4th October 2022


4 minutes read

Daphne Merkin

On the Problem of Faith

4th October 2022

4 minutes read

I’ve never trusted the word spiritual.  It reeks of self-importance, and, more to the point, it has always struck me as the kind of adjective, like charismatic, that should be ascribed to someone else rather than claimed for oneself: “I am a very spiritual person, you know.” What is one to do with this dazzling assertion of piety?  Stand there in a state of admiration?  Or perhaps be hit by an acute sense of one’s own secularist limitations, feeling the lack of whatever it is that spirituality consists of – something approaching an apprehension of the divine, I suppose.

Then again, there are so many ways of interpreting the purview of the divine.

It might be an echo in the Marabar caves heard by the deeply Christian Mrs. Moore in E.M. Forster’s great modernist novel, A Passage to India. Or it might be sitting in a cross-legged, Buddha-like  position at the end of a yoga class or meditation session and becoming one with the universe by chanting “om.” Or, again, it might be a child’s image of a white-bearded man sitting on high and surveying the earthlings scurrying fecklessly below. But beyond all this, what is one to do with the infidel thoughts that run through the head of a devout non-believer like myself, someone given to sowing seeds of doubt and cynicism about the very idea of a God – or a Higher Power, as the bland catechism of AA and its acolytes would have it.

Of course, one can always hedge one’s bets, as the 17th century French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously suggested we do in his posthumously published Pensees. Known as “Pascal’s wager,” it is an argument based in part on game theory, which proposes that there is everything to gain by choosing to believe in a Christian God, even if that God is “infinitely incomprehensible.” Insisting that the wager is not optional because the mere fact of our existence  means that we have already “embarked” and in some way are living out the choice, Pascal declares:  “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all;  if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” The value of faith, in other words, has practical applications in the next world. Pascal also addressed the situation of the non-believer by asserting that “acting as if [one]believed” could “cure [one] of unbelief.”  In other words, fake it till you make it.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’ve been struggling with my faithlessness all my life, looking for a road back to a world view that allows for sacred moments (although I’m not sure I have a real understanding of what is implied by the word “sacred”) and isn’t strictly temporal.

Rather than see myself as an atheist—full-on atheism has always struck me as too strident and egocentric a position, the mirror image of claiming that one is spiritual—I view myself as an agnostic, whose religious disposition is in a state of prolonged suspension. Although I am, for all purposes, a completely non-observant Jew, I insist on conceiving of myself as a lapsed Jew, always on the verge of reclaiming the fully formed religious identity of my youth.

It might help you to understand where I’m coming from if I explain that I was  brought up in a modern Orthodox Jewish family, where a slew of rituals, ranging from keeping strictly kosher to not using lights on the Sabbath, were meticulously observed. (My five siblings have all remained observant.) The emphasis was much less on belief than on behavior—the latter being, in fact, the fulcrum of Judaism.

No one, including your rabbi, cares what you think or fantasize about; it’s what you actually do that counts.

The tenets of ethical behavior are instilled through a process of socialization that begins with circumcision rather than through catechism and doctrine. There are precious few symbols save for the components of the Passover seder plate, nor is there any fuss over  facilitating concepts such as  the trinity or giving confession or taking part in ceremonies involving  holy water and ecclesiastical wafers.


written by

Daphne Merkin

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Issue 03


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On the Problem of Faith by Daphne Merkin
“Looking for a road back to a world view that allows for sacred moments,” essayist and novelist Daphne Merkin examines her own faithlessness.