Do you believe in God? This was the question addressed in a Pew Research study about religious beliefs in America. The results were both surprising and confusing. The survey showed that 90% of Americans believe in God or a higher power. I was shocked to learn that because the United States has become increasingly secular. The religiously unaffiliated or “nones” comprise 22.8% of Americans. However, 72% claim that they do believe in God or a higher power. There seems to be a disconnect between the percentage of people who believe in God and the percentage of people who are religiously affiliated. What do people really believe?
Equally confusing was the disconnect between those claiming religious affiliation their actual religious involvement. In America, 70.6% identify as Christian, 1.9% as Jewish, and 0.9% as Muslim. But significantly less consider religion to be very important in their lives : 68% of Christians, 35% of Jews, and 64% of Muslims. Further, only 47% of Christians, 19% of Jews, and 45% of Muslims attend services weekly. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that of the 73.4% of Americans who identify with an Abrahamic faith, only 56% actually believe in God as described in the Bible.
What does all of this tell us? Americans are really confused about what they believe. Many of those who oppose religion say they believe in God. Yet, many who claim to believe in God do not prioritize their faith. Many are reluctant to commit, but aren’t necessarily ready to reject God either. But if we believe God exists, what could be more important? How can we be so indifferent with so much at stake?
This reluctance to search for the truth reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave. If you are unfamiliar with the allegory the Cliff’s notes synopsis written below.
For this allegory, we are to imagine an underground Cave, whose entrance/exit leads upward to daylight. There are prisoners in the Cave who have been chained there since their childhood; they are chained to the ground and chained by their heads. They can see only the wall of the Cave in front of them. A fire is burning behind the prisoners; between the fire and the arrested prisoners, there is a walkway where people walk and talk and carry objects. The prisoners perceive only shadows of the people and things passing on the walkway; the prisoners hear echoes of the talk coming from the shadows. The prisoners perceive the shadows and echoes as reality.
If we unchain one of the prisoners and make him turn around, he would be frightened, pained by new physical movement, dazzled by the fire, unable at first to see. When he is told that the people and things he now perceives are more real than the shadows, he will not believe it. He will want to return to his old perceptions of the shadows as reality. When we drag him out of the Cave and into the World of Day, the sun will blind him. But he will gradually see the stars and the moon; he will then be able to see shadows in the daylight thrown by the sun; then he will see objects in the full light of day. The sun makes this new perception possible. If we took the prisoner back into the Cave, into his old world, he would not be able to function well in his old world of shadows.
For the allegory, the Cave corresponds to the realm of belief; the World of Day corresponds to the realm of knowledge. The sun stands for the Form of Goodness itself. If the prisoner were to be returned to the Cave, his old fellows would not believe his experiences, since they have always been imprisoned in their world, the Cave.
Plato was referring to intellectual understanding. How people can move from imagining to thinking and then finally to knowledge. But I find this allegory equally true when applied to our understanding of God. The cave is our belief about God. As long as we are imprisoned by false beliefs we will continue to misinterpret the shadows that are represented to us by others. Those with ulterior motives cast distorted shadows that only confuse us. We are freed from our prison and allowed to ascend toward the light when we desire to discover the truth about God. Through prayer and reading God’s word, we are slowly drawn into the light. This can be a confusing and frustrating process but it ends with insight about the truth of God’s love for us. We can finally see clearly, and this truth changes how we see the world. We are changed in a way that is impossible to explain. For those who have discovered the truth, there is a strong desire to share it with others. Even though we are happier in the light, it is our responsibility to bring others out of darkness and into the light. But those dwelling in darkness are generally reluctant to believe what we try to share. There is too much fear of the unknown to risk leaving. Many will actively resist any attempt to free them. The reasons may differ, but many prefer the darkness. It offers a place to hide everything that you don’t want others to see. Some prefer the shadows, which are familiar and already known. Some fear the journey, and what might happen to them along the way. Intuitively, most of us know that God exists. What that means, however, largely depends on where we are. Are you still a prisoner in the cave? Are you on a journey toward the light? Have you just seen the truth? Or have you returned to the cave to help convince others to join you? Keep sharing God’s goodness and help guide those who are searching for the light.