Statue of Spinoza, near his house on the Paviljoensgracht in The Hague.
“These [religious ideas] are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fullfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.” ~Sigmund Freud
I just finished Lewis Vaughn’s autobiographical, Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. Vaughn is a widely respected, prolific author of college philosophy textbooks. (I’ve used a few of them myself.)
The first half of Vaughn’s book describes his difficult childhood, particularly his severe Southern Baptist upbringing. He recalls the darkness of his early religious indoctrination—he was a religious fanatic until late adolescence—then he tells us how doubt set in, and, in the books final chapters, he remembers how a single philosophy class from an agnostic priest helped him find meaning in life without gods.
I must say that it was hard for me to relate to his terrible home life and religious fundamentalism. I had a wonderful childhood and I was raised in the Catholic tradition which, although its main tenets are absurd, at least has an intellectual tradition. I also found reading the description of his religious upbringing painful; it was basically a story about child abuse.
But the final third of the book truly captivated me. I easily related to how thinking leads to doubt, as I recalled my own teenage doubts about my religious indoctrination. (As Camus so aptly put it, “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”) My escape from religious dogma wasn’t as painful as Vaughn’s, perhaps because my Catholic indoctrination wasn’t as rigid as Vaughn’s fundamentalism. Vaughn’s escape was extraordinarily painful whereas for me severing the chord of religious indoctrination was mostly natural and liberating.
I found these last chapters were especially moving. An introductory philosophy class finally opened his mind and reminded me of students who have thanked me for doing something similar. His dialogue with his professor about arguments for the Christian God and the problem of evil was reminiscent of many discussions I had with students years ago. And it was the philosophical arguments of an agnostic priest—a believer in Spinoza’s pantheism, (hence the picture above)—that finally broke the dam of resistance that had been so carefully constructed since Vaughn’s childhood.
The final chapter of his book deals with the main topic of my blog—the meaning of life. The priest begins by arguing that religion isn’t the source of morality or the meaning of life. He then distinguished, as do I, between meaning of life and meaning in life. He emphasized the latter while noting that this doesn’t imply that meaning is only subjective. In other words, torturing children (as the USA currently does at its southern border) can’t be the source of a meaningful life. Our lives are meaningful when we commit ourselves to objective intrinsic goods like truth, beauty, goodness, love, and knowledge. (I believe something similar.) As a result of his encounter with the priest’s arguments, Vaughn underwent a metamorphosis, and would soon embark on his own intellectual journey.
In conclusion, let me say that Vaughn’s account is deeply personal and a wonderful guide for all those who fear that leaving behind childish indoctrination will necessarily lead to despair. Quite the contrary Vaughn says. Childish beliefs may comfort us, but only by growing up do we have a chance to find true meaning.
However, I add a caveat. For some, the comfort of religion may be worth it. Maybe they can’t or don’t want to live without it. If it really provides comfort then who am I to try to take it away. (As long as they don’t try to impose those beliefs on others.) As for me, I’m so glad I long ago left all that behind years ago. I will never go back.
In my next post, I’ll briefly describe my own escape from religion nearly 50 years ago.