though reading religious literature is not bad thing, its ridiculous though not bad.

  7. Butler's Revenge says:

    Gavin, I’m wondering if you’ve read any Roger Scruton.

  8. Dad Religion says:

    All religion is not fictitious, there are historically documented people, geographic locations, moments, movements, etc. in every single major religious cannon (some more than others). You can debate the spiritual or metaphysical aspects of it, but even that should be a serious debate as the analytics by and large support more so than not that there are vacuums, various dimensions and timescapes outside our own by way of black holes, dark matter, wormholes, sub-atomic particles.

  9. Jim Goad says:

    “here are historically documented people, geographic locations”
    Right. Like in the New Testament, for example—specifically how the four Gospels contradict the fuck out of one another.

  10. Dad Religion says:


    My point wasn’t that ALL of religion is true but that ALL of religion is not fictitious. And I wasn’t speaking specifically to Christian narrative or the gospels either. All religions have a flood story, the historical record affirms this. Jesus, Mohamed, Buddah, etc. all these guys are historical figures. Many of the armies, the wars, the cities mentioned in religious texts are affirmed by secular historical texts and archeology. The point I was making was to Cosmo, the liberalized guy that Charles Murray evokes, who has the knee jerk reaction to instantly dismiss any and all religion as total fantasy when it is not.

    As to the Gospel narrative, because you brought it up (and I agree with you and think the Christian gospel narrative is confusing and should be scrutinized), the gospels are not technically history. “Gospel“ is a distinct style of literature, like poetry. Gospel by definition is not meant to recount factual history, but to convince the reader/listener of something.

  11. Ballsdeep says:

    So….it’s juvenile to not beleive in an all powerful ghost that has designed all of this?

  12. insickness says:

    If you’re going to open your mind and study religions, why stop there? There is plenty of pseudoscience worth exploring, like homeopathy and astrology. I’m sure you could learn something listening to the rantings of psychotic people as well.

  13. Mike says:

    “Others of you followed the religion of your parents as children but left religion behind as you were socialized by college.”

    I was raised in a Christian household but was already an Atheist by the time I entered high school. And it had nothing to do with socialization and everything to do with critical thinking. Like it really takes some communist college professor sucking on a corn cob pipe to convince you bushes don’t talk and all the world’s languages were created in one shot because God doesn’t like visitors.

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