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. (All so bizarre in retrospect.) 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 generally 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.” 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 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 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.
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 and never will.
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 may be worth it. Perhaps they can’t or don’t want to live without it. If it provides that much comfort to some people, 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 want to know not just believe. 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.