You know that scene towards the end of The Wizard of Oz, where the unmasked non-wizard is handing out the things to Dorothy’s friends that they’ve wanted most of all – courage to the Cowardly Lion, a heart to the Tin Man, and a brain to Scarecrow? That part of the story had me convinced for a while that L. Frank Baum must have been an Atheist. As it turns out, although apparently raised in a devout Methodist family, he and his wife later became Theosophists, of which I have very little understanding except that it appears to be more of a philosophy than a religion. Whether L. Frank Baum actually believed in a god or not is unclear, but in any case, I still think that that passage in the story is powerfully analogous to modern Christianity.
Show me a born again Christian, and I’ll show you someone who “found” god at a time of personal crisis, or who, at the very least, was existing in a state of discontent or searching for something
– something they were unable, for whatever reason, to see within themselves to that point. Unless a person is raised on Christianity and spoon fed its dogma from before they are wise or mature or discriminating enough to make practical judgments about such things for themselves, people don’t generally go looking for solutions to their problems or meaning to their suffering in the supernatural. In other words, I think that you would be hard pressed to find a non-believer who is content and has a reasonable degree of self-esteem whose head can be turned by promises of the divine or supernatural.
In The Wizard of Oz, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion spend the entire movie on a quest to obtain from the Wizard that which they long for and don’t believe they actually possess. Even after the Wizard is exposed as a sham and revealed to be not a wizard at all, but just a man with some fancy gadgets and a big curtain, our three friends hang onto the belief that he – and only he – can give them what they’ve been searching for for so long. In the end, the so-called Wizard (all powerful, all-knowing . . . hmm, sound familiar?) bestows on Scarecrow a paper diploma representing a brain/knowledge, Tin Man with a cartoonish and loudly ticking heart, and Lion with a medal representing courage and bravery. It’s a funny and touching scene, because we, the audience understand without question that these three had the traits they were searching for within themselves all along – they just didn’t realize it.
And so it is with finding god. I’ve met so many people who “found God” when they were at what they perceived to be their lowest points. “My life was a mess, in complete shambles, until I let God in.” I’ve heard it time and time again. It’s a beloved theme of novels and memoirs – people struggling terrible struggles and suffering awful ordeals of the body and mind, until god comes along and changes everything for them. Personally, these kinds of stories always leave me feeling disappointed, not inspired or enlightened.
One of the best books I’ve read in a long time was Unbroken by Laura Hildebrand, the true story of Louis Zamperini, a fighter pilot during WWII, during which he survived a plane crash, forty-seven days on raft floating in the Pacific ocean, and several years as a POW. Towards the end of the book, he finds god. I was disappointed. “Really?” I asked him in my head as I read. “You single-handedly fought off sharks! You improvised to survive starvation and hellish elements, torture and abuse! And then you found God?!” True, when he found god, he was at a very low point in his life, suffering from PTSD, alcoholism, a violent temper and a failing marriage. But clearly, as demonstrated time and time again throughout his life up to that point, he had vast reserves of fortitude and strength and wherewithal and smarts and survival abilities within himself – he just stopped believing in himself. And god and Christianity offered him everything he could no longer see that he had inside himself. It was like Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion all over again.
But really, what’s wrong with this? What’s wrong with people believing that their strength comes from outside themselves? The way I see it, what it really does is not make people stronger, but instead exploits and encourages their frailties. It’s an illusion, a crutch, and it encourages people to not see the best in themselves, nor to tap into the best in themselves. “I am nothing without God.” So this imaginary, invisible being in the sky who is unable/unwilling to provide irrefutable evidence of its own existence – it gets all the credit. I see something very wrong with that. And that’s not even taking into consideration the pesky habit believers have of doing everyone the favor of enlightening us so that we, too, can benefit from their illusions.
I believe in myself, with all my strengths and weaknesses, and in my fellow human beings, not the smoke and mirrors of religious faith.