“Do you have a religious preference?” That is what the nurse asked after leading me to the exam room where I was to meet the doctor. There were other questions I wasn’t expecting, questions health care professionals ask nowadays, like: “Do you feel safe in your own home?” But it was the question about religious preference that struck me.
It sounded so odd. “Do you have a religious preference?” as if religion was sold at Baskin-Robbins and comes in thirty-one flavors. Maybe I should have asked her to put down the religious flavor of the month.
I know we live in a religiously diverse culture where it is no longer possible – and never was appropriate – to assume everyone is a Christian. To do so belittles people of other faiths and lessens the value of one’s own. I wasn’t taken aback by the question itself but by the way it was phrased.
Can you imagine people debating which religion is best the way they debate which ice cream is best? “I can’t believe you like vanilla. It’s so boring.” “You’re one to speak. All you ever get is chocolate. Why don’t you try something different, like butter pecan?” Only it would be, “Why do you like Christianity? That is so yesterday. Buddhism is what’s hot now.” “Buddhism? You’ve got to be kidding. How can you like that?”
I find it hard to understand people who think of their religious faith as a mere preference, whether they identify as a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or a Scientologist. I’d much rather spend time with an atheist who believes he is right than a Christian who doesn’t really care.
Most of the religions I know something about – and there are many more I know next to nothing about – were founded by people who believed they were right and others were wrong. The idea that all religions are equally true can only be held by people who: (1) believe in many gods, like the ancient Greeks; (2) believe in no gods, like the modern atheist; or (3) no longer believe in objective truth. Since very few people in our country believe in many gods, and only a small percentage believe in no gods, it is the loss of belief in objective truth that is driving the changes we are seeing.
To say that Islam is true for you and Christianity is true for me and atheism is true for her, is to rob the concept of truth of its meaning. I suspect when people say things like that, they really mean that Islam or Christianity or atheism works for them, which is quite a different thing from saying it is true.
In “God in the Dock,” the great twentieth century English thinker C. S. Lewis complained “The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort.”
As if religion were an ice cream flavor. Or maybe a health food.
If Lewis found it difficult 70 years ago to get people to think it terms of truth, what would he find now, when our computers have drop-down menus, our gas stations have five varieties of fuels, and a choice of options is a cultural requirement? Personal preference is in the ascendancy, truth has passed its prime.
Consider the debate on climate change. While there are people on both sides of the debate who want to talk truth, most skip that step and go straight to the consequences. The consequences may be dire but people don’t change their behavior over the threat of consequences. They change because they’ve become convinced of the truth.
All this brings me back to the nurse and her question, “Do you have a religious preference?” I answered simply: “Christian,” but I wish I’d said, “I don’t have a preference but I do have a strong conviction.” I believe in Jesus because I am convinced he spoke truth; because I am convinced he is true. I know of no other reason to believe.
First published by Gatehouse Media