Friday, January 26, 2007

Search Grid, West of Enoch

Personal Religious History (2 of 2)
Continuation from here.

I was a strict Protestant again, but my base faith would not last either. Once anyone leaves a religion, it’s worlds less complicated and traumatic to undo another, be you Muslim to LDS or Catholic to Scientologist. You’ve already stopped believing in something that pleased you, helped you, gave order to your world, and that you thought you needed for the very sake of life and goodness. You have already floated panicked through the void, and replanted your feet, and you know you can pick yourself back up, if you think you made a mistake, and are offending God or truth or morality. In fact, I wonder, if I never became LDS and kept with a more traditional protestant faith, if I’d not still be a Bible-Literal Christian, arguing on and on in apologetics about how a certain Hebrew word, at a certain angle, proves my point ;-).

It’s not a simple thing to know you’ll be okay; in fact, some people, for this fear alone, stay in and make reasonable, to their mind, religions 99% of us would consider completely ridiculous. But, with this new knowledge, I was safe enough and I found the cognitive dissonance that ate at me in the LDS faith was nothing new to the world of religion. At reading more and more, I saw the problems were still there, and I eventually gave up defending literal interpretations. It was scary to be set adrift again, but not near as scary as the first time.

Still, I’d cycle. I’d go through weeks of resignation to there being problems with such Christianity, trying to figure out where to go from there, followed by weeks of thinking the weeks before I’d again been blinded by the devil. Not only was I impressed with the promises, comfort, threats, and real goodness I’d found in the faith of my youth, there was this near-failsafe defender against notice of and action on errors or evils in the same faith, embedded deep within it’s structure. Simply, thinking I was wrong about my faith, in my mind, had been strongly associated with being under the pull of evil. If it didn’t give me so much grief, I’d respect such a defense mechanism as clever, but it’s not near unique; I’d later come to realize such exists in many modes of thinking, even some forms of atheism.

In the end, I cycled slowly away from that more conservative, literal Christianity. I was still a Christian, in the sense that I believed Jesus Christ died for my sins and was my savior, but not one that took the Bible to be 100% fact. I now had to give doctrine much more room.

It’s a bit fuzzy, but, looking at my journal, around here is where I began noticing I was different from my friends. Not that I can’t look back as far as 12 and see (or imagine) some hints, but nothing really sexual, and nothing to make me think I was gay. Here, though, intimate feelings began coming up and they were only towards men. But I still took the part of the Bible declaring homosexuality an abominable sin seriously. Why could I ditch literality--a talking donkey, a 7,000-year-old earth, actual wizards in pharos’ court, near all the OT sins, and so on and on--[inhale] and still want to think the prohibitions on homosexuality true? I desperately didn’t want it to be okay to be a homosexual, for the fact that I thought it meant ruin for my life, for the reasons we all know too well, particularly at this point, about 15 years ago, in the suburbs of Salt Lake City.

From here I came out to my parents. I needed help and felt I needed to confess. Once they, to my surprise, accepted me either way, I was left again to work it out for myself. I’ve a track record of underestimating them that I certainly regret. Fortunately, morality, at this point in my religious journey, wasn’t just something given to me in a package deal, or someone else’s responsibility, or taken on faith alone anymore; it became a real world entity, one that required study. Why did I think what I did about homosexuality?

It would be three years between coming out and ever having any “homosexual experience”, but here, one could still certainly point a finger and say I was biased, and working towards the “easy” conclusion. I could and have pointed right back ;-). I’d not know how to convince otherwise, though. I didn't want sex of any kind, I wanted to be right (still do :-)) and if I thought a substantial chance of a supernatural solution or answer existed I’d have eagerly kept searching for it instead of coming to peace with it.

I went into long thought on the nature of what makes an action, any action right or wrong, and came out the other end with the Golden Rule (as a much simplified, eloquent version). Being attracted to and having a romantic relationship with a man was finally realized as no more immoral or moral than heterosexuality, or, say, bowling :-). It’s not right for many, but, for me, for the way I was built, it was right for me; it’s my path to family. In fact, in fighting to keep a “normal” life, I could clearly see how I’d been hurting those around me, from friends to family. In the end, I found I could and should pay that feared social price, and integrate that part of my nature.

I suppose I could have remained a believer, at this point, and become, say, an Episcopal, as a number of friends are. I was still Christian by some definitions for a time after coming out. But from the end of my faith in the LDS church to this point was really one long trajectory. My interest in science had been growing at the same time, which I'd say was the largest, if not subtle, contributing factor to the journey. I deeply appreciated the moral and metaphysical order I had in religion, but questions repeatedly got in the way, and, ironically, what I appreciated then got in the way. Furthermore, the intricacy and wonder of our universe is addicting stuff, and science gave the tools to bring that beauty into focus. But those tools do also obligate you to question and attempt to justify your beliefs in a rather strict and dispassionate fashion, and always test. Certainty becomes a dangerous drug, and belief is always provisional and controlled by new observations.

During this endgame, I'd read some particular parts of the Bible, get inspired, and consider myself a Christian for a week or two. I'd even say that I still do, get inspired by the Bible, that is. Nevertheless, at some point I asked myself why I believed, in the same way I'd ask why I believed any other fact. I had no answer but my hope, some anecdotes I’d, in retrospect, manipulated into seeming like evidence, and, substantially, habit and hope. My beliefs simply could not be justified, they didn't jive with the world around me, and I couldn't ignore or “interpret” out of the scriptural, philosophical, and scientific problems I saw anymore and feel right about it.

Even still, once I couldn't justify that faith anymore, I was not ready to give up religious faith altogether. Maybe, I'd just been born in the wrong hemisphere ;-)? So I looked at a number of other religions, from those effectively dead to the newborns. I read many religious books and still do; one should really never stop browsing. I’ve meditated on the Buddha, considered the judgment of Allah, and even went embarrassingly new-age-y. I'd say that during each reading of a particular religious text I often did feel a partiality to that religion, a spark of truth, but once I reached the end and let it simmer for a while I remained without a good reason to believe, above wanting to believe in and be a part of some religion.

In fact, I'd say exposing myself to other religions did more to develop a triplet sense of respect, fear, and skepticism for all religions than belief in them. There is great beauty, similarity, and familiar humanity in all the world religions, great potential for good too, much of it realized. There are also glinting strands of truth running through them all. But failings apparent in all, as well, and that’s where the fear comes in.

It’s the curse in the very nature of every faith, theist or no. When you believe something without robust evidence, it will conflict with other views of the reality we (presumably ;-)) share. When you believe in something for which there’s no repeatable, near-objective experiment, then there is no arbiter found in the workings of the universe; two people ask God and God tells them the other is wrong, simple. Often then in creeps the insistence that one has that Truth, or the best Truth and the other is seen as damned to some punishment for their error, in one way or another. Organizations grow up around each Truth and they do defend themselves from the others in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Most do inarguably cause people to do great things, but few keep from sacrificing some of their neighbors along the way, to protect a worldview taken as supernaturally known.

Anyway, after about a year of being one of those spiritual-but-not-religious folks, I had my personal life settled and had come to terms with my orientation, but needed to do some theological house cleaning of sorts. My first step was to ditch the clutter and become an atheist, but that, in the end, is not honestly ditching everything on which one feels certain but has no evidence. There very well could be a God, or Gods even, and I’ll not rule that out. I’ll keep my inquiry.

I realized there was a price I was not willing to pay to simply feel I had a strong grip on the nature of reality, be it in atheism or theism. I really didn’t and don’t know. Though I, as any human, instinctually want some certainty here, desperately, I don’t need it, and to hold it means to sacrifice a part of my ethics. With the tools I had, I could work to chip away at my vast human ignorance, admit it's there, and not pretend I knew something with certainty. That, to me, seems more respectful of my creator, of that thing that is larger than us all, be it the workings of the mind of a God or the working of the “mind” of physics, or something I’ll never near be able to put to text. Regardless of not knowing (or more accurately feeling like I knew), I could still create a wonderful, purposeful, and moral life.

And that’s where I’m working from, and what I hope I’m working at today, as a Christian-y Agnostic.

BUT, if faith is allowed, and we can believe things about our shared reality on still small voices, or intuition, then fine. Fine too, if we can go on winks from the universe, benevolent coincidences that seem to tell us where we should go and what we should do. In fact, the main case for God, with R, is the odd set of coincidences needed to bring our family together, and when I look at them all it can seem near impossible and preordained; that, to him, tells him God is out there. But if we can use such to inform us (or inform us as to which humans, institutions, or books have the authority to inform us :-)) I then would have to say I too know what God would want, not that I near meet such measure, but at least that the speck most see in our eyes would be a blessing in His.

Opinions, again, may differ… They could…. possibly.

[I do want to add that I do know many people in many faiths do not respond in a hostile way to those outside their faith, even when their faith tells them to; I see Chris has kind of posted on that and it is a great point. One of the reasons I wanted to highlight my strict literal Biblical faith in the last post what to show where I come from on this topics. There’s a part of me that anticipates and understands (and [sigh] respects) the unflinching, unquestioning, conservative wings of various religions, as that’s where I come from; I reflexively like the absolutes, the rules, and the certainty. But I do more so admire the ethics behind the more liberal wings.]


Paul said...

So how are you exposing the boys to religion? (Did I just miss someting?) Do you, as a family, regularly participate in an organized religion now?

Scot said...

Paul, I started to respond to this, and it’s getting so large that, if you don’t mind, I’ll just use it as an opportunity for another post in a day or so. I do ramble…

Paul said...


I've been quite impressed with your story.