Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On religion, skepticism, and being a dick

Okay, so I'm going to warn you right up front that this is going to be a rather serious, sincerely personal (and unexpectedly lengthy) post. It feels strange to throw up an "intimate personal sharing" trigger warning, but that's kind of what it is: If you'd like to stick with the lighthearted, there'll be another BSC chapter coming up shortly. Or kittens or something.

Now, then.

Part I: Faith

'Roundabout two years ago, I left the Catholic church. It was an intensely hard decision. I'd been struggling with my religion for some time--not my faith, mind you, but my religion. My faith in God was, for the most part, as strong as ever. It was my relationship with what purported to be His personal church of choice that was such a struggle for me.

My problem was simply that the more I learned about myself and the more I pursued a personal relationship with God on top of the more professional one I had with Him through church, the less my beliefs about religion and life and even myself fit with what I was being taught. It brewed for a long time: reproductive rights, the church's treatment of women, the church's treatment of gays, the handling of the pedophile priests--all the things that the church had one lesson about while my heart told me something entirely different.

It's one of the worst kinds of cognitive dissonance, when you're at odds not just with a trusted friend but with an institution that's been at or near the center of your life since a priest poured water on your little baby head. It's an institution that has literally heard you confess your deepest secrets and is supposed to help guide you through a good, moral life to a kickin' afterlife. For that matter, it's something you've shared with your family for an hour each week, plus holidays and every time you've said grace before a meal. It was meant to be with me from birth through six of the sacraments and to death and beyond, and I was so conflicted and pained I could barely look it in the eye.

If you ask, some priests will tell you that it's not a sin to question the church. It's actually a good thing, they'll say, to examine your beliefs and the history and tenets given to you, because it leads to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of your faith. These priests are very nice and generally fun to talk to, but they don't represent the prevailing attitude of the church as a whole, which tends toward "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

When you're going through such things, the advice you get is to pray. You don't change God--you ask God to change you. (I've heard similar things about Vera Wang.) My job was to pray, hard and sincerely and often, for God to turn me around to His way of thinking. I had to ask Him to make me want and need and feel what He wanted me to want and need and feel, and if it wasn't happening, I was meant to keep begging until my beliefs matched those of the church. And I tried. As much as it hurt--and it did, physically--and as disgusting as it felt to beg God to make me believe things I knew in my heart were wrong, I prayed for Him to change my heart.

And of course it didn't work. But I was following the steps--step, really--as instructed. So something had to be wrong with me. (Theme, here?) "Have you been praying?" Yes. Frequently. "Have you been opening yourself up to God?" As much as I can. "Do you truly want Him to change your heart?" Of course not; everything I'm being told to believe is what I consider to be in diametrical opposition to what we're given as God's nature. I think it's terrible. "Well, that's your problem. You have to open yourself to Him and beg Him to fill you with His grace." Open. Begging. Filling. Grace. Got it.

And the more I prayed, the more it didn't work, and the more I was told that I'm just not doing it right, I just don't want it enough, and if I were doing it right and wanted it enough I would be in harmony with God already. I didn't even bother telling them that the more I prayed and meditated, the more strongly I felt that God really was the compassionate and loving deity the Catholic church no longer talked about and that He wanted us to be that way, too. As I prayed, I started to develop the personal relationship with God that I get the feeling you're not really supposed to have, because it confirmed and reinforced the same beliefs I was supposed to pray to eradicate.

But I kept praying. I talked to the kindest, holiest people I knew. I talked to a nun. I talked to my mom. And I made the mistake of continuing to talk to the people who had been giving me such swell advice all along--pray more. Open yourself. Ask God to change your heart. Want it more. Really want it.

The answer finally came one Sunday in the middle of church. The priest--old to the priesthood but new to our church, brought in when our regular priest was promoted to the cathedral--had just introduced a homily talking about people who profess Catholicism but whose actions seem to contradict the teachings of the church. "Nancy Pelosi says she's a Catholic," he began.

And that was all it took for me. I belonged to a church which, even if just through the words of one priest, publicly called a woman out from the pulpit for exactly what I was feeling. "Nancy Pelosi says she's a Catholic" but is feminist and outspoken and pro-choice and pro-equality--like me. I never heard the rest of the homily; I got up--quietly, unobtrusively, and without drama--and walked out.

If being at odds with the church had been painful, being without the church was misery. I began trying to attend an Episcopal church, but it was hard; everything was so similar to what I'd grown up with but just different enough to remind me that it wasn't the same, that it wasn't what I'd grown up with, that I couldn't have that anymore, and that right now my mom wasn't sitting in the same Mass 200 miles away like she always was before. It was more than a month before I could make it through an entire service without crying. Even after I found a new church that was welcoming and friendly (thanks to a dear friend who used to work for Planned Parenthood and who is married to an Episcopal priest), it was a good long while before I got over the loss of that part of my life and my anger at the church for that loss.

So that's how I left the faith of my mother and my religious home of more than a quarter of a century.

Part II: Logic

An ex-Catholic is, in some communities, a bit of a coup. An ex-Catholic is someone who has dug through so much of the crap the church provides, seen it for what it is, and moved beyond it. For the movement skeptic and/or atheist crowds (and they aren't necessarily the same), it's a first step, the beginning of a path to the eventual realization that not just religion but the very existence of a higher power is bunk and completely unsupported by falsifiable evidence.

Allow me to state for the record (not that you could stop me, because this is my blog): I believe that the existence of a higher power is completely unsupported by falsifiable evidence. There's no evidence that there is a god, and there are no tests that can be performed to demonstrate the existence of God. Science and faith are completely at odds: While science depends on the discovery of new evidence to develop and progress knowledge, faith is--by definition--the belief in something completely lacking in evidence. Religion depends on adherents believing in God without evidence, and anyone who claims to have evidence of the existence of God is missing the point. Blessed are those who have not seen…

That said, I still believe. I recognize that there's no logical reason to continue believing in a higher power. It's nothing new--I knew back before I left the Catholic church that my belief in God wasn't based on logic or evidence. It's why I've never tried evangelizing: I can't provide anyone with a logical, reasonable argument in support of a supernatural god. But I believe just the same. Maybe God is speaking to me, or maybe I've been so brainwashed since infancy that my mind can't conceive of a world without a benevolent higher power in it, but the faith is there.

But spend enough time around skeptics and atheists, and you're going to start hearing the argument. "There's no evidence to support a higher power." Correct. "Believing in something even when you know full well there's no evidence is a form of mental illness." Arguably, yeah. "Anyone who believes in a god is either crazy or stupid." Rather harsh, that, but I see where you're coming from.

Being in the direct fire of that kind of rhetoric is particularly bracing. "Why do you believe in God?" I just do. "You don't have any logical reason to believe." I never said I did. "If you'll examine things critically, you'll understand how ridiculous it is." I have done, and I do. "How can you know all of that and still believe in God?" I just do. "How can you shun superstition and pseudoscience and still believe in God?" I just do. "Have you tried to not believe? Don't you want to not believe?" No,

Granted, the skeptics have logic, reason, and the scientific method on their side, which gives them infinitely more points than their theist adversaries. But the message I get is chillingly similar--"Do you understand? So why do you still believe? How can you still believe, in the face of all you know? Have you reviewed the information? Read the history? Are you trying to follow the evidence and abandon your favorite sky fairy?" Yes, I understand, I know the facts, and I embrace logic, reason, skepticism, and evidence. I understand and accept that such belief in the face of fact and reason is tantamount to a mental illness, and that there's willful stupidity attached. I know these things. They don't not shake my faith because you'll be hard-pressed to reason me out of something I wasn't reasoned into in the first place.

In a speech at TAM 8 (The Amazing Meeting, an annual conference that's like Woodstock for movement skeptics), Bad Astronomer and all-around solid guy Phil Plait addressed that very phenomenon.
How many of you no longer believe in [the supernatural and assorted woo], and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard? … Skepticism is hard. Skepticism is, in many ways, a self-annihilating message. How do you convince someone they're not thinking clearly when they're not thinking clearly?
"Our brain is not wired for skeptical thinking," he says, "it's wired for faith." Letting go of one belief doesn't leave a vacuum waiting to be filled with logic--we look for something else to put our faith in. And no, it's not the logical or reasonable thing to do, and it's even less so when you recognize that it's not logical or reasonable and continue to believe anyway. But it's not uncommon, and it's a hard thing to let go. It's a hard thing to want to let go. And I'm not sure I do. (Scratch that--if I'm honest, I'm pretty sure I don't.) And even though logic and evidence are a lot more productive to ruminate on than prayer, simply knowing the truth and wanting it hard isn't enough. Think about the logic. Process it. Want it more. Really want it.

So I'll stand up next to you on astrology and psychics. I'll stand up next to you on homeopathy and pseudoscience. I'll stand up next to you on myth, superstition, and conventional wisdom that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. I'll stand up next to you on evolution and science and the creation of the universe. And when you're talking about religion and ask if there's any evidence or reason to support belief in a higher power, you can point to me, and I'll say no. But if you then turn to me and start speaking in terms of ignorance, stupidity, and mental illness, you're not telling me anything I haven't been over in my mind. Your ineffable logic and repetition of facts aren't going to turn my heart and shake my faith--they're just going to make me not like you that much.

For the record, your attitude isn't going to change mine. If you're a complete douche, I'm not going to spin around and defiantly shun medical science, invest in homeopathy, and go find a psychic to talk to my dead relatives. For that matter, even if you're a complete douche, I'm not going to stop standing up and speaking out against pseudoscience and woo. Skeptical inquiry is bigger than one douchebag. But for your own sake and the sake of everyone who isn't at least open to facts and logic and evidence and reason, for the sake of anyone who can still can be brought around, just try not to be a dick.


shelly said...

I hear you, and I've found similar over the last ten years or so. (Only I was raised a Protestant/Evangelical instead of Catholic.)

The more I've worked out for myself regarding my perceptions of God, and the more I have learned about God, the more I cannot reconcile my own beliefs with those of mainstream Christianity ("Christianity Incorporated", as I like to call it). I still believe in God, but at the same time, much of my political views are liberal, which is an implied no-no. I'm pro-choice, I'm a feminist, I'm for LGBTQ rights, I think we need to be more environmentally conscious (even if it just means recycling a bit more, or planting more trees... simple stuff), I believe God gave us a brain to *use*, I believe science and faith can complement each other. And some of my views regarding Christianity would have me branded as a heretic: I don't believe in "hell" as Christianity Inc. teaches, and I believe in the eventual salvation of all humanity. Not to mention I don't believe that the earth was created over the course of a literal "six days", or that the earth is only 6000ish years old.

Anyway, as I read through the post and got to the point where you talked about how others urged you to ask God to change your mind, my thought was that God was actually confirming everything you'd concluded, that nothing was wrong with you, that everyone else was implying that you needed to "step in line" and believe the same way they did. That's a definite m.o. of Christianity Inc., whether you're Catholic or Protestant: If you don't believe the same way as someone else does, even if their own beliefs are warped, it's *you* who needs to change. Which, in my view, is just them encouraging you to lie, which by extension means they're encouraging you to sin.

The other thing is at least you had the courage to get out of the Catholic system -- something I've not found yet.

(And yeah, I find/have found evangelizing a turn-off, too. I don't have this massive desire to "take this region for Christ" (something you'd hear amongst purveyors of "Kingdom Now" or "Dominionist" theology); it makes it sound like the Crusades or something. DO NOT WANT. As far as I'm concerned, if something I say or do touches even just *one* person, then that's good.)

Erin said...

Shelly, what you describe is evidence, to me, of the great big FAIL on the part of the mainstream collective Church to counter the vocal minorities who would have you believe that to be a Christian you have to be anti-feminist, anti-science, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ rights, etc. And I say this not because I disagree with your assertion; on the contrary, I think you're right on. My husband and I both love "Six Feet Under" and bought the DVDs on a whim a few years ago. I was watching the last episode recently and one character revealed an abortion to someone else by saying "well, since you're a Christian..." And I thought "my God, where does this idea come from that all Christians are anti-choice, abortion clinic protesters?". Abortion is the one area where even the Catholic Church used to give leverage (one of its saints even helped procure abortions for women in 15th century Florence)!

But I digress. It just bothers me, because in fact, more and more mainstream denominations are embracing feminism and even LGBTQ rights, but it's hardly talked about. In the past eight years, the Episcopal Church, branches of the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Lutheran Church have all voted to ordain openly gay ministers. When NY voted last month to allow same sex marriage the Episcopal Diocese of NY released a statement saying how thrilled they were and welcoming anyone who wanted to be married into their churches. Ditto the Diocese of CA back in the days before Prop 8. And I'm not sure you can get more mainstream than the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. So why in the hell is there still this idea out there that mainstream Christians are anti-everything? Why aren't WE doing anything to combat that?

I laughed when I read your paragraph about your personal beliefs. They describe my husband to a tee, including the non-belief in Hell. He's the afore-mentioned Episcopal priest in the post. And his views are pretty characteristic of the many, many priests we know.

JoeSchmofromKokomo said...

As I have said to a number of folks who are having trouble reconciling the teachngs of a church and what they believe in their hearts: God is divine, but the Church is of man (men). You do not have to toe the Catholic/Evangelical/whatever line in order to be a good Christian'whatever. Even the Catholics acknowledge that we have reason and free will- we don't have to agree that everything they teach about God is correct. In fact, since there are so many different beliefs about Christianity (in the case at hand), and only one can be absolutely correct, the vast majority of unique expressions about Chrisitanity are wrong. In addition, since there is no reason to believe that anyone has it ALL right, everyone is probably wrong. So believe what you believe about the details. If you follow the Big Ten and love your neighbor as yourself ("the greatest commandment"), you'll probably do OK.

Chuck said...

I stumbled on this in hopes that your brother would be blogging again (I am glad he got a job, btw), and when he wasn't there, decided to check out his baby sis. Very interesting; thank you for your thoughtful post. If you haven't already looked at it, you may want look at G. K. Chesterton's 'Apologetics'. He is arguing with number of
people, including G. B. Shaw, so it is lively, and best of
all, it's a free read if you have access to iBooks.

I probably old enough to be your dad (60), but young of mind enough to appreciate your struggle. But mostly, I admire that you make the effort.

Chuck said...

My bad, the title is 'Orthodoxy' not 'Apologetics', and I realize that doesn't make it sound any more interesting, but I needed to correct that