What Leaving Religion Has Done for Me…

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From Amy Cools

I grew up as a member of a large and generally very religious, very conservative Catholic family. As I describe in an earlier piece, both sides of my family are close-knit and traditional, with a marked tendency to insularity. When I was much younger, I loved it. Religion, especially in its more traditional and fundamentalist forms, has many upsides: a strong sense of community, a feeling of intimate belongingness in a group that shares a creed, a mythology, a history, and an identity. There are things I remember fondly: the warmth that suffuses family faith-based rituals, like putting on a fresh new dress for Easter morning, or the excitement of Christmas midnight mass, with its rich decorations, solemn rituals, and stirring hymns. We would return and light the tree, a luminous and dream-like vision to a child who just woke up from the wee-hours car ride home. There were pancake breakfasts and coffee socials after Mass, Sunday school friends, singing in the choir, and suppression of giggles as my brother, sisters, and I pulled faces at each other during the hour-plus long service.

I also remember that religious fervor, that soaring feeling, that high, that rush of heart-swelling emotion that would come over me sometimes as I sought connection with the divine. In my mid-teens, Jesus was my ‘drug’ of choice. (Not that I did much in the way of drugs later, ahhh-hem.) The Catholic religion has many elements that suit a romantic temperament: prayers and chants, candles and incense, a baroque artistic sense, a preoccupation with death, suffering, and self-sacrifice, and a deep veneration for martyrdom. And no-one is more romantic than a teenager.

But that feeling of belongingness can also lead to insularity, so that you feel removed to some degree from the broader human community and from the wider world of ideas. There was a feeling of loneliness sometimes, of separation from the world. I remember times when my religious compatriots and I would bad-mouth secular people: their music, clothing, slang, history, practices, and beliefs and ideas (I later learned we were mostly wrong about what they actually think and believe). It felt satisfying, in a way, as it made me feel part of some exclusive club, but it felt a bit mean too. We portrayed the rest of the world to ourselves as a lost, sad, evil place compared with what our religion had to offer. We could rest easy, satisfied that we knew the truth and could lead more meaningful, ‘holy’ lives, here on earth and after death. (Though, oddly enough, I feared death terribly in those years, and thought of it often. Try as I might, the always vague promise of the joys of heaven failed to console me. I thought perhaps God was testing me: tests of faith are an important theme in Catholicism.)

As I approached adulthood, and began to meet people from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, faith faded and gave way to doubt. I’d always been a curious person, but my youthful shyness and anxiety, combined with my insular upbringing, kept me mostly isolated from the world beyond family and church. It wasn’t until I entered the workforce, and then attended junior college, that I discovered the wider world, one of dazzling variety, and found it suited my personality to a T.

Slowly, I began to emerg  from my religious shell. I began to let down my guard, thinking: if my religion is true, my faith will survive running the gauntlet of questions, challenges, and opposing ideas, gaining strength along the way. After all, if integrity and love of knowledge are virtues and God is good, God would prefer even an honest atheist to an intellectually lazy theist. So I opened myself up to discovery, to an enthralling diversity of beliefs, ideas, cultures, and practices, a world with a rich and varied history. Science, literature, philosophy, history, art, culture, religion itself, all became available to me to explore, to consider, and to critique, honestly, in its own terms, and on its own merits. There were no more heresies and dogmas: now, there were facts and theories, truth and falsehood, useful ideas and otherwise. There was no more sin and redemption: now, there were systems of ethics and self-improvement, and considered moral judgments derived from considerations of good and bad, help and harm, beneficence and selfishness, virtue and non-virtue. The supernatural gave way to the natural, certitude to a healthy skepticism, blanket acceptance of creed to understanding, faith to belief ‘wisely apportioned to the evidence’.

I came to value the sense of belonging to humanity as a whole over the sense of belonging to a narrower community of belief. My newfound cosmopolitanism broadened my sense of care for and responsibility to my fellow human beings beyond the scope of any one ideology. The world was no longer divided into ‘Us’ (in my case, Catholics) and ‘Them’, the poor benighted souls wandering this world lost, hopeless, and forlorn. Instead, I came to understand that all of these tools we’ve developed, from morality to literature to government to art to religion, are products of the great quest to better ourselves, to attain the happiness and fulfillment that all humans seek. Religion, like culture, language, and so on, I came to understand as a human creation, and no more or less important, sacred, or immune to change and criticism than any other artifact. Religion lost its magic: since humans made religion, humans can reform or unmake it. I could glean the best of what it has to offer, and explore its history, appreciate its role in moral progress, gain insight from its ethical and metaphysical theories, enjoy the creativity which gave rise to its fables and rituals, and discard the rest.

Likewise, the whole of the great treasure trove of human thought became available to me for study and consideration. There is no list of banned books, no heresies. Instead, there are good ideas and bad ideas: theories that better explain the workings of the universe, and those that do not; beliefs that accord with reality and with reason, and those that do not; ideologies that lead people to do good and to lead better lives, and those that do not; literature and art that arouse the best emotions and enrich understanding in us, and those that do not.

Many religions, including the brand of fundamentalist Catholicism in which I was raised, lead many adherents to restrict the education of their children to a cherry-picked, often distorted or flat-out-wrong, circumscribed array of ideas, scientific theories, and historical accounts that accord with the doctrines of their faith. Many of these children remain ignorant of the wider world of human thought and history until something in their experience or personality compels them to look beyond the teachings of their youth. For example, my own dear grandmother, out of love but misguided by her piety, did a disservice to the education of her grandchildren by attempting, and in some cases succeeding, to restrict our education in this way. Her religious beliefs led to her conviction that a broad, liberal education offered too many temptations to disbelief, so she felt compelled keep us from learning anything other than that which would accord with her fundamentalist Catholic faith. As I later discovered, she was right, not for the reasons she thought. Truth, in my opinion, holds fast in the face of challenges; it does not give way as easily as error does. Each new thing I learned, then, was not a temptation: it was a window of opportunity for growing in understanding, and for replacing bad ideas with better ones. Fortunately, I inherited, and was inspired by, her adventurous side, her love of people. Over time, I encountered and fell in love with the wider world of ideas, through the people I came to meet and the broader education I eventually received.

Now, in place of memorizing and reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I immerse myself in Aristotle and Mill, in Hume and Kant, in Wollstonecraft, Rose, Stanton, Jefferson, and Paine, in Avicenna and Aquinas, in Rawls, Pinker, and Hitchens. I can immerse myself in the teachings of religious founders as well, including the historical Jesus, endlessly more complex, fascinating, and inspiring than the blonde, haloed icon of the Baltimore Catechism. I have the opportunity to explore what all of these thinkers and reformers have to offer, to seek to understand their ideas on their own terms, putting aside those distorted accounts produced by religious rivalry. I can also, without fear of divine censure, explore the bad ideas people have conceived, from belief in witchcraft and satanic possession to the defense of torture, to racist ideologies, to ‘holy war’ and terrorism to social Darwinism (a sadly misleading term, does a disservice to a great thinker by associating his name with eugenics, a pseudoscientific theory contrary to his own ideas). I can try to enter the minds of those who created these dangerous and immoral ideas, in order to really understand how they came up with them, and to better explain why they are so terrible.

These days, I think of myself as a happier, more morally responsible, more intellectually honest, and more informed person than I would have been if I had remained religious. In that, I speak for myself only. Yet I know that this is true for many others, whose accounts celebrate the benefits of their own religious deconversions. It’s my impression that the most joyful, most passionate, and yes, the most resentful converts from religion are those who were brought up in more restrictive, fundamentalist belief systems. Critics say that such people gave up their religion because it was too hard, so they took the easy way out; or, that they just wanted to be able to ‘sin’ freely. I’ve had these accusations thrown at me many times. In a sense, they’re right, but not for the reasons they think. Many of these religions are too hard because their restrictions and demands are contrary to human nature since they’re based on deeply flawed accounts of it, and much of what they deem ‘sin’ is not wrong after all.

Many people attribute their own best qualities, of character, of behavior, of outlook on life, to religion, whether it’s the one they were brought up with or one they converted to. While I recognize the fact that religion can give a deep sense of fulfillment, the evidence indicates religiosity is not more of a predictor for good behavior than secularism. Study after study, personal account after personal account reveal that religious people commit most crimes at about the same rate, are about as generous, and behave about as morally overall than secular people.

My own observation is that people use religion to justify whatever way they are inclined to behave, good or bad. As the physicist Steven Weinberg points out, good people do good things, and evil people do evil things, regardless of religion. Many of the kindest, wisest, and most wonderful people I know are religious, and credit their religion with their moral successes. I’ve also known plenty of religious people use their beliefs to dodge responsibility for their bad behavior with excuses such as ‘the devil made me do it’ and ‘well, of course, I’m just a sinner’. They use this get-out-of-jail-free-card, such as this particular one available to Catholics (but of course, not necessarily endorsed by all Catholics): ‘I’ll just go to Confession later’. Some are otherwise good people who hold what I think are immoral beliefs, because they were taught to believe this way, and threatened with eternal punishment if they don’t. Others aren’t morally praiseworthy people in any sense of the term, and go through life doing only that which serves their own short-term self-interest. Religion, for these, is a matter of convenience or habit.

All of these things are basically true of the non-religious people I’ve come across, including my secular community of friends, family, and co-workers. Some are kinder than others, some are morally committed to doing good, some have a more nihilistic, selfish, or jaded view of the world. Yet here’s why I generally prefer a secular brand of morality over the religious: secular people generally take goodness more for granted. While this might sound counter-intuitive as an indicator of a better moral character or as a way of habituating oneself to better behavior, I think it’s excellent for both.

For example, when complimented on a good deed, a secular response is generally something along these lines: ‘well, obviously, it’s the right thing to do’, or, ‘it just feels right / good’, or, ‘of course, that’s how decent people behave’. These sorts of responses indicate that they see goodness as the default position, as required by reason, as a basic human instinct, or both. After all, human beings go through day to day life being decent to one another: we pay the asking price for the things we want, we step aside to let others pass on the sidewalk, we obey the rules of traffic, we say please and thank you, we lavish food, money, and medical care on strangers as well as family and friends, we spend huge amounts of our time communicating complex thoughts and ideas, and so on and so on. We take all this for granted, to our credit. When we compare the human species with all others, even to our closest relatives the chimpanzees, we find that our level of cooperation, generosity, and tolerance is quite remarkable. In all other species, some combination of predation, raiding, warfare, murder, infanticide, and/or indifference to suffering and the welfare of anyone besides close kin and allies are par for the course. With humans, however, such behavior makes the news.

Since goodness is the default, it’s badness has to be explained: by mental illness, alcohol or drugs, a bad upbringing, a momentary selfishness that overcame one’s better side, or by faulty ideology or culture. Therefore, most good deeds are not terribly remarkable: they are a natural product of sociability combined with reason. Sociability gives us the instincts to cooperate and help others; reason shows us that the more widely we extend our cooperation and good-naturedness, the better off everyone is in the long run.

Since secular people (as well as many liberal and progressive religious people) tend to believe in the basic goodness of human nature, they tend to be liberal in politics and morality, and broad in their conception of human nature. For example: since it’s everyone’s basic duty to help one another out, it’s right and just that we all pay taxes to create public welfare systems for those less fortunate than ourselves. To not institute public welfare systems is to say that it’s right that people should enjoy the benefits of civilized society, while being permitted to shirk their responsibility to care for those whom it hasn’t benefited. Another example: since most kinds of human behavior are good or at least morally neutral, there’s only a narrow range of behaviors that should be prohibited, namely those that actively harm others. Human nature, with its unique combination of advanced intelligence and strong social instincts, has evolved to include a wide variety of ways of being that are not only valid, but worthy of celebration, as they are indicative of the wonderfully fascinating, complex, endlessly inventive creatures that we are.

It’s no surprise, then, that secularists and adherents of the more liberal religions, which share this belief in basic human goodness and the broadness of human nature, have been on the forefront of reform and civil rights movements throughout history. Abolition of slavery, religious liberty, women’s, worker’s, and gay rights, indeed all of the great movements for reform and freedom, originated with the dissidents, the broad-minded, and the humanists. Religion is made for human beings, not the other way around.

An aside: there are certain leading secularists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who claim that the only ‘true’ religious believers are fundamentalists. They argue that liberal and reformed believers just want to pick and choose the ‘nice’ parts and discard the rest, which constitutes a betrayal of their religion. I think this view is not only historically inaccurate, it’s based on a more basic categorical error. Religions are not, and have never been, eternally ‘fixed’ systems that do, or ‘should’, remain constant over time. They are better understood as belonging to a category of things that include culture and language, all of which come gradually into being from thoughts and practices that are products of human nature, and change over time. Culture, language, and religion evolve as human nature evolves and as the totality of human knowledge and wisdom expands and is applied to current circumstances. It’s no more true to say that the only ‘true’ religion is that which remains wedded to a particular holy book or creed established by a synod, or a particular interpretation of these, than it is to say that the only ‘true’ communicator of English language is one who strictly adheres to the first Webster’s dictionary, or considers the Canturbury Tales or the works of Shakespeare as the eternal exemplar of ‘true’ English grammar and style.

Let’s contrast the more liberal, progressive, humanist views of secularists and moderate believers with the views of some of the more fundamentalist and hierarchical religions, usually descendants of tribal belief systems. This includes the brand of conservative Catholicism I grew up with (which is not reflective of all variants of Catholicism, some of which are quite tolerant and emphasize social justice). In these belief systems, humans are born in sin, ‘fallen’, weak and corrupt, and it’s only through the greatest struggle, and never without divine help, that we can achieve goodness. Their view of human nature is narrow: people are created to fulfill one of a number of comparatively few, narrowly defined roles, and behavior and proclivities that aren’t in accordance with these are sinful. Their view of life is one of spiritual warfare: we are beset on all sides by Satan and his agents as they vie with God for dominance over our souls. The way to redemption, then, is a lifetime of constant prayer, diligence, and suffering, battling one’s way to an eventual union with God that relatively few can achieve.

Secularism and the liberal religions, with their naturalist view of morality, emphasize the ordinariness of human goodness and the value of habitual, systematic, readily achievable goodness. The more rigid, fundamentalist religions, on the other hand, emphasize the difficulty of defeating evil and the value of relatively rare exploits of good deeds through heroic self-denial. While the latter may be more romantic and exciting, I think that the secularist and humanist view of human nature has been more conducive to human flourishing overall. It promotes a greater quantity of goodness in the world by making it understandable and accessible. This is readily apparent when we examine the evidence throughout history and up to the present time. Where we find tolerant governments and secular or progressive religious belief systems, we find less warfare, a higher standard of living, and a system of laws that protect all citizens from oppression, from each other as well as from government itself. Where we find civilizations dominated by religious fundamentalism, rigid ideologies, and aristocratic and ‘ordained’ hierarchies, on the other hand, we find the opposite.

In sum: leaving religion behind, for me, has proved not only emancipatory, but has provided a wonderful opportunity for learning, for critical thought, and for personal growth that I may never had had otherwise. I still have a residual distaste for religion, especially for its more ritualistic trappings, as one has a distaste for imbibing a substance one has overindulged in, or for fire after one has been burned. I shy away from churches, am creeped out by rote prayers, and feel depressed when listening to Gregorian chants and solemn hymns. (I feel very differently about other forms of sacred music, and wouldn’t you know it, I never heard any of them in the church of my youth.) Yet I seek wisdom from any source in which it may be found, and since I know that there is much to be found in religious traditions as there is in any arena of human thought, I look for it there, too, despite the inclinations I sometimes have against it. And one day, when my residual aversion to religion has finally worn away, I’ll be that much less in the sway of any bias that blinds the intellect and blunts the understanding.
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