Emotional response. It’s such an easy thing to scorn. When you’re a callous asshole like me, dismissing emotion is natural.
But, don’t be misled, I love to have my emotions played with. I’m a sucker for the television season finales with the tragic turn (Wilson loved her!)
We respond to art first and foremost with our emotions. Whether it be the heartstring yanking ballad, the potent black and white portrait, or the ‘quirky’ indie film with the romantic heart (I admit it, I’m an easy mark for the 500 Days of Away We Go To Garden State type film), even the most hardened art critic must be susceptible to the emotional manipulation of art. If they aren’t, why be an art critic? Art should never be approached on a purely intellectual level (though, the best art rewards the intellect as much as it stirs emotions). It is only after the emotion has washed over us that we can begin to approach any work with an open mind.
You know what packs a real emotional punch?
Christian music. Yeah, yeah, I know, I love that episode of South Park, too. A lot of Christian music is schmaltzy trash. Oodles of it is pure, refined fecal matter and is deserving of the mockery it receives (Stephen Curtis Chapman or Carman, anyone?). There is a ring of (imaginary) hell reserved for shitty Christian musicians.
But for you cynics out there, let me shock you: There are good Christian musicians.
It really shouldn’t surprise you, as music (especially in America) has a long history in the church. It’s only reasonable that talented, articulate musicians would come up out of a Christian upbringing and would write songs that aspired to a greater form of lyricism than “God, you’re the best.” (And I assure you, that lyric isn’t made up.)
I’m sure you’ve all heard of Sufjan Stevens. Exhibit A. And B. And C. That man is openly Christian, and he’s a brilliant musician and songwriter. He’s certainly one of the best working in ‘indie’ circles.
I say all of this because in my 7,000+ iTunes song list is a plethora of Christian music, despite the fact that I am an unabashed atheist. I was raised on the stuff. No, I don’t have any Michael W. Smith, but I have plenty of Jars of Clay, Delirious? and even some dc Talk. Do I listen to most of this stuff? Not really. When it comes to mp3s, I’m kind of a packrat. I have songs on my hard drive I haven’t listened to in years, but I still don’t toss. But, the truth of the matter is, occasionally I do still listen to some of those old Christian bands.
“But why?” You ask. Or you don’t. I’m not fucking psychic.
It’s simple: Emotion.
Despite the fact that I no longer have the faith I had when I first listened to that music, these songs still resonate with me emotionally in a similar way. No, I’m no longer deluded into thinking that a worship song ‘brings me closer to God’, but my emotional memory still kicks in when a particular song comes on and I find it hard to turn off Delirious?’s “Obsession” or Caedmon’s Call’s “Faith My Eyes” if they happen to pop up in the shuffle. I don’t need to believe in God to feel something from that music.
There’s nothing unusual about it. How many of you still have an emotional response to some shitty piece of music you liked when you were 12, even though now you’d never be caught dead listening to it in public (I’m looking at all of you that have any Boston on your computer)? We all do it, the only difference being our personal history.
My personal history just happens to include two decades in a Christian cult.
What’s my point? Well, firstly, it’s that for all my admiration of cold, unfiltered logic and intelligence, I am not contemptuous of emotion. A good song can stir enough powerful emotions in me to inspire a poem or short story.
On the other hand, my second point is this: I don’t trust emotion.
Emotion is not truth. It is not ‘wrong’ or ‘false’, and it should not be dismissed, but an emotional response is never (I emphasize never) a guide to truth. Emotion can be a guide to comfort. Emotion can bring insights. Emotion can even ‘save’ us. But for all its benefits, emotion is a finicky, easily manipulated evolutionary byproduct, and it should not be trusted.
Religion and emotion go hand and hand. Upfront, I will say that I’ve heard of people converting to Christianity for intellectual reasons, but those are rare examples and I am suspect of many of them (a person can claim anything).
Most Christians will openly (and proudly) admit that their conversion took place because of emotion. No, they won’t phrase it that way, but that’s what they’ll mean.
“I was going through a hard time…”
“I had no direction in my life…”
“A close friend had just died…”
“My parents were getting a divorce…”
“I was addicted to alcohol and drugs and living on the streets and I was near death…”
Fill in the blanks. “…Then a pastor/family member/friend/stranger invited me to church.” And the rest is history.
Most conversion stories are like this (somebody will comment and say, “My conversion wasn’t like that,” proving once and for all that ‘most’ does not mean all), and there is a reason for that. Besides for presumably meeting a practical need in many people’s lives, Christianity (or your religion of choice) fills an emotional hole. We all hit rock bottom (I do twice a month; thank you whiskey!) and in that moment, anything that offers a way up has an opportunity to take root.
Once it has taken root, like any true weed, clipping at the leaves won’t kill the plant.
You’ve heard strong, undeniable evidence for a completely naturalist evolution of life? God could have started it.
Miracles and prophecies of the past are easily explained away by common sense and understanding of human psychology? That’s just the way God works.
Prayers that go against nature almost never come true (and when they do, there is usually an obvious explanation for it)? Sometimes God just answers prayers with a ‘No.’
What all of these responses have in common is a willingness to hold onto a belief despite all contrary evidence and a necessity to keep on believing in something regardless of whether or not any good comes of it.
And this all comes back to the emotional response. The conversion process, even for the most logical, stoic person in the world is a deeply emotional event. Nothing stirs the emotions quite like a rollicking church service (if you’ve never been, you should check out a Pentecostal Church service; pure entertainment). The emotional response to the conversion event is the root of faith, and from there, all intellectual arguments against a person’s faith will fall short because they fail to dig into the ground.
Faith is driven by emotion, pure and simple. All the ‘Intelligent Design’ advocates and theological seminary students are merely putting shiny, spinning rims on their Honda Civics.
Let me be clear about a few points: Just as an emotional response doesn’t mean something is true, it doesn’t mean it’s false either. An emotional response is completely separated from ‘fact’ (which is why I can still enjoy certain Christian songs despite my lack of faith and why some people inexplicably think Carlos Mencia is funny). Emotion knows no master.
I am also not saying that religion and faith should not be addressed with intellects and fact. Those were exactly the tools that helped me de-convert. At the same time, I probably would have de-converted 6 years earlier if it were not for my deep emotional root in the religion. I had been an atheist for easily 2 years before I even called myself one.
What I am saying is that any honest person will have to admit that emotions can lead us down foolish paths (i.e. chasing after an unattainable girl or following the Grateful Dead across the country), and so any open and honest Religionist must admit that emotion (and by extension, faith) is not a valid or even compelling argument for God. As well, any atheist/agnostic/skeptic worth his/her salt should know the obvious intellectual arguments against religion so that emotional faith becomes the only footing on which religion stands.
The goal is not to see religion abolished but rather to see it acknowledge its real purpose: An emotional response to an emotional situation. As long as they keep their religion out of my science and government, I really don’t give a shit what they do.
Then, the Religionist just has to ask themself, what’s an emotion worth?