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.
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
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.
OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF EXISTENTIALISM AND EXPLANATION FOR WHY IT IS NOT SO
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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