On Not Believing Impossible Things and How Religion Doesn’t Help

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Lewis Carroll, _Alice Adventure’s in Wonderland_)

To believe in “impossible things” is quite human, I think. There is a sense of hopefulness, a kind of counter-balance to our fear instincts, that lives strong in our brain chemistry.

But even within the realm of believing in “impossible things” there are some categories. Like, it’s one thing to believe that there is a Divine Being in the universe, and quite another thing to believe that someone gravely ill with little medical probability to recover will, somehow, do so.

The first, a belief in a Divine Being, is a kind of life-assent to some sort of higher power’s existence. The second is trusting that a miracle (which, by definition, means it doesn’t happen except so rarely it can barely be documented and is taken out of statistical probabilities) will happen.

The first kind of belief is existential.

The second kind of belief is banking on the improbable at best, and impossible when it comes right down to it.

Religion has played fast and loose with these kinds of ideas over the years. As recently as last year the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reaffirmed the Doctrine of Creation which pushes the idea that, due to the Genesis account, the world was created in six, literal, days.

The President of the denomination, Matthew Harrison, wrote in defense of the affirmation, concluding that he is compelled to believe in the doctrine of creation because, in his words, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. And I hear in the words of Jesus that He himself believes the creation accounts are historical. (See MATT. 19:3–9.) I hear in the words of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, the voice of my Savior. And both He and the Scriptures bear witness to their absolute inerrancy and infallibility.” (The Lutheran Witness, January 3rd, 2018)

Not only do I find his position theologically lazy, but I find it utterly senseless! As in, it makes absolutely no rational sense. And I get that his big thing is that faith trumps rationality in all things, but that position is dangerous when it comes to matters of science and life and death.

This is but one example of denominations who still hold and teach this “impossible belief” that flies in the face of so many branches of science and so many years of dedicated scholarly inquiry that I can’t even name all the branches, lest I leave any out.

Add to this the idea that there was a world-wide flood and Noah’s ark somehow preserved creation, that there were giants like Goliath in the ancient world, and that Joshua’s horns fell the walls of Jericho…I mean, you can name six impossible things before getting through the first chapter of Genesis if we’re talking literally.

I remember being in a Bible study once and explaining to the class that the particular book we were reading was an example of “Biblical story,” a tale meant to teach the lesson. It contained many truths, but did not actually, factually happen. And I remember a few souls in there widening their eyes in disbelief at my statement. Their dismay was palpable.

The story was an impossible tale, by the way. A great tale, a truthful tale, but not a factual tale. And were it to be read outside of the religious context, it’d clearly be identified in that way.

One person raised their hand, “But,” they said, “if God can do anything, then I’ll just believe it happened, OK?”

“One can certainly take that approach,” I said, “but it opens up the doors for a lot of problems if you do. Because we live in a world of norms, by and large. And if we give God the big ‘anything is possible’ card, then we might start to disregard the norms that govern our world and society, norms like science, witness, and historical precedence.”

I don’t know if that was the right answer. I don’t know that there is one.

But I bring this all up because we are certainly, as a people and as a society, moving away from a culture of fact and truth and increasingly becoming a culture that “believes impossible things” because they’re convenient.

Like, it’s convenient to believe that mask-wearing is all about control and this pandemic virus is a hoax and, if God can do anything, then we don’t need to fear it because God can protect us.

It’s convenient because it let’s you live in a world where you don’t have to take responsibility for the safety of others, let alone yourself, because you can live in your delusion without question.

But it’s also very dangerous.

And I worry, in the deep parts of my heart, that religion that pushes a literal Noah’s ark has enabled this type of thinking.

Blind optimism has allowed people to believe that, contrary to every authority, the 2020 vote was rigged and stolen. Authority is not held in esteem anymore, but rather is subject to desires and wishes, it seems.

I worry that blind optimism pushed by so much religion, with the “pie in the sky” escapism, has laid the neural irrigation ditches for this kind of thinking to be possible.

What culpability does religion have in the impossible thinking going on in our world today?

I’m not sure, but I’m wrestling with it.

Because while I do believe it is possible to have a critically-thinking faith, I also know (from experience) that it’s more difficult. The easy way out, in many ways, is to not think about it at all and take religious texts, doctrines, and dogmas as gospel truth (pun intended).

The critic of that statement would claim that it’s harder because so much of the texts, doctrines, and dogmas fly in the face of scientific discoveries, sociological progress, and philosophical thought.

“Exactly,” is my response. “So why believe it?”

It’s believed because it’s convenient to do so, and immediately beneficial: you don’t have to wrestle out the truth because it’s given to you.

But our world is not one to give gifts like that. Truth has never been served on a silver platter, but rather wrestled out, verified, re-verified, put to the test, and eventually come out on top.

A religious system that encourages wrestling is sorely needed in this world today, but I fear it may be too late. As the pockets of society that embrace science and those that reject it retreat to their different corners, we’re forced to look at the wasteland gap in-between us all and wonder how the ways we’ve taught faith, spoken about “truth,” and pushed impossible beliefs has led to this in America.