As I walked into Williamsburg Music Hall on a Sunday morning in 2018, I could feel the bass pounding through my feet.
But this wasn’t an early morning dance party; this was church.
I had come with a community-builder friend to check out C3, one of several millennial-focused Pentecostal churches that have popped up in New York City. We wanted to see if there was anything we could learn from them about ritual and community design.
C3 originally started as a Bible-focused dinner series, and has grown to 70+ weekly gatherings throughout the city. They also offer more conventional Sunday services in Manhattan and Brooklyn -- but these worship services are anything but traditional.
As an usher walked us to our seats, the energy in the room was palpable.
The young, ethnically-diverse band was playing Christian Rock in front of a larger-than-life LED crucifix. At crescendos in the music, a fog machine released mist onto the stage. The parishioners in the crowd swayed to the music, palms raised to the heavens while singing along with words projected on a giant screen behind the band.
As someone whose main exposure to spirituality had been through staid Buddhist settings, this was an entirely new experience. It was lively, energetic, and dare I say… fun.
“I could get used to this,” I thought to myself.
After about 15 minutes of music, an early 30s white man came onto the stage and introduced himself as the assistant pastor. Over the slow, vamping tones of the guitar and piano, he started telling a story:
“Welcome all. I want to tell you about one of our members and something that happened in her life this week.
You see, a few weeks ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. But she is a woman of faith.
She gathered together with her dinner party, and they prayed together. When she went in for a follow-up this week, the cancer was gone. Hallelujah!”
As the crowd echoed “Hallelujah,” my heart sank.
On its face, C3 had a lot to offer. Their dinner parties provided consistent community in a highly transient city. Their worship services felt like rock concerts. And the congregation itself was young, hip, and nearly always smiling.
Yet, alongside that experience of community was an ideology that included faith healing and the belief that homosexuality is a sin.
As a person rooted in secular agnosticism who also likes to drop in on worship services of various faiths, this highlighted a recurring challenge I’d encountered in my search for meaning and community in New York City.
On the one hand, I was looking to grow as a person and explore life’s big questions, things people often find through religion. On the other hand, I was allergic to any dogma or magical thinking, and had no interest in the wholesale adoption of someone else’s belief system.
In Manhattan, it was hard to one without the other.
In Varieties of Religious Experience, the 1902 book that kicked off the study of psychology of religion, William James talks about there being a shared, core mystical experience at the heart of various religions around which we form a number of “over-beliefs.”
Over-belief, he says, is a term for beliefs that require more evidence than we currently have. In the realm of religion, they are the stories we create to try and understand the mysteries of our world.
Beliefs about the afterlife are prime examples of this. For instance, the Christian belief in heaven and hell, the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, and even the atheistic belief that death equals absolute non-existence are all over-beliefs. It’s impossible to know what happens when we die, so these are all beliefs that exceed our current evidence.
James didn’t think that over-beliefs were necessarily bad. He himself was a pious man, and he felt that over-beliefs were what gave meaning to life. As long as they did not lead to intolerance toward others, they were something to be honored and respected.
However, while some over-beliefs may be useful, there are three types of over-beliefs that I believe are problematic:
- Stale beliefs -- beliefs that are increasingly untenable in the face of modern science. I.e., the literal interpretation of a religion’s creation myth.
- Social-control beliefs -- beliefs that are meant to control social behavior and reinforce societal norms. I.e., strict interpretations of marriage and gender roles.
- Group-protective beliefs -- beliefs that are meant to protect a group’s ideology and membership base. I.e., the spiritual punishment of non-believers or those who leave the church.
If we take a look at C3’s “What We Believe” page, we can see several of these types of beliefs in action:
Stale: “The Bible is our guide to life, not only because it is good, but because it is true... It is infallible, authoritative and everlasting and is the foundation of all Christian doctrine.”
Social Control: “(We believe) marriage was instituted by God, ratified by Jesus, and is exclusively between a man and a woman. It is a picture of Christ and his church.”
Group-protective: “(We believe) in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost, the one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting separation from God.”
These are all beliefs that may have served a purpose at one point, but which now serve to alienate an increasingly secular millennial audience.
This is really a shame, because C3 has gotten quite good at building community and designing transcendent experiences. If their beliefs weren’t so outdated, they could likely reach a much broader swath of New York City.
In reaction to these problematic over-beliefs, many people swing to the other extreme. In the spirit of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, they decide that all over-beliefs are bad, and that the world would be better off without religion or spirituality.
Yet, when we do this, we risk erring on the side of under-belief -- attempting to explain away the mystery of life by reducing the world to a purely scientific understanding.
For example, in Stephen Hawking’s final book, Brief Answers to Big Questions, he discusses his lack of belief in God and how the Big Bang theory explains the universe.
This is all well and good, but when he touches on the mystery of what caused the Big Bang, he makes an argument that itself requires a leap of faith -- he argues that the universe just randomly happened.
“What could cause the spontaneous appearance of the universe?
Travel down… to the sub-atomic level, and you enter a world where conjuring something out of nothing is possible... at this scale, particles such as protons behave according to the laws of nature we call quantum mechanics. And they really can appear at random, stick around for a while and then vanish again, to reappear somewhere else.
Since we know the universe itself was once very small—perhaps smaller than a proton—this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature...
The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton… that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.”
While this belief in spontaneous creation may work for Hawking (and perhaps for you), it is no more plausible than the theistic belief that some creator set the whole process in motion.
Since all measurable forms of matter came out of the Big Bang, we quite literally have no way of knowing what came before. And yet, Hawking tries over the course of several pages to explain away that uncertainty.
So, what’s the problem with under-belief?
At their core, under-beliefs are an incorrect map of reality. There are questions in life we can’t know the answers to, and under-beliefs attempt to eliminate those riddles through scientifically reductive answers.
Ironically, the New Atheist tendency to try to resolve life’s mysteries is driven by the same motivation as the religious fundamentalist. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, and life’s big questions don’t just go away. Even those without faith must still find ways to make sense of how we got here, where we’re going, and how to relate to suffering.
Moreover, a worldview based on under-belief can lead to a drought of meaning-making in our lives. We can slip into nihilism and lose touch with what Paul Tillich termed “matters of ultimate concern” -- deeper human dynamics such as love, loss, and vocation.
For those of agnostic-yet-spiritual persuasion, the challenge then is to find a middle ground between over-belief and under-belief -- as my friend Alexey put it, a “Goldilocks Approach” to spirituality.
If this is you, you may be asking:
- How can I cultivate our own “over-beliefs” that provide meaning and still take modern thought into account?
- Where can I explore these questions without being asked to adopt someone else’s belief system?
I’ve been thinking of this process as one of secular formation…. and that is the topic for a future essay ;)
Invitations for reflection:
- Do I tend to lean towards under-belief or over-belief?
- How have my over-beliefs changed over the years?
- Do I sense another change on the horizon? If so, how might I name that inkling?
- How might I test my over-beliefs and come to a finer view of reality? Is this important to me?