A couple of weeks ago, two of my friends came over for dinner. One is a committed atheist, the other a vague Christian. And me, a… well, a scar.
The conversation turned to religion at one point, and my atheist friend said that she didn’t understand how anyone intelligent could possibly believe in a god. How she is stunned to see scientists and people like them expressing beliefs in entities whose existence can’t be empirically proven.
I steered the conversation away from the god topic, because I don’t know either of them well enough yet to work out whether it would have turned into a conversation in which someone ended up feeling hurt, and I didn’t want that happening in my living room.
However, it’s an interesting question. And this week I’ve been reading Augustine: Conversions and Confessions by Robin Lane Fox, and it’s made me think even harder about the nature of belief (specifically, in a god and an organised religious structure), truth and lies.
I can understand my atheist friend’s viewpoint. It’s one I’ve been known to espouse at various points throughout my life. Because I do believe that, if you logically weigh up all the evidence in a dispassionate way, and you are honest with yourself and refuse to let your emotions take over, and you are intelligent enough to have a sufficiently deep understanding of science, you will probably come to the conclusion that there is no god. Certainly, that there is no Christian God – the capital-G, vengeful, jealous, confusing, trinitarian deity of the Bible and the Church.
But on the other hand, it’s not like spirituality is without its intellectual dialogue. There is a huge, overreaching tradition of philosophy and social sciences looking at religious belief. There have been many highly introspective and thoughtful religious people throughout the ages; people who challenged the status quo, who were brought up in the cultural structures of their time and yet who questioned these structures and used them to build their own traditions, their own beliefs.
And that’s part of the question, isn’t it? None of us operates in a vacuum.
As much as science aims to be dispassionate, objective, replicable, empirical, scientists themselves are still extant within the structures of their own timelines. They have backgrounds – cultural ones, personal ones, familial ones – that affect the way they think. They make decisions based on their past experience and on their personalities. To paraphrase Donne, no one is an island.
Augustine is one of the historical thinkers for whom I have a great deal of respect. We differ in opinion on most things, and yet he is the kind of thinker from whom I can learn despite – perhaps because of – these variations.
Augustine lived in a time and place of which I have no experience. His background was Christian. He veered for a while into a different style of Christianity from the one in which he was brought up, and then he veered back again. But the whole time, he was thinking, examining. Refusing to just take as read whatever anyone told him.
And that is something I will always respect.
Socrates told us that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and I agree. A lot of the time I think it’s not so much about what we believe, but how we believe.
You can be an unexamining atheist, yelling insults at passing religious people due to an intrinsic and incorrect feeling of basic superiority. You can be an unexamining Christian: a church-led automaton who does what they’re told. You can be an unexamining pagan, head firmly wedged between the clouds, refusing to look at the bad stuff around you because it’s not all the unicorns and rainbows and healing crystals you enjoy.
Or you can examine your own beliefs, and try to understand where they came from, and look at their historic traditions and their cultural contexts.
This kind of self-examination doesn’t come easily. Especially when you have to come to the startling realisation that you have been wrong about something for a long time.
Robin Lane Fox explains how this happened to Augustine at one point.
“[Augustine’s] problems… were problems of intelligent understanding. He did not know how to imagine God and how to relate God and Christ to the world and to his own self. This gap existed because the Manicheans’ teachings about the world had turned out to be such a pack of lies. The ‘suffering Jesus’ was not scattered all over it and the plants and animals were not demonic. Every night, the moon looks very different in a post-Manichean eye. After being caught by such misplaced ‘certainties’, Augustine was shy about accepting yet more theological beliefs. He was wary, rather than disillusioned, but he was still passionately keen to find truth.”
This paragraph really spoke to me, and made me understand a probable reason behind my enjoyment of Augustine’s writings, and my respect for him as a thinker despite our wildly differing points of view.
I grew up in a cult. When I left, although there were many things it had taught me that I had never believed, I kept uncovering others. Things I hadn’t even really thought about, that turned out to be a load of bollocks. Underlying assumptions I had that were entirely subconscious, until something roused them and brought them to the surface for examination.
Thus began an era of reprogramming: a time when I had to look at pretty much every core belief I had, and also many of the peripheral ones, and work out which ones I only believed because they’d been drummed into me from a young age, and which ones I perceived to be probably correct upon further examination.
This is not an easy thing to do. Now, more than a decade after leaving the cult, and after many years of un-brainwashing myself, I have a far better understanding of what I actually believe. And yet I refuse to stop here. I continue digging deeper into philosophy, history, science, theology, sociology, psychology, all the -ologies available to me, to find out what I believe and why.
The unexamined life, like Socrates said, is not worth living. With this I agree, at least assuming one has the capacity to do the examining. So, following in the footsteps of people like Augustine, Socrates, Kierkegaard, and many others with whose core beliefs I might disagree but whose dedication to self-examination I greatly respect, I continue in the passionate search for truth.
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