I've recently been kicking around an idea for an article on the religious beliefs of the American populace. Not an entry to a scientific journal, not a widespread study, but a trek into Tourist Las Vegas to have a look around, get some face time with random people, and see what kind of beliefs are out there. Las Vegas seemed the perfect place to undertake such a task. It's big. There are always a lot of people, and those people are from all over the world.
And I admit, this was kind of selfish on my part. Lately, I've been struggling with the idea of religion - specifically, whether or not to call out stupid when one sees it. Not to say that all religious beliefs are stupid - the point of the article was to go out and see - because I have no idea whether or not religion is stupid. A lot of it sounds stupid to me, but maybe, in actuality, the Jesus folk just consistently talk over my head.
You might think that I was shooting low with Vegas - that all of the people I talked to would inherently be idiots for one reason or another. I mean, Vegas does serve alcohol twenty-four hours a day.
You'd be surprised, then, to learn that I met Tom, a forty-three year old man from Chicago who is a very well-read Catholic. I was sitting nervously in the Wynn when he took the seat next to mine. It's strange - when you know what you're going to say to someone, and that you're probably going to spend the next however-long talking shmack about their faith, it becomes a lot more difficult to strike up a conversation. Not to say he was ever confused about my motivations - I identified myself as a skeptic and journalist right off the bat.
I asked Tom what lay at the core of his faith; what one belief was indivisible from his Catholicism.
"As a general statement," he said, "people on earth, in this life, are trying to find their way home to God."
I could already tell it was going to be a fun conversation. I mean, that's a helluvan answer, and not just because it's so vague. It implies a certain amount of give in his belief structure. In other words, his first move was not to "hit me over the head with a crucifix," a practice Tom says he hates. I don't think he meant literally.
For the article I had in mind, I planned to interview dozens of people and get very general answers. But, Tom was so willing to defend his belief system and talk about it at length that I kept going, figuring I could be beaten with a Jesus stick another night.
It was odd to me that, in answering my question about the core of his beliefs, Tom didn't mention the Bible. Most of the Christians I have encountered seem to - and many cherry-pick the parts that suit their lifestyle. Tom's belief in the Bible is not at his religion's core.
"The Bible is fascinating from the standpoint that it is not only initially a confrontation of the Hebrew religion, but also one of the oldest and most reliable historical documents," Tom said.
Whoa, whoa, there are so many things to talk about in just that one sentence that at this point my pen nearly exploded trying to get it all down. First of all, there are many gods. What makes this one better than any of the others? Did someone put together a Deity Olympics and award the gold?
"Well, [choosing] is an issue of faith. The search for faith and the review of various religions led me in this direction. This is the road that I believed, if I followed it, would bring me back home," Tom said.
The argument was leaving rational discourse. There's nothing, really, to say about faith. If you have it, I'm sure it seems like the greatest thing in the world. But I don't, and I know lots of other people who don't, and that just seems like jamming a holier-than-thou attitude down my throat, which rarely makes me appreciate anyone's religion.
So, what about this ‘historically reliable' claim? I pointed out that Exodus seems to be full of crap - there are no records, beyond the Bible, that the Egyptians kept that many Hebrews as slaves, or that they rose up and fled, or that anyone parted a sea.
"The Skeptics want to target that story because every miracle in the Bible up until the Exodus could have a scientific explanation." *cough* Genesis *cough*, "But, once you get to Exodus, the Passover story, belief in that story is a matter of faith. It's unlikely that the Egyptians would allow over 100,000 Jewish slaves to just leave the country. In order for that story to be true, there has to be a divine miracle," Tom said.
I frowned a little, because that wasn't a real answer. I pressed again, and asked where the records of the Hebrew slaves were.
"The only record is that story - in the Bible. The question is: Why would you portray your people as a slave race if it wasn't true?" Tom said, "The credibility of the story lies in the fact that it is not something someone would volunteer."
I was, at this moment, flooded with about a dozen comparable stories. "What about Star Wars?" I asked, "Were you on Luke's team or Vader's team?"
And yes, I know Star Wars didn't actually happen (Okay, no I don't. I BELIEVE IN YOU, HAN.), but still - such stories are written to unite a group of people against a common evil; to give them underdog status; to seem like the enlightened ones. And it doesn't sound at first like an apt comparison, because we know Star Wars is false. But what if we didn't? We'd all be Jedi. There would be statues erected to Sir Alec Guinness.
Tom agreed that the underdog story is important, but I don't think he much liked my Star Wars analogy. It was difficult for him to see that Star Wars and the Bible have equal status to me.
I switched gears and asked Tom if he believed in hell.
"I have a very limited concept of hell," he said, "but I do believe that if what we're all seeking is to return home to God, then the eternal separation from it is something we can all understand. To be eternally separate from that is a form of significant torment. Which I guess is to say - if people seek religion because they are concerned about heaven or hell, they're missing the point. The point is to continue the search for God, understanding and accepting that we're all imperfect and all fall short of what we want to be. Self-actualization of this greater, eternal truth."
Aha, an opening back into that Exodus argument. I phrased my next question very carefully, because I didn't want to put Tom off. I kind of respected Tom and his faith. And he was doing an excellent job of defending himself against some random skeptic girl who accosted him in a casino.
"Isn't believing that we eternally fall short a type of subjugation similar to acceptance, and even advertisement of slavery?" I asked.
"Yes," Tom said, "But why would I say it if it wasn't true? If I actually thought I was perfect, why would I sit here and say that I'm not?"
"But... isn't saying that you are a slave of God's a self-imposed slavery?" I asked.
And we disconnected again. It's this problem of being unable to liken Star Wars to the Bible. It struck me, at this moment, that in every debate I could possibly have about religion, I was going to hit this impassable wall of faith. Tom can't see the slavery as self-imposed because there is definitely a God who definitely finds us imperfect. If you don't agree with that, the conversation halts there.
But, believing in God doesn't mean believing the entirety of the Bible. Aha, the cherry-pick.
"As we talk about historical documents," Tom said, "reliability is relative."
But what does he think about the morality of the Bible?
"If you're asking if I believe in Sola Scriptura, the answer is no. I don't think you can read the Bible and get actual, definitive instructions from it. If you're asking me if I think it's a good idea to follow the Ten Commandments, then yeah, I think everyone believes that."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. And Tom was quick to add, "And by that, what I mean is that I think most people understand that it would be a miserable existence to live killing other people and coveting their neighbor's wives."
I set my pen down for a moment. "I'm going to Stephen Colbert you," I said, "Name the Ten Commandments."
Tom paused for a minute in thought. "I can't," he said, "I'm not gonna do that. Not on my fourth cocktail."
Until that moment, by the way, I hadn't realized Tom had four cocktails. More power to him. But, he did end up trying to list the Ten Commandments. He got seven, which was way better than Lynn Westmoreland.
The ones he left out, though, are telling. He forgot to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, to not bear false witness against his neighbor, and to not take the Lord's name in vain.
And I still can't get onboard for thinking it's a good idea to follow all ten, goddammit.
I was impressed with Tom. He knew his religion, and that, at least, was reassuring in a way. He didn't tell me that Jesus loves me, or offer to take me to church. He seemed to just enjoy the conversation. And because I respected Tom so much, I feel like an asshole for relaying this next part of the story. But I'm going to, because there is a point to it.
After I put down my pen and Tom and I were chatting about normal things, we kept drifting back to religion for brief little sojourns and then back out into normal things like work and the weather and the weirdness that is Las Vegas. But he said one thing that gave me such serious pause that afterward I had to excuse myself to go to the restroom so I could send a text telling a friend they would not BELIEVE what this crackpot just said to me. Yep, Tom went from well-respected believer to crackpot in the amount of time it takes to relay a single prophetic dream.
Tom told me how, years prior, he had a dream about two buses crashing. One bus was full of believers, and the other was full of non-believers. He stood, looking at the wreckage, and a wise child came forward and told the group that there were survivors still, buried within the wreckage. Months later, terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center. And Tom believes his dream foretold that event. In fact, so did the people from his office, when he came in after the planes hit and relayed the dream to them. They believed it so much that one person pulled him aside to ask, desperately, "What happened next?"
I sat there, blinking at Tom. All my debate skills left me. I stared. And stared. And excused myself to the restroom to write a text calling him a whackjob.
We parted ways immediately after that.
I was pissed, because when I was thinking about penning this article, I was so excited that I'd found a well-read individual to chat with me. I looked forward to writing something up that, for once, wasn't acerbic and nasty.
But there are only two options here: Either Tom is a prophet, and could have prevented the destruction of the World Trade Center and the massive loss of life, or he had a dream that could have been interpreted as anything and therefore chose not to act on it.
I lean toward the latter. I've had dreams that could later be interpreted to have meaning. But if I didn't recognize what the meaning was in the first place, when I had the dream, then there isn't any. There is only what I'm slapping on it so I can call myself a prophet.
And if I'm wrong, and the explanation is the former, then Tom should probably be held responsible for the loss of all those lives. I mean, he dreamed it. He could have prevented it.
And here's the really funny thing: Tom said, during the Exodus argument, that he couldn't fathom of a reason why anyone would call themselves a slave if they weren't. I offered three possibilities: to unite against a common evil, to give underdog status, to seem to be enlightened. Tom had, at this point, already admitted to being a slave of God's. And that dream? Fulfills all three possibilities.
And if I'm wrong about that, too... well, have fun with that Cassandra complex, Tom.