Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Explaining My Lack of Faith (Badly)

I started a website to promote my book and to carve out even more space on the internet for my brand of bullshit.  It’s available here for those interested, though anyone reading this probably has friended me on Facebook by now and surely has seen more than enough of my self-promotion.  I bring it up because there is in the ME section a bit of a joke regarding my birth at Christ Hospital, wherein I cried so violently that I had to get away from Christ.  I included it because it made me chuckle, though I monetarily worried about offending various friends and family members who do identify as Christians.  Then I remembered something: if you have faith, no smart ass joke can shatter that and there is no real reason to feel offended.  I was not saying that Jesus is bad or the religion constructed in his honor is wrong—how the hell should I know?—so I left the joke in.  Taken literally, the line simply states that I stopped being a Catholic, which is 100% true.  Me.  I made a decision.  I rejected the faith in which I was raised.  That’s the thing about being an individual with the capacity to make conscious decisions: you get make conscious decisions. 

My lack of faith is often a thing that troubles some of those before mentioned friends and family members.  As my default setting, for good or ill, is humor, I tend to come off as contemptuous of religion.  I’ll admit to a grain of truth there.  I do have a certain level of contempt for most of the major organized religions, though not the texts they claim as their basis, and certainly not every single person in those faiths.  Just the jerks.  

 Here’s the thing: I can respect the Bible (as a work of literature or a philosophic text) by reading it through a historicist lens, but the manner in which many religions, Catholicism high among them, have taken the text and run with it makes me sad and angry. 

So I left the church.  This happened after a lot of speculation and teenage angst and confusion, though, as I write on my website, my high school theology teacher didn’t help.  He did have us read Thomas Aquinas and Jean Paul Sartre in an effort to show us where Aquinas was right and Sartre was wrong.  At the time, I only knew about Sartre from the film Caddyshack. (“In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher.’”)  And I can’t claim to have understood much of what I read, but Sartre—whatever it was he was up to—seemed intriguing in a way that Aquinas didn’t.  Now, as the years have passed, I’ve come around on Aquinas, but I’ve also come to understand that the gloominess associated with Sartre’s existentialism is a misconception and the very root of why I had to leave the church.


If we are alone in the universe—if there is no god and, thus, no entity judging our actions—than life is meaningless. We are here through a series of accidents and events.  If there is any meaning at all, it is up to us to make it.  We give our lives meaning through our conscious decisions, our actions, our relationships.  The meaning of life is not a set thing but any number of things that make us as individuals continue existing.  Literature, cooking, backgammon, our children—why shouldn’t these be reasons to continue living?  And if we are so in control of our lives, so blessed with the ability to create our own meaning, why not respect all others so long as they don’t, you know, insist that their consciously or unconsciously chosen reason for existing supersede yours? 

Okay, that stated, let me try to explain my ongoing rejection of religion. (Again, this is a personal rejection, not a cry for anyone to join me in my agnosticism.)  To me, religion seeks to explain the inexplicable.  And to that extent, it does as good a job as any other belief system.  Science, which can certainly replace religion for some, does a good job as well, but both religious and scientific zealots often describe their respective faiths as if the other were total rubbish.  To me, science and religion don't need to be so mutually exclusive. (I’m comfortable believing in the Big Bang Theory, but where the hell did the exploding dot come from?)  But I get why they are often seen as adversaries.  Science deals with what it can examine in a mostly concrete manner while faith, when it’s at its best, examines more abstract matters.  (Of course, while writing that sentence I began to see less of a difference between the two.)  But religion’s answers never made sense to me.  This may speak more to my shortcomings, but the basic idea of do good or be judged always bothered me.  On the other hand, “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person” makes more sense.  But I shouldn’t need an edict from the son of god to tell me that.  If I have to be told not to be an asshole, if I have to avoid assholish behavior because I fear punishment, then I am not necessarily a good person.  I’m an asshole who is too scared to act on my impulses. 

So I asked myself: is it possible to be a good person without religious instruction?  Of course it is.  Some of the other philosophers I studied and probably misread seemed to offer good ideas along the lines of: do good because it is good to do good.  Or: don’t be an asshole because why would you?  Or: if there is a god, it is understood as a force that lives in all of nature, not necessarily a man in the sky.  And that force in nature is in all of us.  Thus, we understand what is right and what is wrong.  We see suffering and we are compelled to ease it not because of god’s direct command but because of the force (call it god if you like) within us. 

People are basically moral.  They want to do good and help others, despite selfish inclinations.  But they get frustrated and sad when they witness injustice or actions that are clearly hurtful and (for lack of a better word) evil.  So they make sense these actions, which are so contrary to their kind nature, by assuming that they are only kind because they believe in a god who dictates kindness toward others.  The evil doers, therefore, are not spiritually right with their god.  An easy answer.  But if that is the case, religion serves the instincts of man rather than controls man’s actions. The house of cards collapses. 

To me, this explains why members of religious communities tend (according to studies religious friends often mention) to be happier people—they have a sense of belonging.  They have a tribe: a group, they assume, of like-minded, morally upright individuals. This satisfies the human need for connection and validates their belief.  And as a gathering place (I have no problem stating it) religion is not a bad thing, though it becomes corrupted when used as a means of othering those outside the faith. 

Along with my website and the silly joke therein, much of my wayward thinking on this has come from reading this article by Louise M. Antony, from which I quote:

So what about atheism?  What I think all this means is that the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs.  The most reliable allies in any moral struggle will be those who respond to the ethically significant aspects of life, whether or not they conceive these things in religious terms.  You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding Him.

Of course, it may be easier to keep our inherent sense of morality by constantly referring to a text like the Bible, but, as the Bill Mahers of the world will often point out, the book has contradictions that are hard to ignore, which is why biblical study is very important.  Of course, I often worry that studying the text as the literal word of god (ignoring the whole translation problem) is the wrong approach.  Studying it as a big, complex book of ideas and parables seems more practical if one is seeking moral instruction, but doing so requires that the student also study the history of the book and accept the limitations of the text.  And such instruction ought to go beyond the Bible.  I’m reading James Joyce these days, but it would severely limit my reading were I not also reading critical texts by scholars a whole lot more familiar with the great Irish modernist's work.  Why do so many people read a biblical passage and stop there?  It’s not like there aren’t scores of theological books on the market.  And, while we’re at it, this ideal biblical student ought to at least be familiar with the texts out there that have informed the other religions.  Doing so would allow one to see how these faiths converge.  Might stop the holy wars.

Assuming the average churchgoer is not inclined to read anything other than the Bible—and even then, I assume most of the people I rubbed shoulders with as a young Catholic only knew the passages they heard coming from the pulpit—they might easily develop a sense of us v. them that, it seems to me, flies in the face of the Jesus they claim to love so much.  And it also may contribute to the idea that atheists and nihilists are one and the same.  And it’ll cause them to reject the notion that morality can be found, understood, and developed in ways contrary to theirs.  Assuming this is the case, why wouldn’t I leave the church? 

It seems valid that a person may spend their lives committed to a religion they believe in with all of their faith, just as it seems invalid that one go through the motions when they have no faith at all.  I had none, so I left the church.  It was pretty easy.  Inaction, really, as opposed to a big ceremony.  But I'm not going to be so smarmy as to suggest that people who believe in god (however they understand that god) are wrong or stupid or faking it.  I am sure there are some who are stupid, though there are plenty of stupid agnostics as well, and some who are faking it because it’s all they know.  Tradition is hard to defy.  Still, I’d sooner not pretend.  And while I am not perfect, I think my own sense of right and wrong is in place well enough.

And here’s where you may point out something I’m glossing over: I was raised a Catholic.  I went to church.  I went to Catholic high school.  Thus, despite my current agnostic position, I am the product of Christianity.  I heard the sermons, I read the book, I absorbed the lessons.  That may be why I am a (mostly) moral individual, not because of Kant or Spinoza or Sartre.  You can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy.  Perhaps.  I can’t contradict this idea that religious upbringings stay with us, but I still maintain that a lifelong exploration of morality requires actively asking impossible questions and, in my case, accepting that I’ll never know sure if there is a god but I do know that the way I was taught to understand him (and god, if there is one, is surely male as no woman would fuck things up this badly) is insufficient.  So, if I am to go on being a moral person, I can do so by accepting that maybe the religion that was a part of my young life did offer some instruction (plus a lot of guilt and repression), but as I have grown, so have my beliefs.  I mean, I was raised in an area where, and at a time when, it seemed perfectly normal to discriminate against homosexuals.  Casual racism was a daily thing.  If I never challenged these practices, I’d likely be a rotten person.  Obviously Catholicism is not as nasty as racism or homophobia… oh, wait.  Yeah, it can be.  At least when practiced in its worst fashion.  But that’s just it: one need not follow the dictates of the Vatican to be a good, moral, Catholic, just as it is okay to disagree with the actions of the government and still be a patriot.  If critical thinking and active disagreement with the church result in a rejection of a religion, well there’s always that inborn sense of right and wrong.  And, to reiterate Antony’s point in the above referenced article, moral action without religion is actually a beautiful, important thing. I can keep the good things I got from being a young Catholic and use them as an agnostic adult.  I threw out the bathwater, not the baby.  The bathwater was dirty.  I'm not about to put my faith in it. 

This rambling post probably has not properly explained anything or made sense or adequately  addressed the very short and not all that brilliant joke in the ME section of my new website.  So it goes, as Vonnegut wrote.  But, assuming anyone is nuts enough to have read this whole post, at this point a few things should be clear.  I’d restate them here but perhaps I’ve gone on long enough.  If you require clarification or wish to challenge any of this malarkey, email me and we’ll get a drink or three.