The God Squad: Keeping the faith

Press-Republican [Plattsburgh NY]

April 16, 2021

Q: Dear Rabbi Gellman, I really enjoy reading your God Squad column. I am a Christian, but boy do I have questions.

I do believe in God, although I don’t think we really understand God. At least I don’t. I wonder how or why a perfect God could have created such imperfect people. We don’t take care of our planet; we are not kind to animals or even each other. People can be awful. Greed and vanity run amok. I do know that people can sometimes be wonderful too.

I see organized religion as somewhat of a construct to control the masses. Scandals rock the Catholic Church. I knew a pastor with a small Baptist Church who left his wife and son and ran off with another woman. He also left his church behind. But he wants to tell me how to keep my house in order? That one made me sad. So, basically, I guess my question, dear Rabbi, is how do you keep the faith? I do hope you find time for my question. Even if you don’t, I will continue to enjoy your column. Thank you! — V from Florida

A: Thank you, dearest V, for sharing your struggles with faith. I am certain from my mail and my life that your doubts and sadness are shared by many other spiritual seekers. Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, cited as evidence of the decline of religion a Gallup poll showing that, “for the first time in its decades of polling, fewer than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. The fall has been swift: From 70 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2020.”

You pointed to one of the main reasons for the decline in organized religion. The reason is hypocrisy. If you preach love but protect pedophile priests, you are a hypocrite of the worst kind. These scandals and others you pointed out in your agonized question, as well as religious beliefs limiting the role of women and gay people, have transformed former parishioners into present atheists.

I do not doubt or discredit the ways that organized religion is in many ways responsible for its own desuetude. However, I am still honored to go out there every day and defend God to the world.

We cannot blame the message for flaws in the messengers. If God commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and we don’t, that indifference to the greatest of all moral commandments taught in all sacred scriptures is on us not on the commandment or the commander. We do not reject democracy because some have abused or perverted it. We do not reject sports because some players cheat. We do not reject food because some of it is unhealthy. If the archer misses the mark, we ought not to jump to the understandable but ultimately ridiculous conclusion that there is something wrong with the arrows.

Let us not forget that the same organized religions that produced moral monsters also produced moral heroes. Father Tom Hartman and I used to ask our audiences, particularly high school audiences, who were disillusioned with organized religion, to name for us their list of three non-scientists who have helped the world the most in the last hundred years. Almost all the lists included the same three people: Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Of course, we pointed out to them that all three were not just religious but were, in fact, professionally religious. We then would ask them to make another list of the three people who have hurt the world the most and those lists were also bracingly identical: Hitler, Stalin, Mao and these three moral monsters were all rabidly anti-religious. Finally, we would ask our newborn skeptics to name the three people or groups of people who have helped or hurt their own neighborhoods the most. The helpers always included the soup kitchen and food banks usually run by some local church or one of many 12-step programs that all have a significant religious component. The hurters also were identical: the drug pushers and gangs all of whom were certainly not going to be seen in the pews.

So, dear V, and dear skeptical readers, please, I beg you, do not become a religion-basher too fast. The lessons of religion are still essential to civilization and they still resonate:

— We are not alone, we are accompanied.

— We are not just bodies, but also souls.

— Death is not the end of us.

— Salvation from sin is God’s gift to each and every one of us.

And that is how I keep the faith.

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)