Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why I am an Atheist, Part 2: Closet Fundamentalist

Quick background: I grew up in a small religious community, went to religious school, and basically didn’t have any really close friends outside my religion until I went to college.  My religion was Swedenborgianism, or as we officially called it, the General Church of the New Jerusalem.  Mostly, though, within the community it’s just called The New Church (NC).  It’s a super complex, somewhat mystic sect of Christianity.  What makes it unusual is that it follows 30 some books by Scientist/Theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, collectively called “The Writings”.  The Writings are Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world after having his spiritual eyes opened, and also include a commentary on the internal sense of the Bible.  This gets into complex cosmology/jargon stuff that someone else would probably explain better, but basically the internal sense is the real meaning or message of the Bible, based on Correspondences, which are sort of complex, literal metaphors.  So, like, when God says “don’t murder” He means it literally, but also means don’t hurt other people’s feelings, or think violent thoughts towards other people.  When He says “drink from the water of life”, or something, He means “absorb some heavenly truth” (water = truth, in correspondence world).  You get the picture.  It’s a little confusing because some parts of the bible are to be taken literally, and some aren’t.  How do you know?  There's a complex process that, when you get right down to it, relies mostly on intuition.  Swedenborg does point out a few places where the literal sense is meant (like the Ten Commandments), and then you’re supposed to judge everything else by that criteria. Oh, that didn’t seem like a quick summary to you? Trust me. I have but scraped the surface. 

One of the things that somewhat morbidly amuses me is to look at how the values instilled in me by my religion led me to thoroughly leave the religion.  Now, Bryn Athyn (my home community) is a somewhat polarized place.  It doesn’t really mean to be, but the whole cosmology sort of plays into the division.  The Universe is supposed to revolve around the unity of Good/Love or Truth/Wisdom.  Good and Truth are different from each other, if complementary.  And so, in Bryn Athyn you tend to have the Love people and the Truth people, a divide that is only strengthened by having two separate worship services (in one, people wear jeans, clap along with their happy songs, and put on plays.  In the other people dress up, sing more solemn songs, and listen to longer sermons with harder words and older people.)  Despite being way more open and “do whatever works for you” than I could have been - I almost always fell on the Truth side of things. I held many traditionally conservative views along with a few unconventional ones.  Although I was pretty ok with other people doing whatever, when it came to my own life or debating what was “correct”, I had some definite Ideas that I held onto stubbornly.  They were subject to change, absolutely, as long as the argument was backed by the Writings.  Three of my guiding principals when trying to understand what was right, as I understood from reading the Writings (and the Bible, although frankly I always found it way less interesting) were as follows: 

1. Question Everything. Do not rely on blind faith or “faith alone”.  One of the key tenants of the New Church is that religion has to be questioned.  It is dangerous and meaningless to believe something just because you were told it’s true.  At some point, members have to replace their “historical faith” with real faith, through the method of questioning. By the time I left High School, I was pretty sure I had done that. I was wrong (or, rather, I continued to question things I never even thought to question).

2. Religion has to be useful, and relate to life. The main purpose for religion, the New Church claims, is to lead people to God, so they can be happy.  Heaven is for people whose main loves are God and helping other people.  Hell is for people whose main loves are themselves and hurting other people.  Everyone goes where they are the most happy.  Hell is hellish simply because all the people there suck, and a system of God Laws (complete with some sort of Angel Police Force, if I remember correctly) make sure no one hurts each other (so then they can’t carry out most of their loves, which is additional torment).  But, the idea is that the people in Hell would be even more unhappy if they had to be around all those nice, loving, happy people.  God doesn’t put people into Hell, people choose to go there.  So, main reason for religion: being happy. 

3. Religion has to make sense. One of the interesting things about a religion influenced by the writings of an 18th century scientist is that it has an interesting view on the importance of science and religion.  The marriage between the two is very important to most New Church members (not least because it lets us go “we’re not like those other christians. We believe in evolution.”).  Science is seen as a demonstration of spiritual laws.  Remember the idea of correspondences?  Water is meant to literally exist in this world because of Truth in the spiritual world.  So by looking at water scientifically, how it’s made, how it works on other materials, etc, we can learn things about how Truth works.  Get it? Everything was supposed to support itself in this beautiful science-religion system.  

And then I left Bryn Athyn.  I found out that the “proof” I had relied on to show me that the New Church made sense and helped people be happier was largely made up of downright lies.   I think there’s a reason why Swedenborgianism is so small, and has such a propensity towards forming tight-knit, often xenophobic groups. Questioning works as a faith-strengthener if you don’t think to actually question the core assumptions: that there is a God.  That the Bible and the Writings are His Word. That being in “God’s Order” is the only way to be truly happy.  If you’ve grown up surrounded by people who hold all these same assumptions, you don’t think to examine them.  Especially not if you have a complex body of belief you could question!  Why discuss in any depth the existence of God if you can debate how exactly the three-level, two-kingdom organization of heaven works until the cows come home? I’d often question “is the New Church really the most accurate/useful view of God?” but never would I question “is there a God?”.  

As soon as I got to really know people from other backgrounds, I began to see the lies I had been fed.  Heterosexual marriage is sacred - gay people aren’t as happy.  NOT TRUE. People who have sex before marriage will have a harder time developing healthy relationships.  NOT TRUE.  Religion is there to make people happy and fullfilled - Atheists can’t be happy and fulfilled.  NOT TRUE.  All religions are basically the same, they’re just different paths to God.  NOT TRUE.  So much of it just isn’t true.  It boggles the mind. 

Knowing people who are happily gay, or happily promiscuous, was the thread that started to unravel the sweater.  Taking some anthropology and realizing that different religions actually are different, pulled it further.  Having sex, and then feeling huge guilt over it, sent me into a doctrine-searching frenzy.  I was on a quest.  How could I feel so thoroughly happy, when I was supposedly out of order?  How do we really know what is the right thing to do? When I’m questioning things, how do I really know what is the right answer?  Given that I put such a heavy emphasis on questioning and reason, I figured there had to be a question-proof, reasonable answer.  The answer I found? Read the Doctrines and do what God says.  The reasoning? God is good and true, so everything from Him must be good and true, and the Doctrines are from Him, so they must be good and true.

Good old Swedenborg.  See that?  Logic words!  And yet, a completely illogical argument.

I was not pleased.  You have to believe that the Doctrines are true because God said, in the doctrines, that the Doctrines are true?  Isn’t that just blind faith? Doing things “because God says so” didn’t fit with my happy “I believe in the New Church because it makes SENSE! And there’s SCIENCE!” mantra.  When thinking of my deconversion journey, this is really the defining moment.  I didn’t come to think of myself as an atheist until a few years later, and there were certainly aftershocks of grieving, or thinking maybe I could continue to believe, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the turning point that couldn’t be undone.  

Now, there are many devout New Church members, especially these days, who would argue that gay people are fine and happy.  That it’s really not a big deal if people have sex before marriage (it’s the ‘internals that count’, after all).  That atheists are pretty ok (they just see God differently!). For the most part, I think that’s pretty awesome, even though I don’t understand it in the slightest (and have some obvious problems with the “Atheists do have a version of God they just don’t know it” gloss).  I do, to a great extent, admire people that can work their interpretations of the doctrines to include everything they hold dear. If the New Church is going to continue, I’d like it to at least be friendlier for everyone involved.  However, I find the whole process that leads to such interpretations thoroughly incomprehensible and personally unsatisfying, which is why I sometimes worry that I am a closet fundamentalist (I have, however, heard other people refer to this tendency as a funny little thing called “intellectual honesty”).  God’s order is meant to make the entire universe work - God is meant to be omnipotent and omniscient - this means He should have been able to have His LAST and BEST revelator be able to explain God’s order in a way that is relevant for at least two thousand years, like He (supposedly) did the last time.  It’s been, what, not even 300 years and already we’re saying “well, he didn’t really mean that”?

These nice interpretations don’t follow the coherent system that was supposed to be so crucial.  Heterosexual marriage is meant to be holy based on the composition of God himself (and the way gendered souls are made-up), so gay people shouldn’t be as happy as other people.  God’s order is meant to make people more happy, so people who have casual sex shouldn’t be as happy as people who are looking toward marriage.  But those people are happy. They have different gods than I do, different beliefs, different loves.  I am now part of "those people", and I am happy.  We are happy (contrary to #2), and to say we aren’t is to ignore the evidence (contrary to #3).  Also, to say differently, to say "I know about their happiness better than they do," is also just incredibly arrogant. 

Looking back, I realize that my reactions to religious debates are still largely the same as they were when I was religious; I stubbornly stand by my convictions, and expect others to do the same.  The difference is that today I have more information, more perspective, and more empathy.   If I’m going to believe something is true, fundamentally true, I’m going to base everything else off of it.  I want to see it carried to it’s logical conclusion in every way.  If the extreme is actively harmful or wrong, then to me the whole thing is flawed - I can’t accept it.  If something is true, then it should continue to be true no matter the situation.  Especially if that truth is meant to have been specifically revealed by the omniscient force of the universe!  Now, I’m not denying that balance and moderation is important - it certainly is.  The extreme of anything can be pretty awful.  But still, I think in terms of systems. Even if I personally don’t hurt people, if I hold a belief that many other people use to hurt, I see myself as reinforcing and condoning that hurt simply by holding the same belief.

For example, I refuse to believe in even the most vague understanding of Good and Truth (in the Swedenborgian cosmological sense) because in my mind that belief - that system - justifies homophobia and a whole host of other concepts that I have witnessed actively hurting my loved ones.  Because that’s the logical conclusion.  Gender is seen as the result of the very make-up of your soul (women=good, men=truth, to simplify it a great deal), and the uniting of complementary opposites in marriage is meant to mirror God himself.  Marriage is seen as a microcosm of the force -the Good/Truth union- that makes the entire universe exist and continue. Homophobia was built into the very fiber of the universe I imagined we lived in.  But then I met some very gay people being very happy and right, in a transcendent, fulfilled, absolute way.  I began to realize that people are not just gay/straight, or man/woman.  So, I can’t believe in that imaginary world anymore, not even a little bit.  That world is why I was a homophobe - a well-meaning, friendly homophobe, but a homophobe nonetheless.  It’s one more reason why other people continue to be homophobes. And, no matter how well-meaning, all homophobic ideas contribute to a hateful, toxic homophobic culture.  It kills me to know that I contributed.  I contributed to some of my dearest friends being hurt so, so deeply.  I am no longer willing to hold a belief that can be used to reinforce, in even the slightest way,  something so repulsive.

There are many such seemingly harmless systems I rejected, the connection between the Good/Truth cosmology and homophobia is simply the easiest for me to explain.  After rejecting concept after concept, when do you have to stop calling yourself part of that religious system? When do you have to realize you have no religion? And when you’re left with no religion - what is there to the concept of God? Where’s the proof? What’s the use? 

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