Outgrowing Religion

By John G. Messerly, Ph.D. | 4 July 2019
Reason and Meaning

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My last post reviewed Lewis Vaughn’s autobiographical, Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. Vaughn’s book describes his severe Southern Baptist upbringing, the doubts about religion that subsequently set in, the long torturous process of losing his religion, and how a college philosophy course helped him find meaning in life without the gods. Reading the book led me to recall escaping my own religious indoctrination. For those interested, here, in brief, is that story.

I was born in 1955 to a very Catholic family—I was baptized, received communion and confirmation, went to confession, was an altar boy, etc. (All so bizarre in retrospect.) I went to St. Ann’s Catholic school in St. Louis, from first thru eighth grade. I was aware there were some Protestant people in the neighborhood, but I assumed there was something different about (or maybe wrong with) them. I generally associated with the Catholic boys.

In addition to going to Catholic school, I accompanied my father to our church every evening while in grade school, as he spent most of his free time on the church grounds. The parish had a large auditorium that was used for wedding receptions, dances, etc., and an athletic field with a concession stand. My dad was basically in charge of all activities related to the auditorium and concession stand; he had an unpaid part-time job. There were books to keep, soda, candy, snacks, and liquor to be ordered—yes, they had a liquor license! Going with him every evening, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the church, so I grew up sort of “extra Catholic.” My father would be in a Catholic hall of fame if there were one.

The rest of my family was and is very Catholic too. My mother was devoted to the church and died in a Catholic retirement home. My oldest brother studied for almost 8 years for the priesthood and though he wasn’t ordained he is still an ultra-conservative, practicing Catholic. My sister worked her entire adult life for the church and her husband is a deacon. Their son, my nephew, is the chancellor of a diocese. And my other brother finds his only comfort from believing he will be reunited with lost loved ones in heaven. I came from a really Catholic family.

After grade school, I attended and graduated from a private Catholic high school. (I was thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult.) I really didn’t doubt religion much until right after high school.  As I put it in my biography:

… it was the summer before college that marked the true beginning of my intellectual voyage. A good friend was a philosophy major and discussions with him awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. I now realized that there was a world of ideas to explore. It was as if a dam had broken within me, exposing the parochialism of my youthful indoctrination. I was determined to explore this mindscape and die with as large a mind as possible.

Then

During my first semester of college, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.” There I was introduced to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s critique of the design argument, and Lenin’s criticism of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in 16 weeks. I am not sure why I was open to new ideas, whereas so many cling to the first ideas they are exposed to, but I was hooked.

Although it was traumatic for my parents, severing the cord of religious indoctrination was, for me, quick, painless, and liberating. It all happened in a few weeks that summer after high school. I was done with Catholicism—and by extension, any other religion. I have never for a moment reconsidered.

In fact, it’s not even a matter of reconsidering. Rather, some ideas become self-evident and others just aren’t available to you after being sufficiently educated. For example, I know that the earth rotates around the sun and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to exert any effort into believing the former two truths and disbelieving the latter two myths. Heliocentrism and evolutionary theory just follow from knowing how the world works, whereas the other notions are self-evidently absurd.

From the outside, religious beliefs are just, well, weird. To watch people eat a small wafer which they believe is (literally for Catholics) part of the body of a dead man—I’ve seen this ritual exactly twice in the last 30 years, both times at one of my parent’s funerals—is like entering the twilight zone. From the outside, you just wonder “what are they doing?” And once you have seen it from the outside … you never want to go back inside. After escaping the cult, you don’t want to rejoin. If only believers could see their beliefs from the outside, like they see the religions they don’t belong to. Christians think the beliefs of Islam are crazy, forgetting that Muslims think the same thing about Christian beliefs. From my perspective, they’re both equally absurd.

At this point, I’m so removed from the beliefs of my childhood that they never come to the surface unless I make a conscious effort. It is like trying to remember believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny. You can sort of do it, but not really.

However, I would add a caveat. For some, the comfort of religion may be worth it. Perhaps they can’t or don’t want to live without it. And, if it provides them comfort, who am I to try to convince them otherwise? But for those capable of breaking the bonds of their childhood indoctrination, I say that not much will change after you discard religion. You’ll still be able to live, love, work, and care for your children without believing in imaginary gods. And you’ll be less likely to want to impose your views on others—a defining characteristic of most religions.

As for me, I’m glad I left all that behind long ago. I am one of those who want to know—not just believe. I long for the day when reason and science will finally banish ignorance and superstition forever. I do think that religion as we know it will go extinct, especially if humans evolve into posthumans. And if we don’t evolve, we’ll probably go extinct anyway. As for those worried about the meaning of life after losing their religious beliefs, I have addressed the topic in some detail here.

(Disclaimer, I received my Ph.D. from a Catholic Jesuit School. Here’s why. I needed to attend graduate school in St. Louis but by the time I was ready to apply to my preferred school, Washington University, I couldn’t make their deadline. I then accepted a graduate fellowship at St. Louis University intending to switch schools. However, a number of coincidences prevented me from doing so, and, at some point, it was quicker to finish where I had started. Although I regret that my choice of schools misleads people about my views on religion, I received an excellent, non-religious education in St. Louis University’s philosophy department for which I will always be grateful.)

Well, that’s my story. It’s almost 50 years since I lost my childhood crutches. I left what Carl Sagan called the demon-haunted world of religion, and entered one lit by science and reason. To sum up, I regard religion to be as harmful as it is untrue; and I echo Bertrand Russell’s sentiments:

I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. Religion is based . . . mainly on fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

John G. Messerly received his PhD in philosophy in 1992. He has taught at St. Louis University and The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently an Affiliate Researcher, Center Leo Apostel (CLEA) for transdisciplinary research Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).

Carl Sagan on “God” and “gods”

Daniel Dennett – Arguments for Atheism?

Sam Harris demolishes Christianity

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