Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ingersoll


I used to be pious. There was a time, once, when friends earnestly assumed I’d be frocked, and pastoral in calling.

Raised Episcopal Protestant, I was confirmed by the Bishop of California when I was 12 or 13. So ended eighth grade, and I went to high school with the same convictions. My mom, while I was off at boarding school, would periodically inquire if I was going to church. I wasn’t.

Loss of faith is an interesting experience. I was raised to have faith in God, my mom and dad were both Sunday school teachers, and it just wasn’t questioned. I went to a private school where we had chapel services three times a week. Not all of my classmates were Christian, but all were religious.

(Incidentally, we weren’t wealthy. My mom worked her butt off for thirteen years taking on two jobs to put my sister and me through private schools. Mother’s Day is just around the corner, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to repay the hard work she put in making sure we grew up right. I’ll still get her a card, though.)

By my senior year of high school, God was no longer the omnipresent deity who’d sheltered me throughout my life. But I think he was still there, in a remote ‘clock-maker’ kind of way. Perhaps I was agnostic, in the sense that there was a power I didn’t know, and wasn’t sure of.

Within four more years it was gone. I read widely in atheistic literature, took classes on things like the Philosophy of Religion. Debunked Pascal’s wager, and refuted logically and rationally all arguments trotted out to defend the host.

But these voices, the atheistic beacons in western history, are not that new. They go back hundreds of years. Yet religion persists. Recently I was reading up on, and the works of, Robert Ingersoll, famous in America from 1875-99 as The Great Agnostic. He is now generally forgotten. David Hume and Arthur Schopenhauer don’t often find readership in America these days, and Freud’s ‘The Future of an Illusion’ is not what first comes to mind at his name’s mention.

Why this is I don’t yet know. Ingersoll was a freethinker, a proto-Progressive, whose other luminaries have outshone him. Schopenhauer and Hume are seen as too philosophical for the mainstream. Freud’s name is tainted by his inaccuracies, despite those observations which shed truth. Other famous works are narrower in scope. Bertrand Russell wrote a succinct and brilliant essay, ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ that applies specific arguments against that creed. But America has the highest proportion of fundamentalists in the developed world. Steadily for the past two generations the number is about a third who thinks the Bible is the literal word of God. Coincide with the religious right? Yeah, but this is a politics-free post.

Was my loss of faith a good thing? As a rational, logical person who accepts scientific fact and has the certainty and comfort of truth that is verifiable, am I better off? The loss of faith is at times uncomfortable, because humans seek the ineffable. We seek magic, the supernatural, the divine, the inspirational that which is beyond ourselves. Spinning around a sun that is flying as a comet through space towards a galactic black hole is not comforting. Absurdity, which the existentialists arrived at, is disquieting. To feel the need for purpose but not have one – such is the feeling of loss of faith.

But can I say I’ve truly lost it? I agree with Paul Tillich’s definition of faith. Tillich was an existentialist, but also a Protestant theologian. He argues that most people have faith in a supreme being, but that you can have faith in anything that holds up to questioning and scrutiny. It is what you fall back on when everything else has failed you. Something beyond yourself that resides unchallengeable. You could, theoretically then, have faith in atheism itself, if that’s what you fall back on.

Mine is not faith in atheism. For a long time it was faith in humanism. I wanted to keep steady my ideals that humans could fix their own problems, that there was some self-salvageable quality to our being. But there are some very solid arguments against such a stance. It’s a new crisis of faith, going on for three years now. It’s led to some serious existential crises over those years. Yet I’m loath to revoke my faith in humanity. Giving up on humanity is harder than giving up the invisible man in the sky.

1 comment:

Karen said...

My pleasure ...