“Treat every goodbye as if it were your last one.”

Tough times in my little town.

The much-loved minister of religious education at our Unitarian church saw her house burn down a few weeks ago.  Everyone got out safely, although she was slightly injured. Her family was just settling down from that trauma when her five-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer.

What’s up with that, God?

Meanwhile, the much-loved captain of the high school hockey team went to the doctor for a checkup and found out he had advanced testicular cancer.

Last year, a graduating senior was fatally injured in a freak car accident.  The parents kept him on life support long enough for everyone to say goodbye to him.

The class speaker at this year’s high school graduation reminded us of another event that happened fifteen years ago. One evening while the family was visiting their grandparents on Cape Cod, his mother kissed him good night, and he went to sleep.  He never saw her again.  Suffering depression as the result of injuries suffered in a car accident, she apparently abandoned her car and walked into the ocean. Her body was never found.

“Treat every goodbye as if it was your last one,” her son told his fellow graduates.

They cheered him to the rafters.  The town has held fundraisers for the hockey player.  The school started a scholarship to honor the memory of the kid who died in the car crash.  The church has raised money for the minister, organized meals for her family, visited the little girl in the hospital…

One of the benefits of Unitarianism’s theology-free approach to religion is that it doesn’t have to tie itself into knots explaining how God could allow a five-year-old girl to come down with cancer, or a loving mother to feel she had to walk into the ocean to rid herself of the demons in her brain.  Theodicy is stupid and unnecessary.  What matters is how we all — in our church, in our town, in our world — join together to help ease the suffering that is part of the price of being alive.

Is religion, like, true?

And does that, like, matter?

Here‘s an essay by a guy named Alain de Botton who has gotten a lot of press lately.  (Don’t you wish you were named “Alain de Botton”?)  The first paragraph goes:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.” Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

Folks like Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse are annoyed at this, and not just because they wish they were named “Alain de Botton.”  It’s a common criticism of new atheists that they’re just like religious fundamentalists — all hung up about the literal truth of the Bible and whatnot — while more sophisticated folks (with sophisticated names like “Alain de Botton”) think more deeply and wisely about such matters.

This brings to mind an experience I had teaching a bunch of kids at my Unitarian church.  Unitarianism is a kinda sorta religion, with no fixed creed, just a set of principles and an all-embracing support for each person’s “search for truth.”  I was helping to teach a program called “Coming of Age,” which is the Unitarian equivalent of Confirmation or Bar Mitzvah.  Our job in this program is to guide mostly eighth- and ninth-grade kids to an understanding of what they believe at this point in their lives.  The goal is the production of a “Faith Statement” that they could present to the congregation.

This being Unitarianism, there are no right answers.  The kid could decide he or she was a Christian, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, or a Wiccan . . . it’s all good!  Maybe in ten years the kid will believe something entirely different — and that’s good too.  Keep searching!

This is all fine, except . . . one Sunday we were discussing codes you can live by.  One such code is the ten commandments (but there are others!  and you can make up your own!).  We were talking about God giving the tablets to Moses on Mount Sinai.  And one kid asked, “Is this, like, true?”

What an interesting question — at least, I thought so.  Alain de Botton would probably disagree.  And the question started to bother me.  In the entire curriculum, there was no opportunity to discuss the truth claims of any religion.  It was almost as if such a discussion would be impolite.  Further, we didn’t spend any time teaching kids how to think about or judge religious truth claims.  Lots of kids were attracted to the idea of reincarnation; it has a moral feeling to it without being tied down to the kind of Christian dogma that probably drove most of their parents into Unitarianism.  But we never said a word about whether there was any scientific evidence for reincarnation, or why such evidence would or would not matter.  This left me with a feeling of unease about the program, a sense that we had let the kids down.  We had liberated the kids from the constraints of dogma, but we hadn’t made any attempt to give them the tools to judge dogma in any kind of rational way.  Should they care if there is no independent evidence of Moses’ existence beyond the story in the Bible?  Should they care that evolution has shown that there couldn’t have been an Adam and Eve?  Is it all about community and morality?

Does any of this matter?  Alain de Botton would say it doesn’t matter because all religions are obviously untrue.  Karen Armstrong would probably say it doesn’t matter because all religions are manifestations of underlying truths that are inaccessible to scientific or historical investigation.  Lots of people would probably say: don’t worry about it, you’ve confused those kids enough as it is.

But I still can’t help feeling that I let them down….