“Well, what about Jesus?” the boy asked.
The man cocked an eyebrow. “What about him?”
“Was he the son of God or not?”
“Does it matter?”
The boy gave the man a quizzical look. “Doesn’t it?”
“Do you know why we have religion?”
The boy shook his head.
“Well, have you ever noticed how men always seem to overestimate a woman’s interest in them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Say a man and woman are talking after having met for the first time.”
“Chances are the man will assume the woman is interested in him.”
“Sexually?” the boy said.
The man nodded. “Yes, sexually. The woman, however, will see their exchange as pleasant but nothing more.”
“The reason for this is evolutionary. For a man, it is best for him to assume that the woman is interested, to take a chance and approach her. If he doesn’t, he might never get a chance to reproduce. The risk of never passing on his genes outweighs the risk of being rejected. Understand?”
“I think so,” the boy said.
“From the woman’s perspective, though, she should be much choosier. Assuming that the man is not all that interested serves her better, at least from an evolutionary stand-point.”
“Because the risk of being stuck with a child after mating with the wrong man is far greater than not passing on her own genes.”
The boy nodded. “Okay. So where does religion come into this?”
The man smiled. “What I just described is called risk analysis. We all do it. We weigh the risk of doing something against not doing it. Well, what if we ran the risk of eternal damnation following our deaths? And what if we could avoid damnation by following a few rules? Wouldn’t it be worth our time and effort to follow those rules if they meant we could avoid the risk of eternal damnation?”
“But what if there was no damnation?”
The man shrugged. “Then we wasted a small amount of time and energy. Since there is no way of knowing for sure, it is worth it, for most, to follow those rules . . . just in case.”
“Exactly. Religion is like spiritual insurance.”
The boy nodded, thoughtful.
“You see, many think that religion and religious ritual are practiced by those who believe they know the answer to eternal questions. The fact is that religion exists because we simply cannot know the answer to those questions.”
“So what about Jesus?” the boy said.
“Was he the son of God?”
“Well, once again, does it matter?”
The boy frowned, confused.
“Why is Jesus worshipped by so many?”
“Because he performed miracles.”
“Really,” the man said, “is that all?”
The boy shrugged.
“What about the things he had to say, the lessons he taught us?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You guess? Those were important lessons. There is great wisdom in the New Testament.”
“Try not to think of Jesus as a magical being. That’s just razzle-dazzle. He doesn’t belong with the likes of Krishna or Apollo. Group him with Gandhi instead. Pair him with Martin Luther King Jr. Think of him as a man with a great message. Lessons to teach that are well worth learning.”
“So Jesus wasn’t the son of God?”
“Do you agree that Martin Luther King’s message of equality, fellowship and tolerance was an important one?”
The boy nodded. “Yes.”
“Would it be any more important if King had been able to, say, turn water into wine?”
The boy shrugged. “No.”
“Of course not. Razzle-dazzle. Try this,” the man said. “Imagine a magician on a stage performing wonderful illusions.”
“Now imagine that he is performing for charity, that the money he will raise doing his tricks will help save thousands of people.”
“Now tell me, what is more important, the tricks or the reason for which the man is performing those tricks?”
The man smiled. “That’s right. The rest is just razzle-dazzle. It doesn’t matter.”
The boy looked off into the distance, his eyes unfocused. He was thinking.
“So,” the boy said finally. “What does that have to do with what you said about religion?”
“Well, unfortunately, the message isn’t enough. You said that King’s message would be no less or more important to you if he was capable of performing miracles, but to most, it would be more important. People don’t always listen to great men or women because they have something great to say, they listen to them because they might have the answers.”
“The answers to those big questions?”
“Exactly. The great person becomes the answer to those eternal questions.”
“Though the miracles Jesus is said to have performed are completely irrelevant and unimportant, they are the reason for which his message has survived for as long as it has. The Bible is a two-thousand year old game of telephone with thousands of players. Each of those players had to find a way to ensure that the message survived the next few players and so on.”
The boy nodded. “So then, Jesus might not be the son of God but he does have the best message.”
The man laughed. “Best message?”
“Well, Christianity . . . it’s the right one, the right religion,” the boy said.
“I want you to imagine a small apartment building, a triplex.”
“This triplex has three tenants. They all have the same landlord. The first tenant likes to pay his rent with checks. The second tenant pays using cash. The third tenant uses a debit card.”
“These three tenants constantly argue over which method of payment is the best one. Which of them is right?”
“Well, I don’t know. They all have benefits, I guess.”
“But, in the end, the landlord won’t really care, as long as he gets paid.”
“That’s right. All three tenants pay the landlord and they do so in their own way, for their own reasons and, most importantly, without harming the others.”
“So if the landlord is God . . .”
The man smiled. “That’s right. You understand. If religion compels people to act in a way that makes them happy without harming others, then religion is beneficial.”
“What about when it does harm others?”
“Then, of course, it is not beneficial.”
“What about things that make no difference, like prayer? Is that like paying into your spiritual insurance?”
The man laughed. “In a way, yes. But who says prayer makes no difference?”
“It’s just talking to yourself.”
“You could see it that way. But, really, prayer is much more popular than one would think. Prayer is simply a form of intense contemplation. Some call it prayer, others meditation, while others call it deep thought or a thought experiment. In every case, the outcome is similar: a sense of well-being and inner-peace.”
“So prayer is good?”
“That’s for you to decide. As with every aspect of religious belief it is, in the end, personal. You can believe in absolutely nothing and that is fine if it brings you peace and does not compel you to harm others. You can believe in God or aliens or talking cows, they are all just as valid. It’s personal. The danger in religion is inherent in its institutionalisation. That’s when people allow their personal beliefs to be controlled and dictated by others. It’s when people try to force their beliefs upon others. It’s when one tenant decides that it isn’t enough that he uses his preferred form of payment but that all other tenants should also use it.”
The boy was quiet for a moment. He looked up at the man, a glint in his eye.
“One more question?” the boy said.
The man nodded.
“What is the meaning of life?”
“Oh, I’d rather not answer that one.”
“Well, the man said with a grin. “If you like my answer, you might want to worship me.”
“That depends,” the boy said with a grin of his own.
“On what?” the man asked.
“Can you do any magic tricks?”