Monday, February 16, 2009

In Response to a Friend

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a message in which she expressed some very personal feelings about religion -- specifically how she had started to question many of the things she had accepted for most of her life.

At first, I was afraid that I might let my cynicism and frustration about religion cloud a truly honest, heartfelt answer to her questions. She didn't need sarcasm and venom after trusting me enough to share such personal feelings.

So I proceeded to answer her....

I think I need to give you a little background before I attempt answering your questions. As you may have guessed, I was born and raised Catholic by my mother, who was a by-the-book every Sunday Catholic. My father was Lutheran by upbringing, although by all accounts he was non-practicing and I can't recall him every speaking a word to me about religion or spirituality. But we were one of the star families of our 5,000 member parish, in the front pew at 9am mass every Sunday, one or more of the four kids could always be found wearing the robes of an altar server. We were the quintessential Catholic family.

Although I don't remember being particularly aware of an overriding conservatism in my beliefs, my political baptism came at the hands of the Reagan landslide in 1980 and looking back at some of my writings in high school, I have to admit being politically and religiously conservative. Despite these inclinations, I always retained a healthy skepticism for those things in life that seemed duplicitous, hypocritical, unsupported, or unjust. And, more generally, I've always questioned my beliefs. Fortunately or not, I've spent most of my 37 years in a perpetual state of devil's advocacy regarding what I believe and what others claim to believe.

I spent four wonderful exploratory years under the Dome -- at the feet of some of the world's best theologians, political scientists and philosophers and surrounded by the hearts and minds of people who have become my lifelong friends. It was in these explorations, those endless sessions of question after unanswered question, that I became comfortable in not knowing while constantly craving more knowledge. I no longer needed a higher authority to provide the meaning for my life. It freed me to question *everything* over and over, and the hypocrisy of the church's actions and the self-contradiction of the church's teachings crystallized in my awareness to the point where I've never been able to even consider a return to any form of organized religion. I honestly and completely feel that human-created and organized religions cannot avoid the corruption that infects all institutions. It's simply inevitable. In most ways, religions are no different than our political and corporate institutions. The instant a hierarchy is instituted, the process of corruption is planted.

Once you eliminate the human institution of the church (Catholic or otherwise), you're left with the question of individual spirituality, morality and creative force in the universe. That's what occupies much of my contemplation at this point in my life. I often wonder how I would answer questions from my son about what our lives mean, or about the existence of a creator. At these times, I realize why humanity created the stories and institutions of religion in the first place -- because they provide easy-to-digest, bullet point explanations to extremely complicated questions. Religious dogma and teaching really is the kindergarten answer to "why are we here?" and "how should I act?" It provides that answer that many of us crave.

But every revolution my mind makes around this often-confusing journey, I come back to the same place. We don't really know. And that's OK. What's not OK is to abdicate our personal intellect and just accept what some other human being (who doesn't know either) says is truth. Maybe searching for "today's truth" is what life really is. That quest to know more, to share life peacefully and responsibly with our fellow human beings, to allow proven facts instead of fairy tales to illuminate our beliefs.

We don't need religion to guide us. Let your mind focus on what is real, what is known, what can be proven. And don't be afraid to let go of the comfort of faith. It's not as scary as it may seem. You will still be good. You will still be driven to serve your community and your country. And you will no longer be ill as you cringe at hate and intolerance covered by robes and a collar.

If you are truly interested in a little exploration, get yourself a copy of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. He's a little preachy, especially in the first parts of the book, but if you can break through the initial condescension of his tone, I think he has something valuable to say.

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