On not wanting that kind of religion


Today's New York Times book review section features a review by Lauren Winner in which she writes about Eric Lax's book Faith Interrupted. Winner notes that Lax, who writes of his lost faith, seems unable to handle the idea of a faith imbued with ambiguity and doubt:

Yet Lax does not seem interested in cultivating a spiritual life shot through with doubt. He doesn’t want an ambivalent (or, one might say, mature) faith; rather, he writes, recalling the aftermath of his parents’ deaths, “what I wanted to have was what I’d always had, but the faith I had accepted without question and could articulate with catechismal rote could not be recaptured.” Of course, many of us come to a place where such faith is neither possible nor even desirable; I suspect my own small Episcopal church would be largely empty on Sundays if anyone who ever questioned the Creed, anyone whose faith life included seasons of aridity, stayed home.
Based on those comments, Lax comes across as someone who Marcus Borg would describe as having made the transition from "pre-critical naivete" to "critical thinking" without ever found a way towards what Borg calls "postcritical naivete". I think it might be worth asking why it is that a lot of people make the first transition but not the second (and there are many people with religious upbringings for whom this is the case--Bart Ehrman comes to mind as famous example). Lax, as described in the above quote, wistfully longs for the dogmatic certainty of his upbringing, and so perhaps the answer in his case is that he would find a religion of ambiguity and uncertainty to be unfulfilling because it would not address this desire to return to a childlike sense of certainty. On the other hand, I often tend to think that people often stop at the "critical thinking" phase not so much because of what they want but because of their own limitations in defining religion--their conception of what religion necessarily is encapsulated in that childlike conception and in some sense it just doesn't occur to them that a religion can be anything else. Certainly a lot of the New Atheists subscribe to this simplistic notion of religion.

Perhaps there is a little of both going on. When many atheists are confronted with progressive or non-theistic forms of religion that don't conform to their stereotypes about religion, two common responses are either to deride such religious ideas for being vague or ill-defined (thus indicating a strong attachment to a dogmatic certainty that resembles the childlike religion that Lax was attached to), or to simply pose the question, "What's the point of such a religion?" While the former objection is rooted in an attachment to the notion of dogmatic certainty as a religious virtue, I think the latter question in particular expresses the problem that a religion of ambiguity or uncertainty doesn't seem to be particularly attractive to some people.

I wonder how much of this is all interrelated. Maybe sometimes, if you are attached to the idea of a religion offering childlike certainty--whether you reject that religion or not--then maybe the reason that a religion of ambiguity and uncertainty can in some sense be so under the radar that is that there are many who, like Eric Lax, find any themselves wistfully attached at some level to a religious certainty that their thinking minds know is not a valid option. Any other kind of religion is thus out of the question. The result is that they are left with no sense of faith at all.


Vinny said...

I am not sure that Ehrman is a particularly good example since he went from a faith of fundamentalist certainty to a liberal faith of ambiguity before moving on to agnosticism.

I guess my question would be, if critical thinking brings someone to a life without religion which he finds fulfilling, why should be interested in any religion?

Mystical Seeker said...

I agree that if one finds a life without religion fulfilling there is no reason why they should be interested in religion. However, many atheists seem to make a leap from that and then assert that simply because they personally don't see the point in a religion that is non-theistic, ambiguous, or uncertain, that therefore no one else should either. Whenever I see dogmatic atheists pose the question, "What's the point of liberal religion?" the answer I give is, "If that religion doesn't work for you, then you should definitely continue to be an atheist. Just don't tell others what what works for you should be what works for them." That usually seems to annoy them. Wanting what's best for everyone seems to be a universally shared characteristic of both fundamentalist Christians and militant atheists.

Ehrman may have dabbled in some sense in the exploration of liberal faith but I doubt that he ever embraced it, or really even understood it. From his later writings on God he really comes across as clueless about liberal faith, acting almost unaware of theologies that don't fit into the conceptions of God he learned from his fundamentalist background.

CT said...

Dogma eventually breaks down for everyone - if they are prepared to be honest with themselves. Trying to find the pearls of wisdom within a religion after abandoning the dogma is not an easy task. I'd say to Lax 'Love your neighbour' is a good start. Dont jettison that.

Mystical Seeker said...

CT, I think you put your finger on the big "if"--the key is for people to be honest with themselves. I think that is sometimes a hard thing for people, especially since the easy answers that dogma offers can be very comforting to some.

I also agree that "Love your neighbor" is a great place to start.

Andrew said...

"Wanting what's best for everyone seems to be a universally shared characteristic of both fundamentalist Christians and militant atheists."

That there is the quote of the month! :)

PrickliestPear said...

You make some good points.

Tillich would describe this kind of faith as idolatrous -- the mere expression of the ultimate concern is taken as ultimate -- and you can see the danger.

I think once people move into the critical, demythologising stage, there usually has to be some kind of genuine religious experience if they are going to progress to a post-critical stage. Thinking people who have never had such experiences are going to have difficulty seeing how religion or spirituality could provide us with any kind of insight that would otherwise be lacking.

Sherry said...

Interesting post. I just read a piece on political science research that suggests that people who have strong views will not change their opinions even when confronted with proof that they are wrong. I think underlying that and this idea is the same--deeper seeded psychological needs. Some folks need to believe that certain things are so, and if they become convinced that their beliefs are not longer sustainable, they opt out. Religion serves a purpose and when it no longer can, they are done with it. Mature thinkers simple realize that God is more complex and not subject to simple dogmatic ideas. The fundamentalist simply stops his ears and refuses to examine, the atheist, needing religion to satisfy some psychological need, simply walks away when she realizes it no longer can.

Jon said...

I've been thinking a lot about this lately although not to any great purpose yet, wondering if part of this is to do with personality. Some people are very "black and white" - something either is or isn't true, is or isn't right, and there is no in between. This seems independent of religious belief - we have fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalists of various religions. We also have people who are both religious and non-religious who tolerate and enjoy ambiguity. Since I'm one of the latter I say "this diversity is part of what makes humans so interesting", but a black and white thinker would certainly not say the same.

Andrew said...

Jon - I think that is completely true. I see fellow teachers get incredibly "fundamental" about certain teaching styles... mention any other possibilities and they practically mess themselves.