By Julian Baggini, Thursday 15 December 2011 12.53 EST
Last week I challenged the idea that religiosity is more about practice than belief with evidence that most religious people appear to have a large number of traditional beliefs which they take to be important. However, I suggested that there might be a response to this, and I’ve found a possible one in book 42 of the apocryphal Gospel According to Monty. Here it is:
1 One day as Jesus was walking through the marketplace, a scholar came up to him and asked: “Teacher, what should I believe?”
2 Jesus turned to him and said: “Once there were three neighbouring allotments, tended by three people, Thea, Alf and Flo.”
3 “There he goes off on one of his stories again,” whispered Judas to Peter. “Why can’t he just give a straight answer?”
4 “Ssshh!” Peter replied. “The stories are good. People remember them. And the faithful that follow us will make good use of their ambiguity as they adapt to new times and places.”
5 “One day, an environmental scientist walked past the allotments,” continued Jesus, a little miffed that not all his disciples were concentrating, “smiled happily at the enthusiasm and effort of the gardeners, and asked them why they were working so hard.
6 “‘Because the organic food we produce here is cheaper, healthier and better for the planet,’ they replied as one.
7 “At this, the environmental scientist’s face fell. ‘Alas, it is not true,’ he said, explaining at length that the small, inefficient nature of their endeavours did not result in cheaper or less resource-intensive food than could be bought in shops, and nor was there any evidence home-grown food had any significant health benefits.
8 “They continued to discuss this for several hours, after which, all were persuaded that their convictions had been wrong. They packed up their tools, went home and resolved never to return.
9 “A month later, the scientist was again walking through the allotments. He saw that Thea’s patch remained untended but Alf and Flo were both working their earth as industriously as before. ‘Did you change your views back after we talked?’ he asked them.
10 “‘No,” replied Alf. ‘We stayed at home the next day, but then we both realised that what we really loved about the allotment was the contact with the ground, seeing the food grow, being outside, watching the changing of the seasons, the camaraderie of our fellow gardeners.
11 “‘We sincerely thought that what we believed about organic allotments was the reason we came. But when that belief went, we realised it wasn’t about that at all,’ added Flo. ‘Although it was for Thea.’
12 “Several months later, the scientist passed by again, and this time he saw that only Flo was at work, and Alf’s allotment had become overgrown. ‘What happened to your friend?’ he asked Flo.
13 “‘He continued for a while,’ she replied. ‘Yes, he enjoyed all the things we said we enjoyed last time. But working an allotment is hard work and over time it transpired that these rewards weren’t enough. Without the belief that it really was healthier, greener and cheaper, he simply did not have a strong enough incentive to persist.’
14 “‘But you?’ asked the scientist. ‘For me, the activity is enough.'” Jesus fell silent and it was clear the parable was over.
15 “And the moral of the story?” asked the scholar. “There’s always a moral.” Jesus shrugged his shoulders. “People can be mistaken about how important their own beliefs are.”
16 “I see,” said the scholar. “So, metaphorically speaking, They all believed at the start that their ‘religion’ rested on a whole set of beliefs. For Thea, that was true, for Flo it turned out not to be. Alf agreed with Flo in principle but found that without belief he was not motivated enough to do the practice.”
17 Jesus nodded gently. “Do you think there are more Theas, Alfs or Flos in this world?” he asked.
18 “I don’t know,” replied the scholar. “But isn’t the main question not how many of each type there are, but which one I should be?”
19 “You can lead a man to gardens, but you cannot make him dig,” replied Jesus, and he set off on his way. “Hey!” Where do you think you’re going?” shouted the scholar. “I need a better answer than that! We all need answers!”
20 “Grow your own,” replied Jesus, without turning his head.