By Paula Kirby
In my previous article for The Hibernia Times I described how I came to question my Christian beliefs and, ultimately, concluded that there was no reason to think they were true. Now, I am going to consider the reasons why, for many Christians, such questioning is hard to do.
Many Christians don’t wish to question their beliefs, of course. Many genuinely feel to get something from their faith which they fear they would lose without it. For many believers, faith is a comfort: they find comfort in the thought of not really dying, of being reunited with loved ones in an afterlife, of a benign and powerful being watching over them and ‘working all things for the good’. Someone who derives comfort from such thoughts may well prefer not to question the truth of them too closely. Besides, in a community where the majority are religious and censorious of non-belief, there is huge social pressure to conform.
Another reason lies in the lamentable fact that even now, in 2011, lack of scientific understanding is the norm in many societies. Not only do most people not understand even the basics of science themselves; they often have no idea of the huge range of questions that science really has begun to shed light on. People unschooled in scientific knowledge or methodology may quite genuinely be baffled about why there is “something rather than nothing,” or how life could possibly have arisen from non-life and then developed into the vast array of forms we see around us, and be unable to conceive of any answer other than God.
So there are reasons for not questioning belief that many Christians may themselves be fully conscious of and even happy with. However, I would suggest that there are other reasons, too: reasons arising from the way Christianity actively manipulates its followers and suppresses the natural spirit of enquiry.
The first is Christianity’s emphasis on faith. Faith is the acceptance of claims for which there is no good evidence; when someone invites you to take something on faith, they are actively telling you not to challenge it, not to question it, not to enquire whether it is really true: they are telling you to simply accept it on their say-so. And this “accepting it on their say-so” is at the very heart of Christianity. It is the only absolute requirement for salvation: that you accept —on faith —that Jesus died for your sins and took the punishment for them on your behalf. Faith is incompatible with genuine questioning. The moment you begin to question faith-claims, you are told you must stop, that to continue will be to lose your faith. And this is a dire threat indeed, for in Christianity everything you hope for is dependent on faith —on simply taking someone’s word for it, on simply accepting a particular set of claims as true.
Churches certainly pay lip-service to asking questions, of course; but never doubt that there are limits to the questions that are acceptable. “Does this verse mean this or does it mean that?”: this kind of question —the unthreatening kind that stays within approved boundaries —is smiled upon. But be careful not to voice questions that suggest doubt! That question the truth of Christian dogma! It is no coincidence, I would suggest, that Doubting Thomas is second only to Judas in the Recalcitrant Disciple stakes.
Closely linked with faith is authority. It is there in the structures of all churches, but explicitly so in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which claims infallibility for the pope when speaking on matters of dogma. (How does he know he’s infallible on these matters? How do you?) Authority reinforces the demand for blind faith, insists that you remain in your role of passive recipient of priestly wisdom. But these claims to authority are not always overt: they are also concealed within the very structure of church services. You are told when to sit, when to kneel, when to stand; when to pray, when to sing, when to say Amen, when to be silent. And you are told, in the creed, in the hymns, from the pulpit, what you are required to believe. There is no discussion, no Q&A, no opportunity to ask, “But how do you know?” Church services require congregations to be passive and unquestioning. (Have you ever wondered why the Church puts so much emphasis on obedience?)
All this is reinforced through ritual. When was the last time you actively stopped to think about how you drive? Unless you are newly qualified, the answer is almost certainly so long ago that you cannot remember it. After a while driving becomes automatic, reflexive, something you do without much conscious thought. This is what happens when we do something over and over again: we stop noticing the details. And churches —especially those, like the Roman Catholic Church, with set liturgies —exploit this to the full. In service after service there is the same rhythm, the same pattern, the same order of the individual components. The effect? We can switch our brains off; we don’t need to think; we are lulled into a state of passivity in which the words wash over us and we barely even register them. If you don’t believe me, see if you can recite —without looking! —the third verse of your favourite hymn. Or see how much you remember of the content of last Sunday’s sermon.
The combination of the insistence on faith, authority and endlessly repeated ritual all combine to lull our brains into unquestioning, passive acceptance. And as if this weren’t enough, believers’ confidence in their own judgement and ability to deal with life on their own is constantly undermined by the teaching that their every success is down to God’s goodness, their every failure firmly down to their own weakness.
Yet there still remains one more weapon in the Church’s armoury: a powerful weapon, a desperate weapon; you might even say a diabolical weapon. That weapon is hell. “Accept our authority; accept our claims on faith; believe and don’t doubt —or burn for all eternity.” How many generations of children have been psychologically scarred by this obscenity? How many adults still harbour lingering fears that this sadistic fabrication might just be true? How many cling to their faith for fear of eternal torment if they don’t? And how much must the Church fear the act of questioning, if it has to resort to such monstrous and perverted threats in order to deter you from doing it?
The forces arrayed against the believer who dares to question, dares to challenge, are formidable indeed. Small wonder that many believers never truly stop to reflect on their beliefs from the perspective of asking whether they are really true.
And yet an increasing number of us are doing just that. Increasingly we are shaking off the hobgoblins of belief, and in so doing we are discovering the joys of a life where no question is off-limits and where we no longer have to make do with pseudo-answers based in faith, authority or threats.
Abandoning religious faith is like waking after a deep sleep. Good morning! It’s a beautiful day…