The Siren Song of Religion

This is the fourth post in an ongoing series. Click here for the index page.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. -Karl Marx

I was brought up in a religious household – Evangelical, to be specific, although that term seems to mean something different now than it did back then. Like plenty of other Christians, my parents tried to practice and teach us a faith that emphasizes truth, love, humility, hope and compassion above judgment and politics. For years I was involved in the youth group, the worship team, and devotionals at the church where my dad was pastor. Eventually, though, I lost my faith after finding I could no longer reconcile it with what I was learning from philosophy, history, science, and even apologetics.

In some ways, this made it easier for me to understand when bad things happen, and to act compassionately toward the less fortunate. Evils are not deliberately put in our path by some superior being in order to test us or to make us into better people. Some that appear pointless really are pointless, and I think this provides us with a basic reason to help those afflicted by such things.

However, there’s another light cast on things when you aren’t abstractly considering suffering, but are in the midst of it yourself. It creates much longer shadows, too.

During the weeks when my partner struggled the worst with her brain trauma in the hospital, everything felt black. In my mind, that was the one thought that seemed to echo endlessly: everything is black. Not the slick color that I like and have been known to wear often, but the deep, dark void of color from which no light escapes. The kind that reeks of despair and leaves the world in cold ashes.

Why I felt this way isn’t easy to say. Likely it had a lot to do with the fact that I care for her and love her very much. There were occasions when I knew she might not make it, and one frightening time where I thought for a split second that she had died. But there were other things, like her little boys, or how this could change her life, that were on my mind as well. There were also those small, intimate, and inexpressible things between a couple that felt as if they made it the hardest because they cut right to the core of who you are.

As an atheist, I do believe that death is the end. Some find that a despairing view in itself, and, to be sure, that was on my mind at times. I didn’t want her to be gone. Yet the perplexing and awful thing about our situation was that in brief moments she was ‘gone,’ in a sense, even though she hadn’t died. Thankfully, she had a fantastic recovery later, but it was clear that no distant afterlife would’ve made a difference then if things had soured in certain ways. Without a doubt, it wouldn’t have prevented a drastic change to our life and the lives of the boys.

Even knowing this, I set aside my reservations now and again, and, feeling as if I had nowhere left to turn, I cried out to a universe that kept silent. I asked if there was someone, something, whatever out there. I prayed for a miracle. Pleaded with all I had, at her bedside, at work, at home. I fell back into an old habit from my religious days, paying attention to every little thing, just hoping and waiting for some kind of sign.

I felt guilt doing this, although I was honest about my doubts. I hadn’t suddenly become a believer, but I was probably the closest to it that I’d been in years. Something about a lapse like that felt wrong and practically shameful, like it showed that when the chips are down, I’m a weak-willed person at heart. It made me question if I’d really been stuck on things all this time, if I’d only been kidding myself.

I’ve taken to calling this a crisis of unbelief. In a poem by the 16th century priest St. John of the Cross, there’s a concept known as the “dark night of the soul.” It describes an experience of particularly intense spiritual struggle that happens on the way to union with God. Typically, this crisis is temporary and occurs while one is a believer. A difference I’d recognize here is that a crisis of unbelief is not part of a union with some higher force or being, but might be part of a personal journey or process of reconciliation with variant aspects of one’s identity.

Notably, not all my fellow atheists will like this idea. So much time is spent combating myths like the ‘no atheists in foxholes’ myth that this may be seen as counter-productive. However, I beg to differ. It’s not proposing that atheists are disingenuous in their atheism to suggest that we have our moments of doubt and difficulty when it comes to our own view. This should rather be an important part of the honesty and critical thinking that we like to pride ourselves on practicing.

It can also remind us of the social and cultural influence of religion, along with its accompanying problems, because that’s the other side of the story here. As I dealt with the internal conflict just mentioned, there were people I turned to in my life who attached religious significance or offered faith-based encouragement to what I was going through. I should say that they all knew I was an atheist at the time we spoke.

My mom texted me one of the days Danielle was in the hospital and recommended I pray. It wasn’t an unloving response to my situation, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a mother who worries about her kid and believes in prayer. On the other hand, my boss at the time tried to help by telling me God wouldn’t give me more than I could handle. Which was doubly weird because I hadn’t known her to be religious before then, so it felt kind of inauthentic.

The third person was the therapist I’d been seeing. I said to her in no uncertain terms that I’m an atheist and a skeptic. I specifically mentioned these things and clarified them to give her an idea of what I was looking for from therapy and what would help me. All the same, by the end of our sessions, she made some suggestions about the power of positive thinking and faith, and recommended I read The Secret.

I’ve already covered the personal dimension of this stuff in my previous post on how People Suck During a Crisis. There’s a lot of it I’m willing to overlook and forgive. But is it kind of shitty and inconsiderate to be in the thick of it while your loved one is suffering from a brain injury and be told that some magical being you don’t believe in is looking out for you? Or be informed that your partner endured such trauma for some good, divine purpose?

SHIT YES. It is.

You don’t need to think of the right thing to say in those circumstances. Just be there. Listen to them. Show them affection and help them however they want to be helped. They will tell you what they need, and if they don’t, then ask, don’t presume.

Maybe these sentiments were only icing on the cake after I’d been wrestling in frustration with some of these issues on my own. Or maybe the rapid fire succession in which I was met with them (as it seemed to me) contributed to me feeling overwhelmed. One thing that’s easy to affirm is that religion is not marginalized in society. On the contrary, it often leaps into places and conversations where it has not been invited.

My mom later asked me why I don’t think Danielle’s recovery was a miraculous answer to prayer. I respect whatever my partner believes about it, but what I saw happen did not seem in any way inconsistent with natural recovery from other types of brain injury. It can be called a speedy recovery by a certain standard, yet it doesn’t erase the weeks she spent in the care of doctors and speech therapists, or the gradual development that has taken place since then. It was hard work, for Danielle especially, and labeling it a miracle feels like it cheapens all she did and all her caregivers did for her.

There is an air of mystery to it, nevertheless. I’m sure some of that is due to my ignorance of neuroscience, and some is due to what we all still don’t know about the brain. But given what I prayed for and the course of events that unfolded, the sole thing I feel I can recognize as miraculous was my partner’s will to get better. And to my eyes, her inspiration didn’t come from above. It came from her boys here on this planet.

I talked in the last post about how some people project their beliefs on to you when you suffer because you present a threat – consciously or unconsciously – to their preferred beliefs about meaning, hope, value, and so on. It isn’t a challenge to see why there’s this association, either. Religion has long been concerned with suffering, and many of the promises it makes – especially the monotheistic religions – speak directly to our desires for peace, justice, happiness, comfort, and significance.

This is not a testimony to the truth or value of religion. Many of us, even atheists, have some difficulty taking it to heart that a want does not always imply that it’s possible to get what we desire. More than a few of us long to go back and relive our better years, despite this being something we cannot do. It may seem silly to the unbelieving how the faithful pursue unrealistic desires, but I think it’s also silly to deny the desires that we do have, as if we can stop cherishing those memories and missing those golden days by force of will alone.

Not everyone is tempted by the siren song of religion. I do think there are more out there than will admit to it, though, particularly when religion is characterized as weakness or wishful thinking. These theories of religion are developed partly as explanations of its popularity, and yet some of the very same skeptics, agnostics, and other non-believers who subscribe to them act as if such powerful ideas influence only professing adherents!

In a crisis of faith or a crisis of unbelief, we fear what we may become. We fear becoming our old selves or losing our sense of self entirely. Often times this is cast in the mold of us vs. them, as if what we really fear is becoming the enemy. I think in a deeper sense this is still a fear of losing who we are. We spend a great amount of time not just arguing that the other side stands for the wrong things, but that what they stand for – whatever it is – threatens our very way of life.

Of course, at the end of the crisis of faith, one comes out as a stronger believer. What looked like darkest despair is but a necessary step on the road to growth. Even without supernatural guidance, we can conceive of the crisis of unbelief in a similar manner. The triumphal emergence on the other side of the tunnel is a farce in some cases; we convince ourselves that what we fear just confirms our beliefs without doing due diligence to really grapple with it. The possibility for real growth comes not from an unseen hand, but from a sincerity that is willing to let down the walls and see ourselves in others and vice versa.

Zarathustra is gentle with the sick. Verily, he is not angry with their kinds of comfort and ingratitude. May they become convalescents, men of overcoming, and create a higher body for themselves! Nor is Zarathustra angry with the convalescent who eyes his delusion tenderly and, at midnight, sneaks around the grave of his god: but even so his tears still betray sickness and a sick body to me.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
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