Religion isn't as comforting as it seems

Steven Den Beste is an athiest, yet he is unlike any athiest I have ever met in that he seems to understand theists (in the general sense of the term) and doesn't hold their beliefs against them. As such, I have gained an immense amount of respect for him and his beliefs. He speaks with conviction about his beliefs, but he is not evangelistic.

In his latest post, he aks one of the great unanswerable questions: What am I? I won't pretend to have any of the answers, but I do object to one thing he said. It is a belief that is common among athiests (though theists are little better):
Is a virus alive? I don't know. Is a hive mind intelligent? I don't know. Is there actually an identifiable self with continuity of existence which is typing these words? I really don't know. How much would that self have to change before we decide that the continuity has been disrupted? I think I don't want to find out.

Most of those kinds of questions either become moot or are easily answered within the context of standard religions. Those questions are uniquely troubling only for those of us who believe that life and intelligence are emergent properties of certain blobs of mass which are built in certain ways and which operate in certain kinds of environments. We might be forced to accept that identity is just as mythical as the soul. We might be deluding ourselves into thinking that identity is real because we want it to be true.
[Emphasis added] The idea that these types of unanswerable questions is not troubling or easy to answer to a believer is a common one, but I also believe it to be false. Religion is no more comforting than any other system of beliefs, including athiesm. Religion does provide a vocabulary for the unanswerable, but all that does is help us grapple with the questions - it doesn't solve anything and I don't think it is any more comforting. I believe in God, but if you asked me what God really is, I wouldn't be able to give you a definitive answer. Actually, I might be able to do that, but "God is a mystery" is hardly comforting or all that useful.

Elsewhere in the essay, he refers to the Christian belief in the soul:
To a Christian, life and self are ultimately embodied in a person's soul. Death is when the soul separates from the body, and that which makes up the essence of a person is embodied in the soul (as it were).
He goes on to list some conundrums that would be troubling to the believer but they all touch on the most troubling thing - what the heck is the soul in the first place? Trying to answer that is no more comforting to a theist than trying to answer the questions he's asking himself. The only real difference is a matter of vocabulary. All religion has done is shifted the focus of the question.

Den Beste goes on to say that there are many ways in which atheism is cold and unreassuring, but fails to recognize the ways in which religion is cold and unreassuring. For instance, there is no satisfactory theodicy that I have ever seen, and I've spent a lot of time studying such things (16 years of Catholic schooling baby!) A theodicy is essentially an attempt to reconcile God's existance with the existance of evil. Why does God allow evil to exist? Again, there is no satisfactory answer to that question, not the least of which because there is no satisfactory definition of both God and evil!

Now, theists often view athiests in a similar manner. While Den Beste laments the cold and unreassuring aspects of athiesm, a believer almost sees the reverse. To some believers, if you remove God from the picture, you also remove all concept of morality and responsibility. Yet, that is not the case, and Den Beste provides an excellent example of a morally responsible athiest. The grass is greener on the other side, as they say.

All of this is generally speaking, of course. Not all religions are the same, and some are more restrictive and closed-minded than others. I suppose it can be a matter of degrees, with one religion or individual being more open minded than the other, but I don't really know of any objective way to measure that sort of thing. I know that there are some believers who aren't troubled by such questions and proclaim their beliefs in blind faith, but I don't count myself among them, nor do I think it is something that is inherent in religion (perhaps it is inherent in some religions, but even then, religion does not exist in a vacuum and must be reconciled with the rest of the world).

Part of my trouble with this may be that I seem to have the ability to switch mental models rather easily, viewing a problem from a number of different perspectives and attempting to figure out the best way to approach a problem. I seem to be able to reconcile my various perspectives with each other as well (for example, I seem to have no problem reconciling science and religion with each other), though the boundries are blurry and I can sometimes come up with contradictory conclusions. This is in itself somewhat troubling, but at the same time, it is also somwhat of an advantage that I can approach a problem in a number of different ways. The trick is knowing which approach to use for which problem; hardly an easy proposition. Furthermore, I gather that I am somewhat odd in this ability, at least among believers. I used to debate religion a lot on the internet, and after a time, many refused to think of me as a Catholic because I didn't seem to align with others' perception of what Catholics are. I always found that rather amusing, though I guess I can understand the sentiment.

Unlike Den Beste, I do harbor some doubt in my beliefs, mainly because I recognize them as beliefs. They are not facts and I must concede the idea that my beliefs are incorrect. Like all sets of beliefs, there is an aspect of my beliefs that is very troubling and uncomforting, and there is a price we all pay for believing what we believe. And yet, believe we must. If we required our beliefs to be facts in order to act, we would do nothing. The value we receive from our beliefs outweighs the price we pay, or so we hope...

I suppose this could be seen by Steven to be missing the forest for the trees, but the reason I posted it is because the issue of beliefs discussed above fits nicely with several recent posts I made under the guise of Superstition and Security Beliefs (and Heuristics). They might provide a little more detail on the way I think regarding these subjects.