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.
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