Posts Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy’
There and Back Again: A Journey Into and Out of Faith January 15, 2012 | 02:00 pm

The gods forgot that they made me
So I forget them, too
I dance among their shadows
I play among their graves

(David Bowie, “Seven”)

Science tells us we are merely beasts, but we don’t feel like that. We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence.
(VS Ramachandran, cognitive neuroscientist)

For the last few years, I have been a seminary student. Although hardly “evangelical”, I entered seminary with a strong faith in a benevolent God that I attached to Christianity. During my time in seminary, my experience with the Society of Friends (Quakers) and my (notably extracurricular) reading of Leo Tolstoy’s presentation of Christianity strengthened my faith quite a bit. I believed that an incarnated God had laid out a proper mode of life and that the right focus for life was transformation into the unsullied image of that incarnated God. It was a standpoint that I was very comfortable with and very excited by, and it shaped how I made decisions and where I placed value. For more on those beliefs, see my other blog and my Ask a Quaker guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

At the end of last semester, however, that all collapsed, and I am left as a kind of weak atheist. The post mortem of my faith is a complicated narrative: there is no simple cause of death. Many people who leave seminary as weak atheists (including Bart Ehrman, who teaches at The Other School), entered as evangelicals or fundamentalists. When their self-authorizing and monolithic interpretation of the Bible is pummeled to dust and the faux-rational Christianity is revealed to be a mess of paradox, their faith becomes shaken and they end up leaving seminary as atheist-materialists, often with the same evangelical zeal for atheist materialism that they had for Christianity. Although that’s a common story, it’s not mine.

My Christianity has not been fundamentalist or evangelical: instead, it has been an on-again/off-again relationship. I became an ardent atheist as a teenager, even self-identifying as a LaVeyan Satanist at times. This came from recognizing only two kinds of Christianity as a child: a kind of weak Protestant liberalism on the one hand, and a kind of overbearing Protestant fundamentalism on the other. The first did not seem to actually require anything distinctly Christian, and the latter did not seem to actually engage reality. Yet even in my most atheistic of moments, I had a sense of spirituality—a sense that the modern narrative of the utterly isolated individual was somehow wrong, and that the union of individuals was holistic and synergistic. In college, I encountered a moderate liberal Christianity in the “neo-orthodox” vein. Its arguments convinced me: Christianity taught a proper ordering of the individual, which is truly to be in a properly ordered community.

Despite neo-orthodox teachings, though, simply going to church and doing the nonproductive repetition of the liturgy didn’t seem to satisfy that spiritual aspect. I joined Freemasonry (eventually becoming 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite) and continued to study esoterica, including the (publicly accessible) teachings of the A∴A∴. At this point, my Christianity began to wane into a kind of Calvinist-flavored deism. That’s when things suddenly changed.

Up to this point, I never had a real sense of relationship with God. Prayer had never established a “relationship” with God, except in the kind of one-sided relationship that I have with my favorite TV or book characters. (Sarah Howell has an excellent blog post called “Prayer Doesn’t Work“, and it sounds exactly like my thoughts on the matter…but with more apparent faith remaining.) For some reason, however, I suddenly had a sense of “calling”. This was not the kind of “calling” that comes from careful reasoned thought and the recommendations of others: this was a strong sense that something beyond me was calling me into seminary. It was a profound and constant pull, and it did not seem to originate from within me nor did it seem to be under my control. The feeling was amazing and profound, and after some time I had no choice but to relent to the calling—it was that powerful.

I moved to Durham and started attending seminary. While there, my faith was transformed but did not weaken. Without a doubt, however, I was challenged. There were a number of things I had taken on faith because it was where “all scholars agreed”. These points, however, were rapidly removed as I discovered just how little agreement there is among scholars, and how artificial the points of agreement are: in theology, there are certain axiomatic claims that are required in order to be a part of the conversation (e.g. get published in a particular journal), and these axiomatic claims then become the points of seeming universal agreement. Similarly, I discovered just how contextual and utterly Western the creeds are, which reduced my respect for them down to effectively nil. That wasn’t the hardest blow, though.

Most damaging, however, was discovering just how interested the church was (and is!) in reifying and reinforcing boundaries between people-groups—a horror especially when contrasted with the church’s relative disinterest in helping the poor and actually behaving like Jesus taught. This was a major problem for me, because the core assertion of neo-orthodoxy is that the church somehow contained and embodied the right interpretation of Jesus’s teachings. Yet the practices of the church (both historically and presently) and the places where the church spends its time are so utterly different from the model of Jesus that I could no longer trust in the tradition of the church. In the history of the church, the truly holy—even those obviously aspiring to be truly holy—seemed to be the rare and precious exception, not the norm. How could I trust that institution to teach and transform me into holiness if it consistently failed to do so for everyone else?

At the same time as I encountered these struggles, I encountered the tradition that I draw from Gandhi’s Christian followers (e.g. J.C. Kumarappa), Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy (esp. What I Believe), Christian agrarianism, and the early Quakers. These people had an alternative take on Christianity focused on the Sermon on the Mount. It was a spiritually and socially conscious Christianity, and it seemed to be the true tradition of Jesus. This became the Christianity that I identified with, although I eventually quietly dropped the active use of the “Christian” label because of flak from Christians who thought I didn’t meet the minimum requirements for it. That fight rapidly became exhausting, and the benefits of keeping the label were rapidly offset by the annoyingly constant challenges.

The end of my faith, however, came through the study of cognitive science, and especially the cognitive science of religion. Through all of this, my faith was backed up by that sense of calling. No matter what else happened, no matter how else I made sense of reality, I had to account for this experience of being moved by something beyond myself. However, through studying cognitive science, I discovered an entirely reasonable explanation. From David Eagleman’s Incognito (and reinforced by VS Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain), I learned that the mind can experience an emergent subconscious as being an utterly alien presence.

The clincher, however, came when I read Harvey Whitehouse’s Modes of Religiosity. In there, Whitehouse lays out (with strong empirical evidence) how the ideas contained within repetitious and ritualized practices become “sleeper agents” in the brain, surfacing to make sense of strange or disquieting experience. This expression of the practices’ ideas are experienced/interpreted as spontaneous expressions of divine presence or ordering.

This was, in short, exactly what I experienced. My only experience of the divine now had an entirely this-worldly explanation. Without that support column, my faith rapidly crumbled. My Tolstoy-Quaker religiosity was all stipulated on the existence of God, and I no longer have any basis to believe in the Christian God. Although some are more than happy to be a part of a religious community that affirms something they don’t actually believe in, I am not. I am still processing my relationship to Quakerism, but in terms of my relationship to Christianity, I’m out.

Now, at this point in atheist conversion narratives, people sometimes start to talk about how free they felt and how great it is that they were no longer shackled by the expectations of their faith community. This is definitely not my experience. At the end of the day, I am a child of the Enlightenment: I have a commitment to rationality and to living my life in a rational way. All systems of rationality, however, need their axioms. Nietzsche and the existentialists showed that there is no intrinsic value in the world, but Christianity was a counter to this nihilism, providing a set of axioms and a guiding methodology for life. Without Christianity, I am back to the world of nihilism. Rationality no longer has a foothold by which to guide life.

Asking around, the only advice I find from atheists is to “do what you want”, but what should I want? Like all humans, my desires are utterly mutable—the very existence of marketing and psychotherapy is because of this fact. (Not to mention operant conditioning! I’m reminded of The Big Bang Theory on this point.) If I don’t take control of my desires’ mutations, I am simply submitting yourself to the vicissitudes of corporate marketing departments and political spin-meisters. Like the Machines in The Matrix, politics and capitalism are constantly consuming humanity and feeding us illusions. Evidence suggests that playing into their illusion is a path to a life of quiet despair, yet with no values, there is no guide about what desires actually are good or bad to pursue. Satisfaction and reward are both stipulated on accomplishment, which itself presumes a set of values.

Worst of all, though, this idea that you should “do what you want” seems like it is an utterly un-rational punchline to an extensive pro-rational argument. Be rational and doubt everything. Be rational and be a skeptic. Be rational and seek the truth. But once you do all of that, forget being rational, because it can’t help you anymore. I was happier and more satisfied as a Christian: it was a sick trick to lure me out of that joyful place with rationality, just to drop me in a place of nihilistic disillusionment and then tell me I should abandon rationality and seek a joyful place.

This frustration is compounded by the fact that I have little in common with evangelical atheism and its promissory materialism. I find most self-proclaimed skeptics to be annoyingly un-skeptical, but instead committed to their own particular materialist dogmas (e.g. Michael Shermer, as I discuss in this book review). The problem of qualia still prevents me from buying that the only thing that exists is the “physical world” as science constitutes it, or from taking the only philosophically defensible materialist stance—namely, that subjectivity doesn’t exist (e.g. Daniel Dennett, as I discuss in this book review). I am inclined towards John Searle’s “biological naturalism” conception of consciousness, but it’d be nice if we had any idea how physical material could produce whatever it is that qualia are. The question of “the mind’s eye” (which some people don’t have!) might be an interesting angle of attack, since it puts the question in sharp focus…

Since subjectivity exists, I still have space for a kind of hollow “spirituality”. Surprisingly, little has changed on that front: God is now absent, but God was never particularly present before, despite my earnest desires. Since the Bible drops out with Christianity, my interpretation and expression of spirituality is now more purely phenomenological rather than theological. The existence of mirror neurons and the human ability to have a theory of mind means that I am still able to have an intersubjective spirituality, as well. This has actually sharpened my interest in the spirituality of sexuality, which has been a long-running interest of mine.

Right now, I am struggling to re-situate myself. I am haunted by Camus’ question: “In a world without God, why not commit suicide?” (For his answer, see here.) I am reconsidering all of the projects, dreams, and relationships that I used to have, trying to see if they can still retain some kind of joy and impetus in the face of my epic disillusionment. I have continued on with the projects which are hold-overs from before the disillusionment, trying to retain some kind of momentum. But ultimately, I now live in a world which feels flat, and I am living a life without direction. Thanks a lot, Rationality.

[Editor’s Note: This post has a follow-up at Back Again to There.]