testifyessay

January 11, 2015
A month or two ago a member of Edwin F. Taylor advised me to temper my surprise about the intolerance of religions to other religions, and at how each seems incapable of recognizing the reality of a world with a plethora of faiths. This is my response to his email. I hope people aren't too bugged by it, but if people are interested in my path away from traditional faith, this tries to explain it.

Well, surprise is only one factor; but more irritation, and frustration.

I'm probably making a similar fallacy in terms of "why isn't everyone more like me?" but...
I realize now that Thursday's annoyance is an echo of what started me down my path to skepticism. (Personal testimony ahoy!) I remember it quite distinctly; I was at a summer music camp run by The Salvation Army in the very early 1990s, and I started to think about all the devout moslems in the world. I mean there I was, a literal son of a preacher man (sweet-talkin' optional), trying my darndest to be a good Christian, but if I had been born the son of an Imam, wouldn't I be striving just as hard to be a good Moslem? (This was combined with a sense of suspicion about the clockwork nature of the tearful repentance and mini-revival 'altar call' that would occur the Sunday at the conclusion of this particular camp, but never the Sunday at the beginning. It seemed like the spirit would move in more mysterious and less predictable ways than that, and that some large measure of psychology and manipulation was actually to thank. Or blame.)

I think the teenage years are a natural time and place to have this kind of realization, and the rebellious attitude to be able to act on it. And yet it is not nearly as widespread a changeover as I would have expected, or preferred.

(I'd love a world with more
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
and less
"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.")

The 3rd pillar of doubt was the feeling that I was still living a "sunday school" life, following my church's precepts against drinking etc, and (if memory of the timing serves) making my cautious steps to exploring connections with girls guilt-ridden and tentative, but many of my peers in the church, seemingly not even struck with the conceptual doubts that I was having, also seemed to be having a ton more hedonistic party fun than I was, and not recognizing a discrepancy. (Or being able to make up for it at that aforementioned 'altar call') I found that kind of picking and choosing, accepting the comfortable and rewarding bits of faith and the promise of eternal life, leaving aside the less pleasant rules and regulations, kind of repulsive. (Apparently I absorbed some very puritan protestant principles!)

Maybe some of my ability to stray from the fold comes from a position of privilege, like Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" My high school years seeds of doubt were able to blossom into "not going to church every week" sprouts in college, and I suppose that reflects both the shelter college provides, as well as the lack of a sense of threat from "The Others" to keep me towing the line.

Over the years I've mellowed a bit, I suppose, and thought about how brittle the faith was I had set up for myself. My parents were pretty liberal, given that they were protestant ministers, and so even before this teenage turning point I had made efforts to see, say, Genesis as a poetically phrased recapitulation of planetary formation and evolution. I guess being smart enough to see that those efforts at reconciliation with this particular flavor of faith were local-environment driven, but not wise enough to accept that dichotomy and still look to the moral and spiritual heart of the Faith of my Fathers, stunted spiritual growth in me. And these days, it's the lack of meta-awareness and tendency to cling to some flavor of literalism that keeps me away from traditional faiths.

A few times I've seen thing that pointed to my experience being a bit provincial; I don't remember the names, but there was one online series of articles from an (ex-?) priest about his time in the seminary, and his claim that a lot people in that role have also shaken the literal parts of their belief, and also how the monks of various "incompatible" faiths seem to understand each other a lot more than the ministry. Also, there was a liberal Archbishop from England (sorry I don't have better citations for these) who said something like "well, of course the resurrection of Jesus isn't literally true, but it still is a story, of God's love for his people, that is at the heart of our faith". That sort of blew my mind at the time (probably mid to late 20s) and pointed me to think about the "Great Revival" roots of my protestant culture. (Hmm; might not be technically accurate, given The Salvation Army's English origins, but close enough.)

Over the past few days I've been thinking about the term "Cosmopolitan" (too bad the name has been so claimed by the magazine!) What a crying shame that rather than increasing our exposure to different outlooks and upbringings, to break through the bands of geographical distance, the Internet and other advances in the specialization of media are so used to gather together in increasingly tight virtual enclaves, enhancing our ability to make little echo chambers of like minded folks (freed from the old constraints of geography)

In the end, a seemingly utter and widespread world wide failure to "walk a mile in the moccasins" of other faiths is a tremendous deficit of empathy, or even self-reflection, and is the catalyst for so much of the damage religion provides, when it has potential to do so much good.