Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Taking it slowly

At first, thinking constantly about religion and challenging my faith was exhilarating and consuming. I read loads of books (see my reading list), and starting reading and participating in online forums about atheism and religion. I started this blog, and wrote a few posts. I couldn't stop reading and planning what I would read next.

But suddenly, I hit a wall. I had to face some issues in my life, and the questions I've been exploring on this blog were causing me added stress. The other day, my dad asked me if I've been praying about an issue I've been struggling with. The answer was no, but how could I tell him that? It's stressful to think about denouncing my faith, even if I just keep it to myself.

So I took a break from the blog and the forums and the books waiting on my Kindle for a few days, and dealt with my real-life issues. I feel ready again now. I posted my review of Letter to a Christian Nation last night, and participated in a few forum discussions. It feels silly to limit myself to just a few posts, pages, or articles at a time, but I have to, at least for now. It's stressful to tear apart everything I've been taught and believed in. It gives me fear and anxiety, and I can't ignore or stifle those feelings. I have to step back, or I might abandon this truth-finding altogether. 

Some people would probably say that the fear and anxiety means I should turn back to the Lord. He's calling me, or something. Maybe that's true. I guess I don't feel like it is, though. I feel instead like I'm mourning my Christian childhood and traditions and the life I thought I would have. Sometimes it seems comforting and easy to return to my childhood faith. I have to remind myself that religion has rarely provided me the comfort and security that it always proclaims.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

Of the books by atheists that I've read so far, I'm probably most likely to recommend this one to believers. Rather than preaching to a choir of atheists, Sam Harris actually considers the Christian audience and what is most likely to reach them and resonate with them. The book is fairly brief, and he doesn't unnecessarily delve into redundant examples, which is my biggest critique of Richard Dawkins.

Throughout the book, Sam Harris speaks mainly to religious fundamentalists, those who denounce evolution and who interpret the Bible literally. He identifies problems with the beliefs of religious moderates and religious liberals right off the bat, because, as he puts it, "Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't." From this point on, he assumes his reader is a fundamentalist. At first I thought this was not the best choice, as so many Americans really are religious moderates-but now I think it was a shrewd decision. As a non-fundamentalist, I always felt like I was exempt from most of the criticism against those who took the Bible literally. The religious moderate reading this book, however, has not been given an out. He or she, as well as the fundamentalist, will need to come to terms with many arguments throughout the book, as well as the fact that the writer finds the moderate perhaps even more incorrect than the fundamentalist. 

Harris tackles numerous arguments against the existence of a divine, good-hearted God, from the evils of the Old Testament, to the origin of morality, to the "clash" between science and religion and the bloody conflicts religion has caused on Earth. Harris focuses primarily on the issues that affect Christians on a day to day basis, touching only briefly on evolution and science which, I think, he knows many Christians can easily gloss over. He is brief and factual, explaining scientific theory in terms the reader will understand, and remembering that his reader probably doesn't care for a scientific lecture.

He also questions the existence of many worldwide religions, asking the Christian, "You know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn't it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves?" We must ask ourselves, how, then, is Christianity different?

My only major critique of the book is the anti-Muslim section at the end. Harris maintains that the Islam is growing quickly and dangerously, and that most Muslims demand tolerance for extreme beliefs and actions. Harris goes so far as to say that "most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith."  In my opinion, this section takes a rational, well written text to an extreme, alarmist position. That is what Harris intends; he wants to scare the reader into acting and realizing the negative aspects of religion. But by targeting Muslims, he gives the extreme fundamentalist Christian reader an out.  Many Christians are already so anti-Islam that they may be encouraged to ignore the rest of Harris' very good, rational points, in favor of an "It's us against the Muslims" takeaway. Irrational? Yes, but I don't think it's improbable. He does end with the thought provoking question, "How can we ever hope to reason with the Muslim world if we are not reasonable ourselves?" but I still think it's possible that many may choose to miss the point.

Overall though, I recommend this text to atheist and Christian readers alike. It's a quick, easy read that, though it may not change minds right off the bat, will certainly give readers something accessible to think about and debate.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I went to Easter Mass.

I visited my family this past weekend and attended Catholic Mass with them, just as I did every Sunday for the majority of my life. When I moved out on my own, I dutifully joined a Catholic church. I joined the choir, just as I had at my family's church. And I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand the conservative political propaganda the choir members fervently believed. I couldn't stand the prayers for "traditional marriage" or the prayers for making abortion illegal. I couldn't stand the despair my fellow Catholics proclaimed when Obama was elected. I couldn't stand that I felt I had to hide who I voted for or what my personal beliefs and values really included.

I've toyed with trying to find a more liberal congregation, or no congregation, and I've found a Unitarian church that I may try out. But this Easter service was the first Mass I've been to in quite some time.

It was easy to attend. I didn't feel out of place. I sang the songs and chanted the responses. And also with you. Only say the word and my soul will be healed. I believe in One God, the Father Almighty. In that environment, it's hard to think critically about the sermon or the dogma.  Just comfortably slide in to what you've always done. Toss a five dollar bill in the collection basket. Lord, hear our prayer. Everyone else is doing it.

Something the priest said in the homily stuck with me, but not for the reason he intended.

"Do not ignore the truth. Seek it, even when all around you have forsaken it."

Of course, he meant the truth of Christ, and salvation, and the resurrection. But I looked around at all the people just assuming that his words were true. I hope he's right and we do seek the truth. I hope we don't just take what's comfortable and easy and common, just because it's what we've always done.

Friday, April 18, 2014

An Atheist Reads the Case for Christ

I'm headed back to my parents' home for Easter weekend (I anticipate lots of saying grace at the dinner table and pew-sitting in Catholic church), but I wanted to touch base and share what I've been thinking about lately.

I've been toying around with rereading Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, and found a recommendation for the YouTube series "An Atheist Reads the Case for Christ." YouTuber Steve Shives is an atheist, who goes through each chapter of The Case for Christ, discussing the arguments' merits (spoiler: there are few), and shortcomings. I highly recommend it. Steve is funny, well-informed on Biblical issues and Christianity, and has a great speaking voice and YouTube presence. For the most part, he isn't disrespectful or crude, as Christians often fear atheist commentators to be. I'm on Chapter 7 (I've been listening during my commute), and I like having a dissenting opinion mixed in with the book's totally one-sided arguments- it provides some checks and balances. It's kind of a great way to read a controversial topic, and something I'll keep in mind for future research on other subjects, too.

You can start viewing below, or check out his YouTube channel.

Have a blessed Easter or happy Sunday or pleasant April day, or whatever you may prefer! I'll be back next week.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why read about atheism?

I'm always hesitant to admit that my partner is an atheist, instead using the term "non-religious" to label him when I'm forced to.  This hesitation is partially because many people will automatically and unfairly judge his character once they learn this, and partially because I know they will think his lack of belief must negatively influence my own faith. This is surprisingly untrue. As a non-religious person (ok, atheist), he has never once tried to convince me that God doesn't exist.  I have always been incredulous about this, asking, "But don't you think I'm stupid, or kidding myself?" (Obviously, I must have my own unfair impression of what atheists are like). His response has always been a vehement "No!" and he even encouraged me to pray and attend church, knowing that in many ways my faith was a positive force in my life.

In fact, he's more likely to waste his breath condemning evangelical atheists than fundamentalist Christians. "Those atheists doing it wrong," he says. "They're organizing and writing books and thinking about religion more than religious people do. Being an atheist means you don't do that stuff. Why is religion a part of their lives?" Yes, he oversimplifies to make the point. But even so, I have trouble agreeing. Many atheists do have a story I want to hear, and it still feels novel and alien to me to be exposed to them.

Growing up, I didn't know any "nonbelievers," although I was warned about them and their alleged sad, unfulfilled lives. Many Christians tell me that it's bad to read too many books arguing for atheism, since that may weaken my own faith. We're taught that anything that makes us doubt should be avoided at all costs. While I agree with my partner that some of the "militant atheists" are "doing it wrong," some do have a story I want to read. I want to know what they think and feel, and I want to know if their stories mirror my own. Do other people have the same doubts and fears that I do? If people that I know in real life have doubts, they are rarely willing to discuss them candidly, and only in terms of how we can pray for them to disappear.

I've been taught that people who lose their faith are wrong, weak, and led astray by society's increasingly secular worldview. I don't want to be wrong, weak, or led astray, but I do want to be exposed to a worldview that's different from the one I've always known. And so I appreciate these stories of "de-conversion," and I want to read as many of them as I can.

I'm starting up a reading list for books on both sides of the debate. I am willing to read and explore anything I can get my hands on, from The Case for Christ to The God Delusion (which, incidentally, I found kind of disappointing). I have yet to read that perfect book that summarizes my own feelings and experiences. I also have yet to read a book that I feel does the perfect job convincing either Christians or atheists to convert to each others' camps. And that's ok. For now I'm just enjoying the fact that I can read and think whatever I want without any shame or guilt, even if I end up being considered wrong, weak, or led astray.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Welcome (and a few thoughts on labels)

Despite its title, this is not a blog about proverbs, or the Bible. This is a blog about me.

Religious belief, for being a supposedly personal affair, demands labels and categories, which I've always found difficult. I have called myself many things, many labels that fit for a time, and then didn't: Catholic, Christian, non-denominational, spiritual, believer.  For some time, my Facebook "religious beliefs" defined me as "liberal catholic Christian," with a intentionally small-case catholic c.*  I was, and am, proud of my both my liberal political views and Catholic heritage, yet anxious for acceptance by my evangelical Christian friends who frowned upon capital-C Catholicism.

Unfortunately, this wishy-washiness did not go unnoticed by any of the people whose approval I sought, and it didn't work for me either. At some point, I quietly removed my religious views from my Facebook page. I still went to church, still played in the worship band, still professed my faith. But the labels nagged at me, so I removed them completely. And that's how it remains.

All my life, I've been afraid to say what I think on the topic of faith and Christianity, and afraid to ask questions. Some of the things I wonder are considered better left unsaid, at least in the circles of which I've always been a part.

I don't have any promises for this blog. I don't know if anyone will read it. I don't promise to have some big religious conversion, or to commit to any great new belief system. I will not become an evangelical atheist, the likes of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. I will not become a nun, like several of my aunts have done, or even like my best friends, who are strong, happy, unquestioning Christians. But for the first time, I am going to say exactly what I think, no matter how offensive, confused, or label-free it might be.

*"Catholic" (capital C) refers specifically to the Roman Catholic Church, while "catholic" (small-case c) means "universal," and refers to Christ's intended inclusion of believers all over the world, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, nationality, etc. This article on Catholic Exchange provides a thorough discussion of the topic.

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