Despite my commitment to doing as little as possible at the Wild Goose Festival, I did find myself at two actual intellectual talks, both of which were extremely excellent and deserve their own blog posts. The first one that I’ll write about (though it was nearly the last thing I attended) was Chris Stedman’s talk, “Faitheist,” which is also the name of his forthcoming book. Stedman is an atheist who works with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard as an interfaith resource for students who are seeking spiritual connection. He is also an outspoken activist who believes that it is important for atheists to be involved in interfaith work, and for interfaith and religious groups to actively cultivate relationships with atheists. His talk was awesome. There should be more non-combative atheists and agnostics talking at Christian events – they ask a lot of the right questions. Even when they might not intend to (although he probably did – he’s pretty sharp).
There were two questions that I took out of Stedman’s talk, both of which were only mentioned in passing, that I think every person should ask themselves, regardless of their belief system. The first one was a question that someone asked Stedman on his journey. He was in his Christian phase, studying religion at college, and someone asked him, “Why are you really a Christian? What motives brought you into it?”
This is a fundamental question. Everyone should ask it. This question isn’t academic – the answer isn’t “Because it says in John 3:16 that G-d so loved the world….” (if you’re a Christian), or “Because science tells us that life evolved on earth from proteins animated in the such and such epoch…..” (if you’re that kind of atheist), or any variation of “Because it’s the RIGHT belief, and I know because……”
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you actually have THE “right” belief, perspective, or idea, out of the probably millions of different forms of belief, perspective, and ideas, on the earth. Even if you possess the singular truth of all human existence, I hate to break it to you, but you probably didn’t get there just by being your awesome, perfectly perceptive self. Probably your parents handed it to you. Or a favorite professor. Or author. Or your friends. Or perhaps direct revelation. I’m not judging, I’m just saying you probably didn’t get to your beliefs in a vacuum of influence. And just because you were influenced, probably deeply, by outside forces, also doesn’t make your belief wrong. It’s not that you should have no influences, or that they will always lead you astray, but that asking yourself a good, honest “How did I arrive here?” can be extremely healthy spiritually.
For example, when Stedman asked himself this question, and I mean really really asked it honestly, he discovered that he’d become a Christian because he felt a deep need for an ethically grounded community. But he found that the whole Invisible Being idea really didn’t work for him at a core level; he was just going along with it so that he could be in the community. This realization was a water-shed for him, and he started to step out of what was, for him, a false religion. So claiming his atheism, which he sort of had before anyway, just not outwardly or consciously, was a step towards honesty, integrity, and wholeness for him. I’m totally paraphrasing, but I hope I did some justice to his story.
I actually went through a similar process in reverse. I spent ten years as a Dawkins-style atheist, and when, after 10 years, I finally took a good long look at where I was, I realized that I was mostly an atheist because I wanted my Dad (who was an outspoken atheist) to like me more. It’s such a cliche, it’s embarrassing, but there it is. And I had built up all the intellectual props around my atheism to hide the truth from myself. When I actually broke it open, I realized that atheism had actually made my life smaller – every choice I made was wrapped in the fear of my dad not liking me. And I found that empirical explanations for life didn’t satisfy my need to understand my experiences. This is not true for all people, but it was true for me. I totally believe in a world-behind-the-world; I did as a child, and I do now. For me, the Christ story gives the most satisfying explanation of my experiences with the Divine, and the most beautiful vision for what a human life can be. It’s true that I enjoy Christian community (probably more than half the time), but given some of my deep-rooted issues with the church as a whole, I don’t believe that the whole reason I’m in Christianity is for my family or friends. The vast majority of my closest friends and family aren’t Christian anyway, so if I ever decide to leave the church, I’m not going to be suffering from lack of community as much as some might. So when I ask myself, “Why do I identify as a Christian?,” I find myself on pretty solid ground. For now. I don’t see myself leaving soon.
But what if, when someone asks himself why he really sees things the way he does, he discovers that the answer is “Because my parents told me it was the only way and I don’t want to disappoint them.” Or “Because all my friends are doing it and I don’t want to lose my community.” Or “Because this religious world is the only thing I’ve ever known, and I’ve never questioned it.” Or “Because I’m afraid that if I don’t believe, I’ll go to hell,” or “Because I need to prove that I’m smart/worthy, and this stance is the best one to argue,” or “Because I feel great guilt about something I did, and believing this allows me to do a kind of penance and feel better.”
I’ve known people who believed doctrines, Christian and non-Christian, for each of these reasons. I myself have believed doctrines for some of these reasons. But could we call any of those a sincere expression of belief? Notice that they are all a little mercenary in nature – “I believe because I’m getting something out of it.” Or, stated negatively, “I believe this because I’m afraid of what I’ll lose if I don’t believe it.” It’s not quite….honest, is it? There’s a little bit of manipulation there – I believe this so I can have this, or feel safe in this way, or belong to this group, or whatever. That’s quite a bit different than “I believe this because I almost can’t help but believe it – all my experiences, thoughts, and perceptions add up to this.”
It’s the difference between believing and just fronting.
Discovering that I’ve been fronting about some particular belief or doctrine is never my first choice for how to spend an evening, but the question “Why do you believe?” is worthy to be asked.
I’m not accusing anyone of harboring false beliefs. Very often when I ask myself why I believe something, I come up with very good reasons for where I’m at, and see no reason to move on from a particular idea. Just because I ask myself the question doesn’t mean I’m going to find something out of kilter. It is also entirely possible that me and Stedman and maybe like one other person are the ONLY people in the history of thought to have professed a belief for the wrong reasons. So I’m not saying you have false beliefs. I’m just saying that asking the question can yield some healthy and interesting results.
I’m also not asking anyone to throw out their whole religion or philosophy or belief system. I am still holding strong to a belief in the risen Christ, but I have let go of some of the more tangential beliefs that I thought had to go with that. When I really looked at them, I only believed them because I was afraid G-d was going to punish me if I didn’t. They didn’t actually match up with my experience, my conscience, or even, in some instances, my intellect. And let me tell you – if, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really believe, Jesus already knows. So does the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And Cheesus, for that matter. For real. And He hasn’t punished you yet, so relax. Be not afraid. There is enough space here for questioning and doubts. You are where you are for a reason, and that alone deserves respect and dignity. Your journey is sacred. Asking “Why do I believe?” can sometimes open up the next step on the path.