Monday, August 10, 2009

No Faith To Lose

I have no faith in the religious meaning of the word, but it’s not something that I lost along the way. Let me explain.

Religion works in two ways: it means to provide its adherents with an explanation of their own place in existence, and it imposes a system of rules, some procedural and many relating to so-called morality. Long before anyone tried to indoctrinate me into the presenting religion I had provided most of this framework for myself. (Self-aggrandizement alert: warning! more to follow!)

Certainly, I was the subject of religious interest from an early age. I was baptized as an infant, and I was also, in the quasi-religious manner of the Christians of the time, circumcised. I started kindergarten in a Roman Catholic grammar school before the age of five, and that is where the religious processing began in earnest. Before that my mother and various relatives had taken me along to church services and taught me simple prayers, “now I lay me down to sleep,” etc. I’d been told that God loved me, and that a particularized Guardian Angel followed me around. I well remember thinking that it was all a bit interesting, but that it had an unlikely ring to it and never seemed to have any bearing on the world that I lived in. I admit that I hedged my bets for a while and did some rote praying.

I recall a prior understanding that I was alive, and some consideration of what that meant. I was alive, along with my parents and family and neighbors, and we could all still see each other and talk together. Other family members existed only in photographs or in other people’s present conversations in the past tense. They were dead. I did not dwell on this, I simply observed that they had been alive but were not any longer. Death seemed very final, nothing in any of these conversations ever suggested that the lost family members carried on somewhere in a transformed state or lived in some religious paradise.

So I greeted my first Catechism lessons about heaven and hell with the cynicism that I had learned from my family. Plus, it seemed to make more sense that “Pop Pop” and the rest were simply gone. It was obvious that vast numbers of people had already died, along with all of the dinosaurs, another interesting phenomenon to a four year old, and that no one had ever heard from any of them again.

I make no claims to great intelligence or unique insight. I think that I was merely doing what children do, trying to make sense of the world, the better to survive it. I believe that I had also developed my system of personal ethics, the moral system with which I still approach the world, also before I arrived at school.

It is now common knowledge that babies are great observers of human behavior. Professional scientists show babies various tableau played out with hand puppets or dolls, and they register the babies physical reactions. Then they test the babies’ approval rating for the various dolls. Babies can see very well when a doll is in distress, and they are very interested to see whether a newly introduced doll will help the distressed doll or impede it in some way.

In this way babies judge the people that they see around them. They seek out and shamelessly cultivate the people whom they believe can help them, currying favor with delighted smiles and gurgles. They are innately aware that they need the help.

Being assured by science that I behaved that way as a baby, and having considered the matter at some length, I am convinced that I never abandoned the behavior. Perhaps that too is a common experience. Growing children and even adults, as well as babies, need help in this life, and it remains important to identify not only those who will provide the help, but also to spot those wreckers who will more likely impede us.

Back to the subject of my own personal morality. I flatteringly believe that in that pre-verbal miasma I decided that it was good to help people and bad to impede them, and that I decided at some point to be one of the good people, to offer assistance whenever the opportunity presented itself, and to deny myself the guilty pleasure of impeding others.

I will not include here the beautiful catalog of my good deeds, nor will I detail the loving, empathetic behavior that I have generally displayed to my fellows. Except for the times when I was losing my temper, or being abrasive, just for fun, that happened too. I have not been perfect, and I have disappointed people in many ways, but I fear no judgment on the subject of my virtue. The path that I chose, and have walked, is righteous.

I shamelessly take the full credit for this, because: 1) my extensive religious upbringing never emphasized love and empathy, but rather guilt and fear; 2) my parents, and many other family members, were not loving people and never offered much in the way of assistance or encouragement; 3) my teachers, with few exceptions, were cruel; 4) most of my childhood friends were even crueler; and 5) the world at large, of course, is horrible.

But there’s nothing supernatural about it, there never has been. No religious training ever took root in me. I had solved the moral equation myself, and religion, and each of them, seemed to have nothing to add. So, it is not true in my case to say that I lost my faith at some point. I never had any faith to lose.


nanute said...

Very well said. I've been reading your posts regularly, just haven't had anything to say of value. I never was/am, able to believe in a god based on an external concept of faith.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wish I had the simple faith of Believers. It must be a comfort.
It's a hostile, scary place, this universe, when you know there's no reason for anything.

fred c said...

I have a cousin who is a smart guy and still finds room for faith. I think there's some suspension-of-disbelief involved, but either way he seems to get a lot out of it. It is a comfort to him. I'm envious.

Nanute, Ann told me your name and some news from the old block. She remembers you fondly. Thanks for reading.