I attended a book reading a few days ago with my father at a local bookstore. The author is a professor at a Portland university and I hadn’t heard of him until my dad read about him in a free paper the other day. The book he discussed is a guide on how to convert people of faith to atheism. It wasn’t really a book reading; it turned out to be more of a lecture.
The guy was arrogant. He made a few excellent points about the lack of historical (or other) evidence many different religions fail to recognize, but he came across as rather brusque and know-it-all. He claimed that those seeking to convert believers into non-believers should always be respectful and kind in their approach, but his demeanor suggested otherwise. At the conclusion of his talk, he asked if there was anyone of faith in the audience.
Perhaps fifty people were listening. Silently, a single young woman raised her hand.
After asking her permission, the professor proceeded to bring her up in front of the group. Although visibly nervous, the girl was steady in her responses, often pausing before she answered his questions about why it is she believes what she does. Eventually, he got her to admit that she may not believe “100%” in her particular brand of religion if she were to be presented with evidence stating that it was not right, true or accurate.
Everyone clapped and smiled at the brave young girl as she left the podium.
Having explored some spaces and questions of faith in my past, I would have liked to have gotten to know her a little better. One cannot realize completely from where one comes in knowing their view of faith in ten minutes, although the professor had attempted to do so. It seemed that she had been born into a household of a particular religion and pretty much identified with it as the “true” religion. This initiation into one’s church or place of faith is typical with what takes place in most of the world. It isn’t unusual not to question the views and values that one’s parents or other influential people teach and model. What is unusual was the professor’s desire to “unmake” those views and values, regardless of whether they bring comfort to the believer and cause no harm.
Then again, I suspect he is of the belief that all religious views and values do cause harm. I do not practice the religion in which I was raised, but I do not think it is wrong. I identify culturally as Catholic, and I agree with many of its teachings as well as admire some of its less conservative leaders. In September I found comfort in attending Mass with my family. It may sound hypocritical, but I think one can be of and of not faith at the same time. I think this can even happen in the very same day!
Were it not for the circumstances of our birth, where would each of us be today? Is it not completely arbitrary that I was born a female in America to middle income Roman Catholic parents who loved and raised me to hold education, health, kindness and respect for all humans paramount?
Had I been born in places I have known… say… a Carribean island located a mere ninety miles south of Miami, or in its impoverished neighbor to the east, how might I be different? Had I been born a Haitian child raised with minimal opportunities for learning, surrounded by intense religious and spiritual teachings, would I not believe differently? And most likely believe that my religion was the “right” one?
We are all converts, one way or another. Converts to our elders’ way of thinking or converts to a new way – be that another brand of God or a way of living that is whole and human but not God-believing or perhaps we fall in somewhere in between.
I once spent time in a beautiful Mexican church where pine needles, fresh eggs, burning candles and bottles of Coca Cola decorated the floor. Petite men and women in indigenous dress tended these tiny altars. Glowing with candle light and surrounded by mumbled prayer, the altars were bizarre and magnificent. I was a stranger to both the practice and the prayer. Out of respect and humility, I left quietly after a very brief stay in their sacred space.
If I had only been born to a woman of the village of this particular church, would I not believe as they did? Do as they do?
Although I agreed with much of the “reason” behind the professor’s speech, I also believe that believers do and say and believe as they do as much due to their life beginnings and experience as anything else.
We trust the people who convert us to a particular way of thinking. This goes beyond religion. Beyond faith. Evidence or no evidence, our place in the world is shaped by a myriad of people, practices and images that continually evolve and turn around the sun.
Unless they are doing and/or saying something that is hurtful to another and they do so based on their brand of religion – which may or may not be different from their faith – I don’t have a problem with them. Organized religion is one thing. One’s personal faith is quite another.
Who are we to judge? said our new Pope. I say “our” because as we belong to the world, the leaders among us also belong to us, regardless of where along the faith spectrum we fall. I only wish that we could belong to each other as well – to help, and not hinder, one’s journey toward bringing out our best selves and in the practice of self care and care for others. Our differences set up apart, but our humanity can bring us together.