Sunday, January 12, 2014

Seeking the divine mirror

As you know, I blog about faith and religion a lot. I was raised a very fundamentalist Christian and grew up in America, and those two items alone justify considerable focus on the matter. There is more to it than that. It's a topic that I find fascinating, not only because of my own changing belief set, my upbringing, etc., but religion's heavy influence on the past and present. And when I say religion, I do not only speak of Christianity, although that has a wider impact on my daily affairs than most other faiths, but faith in general. I remember reading somewhere a quote to the effect that men create gods in their own image. Even the devout believers can agree that this is the case -- at least for "those other people". The same faiths can be, and are, used to justify whatever the practitioners of the faiths want validated. It's easier to see in other people than ourselves, perhaps, but it's true wherever you look. Regarding Christianity, Patheos blogger David Hayward (NakedPastor) illustrated it rather succinctly in the image below:


 The same Bible that was cited by abolitionists was cited by slavery's defenders; the same Bible that's quoted by homophobes is quoted to discourage homophobia; the same text that one man will use to justify his misogynist views and actions will be quoted by another to elevate women to a position of equality and leadership. In some sense, religion shapes us; but often, we're doing the shaping. We bring our prejudices, our bigotries, our insecurities; our hopes, our ideologies, our views; and we seek out a divine mirror for them.

Observe the American religious conservative's eagerness to ignore passages praising the poor (see Mark 12:41/Luke 21:1, and the story of the widow's last coins) and chastising the rich (see Matthew 19:23-24, including the famous line "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."). How often do they quote those decrying the very goal we've based our market on, the acquisition of ever-greater amounts of wealth (see 1 Timothy 6:10, and the line "the love of money is the root of all evil")? Not only are they ignored, but Jesus becomes a capitalist himself, a proponent of the very men of whom he said a camel's squeeze through the eye of a needle would be easier than their salvation. Jesus becomes militantly anti-gay (a topic he never addressed) as well as often believing that women's worth and place in the larger world, outside domestic tasks is negotiable at best (despite the actual Jesus coming down on rather the opposite end of the spectrum, what with having female apostles and all...). It's not just the right guilty of this cherry-picking, though. 

The left does it as well, although, as I believe the facts well support, with a far lesser degree of rank hypocrisy -- while religious liberals might ignore texts that lay outside of their belief set, particularly when the Bible expresses multiple views on the same issue, they rarely take such an opposite and contradictory stand against the Biblical message as conservatives seem to do. But selective quoting absolutely happens. Few liberal Christians, for instance, will accept Romans 1's assertions about homosexuality though they'll quote the "judge not that ye be not judged" portions readily enough. (To be clear, I am not saying that it is wrong to ignore that text [I would argue the opposite, that it is the only right course]; I am simply pointing out that, in order to honor the principles of equality and respect for all consenting adults whose personal lives are in no way impacting any one else, you must ignore it.)

And that's just Christianity, in America, on hot button topics. Pick a faith. Pick a region. Pick a topic. You'll see the same thing. Monarchists and democrats, slavers and abolitionists, terrorists and peacemakers, tyrants and freedom fighters: they can, have, and do all cite the same holy texts to justify opposite stances. What is actually written matters less than what we want to find. And, really, if the same text can be used to prove absolutely that God decrees contradictory things...does it matter at all?

All of which brings me to two fascinating posts on Patheos I read recently. They're worth a read in their entireties, but I've selected a section from each that I find particularly interesting. The first is "Why Atheists win arguments with Christians about God", from John Shore's Christianity without Inanity, and is quoted below:

The atheist is simply better armed. And why is that? Because logic.
It’s logic that wins arguments. Nothing else. And a Christian employing logic to win the argument that God exists—let alone that the Christian one is the only god that exists—tends to be like a hang glider employing buckets of cement to help him fly. Not so much with the helpful.
That is not to say that there is no logically sound argument for Christianity to be made. [...]
As a response to the human experience, Christianity isn’t one iota less logical than atheism. But the fact remains that the locus of the religious sentiment lies beyond [...] the logical mind. In the final analysis the phenomenon of the human spirit communing with the eternal divine is not a thing which can be discussed. It begins where language ends.

As intense and radical as it is, the religious experience necessarily and inviolately remains an entirely subjective experience. As such its essence cannot be captured, communicated, delineated, or explicated. It is not transferrable. It is what it is. To attempt to make more of it by universalizing it is to degrade it. To argue for its preeminence is to render it fodder for rational humanists[...].

The second is a post by Bob Seidensticker of Cross Examined:
Defending an invisible God and celebrating faith is exactly what Christians would do if their religion were manmade. Faith is always the last resort. If there were convincing evidence, Christians would be celebrating that, not faith.

Augustine said, “Do not understand so you may believe; instead believe so you may understand.” But why? You don’t do that in any other area of life. You don’t pick a belief system first and then select facts to support it; it’s the other way around. You follow the facts where they lead.

Faith is permission to believe without good reason.

I happened upon them in this order, reading Shore's before Seidensticker, and I was -- am -- deeply struck by the raw honesty and profundity of both pieces. Shore's assertion that atheism beats religion in logical arguments is something that, painfully, I have come to accept. I say painfully, because logic is my window to the world, but religion was made to be central to that world. Mine is a nature that, if something is important, must be understood. From the earliest that I remember, that has been true (and I have struggled with theological questions of inconsistencies and unfairness since childhood). And, ultimately, if something does not make sense, in the cold light of day I must recognize it as false. But I am also susceptible to the foibles of my species, to resist, when the stakes are high enough, discarding ideas and things that are precious to me with all the fervor of Gollum and his ring. There is not much that qualifies for such a designation, but religion has been one. I never sought to disbelieve, but only to understand; the one, however, has been a conduit to the other. But chipping away at religious instruction, it being a thing so deeply impressed upon my mind from my earliest moments that, for much of my life, it has been intimately entwined with most other facets of my understanding and outlook, has been, as I say, painful. My logical mind will lead me in one direction, and my irrational desire to hold on to that belief begs me to hesitate. The simple truth is, like a kid clinging to the notion of Santa Claus, for a long time I simply wanted to believe. My irrational desire tried to suffocate logical objection. Why? I suppose because it promised nice things. It promised to make up for suffering, to bring joy and happiness, to deliver the dead reanimated, families reunited, peace and prosperity unending. But there was more than that at stake. It wasn't just that religion promised shiny things in the hereafter. It was in large part because it was the foundation of my world. Or so it seemed. My family, my friends, my community, my politics, my understanding of the world and humanity's place in it, were so intertwined with religion that to question anything was to send shockwaves through that were profoundly uncomfortable. But uncomfortable is understatement. It was, more accurately stated, to threaten not only my own internal placidity, but to endanger almost every relationship and every notion I had, to call into question every idea about mankind's existence, about the origin of species, about...everything. It was, in a word, fear. Fear of the hereafter, if I was wrong, fear of what would be left if I stripped away the comforting fallacies that had been so deeply impressed upon me before I was even able to begin reasoning.

But in the end, the logical side of my nature won. I suppose, if I had lived in a very liberal area where religion meant nothing more than friends, family and a promise of good things to come, the irrational might never have been challenged. That's neither here nor there, except to say that I do understand where people who find themselves where Shore is now are coming from; I really do. But, in Seidensticker's words, I cannot believe without good reason, and my experiences have so often forced me to confront my beliefs, to sort between what I was told with what makes sense, that I am left without good reason. I do not say that it was a quick journey. It certainly was not one I intended to make. I always believed, even as the walls of fundamentalism came down for reality, that somewhere along the way, I would find the compromise. I would find the way between absolute belief and rejection. The problem, from the perspective of maintaining an irrational allegiance to belief, was that the more I tried, the more I saw the truth of Shore's words. Atheism wins. Because logic.

For awhile, I tried to reconcile the two, reality and belief. I read a great deal about the textual integrity of the Bible, hoping, like Jefferson and his cut-and-paste Bible, to salvage the good parts. And for awhile I believed I was agnostic. I even convinced myself, as Shore suggests, that religious understanding was beyond logic; my mind was, in a sense, trying to understand something that couldn't be understood. I could hold onto religion if I embraced a "do no harm" doctrine, where I rejected judgmental, harmful and oppressive doctrines; and, if I was wrong about religion, well, no harm done. In reality, I was just hedging my bets* until I was ready to admit to Gollum that the Precious was gone forever.

Then the day came. I was in the emergency room, hooked up to a bunch of machines after the onset of heart issues, and everyone was running around with a terrifyingly professional demeanor about them. They were talking about restarting my heart, and explaining that I might not wake up if they did that. Genetic heart issues run in my family, and have killed more than their fair share of my ancestors. I took it calmly. It seemed my best bet was where I was; and if it was my time, well, there was nothing I could do to avert that storm.** One of the nurses was running through a next of kin-type form, and I was answering her questions absently. When she got to "religious preference", I answered "none". I heard it with surprise. I hadn't fully admitted it to myself, much less said it aloud, before. In my heart of hearts, I didn't believe.

I could not logically maintain that Christianity, or a god concept, were supportable positions. Man had made gods in his own image, and not the other way around. My compassionate, all-embracing God was no more real than the religious right's gay hating, misogynist tyrant. They were equally invention. I too had been seeking that divine mirror. And it doesn't exist. There is no evidence of any deities, and no reason to believe that they, any of them, exist.

And it was freeing. It was like a wave of realization washed over me, and with it clarity. Reason had won, had convinced me, had dragged me through kicking and screaming into the light. The mental anguish of trying to reconcile logic and the illogical was done. And somehow, my world didn't collapse.

I don't mean to say that it's all been rosy. There's still some milestones I need to make. I've told a few of my family members, but there's more who don't know than do; of those who know, some have accepted it well, and some are sure I'm going to hell. I know as more people find out, there will be inevitable drama. I'm not vocal about it, but I'm not going to hide it either; I respect their beliefs, but I cannot share them. Curiously enough, though, I think the worst fallout probably already happened, back when I first started vocalizing my (at the time) progressive religious views. One relative went ballistic, stirred up a bunch of trouble within the family, and shredded our formerly close relationship over a FB post in favor of marriage equality; but, since then, most people have gotten pretty used to my increasingly progressive and secular views. Thus with the most volatile people in my life having already absented themselves from it, I'm hoping  the rest will go well. I'm not naive to think it will be smooth sailing from here on, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

Beyond reception of my deconversion, there is the intellectual side that I now must address. While there are answers to many questions that religion refuses to countenance, there are also questions that religion claimed to have an answer for which I can no longer claim, with a self satisfied nod, to know the answer. The origin of our universe is one such. Richard Dawkins once said, far more eloquently than I can recall, something to the effect of, "Just because you don't know the answer doesn't mean you can attribute it to god." I say now, simply, "I don't know. Yet." That doesn't scare me like I thought it would. I look forward to humanity's endeavors to uncover these answers, to unravel the science of our existence, with rapt excitement.

I expect I will blog about the particulars of much of this in future, on the reasons that I have only here alluded to for "seeing the light"; on points of discovery on my journey; and a host of other topics. But to conclude, I would say this. I do not think it is accurate to say that I have lost my faith, but rather that I have gained a new and clearer perspective on reality.



* To someone who has never lived in a religious mindset, the struggle I describe will undoubtedly seem deeply at odds with my claim to being a generally logical person. You have to try to understand what it is like to find your entire reality turned upside down. I was born into extreme fundamentalism; it was the basis for everything in my childhood. "Because God" was the answer to everything. He was the basis, the foundation, for everything. Everything in our world, everything in nature, in humanity, every action, every everything, came back to God. It would be like finding out that gravity wasn't real, applied to every facet of your existence. It's starting over, from the beginning, on everything, facing that everyone you ever loved and respected was misled on something so important, that you yourself have been wrong -- judgmental, stupid, simultaneously placated by a sense of moral superiority while being forced into someone else's mold of what you should be.

** I should mention, this eventuality obviously did not occur, and the heart condition is under control and being managed. I look forward to many more years of blogging. :)

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