Monday, 17 October 2011

Fear of losing faith

When I was a true believer, I thought my faith was reasoned and informed.  I rejected the idea that my faith was blind.  I studied apologetics, devouring books with a voracious appetite.  I had a self-perception that I was very self-aware.  I believed I was honest with myself.  I was very good at seeing my many sins and feeling guilty for them and for my inability to live up to the moral standards of my faith - I was a teenage boy with a libido after all.  But did I subject my faith to that same level of scrutiny?  I thought I did.  But in hindsight it's plain that I was, perhaps unconsciously, deluding myself.  The challenges I threw at my own faith to test it were not serious ones.  I trusted the pat answers given by the church and the apologist literature.  If I didn't fully understand it or it didn't sit well intellectually, my faith glossed over that.  The so-called "problem of evil" comes to mind.  Evil exists because of free will and sin, of course.  In the back of my mind, I knew this wasn't a good enough answer, but I felt the issue settled.  So, when I heard that argument, I just brushed it aside as if it had already been resolved.  I didn't truly explore the question.

I wanted to become a priest, and since the first step in that is getting a degree in philosophy, I wanted to attend the Fransiscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. It was a Catholic campus and I knew I would fit in there well.  Unfortunately, the cost was prohibitive, so I looked to universities in Canada.  But I was, quite literally, afraid I would lose my faith.  An acquaintance of mine who was also at least nominally Catholic, had told me that in his first year university intro to philosophy class, he heard an argument that disproved god.  The idea shook me.  I asked my priest about it and he said that part of a priest's training tested and broke your faith, before it was then rebuilt in seminary.  I feared this.  I feared it greatly.  So much so that I wrote to the heads of philosophy departments to ask naively about how orthodox their philosophy was.  Many of the replies I got were understandably confused - what does learning philosophy have to do with Catholic dogma, they wondered.  Interestingly, by chance (or "godincidence" as I used to say), I ended up at a school where the philosophy professor was a Muslim, and he reaffirmed my faith in God because he was, of course, a theist.  He didn't challenge my faith, so my time as a devout Christian was extended, and my faith only deepened. 

But why, if my faith was so strong, so reasonable, and so true, did I fear it being challenged?  Why did I seek always after affirmations of the correctness of my belief instead of just living my faith without a need to defend it?  Well, one is just that I am naturally that kind of a thinker, searching for knowledge and answers.  Plus I bought into the idea of a kind of culture war between the evil secular world and the faithful, considering myself a "prayer warrior."  But the deeper reason, I suspect, is that I feared I may have built the foundations of my life on sand and not solid rock.  Faith was everything to me.  I was once asked if I could use a single word to describe myself, what would it be.  My answer, without the slightest of hesitation, was "Catholic".  When that is the cornerstone of your life, it is very uncomfortable and scary  to have doubts and questions.  So whether I realized it or not, I avoided anything that would pose a serious challenge to my.  But in the end, it was no external challenge that crumbled the foundations of my belief, but the slow erosion caused by my own thoughts.  

So, to people of faith everywhere, I issue this challenge: test your faith.  Hold it to the harsh light of reason.  Ask the tough questions, the ones that scare you and make you feel uncomfortable.  Take a step back, let your defenses down and expose the soft vulnerable belly of your beliefs.  By this, I mean temporarily remove yourself from those things that re-affirm your faith; skip church for a few weeks, avoid watching or reading anything that supports your faith.  Don't converse with those who will re-assure you.  Pray before you start this challenge, but not during it. Open your mind to the possibility that your beliefs may be wrong.  You can't truly honestly undertake a real challenge of your faith if you do so having already made up your mind about the outcome.  Evaluate your faith critically without holding back as if you were looking at someone else's beliefs and not your own.  Read books, watch videos and have conversations that challenge your beliefs. 
If your faith is as rock solid as you believe it to be, you have nothing to fear.  If your faith can stand up to this scrutiny, it will come out stronger than ever, right?
If you can't do this, why not?  Why are you afraid? 
If you lose your faith, you might lose friends, community, your purpose in life etc.  I know that.  It's a scary prospect.  It's not an easy thing I'm asking.  I am inviting you to experience a dark night of the soul, to wander in the desert and be tempted, to wrestle with angels.  But if your faith can't stand against such a test, then can you really base your life on it?  Can you truly, honestly look at yourself and belief in the rightness of your faith without having really tested it?

My journey was long.  But in the end, though my faith did crumble, my life did not.  I am free now.  I follow reason and evidence and I know I can be wrong, I know I can change my mind if new evidence presents itself.  I no longer have to be on guard against attacks that may cause me to question myself.  Instead I welcome them and I follow the truth where it takes me.  The truth has indeed set me free as Jesus promised, but not at all in the way I had envisioned.  I fear no hell.  I am not burdened by guilt for my human failings, for my natural desires, for questioning or doubting.  I no longer have to model my thoughts and behaviors against an unattainable standard.  I emerged from my long dark night of the soul to find a world brighter and more magnificent than I could have dreamed.  I invite you to undertake your own journey.    


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Awe at the beauty of the world

One summer when I was 17 years old, I taught swimming lessons at different lakes in he region where I lived.  One stint was a couple weeks in the Duck Mountains on the western edge of the Canadian province of Manitoba.  These so called mountains - it's the prairies, so to call them mountains is quite a stretch - are a beautiful collection of tiny lakes surrounded by knobby spruce trees dripping gauzy moss from their drooping limbs.  I was staying with a very nice family.  One of heir daughters was my age, a devout born again Christian, and I had a crush on her.  I was deep in my most religious phase at that time.  Everywhere I went I brought with me a collection of religious books I was studying.  The two of us would often stay up talking about our faith, about various doctrines, and the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.

One night the two of us took a drive.  We stopped at one of the small unnamed lakes by the side of the gravel road that wound it's way through the provincial park and sat on the small dock.  There was no wind to disturb the stillness of the moment.  The moon shone bright on the glass-like surface of the water, a lazy mist clinging in patches to its contours and wafting about lazily.  The sky was clear, filled with clouds of stars.  The trees stood, pointing to heaven, their ragged silhouettes eerie in shadowed light.  It was a moment of serene awe-inspiring beauty.  As we looked on it, we asked How can anyone look on such beauty and doubt the existence of God?   The sheer beauty of our planet encapsulated in that perfect moment seemed, to us, to be evidence of a divine creator.  It filled us with awe.

This was not the first such experience, or the last.  Many times have I marveled at natural beauty and felt it to be a justification of my faith.  Even throughout my years of wandering in the desert after I had lost conviction, but still searched for truth and hoped for god, that awe never left me.  Only its meaning changed.

Now when I look on nature as an atheist, with something of an understanding of evolution, natural selection and the natural history of our planet and it's place in the greater universe, do I feel any less awe?  No, I feel more awe.  Much more.  Previously, I thought the world the product of the imagination of an omnipotent being; a divine work of art, created with no effort.  He simply willed it, and it was.  The mechanism he used to create it, whether he guided evolution, or if it was the magical creation of Genesis, wasn't so important to me at the time. Now what do I see?

Now I see the current world as a snapshot in time of an astronomically long and improbable natural history.  Just think, there are billions of galaxies, our own Milky way just one among them.  Our sun is just one star among billions in our galaxy alone.  Our planet, Earth, one among who knows how many countless planets.  And on this rock, life took hold.  The simple unalterable laws of nature, plus time, allowed that life to proliferate into millions of species.  And those species have interacted with each other and with their environments to form an incredibly complex set of biological systems that are always adapting, changing, evolving.  98% of all species that ever lived are now extinct, yet we still have an estimated 8 million species on the planet at the moment.  We alone, among all of those creatures, and even among our close relatives the primates and our cousin hominids, have developed intelligence that goes beyond simple tool use.  We alone have developed civilization.  And we are still a very young species, our history as a species to date a mere speck on the timeline of life on earth.  And our very existence is highly improbable.  If the ancestors of vertebrates had not survived mass extinction events, we wouldn't be here.  If the ancestors of mammals had not survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, we would not be here.  If the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had missed the earth and not brought about their demise, we would not be here.  If our hominid ancestors had not survived against impossible odds, adapting to climate changes and extinction level events that at times reduced our numbers to the point we were an endangered species, we would not be here.  But here we are, the only species capable of contemplating our place in the universe.  And each one of us the unique outcome of a one in a billion pairing of a specific ovum and a specific sperm from two specific people, themselves the outcome of a similar pairing, dependent on two people among billions meeting and procreating, which was dependent on their ancestors surviving the wars and plagues and other dangers that have culled our numbers throughout our history.  Knowing all this, and knowing that it occurs by natural observable processes, and not just the magical wish of an omnipotent being, fills me with more wonder and awe than my previous faith ever could.  The very improbability of our existence and the opportunity we have as the sole species on this planet that we know of to ever have had this level of awareness is mind boggling, stunning and humbling. 

So now, when I sit amidst nature and marvel at its beauty, I no longer think there must be a god to have dreamed all this up.  Instead, my mind reals at the vastness of it all, and I am awed and grateful that I, a tiny insignificant creature, have a place here and an opportunity to live a life.

Here are a couple of videos that inspired me.  I hope they will also inspire you.