Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thar She Blows!

I knew something was up when I saw the title of this New York Times op-ed by one Charles M. Blow: "Defecting to Faith." And I was right.

Mr. Blow begins,
“Most people are religious because they’re raised to be. They’re indoctrinated by their parents.” So goes the rationale of my nonreligious friends. Maybe, but a study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination be damned. By contrast, only 14 percent of those raised Catholic and 13 percent of those raised Protestant later became unaffiliated.
I'm not especially surprised by that information, but I'm not sure it means much. "Indoctrination" doesn't come only from parents. My parents didn't impose a religion on me, but most of my peers came from churchgoing families and often invited me to services with them. This happened as early as elementary school. Sometimes I went, but I never stayed interested for long, and I had much less of a need to be like other people than most people seem to have. The United States is an especially church-ridden country, even if it's not as regimented as many religious conservatives would like, so religion is going to seem like a natural part of the landscape even if your family doesn't do it. And if your family doesn't go to church while most families do, a lot of people will grow up feeling left out. Most of us, even the unchurched, probably grew up with religious broadcasting, the presence of religion in art and literature, and even commercial entertainment will depict its characters in safely non-sectarian religious contexts at times, especially for weddings. Makes for nice eye-candy, and the ladies love the gowns.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I flirted with Buddhism in my twenties, mainly after reading the non-sectarian writings of Alan Watts. Watts made Buddhism attractive to an atheist like me as a philosophy, not a religion. I even tried Zen sitting a time or two, but always on my own. Once I realized that Buddhism was not a loose association of free spirits but a highly structured and authoritarian organized religion in its own right, I lost most of my interest in it. Part of its appeal, after all, was that it was not the dominant religion in the US; it had no associations of regressive political interference or puritanical social control here. I also twice attended silent Quaker meetings in my twenties, and found them impressive, but not enough to join. Later I learned that the Friends, despite their reputation for progressive social activism, are mostly pretty conservative.

I've also encountered a surprising number of atheists who say that they envy believers their "faith." I don't remember ever having felt that way. I've never felt that believers had something I didn't. Having had the bad taste to read writings by Christians, I noticed that the road of faith is often quite rocky. The word "faith" has splintered into various uses over time anyway. In the New Testament it mainly means trust in and loyalty to God, a sense which it still carries in "faithful." Even in the New Testament it gets used oddly, as in Hebrews 11.1, "Faith is the substance of things unseen, the evidence of things hoped for." Here, a dogged adherence to the church, even in the face of persecution or martyrdom, is a miraculous sign that Jesus is Lord. (This might be more convincing if Christians were less inclined to view such faith in members of competing sects as evidence that their competitors had the truth; instead they find it notably easy to denounce the fidelity of Jews, Muslims, "pagans," or different Christian groups as satanic perversity and stubbornness.) I'm not sure when "faith" became a euphemistic synonym for a particular religion or even denomination, as in "interfaith dialogue" or Eisenhower's "our form of government has no sense unless it is grounded in a deeply felt religious faith -- and I don't care what it is!" Mr. Blow evidently agrees: get thee to a church, any church, and find spiritual fulfillment there.

So I don't find it especially surprising that so many unaffiliated people relapse into religion. Not "faith," though, I'd say. Consider what that Pew study says: "Those who leave the ranks of the unaffiliated cite several reasons for joining a faith, such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%)." It's interesting that being "spiritually unfulfilled" is low man on the totem pole there, don't you think? Mr. Blow is a bit disingenuous in his summation of the reasons: "Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship." Fifty-one percent makes an odd "most," especially next to "most-cited." Besides, many of the affiliated feel spiritually unfulfilled in their churches of origin, which is why they leave them for different ones. "In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives," says the article Mr. Blow is citing. "Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once." They already have "faith," presumably, as well as a faith, but it's not enough to satisfy them. Despite Mr. Blow's easy dismissal of this explanation, it's hard not to suspect that the grass looked greener on the other side.

As for "called by God," Mr. Blow adds parenthetically, "(It should be noted that about a quarter of the unaffiliated identified as atheist or agnostic, and the rest said that they had no particular religion.)" In other words, most of the unaffiliated are still theists of some kind. Which made me wonder how many of the unaffiliated who "defect to faith" had a religious upbringing after all, of a rather vague kind, and return to the fold after a period of disaffection? A famous example of this is the British scholar, Christian apologist, and writer of fiction, C. S. Lewis. He's notorious as an atheist who converted to Christianity and defended biblical inerrancy and the reality not only of God but of angels and devils; but his promoters tend to neglect to mention his Christian upbringing. His atheist period seems to have been mainly an adolescent/college phase, though it took him some time to formally return to the church.

"Spiritual fulfillment," whatever that may be, is not necessarily synonymous with "faith." It can be found in religions like Judaism, which stress observance rather than faith in the Christian mode, or in Hinduism or Buddhism. I think the appeal of ritual in religious services is key (that's what 74% of the formerly affiliated named as their main reason for getting religion. I understand that appeal, and I'm very fond of some forms of religious art (old choral music, for example, preferably in Latin or Church Slavonic so I can't understand the words), not so fond of others (Gothic depictions of emaciated Christs on the cross, say, or traditional white gospel music, or contemporary Christian pop). That's another reason why, despite Mr. Blow's dismissal, I suspect that a desire to fit in and belong played a role in many unaffiliated people's decision to join a church. Singing hymns with the rest of the congregation, praying in unison, the undeniable beauty of much religious art: sure, I see the appeal. If these things could be detached from dogma and blind conformism -- but they are in some ways inseparable, two sides of the same coin. I once disputed with someone who disliked organized religion and wanted to invent and practice his own rituals, but he didn't want to practice them alone. I pointed out that he would then be imposing his forms on the other participants, and before long he'd be running his own organized religion. If he let the other participants join in inventing the rituals, they wouldn't be his rituals, and he wouldn't have the freedom he said he wanted.

Some of my Christian friends challenge me: if there's no God, who created the world? What will happen to me after I die? How can I know right from wrong? In answer to the first two questions I insist: I don't know, and neither do they. To the third I respond that believing in God not only doesn't guarantee moral certainty -- believers constantly disagree among themselves -- but moral certainty itself is often destructive, as shown by some of the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion, or against it. If that kind of certainty is one of the results of "faith," then we are all better off without faith, however much we may want it.

Mr. Blow concedes numerous objections to religion, and brushes them aside: "Yes, yes, yes. But when is the choir going to sing? And when is the picnic? And is my child going to get a part in the holiday play?" And how can I stop your child from getting the part my child wants, or that I want her to get? Ah yes, church membership is a veritable hotbed of transcendence, peace, and harmony. Just like Little League.
Dale McGowan, the co-author and editor of the book “Parenting Beyond Belief” told me that he believes that most of these people “are not looking for a dogma or a doctrine, but for transcendence from the everyday.”
That may well be true, but unfortunately when you join a religion you get the dogma and the doctrine whether you're looking for it or not; the transcendence is optional. The fact that so many people go from church to church is a reminder of how often religion fails to deliver it.

That being said, I want to agree with Mr. Blow's appeal to "the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign." But also hatred and intolerance, which are as much a part of our ethereal part as the love and compassion. "It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship. We are more than cells, synapses and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures forever in search of something greater than ourselves." Except that it's exactly those cells, synapses and sex drives that generate those cravings. Religion is not something that comes from outside human beings -- for good or bad, it's something we invented. Believers generally blame all that's wrong with religion on human frailty, while crediting what's right with it to their gods. I think we need to give ourselves credit as well as blame, and I don't think we can improve things until we do so.

(When I saw the image above today, I knew it belonged here; from Paradoxoff Planet via Agitprop.)