Outgrowing Religion

The above provides an allegory for throwing off religious crutches.

My last post reviewed Lewis Vaughn’s autobiographical, Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. Vaughn’s book describes his severe Southern Baptist upbringing, the doubts about religion that subsequently set in, the long torturous process of losing his religion, and how a college philosophy course helped him find meaning in life without the gods.

Naturally, this led me to recall escaping my own religious indoctrination. For those interested, here briefly is that story.

I was born in 1955 to a very Catholic family—I was baptized, received communion and confirmation, went to confession, was an altar boy, etc. (Talking about this is bizarre. Not only because those actions themselves were bizarre but because ordinarily I never think about them.) I went to St. Ann’s Catholic school in St. Louis, from first thru eighth grade. I was aware there were some Protestant people in the neighborhood, but I assumed there was something different about (or maybe wrong with) them. And I only played with the Catholic boys.

In addition to going to Catholic school every day, I accompanied my father to our church every evening, as he spent most of his free time on the church grounds. The parish had a large auditorium which was used for weddings and dances and an athletic field with a concession stand. My dad was basically in charge of all activities related to the auditorium and concession stand; he had an unpaid part-time job. There were books to keep, soda, candy, snacks and liquor to be ordered and served—yes, they had a liquor license. Going with him every evening, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the church, so I grew up sort of “extra Catholic.” And my father would be in a Catholic hall of fame if there were one.

The rest of my family was and is very Catholic too. My mother was devoted to the church till the end of her life and died in a Catholic retirement home. My oldest brother studied almost 8 years for the priesthood and though he wasn’t ordained he is still an ultra-conservative, practicing Catholic. My sister worked her entire adult life primarily for the church and her husband is a deacon. Their son, my nephew, is the chancellor of a diocese. And my other brother finds his only comfort from believing he will be reunited with lost loved ones in heaven. I came from a really Catholic family.

After grade school, I attended and graduated from a private Catholic high school. I really didn’t doubt religion much until right after high school. As I put it in my biography:

… it was the summer before college that marked the true beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I now realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was as if a dam had broken within me, exposing the parochialism of my youthful indoctrination. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.

Then during

My first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of religion, and Lenin’s criticism of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked.

Although it was traumatic for my parents, severing the cord of religious indoctrination was, for me, quick, painless, and liberating. It all happened in a few weeks. After that, I was done with Catholicism and have never for a moment reconsidered.

In fact, it’s not even a matter of reconsidering. Rather, some ideas become self-evident and others just aren’t available to you after being sufficiently educated. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun, and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two. Heliocentrism and evolutionary theory just follow from knowing how the world works, whereas the other notions are self-evidently absurd.

From the outside, religious beliefs are just, well, weird. To watch people eat a little wafer at a church—which I’ve done exactly twice in the last 30 years, both times at my parent’s funerals—is like entering the twilight zone. From the outside, you just wonder “what are they doing?” Once you have seen it from the outside … you never want to go back inside. After escaping the cult, you don’t want to rejoin. If only believers could see their beliefs from the outside, like they see the religions they don’t belong too.

At this point, I’m so removed from the beliefs of my childhood that they never come to the surface unless I make a conscious effort. It is like trying to remember believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny. You can sort of do it, but not really.

However, I would add a caveat. For some, the comfort of the religious drug may be worth it. Perhaps they can’t or don’t want to live without it. If it provides that much comfort to some persons, who am I to try to take it away from them? But for those capable of breaking the bonds of their childhood indoctrination, I can say that a lot of things won’t change after you discard religion. You’ll still be able to live, love, work, and care for your children, just without the burden of believing in imaginary gods. And you’ll be less likely to want to impose your views on others—a defining characteristic of most religions.

As for me, I’m so glad I long ago left all that behind. I one of those who wants to know not just believe. And I long for the day when reason and science will finally banish ignorance and superstition forever. I do think that religion as we know it will go extinct, especially if humans evolve into posthumans. And if we don’t evolve, we’ll probably go extinct anyway. As for those worried about the meaning of life after losing their religious beliefs, I have addressed the topic in some detail here.

(Disclaimer, I received my Ph.D. from a Catholic Jesuit School. Here’s why. I had to attend graduate school in St. Louis but by the time I was ready to apply to my preferred school, Washington University, their deadline had passed. I then accepted a fellowship to St. Louis University intending to switch schools. However, a number of coincidences prevented me from doing so and, at some point, it was quicker to finish where I had started. But though my choice of schools embarrasses me, I did receive an excellent, non-religious education in St. Louis University’s philosophy department for which I am grateful.)

Well, that’s my story. It almost 50 years ago since I lost my childhood crutches. I’m glad I did. I now dwell, not in what Carl Sagan called the demon-haunted world of religion, but in one lit by science and reason. As Heinrich Heine said:

In the Dark Ages people found their surest guide in religion—just as a blind man is the best guide on a pitch-black night. He knows the way better than the seeing. But it is folly to use the blind old man as a guide after day-break.

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13 thoughts on “Outgrowing Religion

  1. I particularly like this comment, John: “Some ideas are mostly self-evident and others just aren’t available to you…. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun…and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead…or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two.”

    This issue of trying to believe things is interesting. We have all kind of beliefs. I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory, require an education. They are easy to believe and we should generate consensus around them because the evidence is extremely clear. Then there are the metaphysical beliefs that you mention (as well as beliefs about ethics or aesthetics, which I won’t discuss here). All of these are much trickier. When it comes to metaphysics it’s difficult to know what counts as good evidence. That goes for those of monistic materialism, dualism or various forms of panpsychism.

    But what is so apparent is the degree to which people rationalize their religious beliefs. To really believe that a man walked on water or rose from the dead or that the spirit of the universe is contained in a wafer — that takes some hard-core suspension of disbelief and rationalization. It’s frightening (and in some sense fascinating) that we are so ready to do this for views that we have been told are sacrosanct and that we are told cannot be questioned.

    One of the interesting things about religious views is the set of social conventions and institutions set up to try to guarantee that one doesn’t question them. Another is the personal certainty that many believers claim to have despite a clear lack of evidence of these views. As evidence for beliefs, since so many of the dogmas are complete far-fetched, people appeal to “inner experience” as evidence — of the resurrection of the dead and of a belief in miracles and of a view that god is almighty, all-loving, omniscient. Yet there is no clear analysis of what type of inner experience would even look like that might be adequate for forming such a belief. And of course, there is really no experience or evidence that would suffice, for the adamant believers, to falsify those beliefs.

    One thing is certain, though, those in the institutions that spread these ideas work hard to ensure the ideas are not doubted. Fear and intimidation are are a cornerstone of religious education. Children are taught they will be eternally punished if they have false beliefs. And false beliefs aren’t said to be those for which there is no evidence but those that question tradition and the authority of the churches or religious institutions. So not only do those who have these ideas have to try very hard to keep them and engage in mental gymnastics to try to sound rational to themselves but those who oversee the institutions also work hard to try to ensure that no one doubts these ideas.

    Some ideas are self-evident. We don’t have to work hard to believe that it’s raining when it’s raining or that we’re hungry when we’re hungry. Other ideas require hard work and continual suspension of disbelief. Regimes have to be set up to try to ensure that we don’t give up on those.

    An issue for another post concerns what social and existential functions such ideas have so that so many are able to convince themselves of the truth of them despite the lack of evidence and the need so many have to ensure that such beliefs are never questioned.

  2. Hey, me too! I was raised Catholic, although my family wasn’t strongly religious. My father didn’t care, but my mother insisted that we needed a solid religious upbringing, so I went to Holy Ghost School in Houston, where the nuns enforced discipline with a vigor that the Marines could learn from.

    For me the break came quickly and easily. It occurred to me one day that, if Jesus could depart from the disciples by rising up into the air and disappearing into the clouds, that we should be able to get to heaven by the same route he took. If airplanes couldn’t find it (presumably with thorough reconnaissance missions over the Holy Land), then surely rockets would get us there. And any religion that allowed us to meet God with a rocket ship seemed just stupid to me. I was fifteen years old. That was that.

    However, I did gain something of philosophical significance from Catholic school. The school song at Holy Ghost School was:

    “We want to learn as much as we can
    To make our world a better place to live
    So with our minds and all our hearts,
    We work and play together.

    God bless Holy Ghost School!
    God bless the teachers, too!
    God bless the fathers who guide us!
    God bless Holy Ghost School!

    Now, the second line of this song contains the key phrase: “to make our world a better place”. That stuck with me. For my entire life, I have had one simple purpose, one goal: to make the world a better place. For me, that is the meaning of life, the purpose of being. No philosophical hand-wringing, no endless argumentation (that’s for fun, not personal exploration! 😃). Easy peasy.

    For my next trick, I shall saw a nun in half.

  3. Thanks for this Darrell. Especially your point that:

    “I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory require an education.”

    This makes the contrast between easy beliefs and hard ones even sharper. John

  4. The offensive characterization of religious thought as a “religious drug” detracts from an otherwise very well-written and cogent essay.

  5. Putting aside spirituality, what do I really believe concerning organized religion?
    Though no verifiable meaning is evident, practical purpose can be discerned. Say a ghetto child is better off spending a half hour a day in a house of worship, rather than a half hour snorting methamphetamine on the outside.
    One more example.
    If Dylann Roof had spent five minutes in the black church praying, rather than five minutes in the church shooting his victims, he wouldn’t be residing on Death Row.

  6. Science will only answer questions from within the scientific model it has built using imagination and material evidence. It is said that science answers the ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions but not the ‘why?’ questions. The reason being that any ‘why?’ question can only be answered by analysing a system in terms of its composite simpler and already understood systems. But a point will always be reached when scientists will say this is a given. For example, the model of gravity between bodies will calculate everything about the forces of attraction and ensuing movements but would not tell you why bodies attract each other. You need a simpler model to do that, and even then, there will come a time when you will hit the lowest level of analysis when, if you raise a ‘why?’ question, you would have to say; that is a given. Even if you go to the finest structure of matter and start talking about superstrings, if you ask why there are superstrings which behave in this way or that the answer would be that these are givens which simply means; this is how we have found the universe to be structured and nothing more can be said about it.

    One therefor wonders; is it because we did not include everything in our physical model that we cannot answer the why questions or the questions of the origins of what we take as givens? But are we capable of such a feat with our brains which are limited by the functions for which they have evolved, namely survival and replication?

    Here is another model of the universe as perceived by our right half-brain only and without the interference of our left half-brain which tends to be linear and rational. Please watch the following Ted Talk;
    https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight/discussion?utm_campaign=&awesm=on.ted.com_avsZ&utm_content=ted-androidapp&utm_medium=on.ted.com-android-share&utm_source=direct-on.ted.com
    What Dr. Jill Taylor has experienced is not new; it has been experienced by many people who have, throughout history, tried to live beyond our evolutionary imperatives for survival.

    A good analogy between the physical-model-universe and the universe we live in is the difference between a house and a home. Architectural, electrical and mechanical model of the house will explain everything about what happens to the house and will enable you to solve its problems and extend its functions if you want to, but will not explain why it has or has not been functioning as a home because the people and their relationships with each other and with the building in which they live is not in the model.

    It is a mistake to try to understand life and the universe from purely rational and scientific perspective. It would be akin to imposing a classical view on fundamental particles and insisting that they only have particle properties when in reality they have a paradoxical behaviour between being particle like and wave like.

    Traditional religions may have relied on primitive myths and rituals in their attempts to understand man’s place in the world, while some schools of these religions such as Sufism, Vedanta, various Buddhist meditations and Christian mysticism may have tried to bridge the two models in more experiential ways. For such schools, myths and rituals are only temporary vehicles for the ultimate realisation they long for.

    Now, I am not trying to bring anyone back to religion. I am merely trying to point out the mistake of over relying on science and rational thinking to answer everything. The mystery of our existence still persists.

    I have a conjecture which can be tested, perhaps by a well-designed questionnaire to college students. The conjecture draws on an interesting medical discovery which I’ll outline below. I will make an analogy between the development of a child’s immune system and the development of her sense of mystery and wonder about life and the universe later on in life. Here is the conjecture; it is possible that a religious life at the early cognitive development of a child strengthens and keeps alive this mystery about life and the universe. And here is the story of the medical discovery upon which I draw my analogy;

    The British medical scientists discovered that the reason for the rise of cancer cases in adults in the 60s was due the rise of cleanliness of the environment where children live and play after the second world war. It seems that too much cleanliness had prevented their immune system from being exercised in children’s early development via dealing with easily managed diseases in order to deal with hard diseases such as cancer later in life. Perhaps a similar thing is happening here. I feel that a lot of people lack any sense of the mystery of the universe. And I wonder; is it because that sense of mystery had not been exercised by a religion with all its myths, miracles and rituals? Perhaps religion is the little bit of dirt we need in early life to exercise a deep sense of mystery about the universe which science has not been able to explain. By the way, in this analogy, scientism defined as “Science, modelled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge” would be analogous to cancer for the medical example.

    Isaac Newton wanted to know the mind of God through the physics of the universe. And you John, you wanted to know the meaning of life through philosophy. Hasn’t this been your life quest? Perhaps your religious upbringing had something to do with it? If you were brought up in an atheist family which gave you only scientific explanations for everything, would you feel lost in the universe and try to find the meaning of it all? Or was it because religion deceived you as a child to believe there was a meaning to your life that, even after you lost your faith, you still search for that elusive meaning? In my case it is a bit of both!

  7. Really appreciate your comments Alhazen. Will Durant, in his early writings, argued for something similar, what he called “the afterglow of religion.” There may be something to this although I’m skeptical. I really doubt that, on average, those raised in religious traditions are more open to mystery than those who aren’t. I think it was my scientific education that made me more aware of mystery, as Richard Dawkins argued in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. However, this is an empirical question that I don’t know the answer to. But if religion is partly responsible for my being philosophical then I thank it for that. Of course even if that’s true we must balance that against the great harm religion does, something I’ve addressed on this blog many times.

    As for the how vs why questions this is a notoriously difficult issue. Let me just say that it isn’t clear to what extent we can really differentiate the questions, and even if we can meaningfully distinguish between the two it is not clear that science can only answer how questions. Bas van Fraassen is a prominent example of a recent philosopher who understands scientific explanation as answering Why-questions—he is also a fairly strict empiricist. And needless to say there are others. This all relates to whether and to what extent metaphysics is really different from physics.

    As for science ultimately resting on “givens,” it is true that if physics reduces to math which reduces to logic which circles back to psychology, then all of our rational understanding rests on basic laws of logic like the law of the excluded middle, the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, etc. But note that religion rests on givens like God, Allah, Brahman, etc. To the extent that mystics regard mystery as fundamental then I agree with them that there are mysteries. The question is whether you just accept them or try to understand them. If its the latter I prefer the scientific method for solving mysteries as it has shown itself to be amazingly robust at doing so. Whether we can know everything is of course a different matter.

    I’ll try to check out the TED talk and thanks for the comments. JGM

  8. To John

    Religious upbringing is not the only ingredient for developing the sense of mystery and wonder. I know a lot of believers in one religion or another who lack this sense; they merely believe, follow the rules and hope for rewards in this life or in life after death. One also needs to have a keen intellect and the passion to know. But the conjecture needs to be tested as we both agree.

    You mentioned the great harm caused by religion. But is it religion per se or is it the mind’s tendency to differentiate and polarise which you see in opinions, worldviews, politics, ideologies, nationalities, ethnicities, etc.? Also, religion has undeniably done and is still doing a lot of good around the world.

    I like Richard Dawkins, have read most of his books and watched many of his lectures and debates. His first book “The Selfish Gene” specially had a great influence on my thinking since its first publication in the early 70s. My only argument with him and the new atheists is their ruthless drive to demolish all religions without proper or systemic consideration of the consequences. For hundreds of thousands of years and possibly for a few million years man and religion have evolved together. It is true that primates show primitive moral behaviour which indicates that morality has its origin in biology, but now, man’s morality has become so entangled as it evolved with religion which makes the two like the chicken and egg problem. What if it is true that to keep a decently moral society you need a critical percentage of people who should believe in an afterlife plus reward and punishment by some supernatural power or law such as the law of Karma. Before the new atheists can deny this possibility without a doubt, it is unwise to try to demolish suddenly what has been weaved by biological and cultural evolution over thousands or perhaps millions of years. Religions have become so integral in the psycho-social ecology of mind for most people if not all to the point where you cannot just summarily remove it without causing, I believe, some kind of collapse somewhere. As analogy, see what happened to Yellowstone Park in the United States after wolves were reintroduced to the ecosystem after they were completely eliminated in the 30s because people thought they were bad and dangerous animals. It brings tears into my eyes to watch the video at the following link;
    https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/wolf-reintroduction-changes-ecosystem
    As for the why questions, I am not denying that science does answer them by going to lower and lower levels of complexity. It depends on where one wants to stop. But ultimately a level will be hit below which science cannot go further and one can only say; this is how we have found the universe to be.

    As for the last paragraph in your reply, I don’t quite understand what you want to say. But from what I understand, I want to say that I am not demeaning science by saying that it will in its explanations ultimately say “this is how we have found the universe to be”. And of course, science is by far a better means for explaining natural phenomena than any religion. My attitude is to always go to the extreme of finding natural explanations for phenomena and if I reach the gorge or the gap of ignorance and cannot go any further, I just stay with the void and do not try to fill it with any supernatural explanations. I am a scientist myself! Plus, the givens of religions are far bigger to swallow in comparison with the givens of science.

    A few final points; physics does not reduce to mathematics otherwise physicists would be able to deduce the ultimate model of the universe from some few propositions which is not the case. Also, the natural world does not comply with our traditional or common logic as can be clearly seen in quantum phenomena. In fact, often, even common everyday experiences do not comply with traditional logic. You may like to read, for further explanation on this last point, the two books by Edward de Bono “I am Right, You are Wrong” and “Water Logic”.

  9. Agree with a lot of what you say here, but not all of it of course. Will try to look at the de Bono books. JGM

  10. Really too broad a topic to be discussed in a comment. This article and ‘Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?’ are adequate.

  11. Doc,

    Many years have passed since I was seated in your intro to philosophy class. I recall being somewhat apprehensive to the ideas discussed. Being a young father and very Catholic, you, and especially you, can imagine how upsetting it was to hear that most of what I had based my foundation of approach to child-rearing was nothing more than moonshine. I recall you mentioning that the indoctrination of children might just be the highest form of child abuse. As disturbing as it was, I found the idea to be self-evident soon thereafter. Beyond the course and a couple of Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, and Kurt Vonnegut books later, the curtain was lifted and my Sunday’s were spent fishing instead of at mass. I can honestly say my enjoyment of Sundays became instantly immeasurable. The church crowd has their invisible deities, and my small family has a lifetime of great family memories and photos to boot.

    This set me on a path to learn a new language, abandon racism, embrace the gay community, rebuke ethnocentricity, demand logic and reason, and hone a particular disdain for religions and willful ignorance. Today, I am still amazed when I explain that for a miracle to happen, the laws of physics have to be suspended on a whim, and all of science fails—well at least the scientific method does. And my Christian brethren agree and explain that their Lord works in mysterious ways. So it goes.

    Instead of biblical teaching, I employed my education in philosophy and anthropology to educate my child. Her mother and I are often in amazement when we watch has easily our daughter absorbs new information when she doesn’t have to reconcile it with a religious indoctrination. She graduated with a 4.7, was a stellar athlete, heavily engaged in charity work, a non-apologetic atheist, and never any trouble. Already, at the age of eighteen, her ideological compass points towards altruism and she is off to study environmental science in college, taking with her a set of principles that will suit her well, and perhaps one day save her life. We have watched our Christian neighbors live in a state of self-inflicted torment with many of their children, and they continually blame secular society. I live in Texas, it’s to be expected. As for me and mine, we will continue to embrace rationality, the physical world, and the whole of humanity.

  12. Jason, I can’t tell you how much this letter means to a teacher. I thank you sincerely for it and will share with my own family. JGM

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