Truth vs. Orthodoxy

Although I have written much criticism about religious faith, there is one particular aspect of it which I would like to address today: Faith isn’t interested in truth, only in orthodoxy. Believers are almost never encouraged to pursue their doubts, rather they are encouraged to overcome them, to ignore them, to banish them, to squelch them. They are encouraged to cultivate their faith and to pray for its continual increase. All of this says they are not really interested in truth, only in maintaining what they already hold as true. A believer may argue that they know their religion to be true and they are attempting to avoid error by fighting against their doubts, but they fail to recognize that the very fact that they have doubts is clear indication that they don’t really know it’s true! They work to unwaveringly retain a view which is uncertain in their eyes. If they were actually seeking the truth, they would examine all of the evidence, no matter how blasphemous it may seem in light of their current opinions, and make the best possible conclusion based on what they have learned. It’s impossible to respect anyone’s claim to truth who has not only refused to investigate alternate views but actively suppressed feelings that they just might be right.

Scrupulosity, OCD and the Doctrine of Hell

For approximately five years, from 1999 until my deconversion in 2004, I suffered greatly from an obsession with sin, death and hell known as scrupulosity. The condition is usually considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and is normally treated with counseling and medication. While I respect the general opinion of mental health professionals in this matter, I always insisted that my own problem was not the result of abnormal brain chemistry but simply of sincere belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the afterlife and I think that the almost three years of my life since then, without any belief in the supernatural and without the slightest hint of obsession, have vindicated that opinion. My belief that God might damn me to hell forever almost drove me literally insane and the terrible anguish which it caused contributed to my sustained antipathy toward the idea of the Christian God.

The Catholic Church preaches two entirely incompatible doctrines which led to my scrupulosity:

God loves each person perfectly and unconditionally.
God will damn a person to hell forever if they commit a mortal sin and then die without having confessed or at least having made an act of perfect contrition with the intention to confess as soon as possible.

It also seems that one must engage in doublethink to fully accept both of these conflicting dogmas and that my eventual inability to reconcile them in my mind was indeed the source of my problem.

Let’s say that I’m not certain whether I have committed a mortal sin despite knowing that it must be a gravely immoral act committed with full knowledge of the intellect and full consent of the will. A confessor would most likely instruct me that if I’m not certain, then it cannot be a mortal sin and I don’t need to confess it. The problem is that there is no absolute distinction between certain and uncertain in any of the three elements and I was frequently uncertain about whether I was certain! The prospect of literally never-ending torture meant that I couldn’t risk even the very slightest chance that I culpably judged wrongly and that obsession was the only rational response to infinite danger. I was often told that I had to trust my current confessor absolutely, but my confessors had directly contradicted each other, directly contradicted official church documents, and even told me that I was right in leaving other confessors who had instructed me wrongly. I was told even more often that I had to trust God because he loves us, but it was simply impossible for me to really believe this. If he really and truly loved us, then he would never assign us infinite punishment for finite sins or make our salvation so heavily dependent on the hour of our death. I was told that I was wrong to view God as a policeman who is constantly waiting for us to do something wrong so that he can punish us, but the image seemed to fit rather well except that, unlike a policeman, God had unlimited control over me, my world, the rules and the punishment! I simply couldn’t love a being who threatened me with eternal fire if I didn’t follow his rules exactly and who would just completely give up on me once I died. The Christian God was a monster in my eyes whom I grew to fear and despise more and more over the years.

My scrupulosity was treated by confessors, counselors, and even with medication from a psychiatrist. Their assistance granted me a certain limited amount of relief, but it was always only temporary and my condition never really improved beyond being simply bearable. My deconversion, which included the rejection of the concepts of God and hell as absurd, on the other hand, resulted in complete, instantaneous and permanent relief without any counseling or medication because my obsession was rational and had nothing to do with brain chemistry or my “failure” to trust and love God. Here is an example. Like sufferers of actual OCD, I had an obsession with washing and cleanliness. The typical OCD obsession is based on the small possibility of becoming sick and the minuscule possibility of becoming fatally sick from lack of washing and cleanliness. My obsession was based on the possibility of sinning by getting me or someone else sick from lack of washing and cleanliness. The worst that happens with an OCD obsession is that someone gets sick or dies. Everyone dies eventually, so while it makes sense to be careful, it doesn’t make sense to be so careful that it ruins one’s life. The worst that happened with my obsession, however, was that I burned in hell forever and ever. It really would be worth ruining one’s life to avoid an eternity of pain, so my reaction was completely proportionate to the danger. Once I realized that there was no danger of hell, however, I returned to normal immediately. I started washing my hands only after using the restroom and sometimes before eating. I could touch anything without worrying about germs. I could drop a cookie on the ground and eat it without thinking about it except to laugh at how easy it had become. That is simply not possible for someone with abnormal brain chemistry and irrational obsessions. Of course, I would argue that my belief in hell was essentially irrational, but my scrupulosity itself was a perfectly rational response to that irrational belief. The infinite nature of hell had completely disrupted my normal pattern of ordinary risk management and created obsessive thinking, and the church’s liturgy had forced me to participate in compulsive rituals such as mass and confession to eliminate these obsessive thoughts. My scrupulosity was thus generated by belief in the church and was thus resolved by disbelief in the church.

A fundamentalist Protestant might respond that one’s salvation is assured upon accepting Jesus as one’s lord and savior. (As an aside, I don’t understand why they usually think Catholics haven’t done this except that they don’t use those exact words to describe their faith.) At first this seems to avoid the problem of always having one’s salvation in doubt, but there other problems which only become apparent upon further reflection. If one’s salvation were truly assured, then they could sin with impunity without any fear of hell. Fundamentalists respond that sinning greatly would be an indication that a person was never saved in the first place. This entails that one can be mistaken about whether they are truly saved because they also might sin greatly in the future and therefore they have no assurance of their salvation! One cannot argue that they know they would never do that because many people have been very devout in their faith and then sinned greatly. I have heard of fundamentalists who repeatedly tried to become saved after sinning because they didn’t know whether it worked the other times. Since fundamentalist hell is just as terrible as Catholic hell, the same infinite danger merits the same obsessive response.

Familiarity & Absurdity

I have become so accustomed to viewing the world without any belief in the supernatural and to interacting, mostly but not exclusively online, with people who share the same perspective, that I feel a certain amount of surprise and disappointment whenever I hear an intelligent and educated person express belief in religion. I remind myself that I used to believe quite sincerely and I cannot expect the entire world to have adopted as skeptical an outlook as I have in just the last three years. Even so, it seems so strange that someone living in the twenty-first century in a first-world country can believe that an omnimax deity is watching over us as we slaughter each other and suffer other innumerable tragedies, that unbelievers will be punished forever for honest doubt, that you can magically obtain what you desire by talking to yourself, or any of the other absurdities taught by traditional religion. I will probably always view such belief as irrational and ridiculous, but like everything else in life, it can only seem truly bizarre if one only rarely encounters it.

Ignoring the Problem of Evil

When I was a Catholic, I almost never thought about the problem of evil. I must have encountered the philosophical argument at some point and resolved the issue in my mind by concluding that God must have a justifiable reason for allowing suffering in the world which I just didn’t know, but I can’t remember it ever being an issue afterward. Now that I’m an atheist, I very often reflect on this problem when I see someone addressing some source of suffering in the world specifically from a religious perspective; I see someone perform some charitable work out of a religious motivation and think to myself, “Why doesn’t their god solve the problem itself if it’s infinitely perfect? How can their god inflict such suffering knowing the pain it will cause and realizing that the majority of it simply cannot be relieved by human effort? Why can’t they see how much more benevolently they act than their own master?” Believers never seem to ask themselves these questions and I know that I certainly didn’t ask myself them during my twenty-five years as a Catholic. They seemed blinded by something, whether it be love, fear, ignorance, laziness or something else. In my own case, the predominant religious emotion I experienced was fear of eternal torture.

Equality & Secularism

Is it truly possible for a devout believer to treat outsiders with complete equality? If a person honestly believes that their god will forever torture anyone who doesn’t follow their religion, then it seems unrealistic to expect that person to treat them with any more respect or fairness than the deity they worship. If a person honestly believes that their god has specially chosen their ethnic group to receive special favors, then it again seems unrealistic to expect them to treat members of other groups with the same level of compassion as their own.

Social animals always treat outsiders differently than members of their own group and humans have more criteria than other animal upon which to mark divisions. Religion is one of those criteria along with location, ethnicity, language and culture, but it’s unique among these in that it’s irrational and, to a certain extent, can be moderated by education and social security. In order to build a more egalitarian society, the influence of religion must be diminished through these two means.

Perceptions about Atheists

I have come to the conclusion that the negative perception of atheists by theists seems to result primarily from interaction with two distinct groups. The first group is what I here term militant atheists. I fully realize that this term has been greatly abused by theists, but sometimes it’s a completely appropriate description of certain individuals who are aggressively antagonistic toward believers without provocation. This group is rather small, but I can attest from personal experience that they in fact do exist and that they create quite an impression on the believers whom they encounter. The second group is what I here term delinquents. It includes criminals, thugs, hoodlums, hooligans, vandals and every other variety of habitually selfish jerk. Delinquents can be theists or atheists, but they are not representative of either group because of their marked lack of empathy. Theists often wrongly interpret, however, the lack of religious piety among this group as atheism even though it indicates only that they don’t really follow a moral code, religious or otherwise. I believe the reason for this problem is that moral behavior is an inherent part of the concept of religious piety in the minds of most people. A delinquent theist is often dismissed as “not really a Christian,” but no one says that a delinquent atheist is “not really an atheist” because of his immorality. In fact, I have heard the exact opposite, that someone cannot possibly be an atheist precisely because he’s moral!

I think there are ways to address these two sources of misunderstanding about atheists. First, although we can’t really do much to convince truly militant atheists to calm down and relax, regular atheists can make themselves known as atheists. A theist who only meets militant atheists and a theist who meets a dozen regular atheists for every militant atheist will have very different perceptions of atheists in general. Second, we need to cultivate an image of a thoughtful, considerate atheist to correspond to the thoughtful, considerate theist that people already call pious. In order to do this, I don’t think we can content ourselves with just simple atheism. An atheist is anyone who doesn’t believe in gods. The word atheist says absolutely nothing about their other beliefs or actions and is no more useful than the word theist when referring to individuals. We need to move beyond our lack of religion and formulate what we do believe and value. I personally prefer the philosophy of Humanism, as I have explained previously, and I identify as a Humanist rather than as just an atheist whenever I can. It distinguishes me from nihilists, from postmodernists, and most especially from delinquent atheists. It says something about my principles and it identifies me as someone who cares about reason and compassion rather than just saying that I don’t believe in gods. I’m not suggesting that everyone necessarily adopt this particular label, but I think it’s a good idea to indicate what you think beyond your opinion on the single issue of the existence of deities.

Perhaps some readers will disagree with my desire to see atheists and theists in the same category, but I encourage them to remember that it’s only with respect to their thoughtfulness and consideration. There is still a world of difference to distinguish the two groups.

Fluctuating Religiosity in My Family

The world is always changing, but sometimes exactly how it changes surprises me.

Although my family has always been practicing Catholics who never miss a Sunday mass, growing up none of them was particularly devout or interested in religion outside of those Sunday mornings. As described in my deconversion story, I myself started to become religious around age thirteen and this devotion gradually increased for a dozen years until my deconversion at age twenty-five, but I never noticed any of them change at all during this time. Since then, however, I have observed that several of them have become more involved in their faith.

My father, who had always seemed the least interested in religion of anyone in my family, has been participating for a few years in perpetual adoration of the eucharist by spending one hour late at night each week praying in the chapel of their church and has more recently begun reading a book about church history. My older sister’s change has been less marked and is not really unexpected because she and her husband have two young children. My younger sister’s change, however, is the most radical. She prays often, reads devotional books, attends daily mass on occasion, consults a spiritual advisor and is currently discerning a vocation to be a nun! I find it notable, however, that she has never really sat down and read the bible. I recommended this to her because doing that is more likely to create doubts in the mind of a believer than any skeptical book, which she would flatly refuse even to consider anyway. If she decides to enter a convent, I will respect her decision, but I think it should be an informed decision.

Throughout all of these changes, I am pleased to say that certain things have remained the same. My family still respects my atheism, never treats me any differently and never raises the topic around me. I occasionally find myself voicing criticism of religion around them, to which they don’t respond, but generally try to avoid doing this. They are remarkably tolerant of my opinions, but it really bothers me that the only people who really love me also probably believe that I will burn in hell forever after I die.

Refusal to Respect through Capitalization

I consider myself a diligent and meticulous writer. I pay strong attention to detail, including proper spelling, capitalization, punctuation and various issues regarding formatting. I raise the topic because I want readers to be aware that my recent failure to capitalize the following words is a conscious decision, not a mistake made out of ignorance or carelessness:

bible
church
eucharist
mass

Capitalizing these indicates a measure of respect for the divinity or holiness for them, which I most strongly reject. I want to add, however, that I continue to capitalize church when part of a fuller title, e.g., the Catholic Church or the Church of England.

I continue to capitalize God when it refers to an omnimax deity, such as that of most monotheistic religions, in order to contrast it with a god of polytheistic religions. This does not indicate any respect, only that is treated as a name.

A Failure of Imagination

The alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the primary focal point of Christian apologetics. Excepting various discredited relics which would provide only very indirect support at best, the only type of evidence regularly claimed by Christian apologists is the supposed eyewitness accounts of the event. Yet the arguments presented in support of these accounts rely completely on a failure of the imagination.

There are many lengthy books which go into great detail explaining why the accounts are credible and trustworthy. The authors argue that the disciples could not possibly have lied, that they could not possibly have been mistaken, and that the later storytellers and scribes could not possibly have done either. Can they simply not fathom any possible scenario in which a false story came to be believed? Can they not remember their justification for dismissing every other religion’s alleged miracles? No, they insist that in this particular case, the witnesses are completely and totally reliable, despite scientific studies having proven that eyewitnesses are not absolutely reliable even in their individual, basic, short-term memories, much less highly controversial and politically charged group claims of the miraculous in times of severe stress and anxiety.

It is patently absurd to argue in favor of a seemingly impossible occurrence that we never, ever witness by claiming that other occurrences which we witness on a daily basis just could not possibly have occurred.

Thoughts on Unitarian Universalism

Readers will perhaps remember the account of my first visit to a Unitarian Universalist service at the end of January. Now that I have attended a total of five services, I would like to share my thoughts and explain why it no longer interests me.

The second service I attended was the following week. I found the sermon by a different speaker far less interesting and engaging than the first week. After that, I spent the next couple of weekends with a woman I was dating and so I didn’t go. The third service I attended was at the beginning of April. I found the sermon boring and rather self-congratulatory. I didn’t intend to return after that and didn’t give it much more thought. A couple of weeks ago, however, I decided to attend again in hopes of meeting some new friends, despite my failing to have done so on the previous occasions, not because people weren’t friendly and welcoming, but because they were generally older and married. Last week’s sermon was somewhat interesting, but I didn’t really enjoy it. Today I returned because there was a guest speaker who spoke about “positive atheism”. The sermon was mostly uninteresting, however, because I already knew all about everything he said, including the jokes and quotes. I don’t intend to return again and I would like to explain why.

Essentially, it’s still too “churchy” for my tastes, but there are couple of other issues.

The general focus has been on liberal faith, not reason.
The sermons have been mostly uninteresting.
The music has been rather boring.
The hymns and readings too often mention God or faith or simply make no sense.
The sharing of joys and concerns is too similar to actual prayer.
The tone is too self-congratulatory.
It costs time and money.
I doubt I would make any friends by continuing to go.

After leaving a service, I generally feel that my mind has been clouded with vague concepts and notions which make clear, rational thinking more difficult. It’s not easy to explain. I just don’t know what they’re talking about half of the time and it hurts my brain. That is a common reaction for me to religion, especially liberal religion.

I am not seeking to criticize Unitarian Universalism. The society I visited was very warm, friendly and welcoming. They are not at all dogmatic. They do not proselytize. They are strong political allies on issues which atheists generally support. They provide a good home for liberal believers and even for some unbelievers. They are certainly the only religious group which invites an atheist speaker to give a sermon about atheism! I have concluded, however, that it’s just not the place for me, which is really a shame since I would love to make some more friends.