I teach several ethics courses (or courses that cover ethical theory). Without fail, at some point in the course a student eventually asks or attempts to discern my religious beliefs. This usually happens when I am lecturing on the separability of ethics and religion (the idea that you don’t need religion in order to do ethics). If I do respond, I usually say, “I was raised Catholic”.
In most cases this is enough information for student to make (usually mistaken) conclusions. For those people that know me, my religious beliefs, or lack thereof are either known or irrelevant. But (for many) my views on religion and faith are either a curiosity, a cause for concern, or just plain mistaken. So, for those who are interested here’s how I got where I am.
Like most kids I believed what my parents told me to believe. I am not talking about belief in the philosophical sense, but in the blind following sense. I went to church every Sunday, listened (or half listened to the sermons) and said my prayers. Since I attended a Catholic grade school there was no questions that I would receive the sacraments. The first was Confession. I knew the story: we sinned when we did bad things, if we died without confessing those sins (and there were enough or they were serious enough) we would go to hell. If we went to confession, we could be absolved and then get back into God’s good graces. At 7 or 8 I am not sure how much sin I could have accumulated, but I do remember confession being both nerve wracking and in all honesty a relief. Whether the relief was due to “getting things off my chest” or that it was over I still don’t know.
Next was Communion. As with Confession I don’t think I ever questioned the beliefs. In Communion the priest performed a blessing over the bread and wine turning it into the body and blood of Christ, except it still looked like bread and wine, tasted like bread and wine, and had all the chemical properties of bread and wine. Still, I was assured the transubstantiation had occurred. As an alter boy, I would later be made aware of the special nature of consecrated hosts and how there handling, storage and at times destruction required special procedures. Of course, at this point in my life I was unaware that other Christian sects didn’t hold to the transubstantiation.
When I reached eighth grade it was time for Confirmation. This was the time when, at thirteen or fourteen I was expected to make a life-long commitment to the Catholic Church. Here again, the idea of not partaking of the sacrament was unconscionable. Of course I would make my Confirmation and become a full member an “adult” member of the church. At this point, I still didn’t question my faith, but I also didn’t think too much about it. To the best of my recollection I still believed in the Catholic God, thought Jesus was his son, and held that sin was real. But, again, religion was simply the class I took in school and the services I attended on Sunday. The only religious experience I can remember were those times at night when I remember worrying about what would happen if I died before I awoke. That existential panic (which only happened a handful of times) resulted in prayers that I would see another day.
In many ways high school mirrored grade school, although there were subtle changes in my thinking. I went to a Benedictine high school and though religion was once again a daily part of life—girls, band, parties etc., seemed to be more important. I did find that while I didn’t question, nor think about my beliefs, I started to question whether everyone being Catholic was important. I remember getting into trouble at a school assembly with a Catholic lay missionary who told us that they needed more support because African governments were refusing to provide aid to tribes who converted to Christianity. Apparently, asking why not stop converting people which would allow them to get the food, water, or medicine was thinking a little too outside the box (by the way, the guy never did answer my question). It was also in high school that I remember learning about the church teaching that good people who were not Catholic could get into heaven.
It wasn’t until college that I would begin to really think about religion. I attended church on a pretty regular basis, but it was really because I enjoyed the sermons of an out-going priest at MaryMount Chapel. Shortly after he left, my church attendance began to wain. In part it was laziness, in part school, work and friends, but I also noticed that I didn’t really miss it. But the single biggest influence had to be taking my first real philosophy course.
In my second year at Cleveland State I took an introduction to philosophy course, that for the first time ever, required me (among other things) to not only think about my beliefs, but to think about WHY I believed what I believed. It was at this point that I realized that the things I had grown up believing, weren’t my belief by choice, but were arbitrarily given to me. By arbitrary I don’t mean my parents had simply picked a faith for me, but arbitrary in the sense that had I been born in a different family, or had my family subscribed to a different faith, I would have had a completely different set of beliefs. Now, for many people this arbitrariness doesn’t mean much. But, for one under the influence of philosophy, and its emphasis on reason, rationality, evidence, and justification, this was disconcerting.
This realization lead me to begin looking at not only what I was taught to believe, but what I had come to believe. My own moral beliefs and metaphysical views had been changing. Much of what the Catholic church taught didn’t cohere with what I thought were sound moral judgments or what John Rawls would term “considered judgments”. I didn’t think homosexuals were immoral. I didn’t think pre-marital sex was immoral (at least not in most cases). The concept of original sin seemed ludicrous since it seemed unreasonable to hold one person responsible for the actions of another. And, with an ever increasing empirical bent, the idea of rising from the dead; hell for non-believers; purgatory for the kind-of-good/kind-of-bad; the bread and wine that was bread and wine but wasn’t bread and wine; no longer made sense. It was also at this point that I took a philosophy of religion course where the classic arguments (including the ones appealed to by my Catholic school teachers) were systematically refuted.
By the time I reached graduate school, belief in God was at best a belief in god. I would say that the idea of a divine being was still a possibility, but at best I held to a belief in a deism or pantheism. That is, I thought that if there was a god then he/she/it had either set things in motion and was no longer a truly active participant (as an immutable, all-knowing god can’t be changed by my prayers), or that a truly infinite god could not be separated from creation since that would imply that god was not infinite. While at this point I didn’t have any set beliefs, I also knew that I was still comfortable with the Catholic church, having been well versed in its rituals. I felt that it was the place that I could send my own children. My wife and I decided that although we didn’t subscribe to most if any of the mystical elements of the doctrine, it did emphasize some good values. Love thy neighbor, help those in need, etc., etc.
My comfort with the Catholic church as a default religious option would end with the loss of my son. Shortly after my wife and I were married, we found out she was pregnant. Although a bit of a shock, it was fantastic news. By and large the pregnancy was uneventful. Early on we had a scare that there might be a problem, but a follow-up showed the baby was fine. Unfortunately, nine months to the day he was due, our son was stillborn. I don’t remember the exact name for what had happened, but the los
s was the greatest I had ever experienced.
I have always thought that religion was supposed to give comfort in times of hardship. Having read some William James, my view of religion had taken a very pragmatic turn, if it worked for you, if it helped you get through the day, cope with difficulty, then by all means believe. When my son was delivered a priest was sent to speak with us. It wasn’t that we wanted pastoral care, but we also didn’t think it would hurt. Although the priest provided some comfort, the church provided none. When we inquired whether a baptism would take place we were told that it couldn’t because the child must be alive. Knowing enough catechism, I also knew that by the church’s teachings, my son not only could not be baptized, but would also be consigned to limbo. Needless to say, the absurdity of these ideas was unbearable, as would be the later rejection by the church of limbo itself. What happened to my innocent, stillborn son? Apparently, the church still doesn’t know. If this was the comfort that the Catholic church could provide, then I wanted no part of it.
Since the loss of my son, we have had two beautiful children. My daughter Magdalen would arrive about a year later in perfect health. Five years later my son Emerson would be born, also without complication. While I nor my wife consider ourselves Catholic (or Christian for that matter) we still wrestle with issues of religion. We want our children to be in a position to decide for themselves what they will or will not believe. We have taken our kids to the very liberal United Church of Christ which is an open and affirming congregation. This church is LGBT friendly, socially conscious and active in the community. We have also explored the Unitarian Universalist Church (the church of Emerson and Thoreau) as another possibility for our children, and perhaps even for us.
One of the biggest misconceptions about my lack of belief or faith seems to be that it means I don’t respect people of faith. Some assume that my agnosticism is implies a hostility to religion. I am hostile to religion or to the religious only when they are hostile to others. I am hostile to religion when others try to impose it on me, or rewrite an intentionally secular U.S. Constitution to support their particular religious beliefs. On the other hand, I understand and respect the rites and practices of people of faith. I have friends and colleagues who are Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, and I can respect their beliefs without subscribing to them myself. I also find value in their moral precepts and practices.
At the end of the day, I think that faith is an elusive property that I don’t seem to possess. To those who ask why I don’t believe, I suppose my best response is to ask why they do believe. Perhaps some day I will settle on some set belief, but until then I will simply remain open to the possibility of something greater.