F@&! You, God Bless
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In reply to my recent post about the Supreme Court overturning Roe, in which I mentioned that my reason for opposing abortion is not inherently religious because I am no longer inherently religious, I received the following email:
From: Mark [Last Name Redacted]
To: Steve from The Skojec File
Date: June 25, 2022, 6:01 PM
Subject: Re: Briefly, on Roe
Fuck you Steve
Get the psyche therapy you need and stop droning on how you broke away from your faith.
I reflected for a moment on the fact that when I would get obnoxious emails while running my traditionalist Catholic publication, I could never really let fly in my responses. If I did, whatever I said would likely appear as a screenshot on some Catholic gossip site, and I’d be raked across the coals by the Purity Spiral Squad for my language, my “uncharity,” or my tone. Gratified that I’m no longer bound by such constraints, I replied:
“Fuck you right back, Mark. And twice on Sundays.” (I opted to leave off the “God bless.”)
The obvious ironic humor in this exchange aside, it underscores a real problem: Christians who act like total jerks to people who don’t share their beliefs only deepen the conviction of their targets that religion isn’t transformative in a positive sense and is thus not deserving of being taken seriously. Worse, it actually makes religion less appealing.
Before I go further, let me take a moment and clarify a couple of things about why I say I am “no longer religious.” I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but as a guy who is most well-known as a very committed religious writer, I think this merits a certain amount of repetition and explanation. A lot of people are still unsure about where I stand. And frankly, it feels pretty weird to me as well, so it helps my own clarity of thought and self-awareness to just lay it out.
To say that one is an atheist is, in my opinion, to make a profession of faith. An atheist says, “I believe firmly and with conviction that God does not exist, and will live my life accordingly.” In my opinion, this requires a leap of faith as big as saying that God does exist, and that you know lots of detailed things about him. Both positions claim a certitude about the state of existence or nature of an imperceptible supernatural being. And in both cases, I believe that certitude to be outside of our grasp. We can’t know what we can’t know, but some do claim to know it (one way or the other) anyway. And I can’t subscribe to either camp.
This is why although I say I am no longer religious, I want to be clear that I’m also not an atheist. As I’ve written before, I now classify myself as an agnostic — a word derived from the Greek “agnōstos,” which means “unknowable.” I believe that the alleged higher truths I once professed as a matter of faith, while very important to accurately discern, remain frustratingly unknowable as certainly true by any individual, barring some form of direct revelation from God. The entirety of public revelation is not handed to each of us individually by God, but, on the contrary, passed along to us collectively by men. Nothing I know about God comes directly from God, but instead through things handed on by human beings across the span of time. The scriptures, the tradition, the teachings and doctrines, the writings of saints, and so on. It all feels very much like a big game of telephone — you know that one where you whisper a phrase in someone’s ear at a party and they do the same to the person next to them, and by the time it gets to the other end of the room, it’s a totally different message? I know that may be a cliché analogy, but it seems an apt one. Imagine playing the telephone game across a span of thousands of years and multiple languages and cultures. The only way you could trust the authenticity of the message would be to trust that the message-giver was protecting it by means of some supernatural power.
And this is where the Church’s claims about infallibility, indefectibility, the inerrancy of scripture (the authentic books and translations of which were also determined by the leaders of the Church, by the way) all come in. If God is really protecting the message chain, if he’s providing his word with divine, secure, end-to-end encryption, as it were, then that would certainly boost trust about message fidelity.
This is why the Church’s relentless squandering of credibility, which has raged on across history like a cancerous billionaire determined to die broke, blowing his fortune at every gambling table, buffet, and skin show he can get to in Vegas, is such a huge problem.
My frame of reference on the Christian message is that of the same Catholic Church I grew up with, studied, taught, wrote about, and tried to live by the teachings of until I just couldn’t take it seriously anymore. This includes the Church’s claims of being the “One True Faith,” founded and guided by God, outside of which there is no salvation. These are claims I had accepted since I was a young boy — the better part of four decades. I only arrived at my current position after many years of studying Catholic teaching and the way the Church and her leadership have conducted themselves throughout history — please reference my Vegas analogy above, then add murder, torture, nepotism, simony, rape, sexual abuse, cadaver synods, and all the rest. This study, taken from a standpoint of acceptance, credulity, devotion, deference, and love, nevertheless forced me to confront very difficult contradictions and irrationalities with no apparent answers; it also led me to the conclusion that the religious gatekeepers who have handed on the Church’s claimed “truths” — gatekeepers who are eager to contradict each other (or worse) on fundamentals when the opportunity presents itself — are neither trustworthy nor credible. Lacking any objective means of verifying what they posit about the nature of God or his alleged will as passed along to us through dogma and doctrine, I consider it impossible to overcome these apparent contradictions and falsehoods. Now, you may take issue with my conclusions, and that’s fine. Where I stand on all of this is very much a work in progress, and I don’t claim to have a definitive, ironclad case at this juncture. After all, I’ve only been really scrutinizing these things for a year, and the Church has had a couple thousand years to bury the inquiring mind beneath a mountain of text, teaching, and history.
Ultimately, I’ve reached the conclusion that I cannot in good conscience continue to profess belief in certain things the Church tells me I must believe. I can’t do this because I have very serious objections and doubts as regards a number of them. I’m not going to list these all here at this time; this essay is not a polemic for my position, and so to do so would be a digression. But to fall to my knees and say “credo” to things I can no longer accept as true would be a lie of a very serious nature. I am not certain they are not true, either, but from my current perspective, they appear to be either false or seriously faulty. And so, in good conscience, I believe I have to step away to wrestle with these things, and to do so outside of the context of a Church that suffocates its members with obligation and mandates their assent under the threat of eternal violence.
Even though we can neither definitively prove nor disprove what cannot be empirically tested or at least logically determined or excluded, I recognize that the universe we inhabit is full of deep mysteries that can’t simply be explained away. There is more at work than meets the eye, or the scrutiny of science. So despite my doubts, I am forced to accept that when it comes to religion, the “common consent argument” in favor of theism is at least suggestive of something supernatural at work. The vast majority people for most of human history have believed in a god or gods of some kind, and they cannot simply be dismissed. Even now, as belief in God among Americans has just hit an all-time low, it’s still at a whopping 81%. A supermajority of people still believe, and always have. Something deep within the psyche of the human race is almost universally disposed to religious belief, or at least a sense of the numinous.
So I approach my own wrestling with a certain degree of trepidation. I can’t claim to know that God does not exist, but neither can I still claim to know that he does. In the event that he does, I have many questions about whether he is who I was told he was. I am not at all certain, for example, that he could be both all-loving and willing to damn the bulk of the human race, as to me this seems incongruous to the point of mutual exclusivity. Although my frustration with the lived experience of faith and its maddeningly unanswerable questions makes it tempting to throw my hands up and be done with all of it, I can’t in good conscience simply close the door to belief. Instead, I want more doors open — not just belief, but belief of a different texture, shape, and size than I was ever permitted to consider in my life as a Catholic. There’s no way to do that while I’m still showing up to drone a creed I can’t say is authentic anymore, or submit myself to an authority that I know I can’t trust. My epistemology is completely broken, because I outsourced it to an external authority, taking its representatives at their word that they wouldn’t — and couldn’t! — steer me wrong. Now, I know better. I need to re-examine my priors with freedom, vigor, and audacity, and to the extent that it’s possible for someone like me who grew up with the idea that such searching almost certainly invites eternal damnation, to do all of that without succumbing to the same fear that never allowed me to do it before.
And so let me assure you, mister “Fuck you, God bless”: if I can suppress my fear of being burned in a never-ending fire while tortured forever by hideous demons, just so I can take the time to really figure this out on my own terms, you can rest assured that whether you like it or not, I’m not going to stop writing about it. Certainly not on account of a nasty email from a stranger. For those of you who followed me here from my previous publication and still aren’t sure if I’m the same guy, I’m telling you right here and right now: that chapter of my life is over. If I do ever return to the faith, it will be on very different terms.
But to return from our distinctions to the larger point: if I can paint with a somewhat broad brush, keeping in mind that there are exceptions, it seems that what both staunch religious believers and militant atheists have in common is a kind of arrogance about the unknown and the unknowable. I see precious little epistemological humility in the far reaches of either camp, and so, unsurprisingly, each look at the other with contempt.
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On the atheist side, I always used to be mystified by that breed of militant atheism that holds believers in utter contempt and spits fire in the direction of a divine being this sort of person swears he doesn’t even believe in. When coming across the sort of rants these people tend to produce, I could only muse, “Methinks he doth protest too much.”
If you don’t believe, you don’t believe. I thought. That’s fine, but why spend so much time being angry at people who do?
But over the past year, as I’ve been forced to admit publicly that my own doubts have pushed me beyond merely “questioning” and into the category of “disbelief,” I’ve encountered a lot of believers who seem to embody that same ethos of, “Fuck you, God bless,” if not in so many words. And because of this, I wonder if I haven’t just tripped over one of the biggest reasons for the angry atheist phenomenon. Because believers are supposed to know better, live by a higher standard, and answer to a higher power - and some of them do. But when it comes to those who don’t, this particular kind of believer is more of a pariah than even the Richard Dawkinses of the world.
Theists comprise the vast majority of the population, while atheists and agnostics make up only a small percentage. With such a strong numerical and cultural advantage, theists who act like self-righteous, triumphalistic, condescending pricks to anyone who has the temerity to question their utterly unfalsifiable beliefs — or, for that matter, even other Christians who aren’t in lockstep with their particular brand of exacting religious standards — put their targets squarely on the defensive, generating both antipathy and aggression in response. Not only do they often fail to make good arguments for their positions, they insult and demean anyone who refuses to accept them at face value. They’re so condescendingly sure they’re right, without having done any of the actual work to verify it, that they inspire revulsion even in other believers with the humility to know what it’s like to struggle with or even think about the difficulty many of us have with faith. This is also the kind of person, by the way, who weaponizes phrases like, “I’ll pray for you.” They’re just so…punchable.
I have little doubt that not a few atheists were raised by these kinds of people, and they ran as far and as fast away from their parents’ heavy-handed faith as they could the second they had a scrap of legal autonomy.
What this kind of Christian appears oblivious to is the way their conduct serves as a counter-witness to the very supernatural “truths” they expect others to blindly accept. The idea that “Grace perfects nature” is practically disproved by the way they conduct their lives. They do not inspire by their charity or understanding; they do not evangelize, instead preferring to browbeat, insult, and shame. They think their approach is “admonishing the sinner” — a kind of “tough love,” and they claim they are engaging in the act of “fraternal correction” of those with whom they have never even attempted to establish a loving or fraternal relationship. They lead no one to Christ, all while making those who actually take their faith in Christ seriously look bad by association. Their behavior creates an instant feeling of antipathy and even spite on the part of those who are subjected to it. I’ve experienced this both in my life as a Catholic who was ostracized for insufficient tribal purity on apparently important groupthink, as well as now, as a former Catholic on the outside looking in. Whenever I encounter these folks, I want to say, “Why would I ever again want to be part of a religion where I’d have to rub elbows with so many people like you? You are evidence that it clearly does nobody any good if this is this is the result it produces.” Yes, I know that a religion for sinners is going to feature its fair share of hypocrites, but why do they seem to dominate the landscape? Long before I left, some of my other Catholic friends and I would lament that “Hell is other Catholics.” (Some of those same “friends” took pains to personally prove the point when I departed their company.)
Now, I’m not excusing atheists who act the same way. Richard Dawkins, as I mentioned, doesn’t appear to have any excuse for his infamously ghastly behavior towards believers outside of a terrible lack of self-awareness and a massive superiority complex. In an at-times-blistering critique of his memoir by English philosopher (and fellow atheist!) John Gray, the author notes:
Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known. From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself.
What is striking is the commonplace quality of Dawkins’s rebellion against religion. In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been reared—after his conversion from theism, he “refused to kneel in chapel,” he writes proudly—he was doing what tens of thousands of Britain’s young people did at the time. Compulsory religious instruction of the kind that exists in British schools, it has often been observed, creates a fertile environment for atheism. Dawkins’s career illustrates the soundness of this truism. If there is anything remarkable in his adolescent rebellion, it is that he has remained stuck in it. At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.
In other words: he acts just like the religious jackasses I’m talking about, but in reverse. The end result is that Dawkins has alienated a lot of people, including those who would otherwise be on his side.
The pursuit of truth and meaning are, for many human beings, the ultimate expressions of purpose in our life. This can be said to be true of believers and non-believers alike. It should matter to us, therefore, how we present our arguments to those who do not share our conclusions. Wherever it is possible to have a good-faith discussion or debate with those who do not share our views, it should be our goal to be persuasive, not rude or condemnatory. This kind of behavior is repugnant. It makes everyone who is “on our team” look a little less credible every time we do it.
As a former believer who is open to believing again, if I can be sufficiently persuaded that it is the correct, and most importantly, the true thing to do, I have to say that those who have faith in God should realize that they are burdened with that higher standard. There is no atheistic “great commission” acting as an imperative for the spreading of non-belief; the creeping nihilism of a godless ideology significantly lowers the stakes for the man without faith; he has no good reason to bother with those who are irritating, obnoxious, or stupid, and certainly no cause to treat them gently. There is no Christ telling Dawkins to turn the other cheek, but there should be fewer Christians relying on the idea that everyone else should, especially when they’re the ones doing the striking.
To those who believe that God loves the human beings he has created and wishes to convert their unchurched masses; to those who labor under the idea of the weight of duty towards “souls entrusted to their care,” I can only say that it strikes me as imperative that you give real consideration to whether your conduct meets the standards of the God you claim to worship, or if you’d rather wallow in the mud with the kind of godless heathens you claim to hate. Some of them, it should be note, are your betters when it comes to manners. It would be an ironic shame if in your own callous disregard for souls, you served as a catalyst for their damnation, and in virtue of that same failure, your own.
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