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How Religion Works  

I. How Religion Gets Started

Directly across Thornhill Court from our front yard is the Gibbs home. Ray Gibbs and I were buddies before he passed away last year. We learned from one of our many chats that he and I were both jn the horse cavalry at Fort Riley at the very same time in 1944-45. Since I was white, I had served in a regiment that had horses. Since he was black, he served in a regiment that had mules. We found this to be poetically ironic because we both liked mules and disliked horses. The black soldiers came out ahead on that one.
One morning I spotted Ray across the court and yelled out, "Hey, Ray!" At that very minute a boy about 12 or 13 was guiding one of those radio controlled toy cars down the middle of the street. He looked over at me with a strange question mark on his face. He asked how I knew his name was Ray. I seized the moment! I walked over to him and pretended to be as amazed as he was. In a worried tone I told him that I didn't know how I knew that but that this kind of thing was happening to me more and more all the time. Picking up on the fear in his face, I asked him where he lived. He pointed through the woods to the development behind us. Seeing I was on a roll, I muttered, "Now how did I know that?"
He grabbed his little car and took off through the woods. It never occurred to him that he was the one who just told me where he lived! But he was now a believer. He will stay a believer. That is, unless he thinks a little.

II. How Religion Stays Alive

When I was about five or six my grandparents lived just a block from the Rancocas Creek in Riverside, NJ. Whenever I visited there in the summer, I would make my way down a scary path through the bushes to the muddy creek bank and watch the tide coming in and going out. I did some of my really important thinking there watching the breeze play with the ripples.
In those days I had a friend named Hugo. He was a year or so older than I. He owned the Rancocas Creek. He also owned all of its branches and all of its tributaries. Realizing how much I loved the creek, he offered to sell it to me together with all of its branches and all of its tributaries for twenty-five cents. I had never wanted anything this much before. I have never wanted anything that much since.
When I told him that I only had fourteen cents altogether, he thought for what seemed to be ages, then said that since it meant so much to me he would let me have it together with all of its branches and all of its tributaries for whatever I had on me. When I rolled the change over into his palm and realized that the deal had been consummated, I felt a thrill run through me unlike anything I have felt since that time.
The nice thing about it was that Hugo didn't make me sign any kind of papers or go through any of the usual legal routines that spoil an event like that. He trusted me.

I wanted to just stand there and savor the moment forever, but I also wanted to share the great news with everyone I knew. So, part of me stayed there savoring and part of me ran off in every direction proclaiming the good news. Those who loved me and understood me rejoiced with me. I knew they weren't feeling what I was feeling, but I appreciated their going with me as far as they were able to go.
Over the years there have been those who doubted the whole thing. They didn't come right out and say it, but I knew. The really important thing is that I never doubted!  Wherever I was and whatever I was doing, I knew that I owned this beautiful creek together with all of its branches and all of its tributaries.

The peace and the joy that have been there all these years have given my life a foundation from which I could deal with whatever I had to deal with.  Whenever I felt alone, it spoke to me in its own quiet way.

When I needed to be listened to, it listened.  It will always be there, together with all of its branches and all of its tributaries.

Even after I seem to be gone, it will be there.
And I will be there, too.

III. The Power of Faith

At the height of the fervor surrounding the trial of O. J. Simpson, I was camping at Otter Creek on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Every evening I would wonder off to the community campfire for a few minutes before turning in for the night. It bothered me a trifle that every night they were talking about the trial and speculating about who had committed the awful crime.
One evening, in order to rupture the rhythm, I broke in and announced that I believed that the murder had been committed by Barbara Walters. What I was trying to say was, "Hey, let's talk about something else tonight." They missed my drift. They wanted to hear more about Barbara's involvement. To drive home the point that I was being absurd, I went on to explain that in O.J.'s prior life he and Barbara were lovers and that in this life she wanted Nicole out of the way so she killed her.  At this point everyone stopped breathing. When I mentioned a "prior life," I became the camp guru for that night.
One sharp listener knew exactly what I was doing so he chimed in and said directly to me in a very serious tone that he knew O.J. and Barbara had been friends in a prior life but that he never knew they had been lovers. His complicity in the charade was all the confirmation the believers needed.

A Creed is born

He and I both realized that before going to bed for the night we had to end the thing somehow, so we added all kinds of names and incidents to both the prior life and the present existence wondering at what point people would laugh and chide us for our prank. The more complicated and bizarre the story got, the more intense our congregation got.
We finally realized that faith was out of control. There was no turning back now. The fervor became so intense that mere listening wasn't enough. When members of the congregation began to augment the outrageous account, we knew that this thing now had a life of its own. The believers began to add their own testimonies to the evolving story. We now had disciples promoting the faith beyond the wildest dreams of the original prophets.  When the prophets themselves began to believe, it was time to turn in for the night.
The next morning I was taking the cover from my GoldWing in preparation for a ride to Whetstone Ridge when someone I had never seen before approached and shared what he had just learned about who really committed the murder.  He wasn't sure about Jimmy Carter's involvement with Barbara Walter's father, Lou Walters; but he knew that she had done the dirty deed.

Here I Stand

I don't know what I believe. I want to believe something.
It would seem a shame to let a creed like this just go to waste.
I guess I believe. I'll say I do, anyway.
It's easier to just go along than to try to stem a tide like this.