Monday, May 25, 2015

Good things religion does

The comments suddenly dried up on the thread where we were discussing morality in the Bible; I hope I didn't offend anyone or something.  If I have done anything to upset anybody, I think my email is posted somewhere around here and you can drop me a line to tell me so.  I'd rather know than not know!

Today I want to talk about the good things religion provides.  Like I have said before, religion is not a single thing, like a list of propositions, it's a huge combination of things.

1.  For one thing, it's a community.  And because it's based on the most important beliefs and practices that people have, it's not a superficial community like book club.  People feel the closest bond to people who share their dearest beliefs, and so it's no surprise that it's the people at church who are most willing to bring a casserole for a sick parishioner, watch your kids for you or trust you with theirs, or make friends with a new person in town.

2.  It's a place of moral encouragement.  Not only does it have a nice clear moral code, but you can surround yourself with people who share the same one.  It can be hard abiding to a higher standard of morals than the people around you -- with your religious friends, you know you are all on the same level.  This is really easily seen on NFP forums -- it's very painful to be the only person you know who doesn't use birth control, but when you're surrounded by others making the same choices, you feel much better.

3.  It's an honor group.  I've written about honor groups before -- the point is that it is a group wherein you get respect, both from members and nonmembers, for abiding to a stricter moral code than average.  When you tell someone you are seriously religious, even if they don't approve of your specific religion, you earn a bit of respect just for being willing to follow the rules.  People think of you as a moral person -- which is why there is so much scandal when a seriously religious person does something immoral.

4.  It's an answer to serious philosophical questions: life, higher meaning, moral questions, death.  Everyone has to face these questions in their life, but most people don't have the time to dedicate to answering them all personally.  It's like having to reinvent the wheel.  With religion, all you have to do is find one decent proof, and then the rest all follows from that.  If you think the Catholic Church is true, and you're worried about death, simple -- just believe what the Catholic Church teaches about death.  Crisis averted, and you don't have to spend hours or weeks doing philosophy.

5.  It provides us with a useful vocabulary for discussing our interior life: words like sin, temptation, discernment, all describe real things we experience but which can be hard to explain otherwise.  It also gives us a whole mythic landscape to use for imagining things we can't clearly define -- as I talked about earlier.

6.  It is a program of self-improvement.  Most people who are not seriously religious don't spend time every day considering their actions of the past day and trying to see how they could do better.  Religions encourage people to do so, which is a definite advantage.

7.  It gives serious weight to all our actions.  Sometimes, especially in an age where we know so much about the universe, our whole lives seem insignificant, to say nothing of our individual actions from day to day.  It's nice to think of your choice to be kind to a stranger, for instance, as part of a larger plan, which could at the very least cultivate grace in your soul, and at most might save theirs.

8.  Of course it brings you into a relationship with God, which many people find fully as rewarding, if not more so, than their earthly relationships.  Even from the outside, you have to see that people are getting something they value out of this, despite not experiencing it yourself.  They have someone to share their sorrows, talk over their problems with, and thank for their blessings.

9.  Ritual -- times to mark the passage of time, to see the seasons pass, to remind you to take certain times for reflection.  I love ritual, whether it's a daily cup of tea, a yearly holiday, or a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage like confirmation.  Most people find their most important rituals in their religion.

10.  Most religions include an afterlife, and that is a great comfort.  Death is one of what I call the great mysteries (along with love, sex, and birth) and it's nice to have a simple answer.  The answer usually includes the idea that good people (oneself, for instance) can be rewarded after death and bad people can be punished.  That gives people a sense of satisfaction, plus it may curb any desire for vengeance or encourage people to do things that otherwise wouldn't be rewarded.

Some of these can be obtained without religion.  Others can't, and unfortunately it's just those which can't be enjoyed by someone like me.  They are hidden, in Leah Libresco's phrase, behind the paywall of faith -- if you don't believe, you don't benefit.

However, for those who do, it's pretty easy to see what draws people to religion and makes them stay even in the face of occasional doubts.  It has actual benefits.

On the other hand, the benefits aren't the only reason anyone stays -- and I want to write about that next time.


Enbrethiliel said...


I don't think you offended anybody. You certainly didn't offend me! But your posts usually give me the impression that you've made up your mind and that continuing to hash the matter out wouldn't make any difference. There's a reason I keep comparing our disagreements here to our disagreements about Young Adult novels! Many of the things you said (in your previous post) that you find morally basic and obvious, I don't find morally basic and obvious. And I'm starting to believe they fall into the area of things that can't really be debated. If you accept A, then you accept A. It's not because of your experiences or your foundation or anything external. You simply accept A. And don't accept B. On the other hand, I simply accept B. We may have to leave it at that.

Another reason I've slowed down on the comments is that when people argue with me, I tend to double down. In fact, I like when people argue with me, because I get to double down. =P It's fun! You're not me, of course, but because of my own nature, when I see a pattern of debate in which every time I put forward an argument for my position, the other person's argument for his own just gets stronger, I realise it would be better for my position to stop debating! LOL!

I could expand that last paragraph, but if I do, I'll be late for work!

Sheila said...

Well, I think I enjoy a good debate as much as you do, so no worries on that front.

However, don't you think the things we're talking about are much different from matters of taste like YA books? It seems to me that with religion, there should be a right answer -- one religious philosophy describes the world as it actually is, while others do not. Would you also agree that the human mind ought to be capable of seeing which is true and which are not? In that case, any disagreement will be because one (or both!) of us have some defect in our thinking -- either an assumption we're attached to that is wrong, or an emotional bias, or ignorance, or SOME reason why our minds aren't able to discover which answer is right!

Because of this, rationalists say that there's no such thing as agreeing to disagree. If you assume that the truth exists, and that it is knowable by humans, two people who disagree should keep talking until they both find the truth -- letting go of any biases or misconceptions they have along the way.

Now if you're going to posit that the truth is not really knowable, not by flawed instruments like human minds, that's fine, but then you're going to have to accept that what you think is the truth might not be, because your own mind is no less flawed than anybody else's.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm back from work! =)

Of course I think there's a right answer! But that puts me in an uncomfortable position now, because if I think I have the right answer (and I do think that), then I must think that you have the wrong answer. And it seems really rude to say so that bluntly. Friendship-endingly rude. =/ And well, my days of cutting people off are behind me and I would like to remain your friend.

I also think that the truth is knowable, but if someone backed me to the wall and asked why it is some people know the truth and others don't (or to put it in more PC terms, why it is that lots of people who think they know the truth believe starkly different things), I'd have to admit something else that would threaten my shot at the Miss Congeniality crown. Which is that I think the will precedes the intellect: that is, we think what we want to think and that there's no such thing as invincible ignorance. (Incidentally, "invicible ignorance" is another of those really late developments in Catholic thinking.) Basically, if people don't accept Christianity, it isn't because Christianity is outrageous or demonstrably implausible or flawed in some way, but because they don't want to accept Christianity. I really do think that there is no bias or mental block that the will can't overcome.

So yeah, I don't think this is merely a matter of rationality or thinking. If people can't agree on what is true, it is not because one or both of them isn't thinking clearly, but because one or both of them is willing to believe what isn't true.

So do we agree to disagree now? ROFL!

Finally, the main reason why I put things on the level of YA novels when I come to your blog is that, well, I get the impression that your approach to religion is more like an approach to literature than an approach to revelation. How I see it (and if I'm off base, let me know!) is that you just reject things that you don't like, regardless of all the evidence and arguments in favour of them. I also reject things I don't like, but they are (I hope!) not also the things that would hurt my faith or my salvation. If someone could show me that something I believed in strongly had been condemned by the Church, I'd change my thinking. Or if I couldn't, as in the case of astrology and the rest of the occult, I'd do my best not to let it influence my actions: I'd totally "fake it" whether or not I ever "make it." Making this into "Well, I like Bella and you like Katniss" gave me an inoffensive way of saying that our disagreement is something that will never be resolved by mere debate, without my having to admit why I think so.

Sheila said...

Luckily for you, I don't think it's friendship-endingly rude to be told I'm wrong; heck, I used to get that every day across the dinner table, since my dad is a very blunt debater.

To be told I'm *bad* is rather worse, and it seems that this is what you actually think, if what we believe is a matter of will. I just don't think it follows. How then would we know what to choose? There are thousands of possible propositions; some I can't choose because I haven't heard of them, others I don't want to choose because I don't think they are compatible with the truth. I don't usually drag Aquinas into things, but he does agree with me this time -- he says that the will *always* chooses what the intellect presents to it as the good. It is not capable of believing what it has no reason to believe. I don't just not *want* to believe that two plus two are five -- I am not *capable* of it!

All of our decisions are dependent on what we know. I could choose to trust someone, but if I find out they are stealing from me, it would be ridiculous for me to choose to trust them exactly the same. I will navigate the real world much better if I allow my belief to be dictated by the facts that I know, rather than choosing it because I like it.

Truth exists, and our minds are capable of finding out what it is if we have the relevant facts. But what it seems to me you are saying is that no one needs the facts. You don't have them, so you can't give them to me. You just picked, and I guess you just hope you are right? But it seems to me that you would be more likely to come up with the truth if you tried to follow the evidence available.

I guess, given your original approach to belief, there is no point in saying, "If you are right, you should be able to demonstrate it with arguments." Because you think that I wouldn't believe even if I had them -- and that you don't need them in the first place, because your faith is independent of arguments, proofs, facts, etc. Am I understanding you right?

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I don't think you're "bad" in the sense that you're damned and can't do anything about it (I don't think that of anyone), but having laid my cards on the table, I can't really deny that I wish your will were different.

The idea behind good will leading to belief is that a person must will to choose not merely what he likes (because he might, like me, be naturally drawn to something that is evil or false), but what is good and what is true. If someone wants the truth, he will get the truth. A good God would make sure of it.

As for what I have faith in, I actually do think it's something that can be plausibly argued and demonstrated. But I also think that if someone is determined to find a hole in it, no argument or demonstration in the world will ever be good enough for him. Evidence and all the other supports are great, but they're subject to interpretation; and how we interpret something is a function of our motives.

PS -- Incidentally, the resource that first explained to me the idea of the will preceding the intellect was quite critical of St. Thomas's position--to the point that it "blamed" him for everything that is wrong with Catholic thought today! (It was only partly tongue-in-cheek.)

Sheila said...

Well, I do in fact want to choose what is true and what is good. My biggest struggle was thinking the Catholic Faith was good but might not be true, and then shouldn't I still abide by it because of its obvious goodness even if it lacks the truth? But I'm seeing more and more that it's not very good if it isn't true, so I've decided knowing the truth is more important than refusing to look at it in the name of sticking with what is good. Goodness and truth are apparently connected after all!

But I do agree with you, there is none so blind as those who will not see, and a person who's set on their belief will ignore evidence to the contrary. You have no way of knowing I'm not this stubborn (and I have no way of knowing you're not) and of course since you think I'm not believing the truth, I must be the one who's stubbornly refusing to see what you do.

And yes, I do see very well that on matters of religion there is no such thing as solid proof. What we have are theories that are more or less plausible, and that's why there is such a plurality of belief -- there is *room* for doubt on either side of the question. It is not actually possible to be sure ... which upsets me no end, because I feel that since so many important actions flow from one's beliefs, and so we *need* better information than that!

Can I just ask you, though, if you can imagine an argument or piece of evidence that would change your mind? If you can't, doesn't that suggest that your belief has a lot more to do with choice than with reality?

Enbrethiliel said...


Since you do want to choose the good and the true, that's why I keep bringing up Father Malachi Martin's saying that wanting to believe is the beginning of belief. It's good motivation for the will. At the very least, it's certainly miles away from not wanting to believe at all!

The only thing that would really shake my faith, I think, would be proof that the Resurrection had been a complete fabrication. I'm just not sure what form that proof would take, since I think that the evidence we have in support of it is pretty sound. Admittedly, I'd probably be able to poke a hole in the best proof you've got. =P

Another complication is that I've had a couple of mystical experiences of my own, including brushes with the diabolical (no surprise, after all my history with the occult). These may never convince anyone else but they certainly strengthen my own belief. If, however, Christianity isn't real, then I am not just wrong; I am also slightly psychotic. (You might want to add "Doesn't want to be put in a straitjacket" to your list of irrational reasons to believe. ;-))

I'm not sure what you mean by the last question, though. Are we understanding "choice" differently? I'd put choice under the will, and since I'm saying that the will comes before the intellect, we do have to choose whether or not to believe.

Sheila said...

What I mean is, there is a big difference between saying "I believe because I think it is an accurate description of REALITY" and "I believe because it's what I prefer to think." To know it's an accurate depiction of reality, you need some evidence. Once you've got it, that's when your will comes in -- you choose to believe reality (or what is most likely to be reality), or you choose to believe some other thing because you like it better.

If God is a vengeful being who does not love humans, I don't like that, but I would want to believe it because I want to believe reality. I can't navigate reality very well if I refuse to acknowledge it.

Your answer is fair enough -- what you are saying is that you will continue to believe as long as belief is at all plausible. And certainly I had a much easier time believing as long as I felt the proofs for the Resurrection were strong. Hearing a plausible alternate explanation was a big blow.

But when it comes down to it, if your proofs are personal experiences, we DO have to agree to disagree. Because I can't believe based on an experience I haven't had, but you can't disbelieve the evidence of your own senses -- or at least it is extremely difficult to do so!

Enbrethiliel said...


I was offline for most of the day, but still thinking about our ongoing conversation, and the line that kept me most preoccupied was, believe it or not, this one:

You have no way of knowing I'm not this stubborn (and I have no way of knowing you're not)

That's true. And I know it's true because I had a similar thought concerning myself and other online friends that time I made up that whopper about baptising my Evangelical relatives' baby on the sly. (Yeah, yeah, I know . . . I won't ever do it again!) Since I had misled them, I could hardly complain about their violent reactions! =P But I was struck by the built-in feature/bug of Internet communication that what we write becomes essentially who we are, even if it is a far cry from reality. Long before I deliberately messed with how others saw me, they would have already had misconceptions--not because of bad writing skills on my part or malice on theirs, but because the Internet is such a clear glass between two parties that we forget it is also a distorting glass.

I've also come to realise that what I said about the will hurt you, which was not my intention. I am very sorry for it. Of course I don't think that you're bad! But I also don't know how else to interpret all the things I am reading here. No matter what, I will always have less information than I need. (Which is kind of ironic, given what we're talking about. How does it feel to be the doubted Resurrection? LOL!)

But long before I brought it up, I had been feeling that this dialogue was going nowhere. Partly because, yes, the distortion of your image makes you seem hard-headed . . . but mostly because when I don't have enough data on a person, I project myself into the blanks. I think that nothing could possibly change your mind because nothing could possibly change my mind. I think that you have a chip on your shoulder about religion because I have a chip on my shoulder about religion. I think you rationalise because I'm the Olympic champion of rationalisation. I think that you're not willing to believe because I feel that the only way I could ever stop believing is through an act of the will. And there are surely other biases I may always be blind to, unless someone holds up a mirror and helps me out.

So in the sense that I get such a distorted impression of you, I'm really not the best person for you to be having this conversation with. Also, I think it's obvious by now that whatever it is that will change your mind isn't going to come from me! And thirdly, the more time I spend composing comments for you, the less time I spend praying for you (and for other intentions!). Getting too involved in online debates causes too much of an imbalance for me . . . but I don't want to sound like one those people who try to win arguments by telling the opponent that they'll just pray for him, so I either slink away silently (not an option with a friend-opponent) or let things carry on at the expense of my prayer life. I had hoped that the Bella/Katniss divide would be a graceful way to bow out.

All I've really got are the same things I first told you months ago, with some refinements courtesy of St. Francis de Sales . . .

Enbrethiliel said...


I still think that faith is a gift--but also that God wouldn't withhold it forever from someone with good will. If he's withholding it now, that's because He's testing you. (That God sometimes tests us through temptation isn't my favourite part of Catholic teaching, but it has been handed on by wiser and holier theologians and spiritual guides than I will ever be, so it's legit to me.) I've had to explain to someone else recently why I thought God would do that, and what I said was that any act of suffering (for loss of faith is a form of suffering) lets us act as full partners and agents in our own salvation and even in the salvation of other souls. There's a sense in which you're closer to God now than those for whom faith comes as easily as breathing, because you're bearing sufferings like Jesus's in your own life. (You've already been the target of some persecution . . . and well, some mild betrayal by your friends? #sorryagain) I would bet anything that all the work you are doing now and all the prayers you are offering (and that others are offering for you!) will eventually bear fruit. And if it seems slow in coming, perhaps God has ordained that your faith be the fruit of suffering--and if so, the reasons for it won't be clear to you until this is all over.

But while this is going on, it is so important for you not to lose your hope as well. Keep praying and doing whatever sort of fasting/mortification is appropriate for you, to join your sufferings to Jesus's. And I hope I'm not merely projecting again when I say that you'll get more out of a single half-hearted Hail Mary than out of hours of online discussion.

And now here is St. Francis's contribution . . . Confide in a priest. You may not be able to make yourself believe, but there is no similar hindrance to your going to confession except for (Forgive me!) your not wanting to. (*ducks and runs behind a thick column*) I know you don't really trust your current pastors, and perhaps you're right that they will not understand your soul . . . In which case, I suggest that you apply to St. Faustina, one of my favourite saints. (I'll also begin a novena to her for you!) St. Faustina was perfectly transparent with every priest she went to confession to, but she passed years of suffering before she finally met two priests who knew exactly how to help her bear the cross that God had given to her. Before that, at least one other priest told her that she must be in mortal sin because only the devil could be sending her such messages. It was all devastating, and she deserved none of it, but she got what she prayed for in the end and you will, too.

. . . And before I digressed, what I meant to say was that being open to a confessor is such an act of both faith and good will, that it will only be good in the long run.

Sheila said...

You needn't feel *too* bad about it. Just as the internet is a distorting glass between us, it's also a shield ... any criticism I get, I can just tell myself, "Well, they don't know the real me." Though I suppose real life is little better; even my dearest friend does not know all my motivations. To cite a Rush lyric,

"We are secrets to each other,
Each one's life a novel no one else has read."

To be more direct, I wasn't hurt, just annoyed because I felt you were misjudging me.

The "faith is a gift" argument has another problem. It's like quack medicine. You can buy some formula online that is supposed to cure every illness. There will be testimonies all over the website of people that felt better immediately when they took it. But when you take it, you wind up feeling worse, so you call the company to complain. The rep says, "Oh, that's just detox! Keep taking it, the worse you feel, the more good it's doing you. You'll feel better eventually." If both feeling better and feeling worse are proof the drug is working, neither is any proof at all!

The assumption throughout is that I haven't tried all that. The last time religious practice has been in any way fruitful or pleasant for me was in 2001. That was the last time I felt like God cared about me, or was there, or anything. Writing that out is rather horrifying to me ... yes, I have been offering up the suffering of desolation for fourteen years. I have talked to priests about it and they said "pray harder." The last time I went to confession, I told the priest I wasn't sure God existed, and he said "pray for faith." Thanks, Einstein! Somewhere out there maybe is a priest who would say something more helpful, but I am not sure where to find anybody like that. Probably they would eventually say what you have said -- the fact that I am not convinced by their standard arguments is proof that I am either very stubborn, or specially blessed by spiritual darkness. (Lucky me!)

I am sorry, the sarcasm is coming out because I really do feel angry about this. Not at you, at this whole frustrating experience. How is God the faithful one in this relationship when I'm the one who's been showing up trying to talk to him for fourteen years? And when people say "oh, others have felt the same, what about St. Therese, what about Mother Teresa who dealt with the same?" it only makes me madder. What if it was all for nothing? All that pain and anguish, in an effort to believe something that might not actually have been true. Isn't that kind of a horrible prospect?

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, now I know that I've really got nothing for you. I wish I weren't coming up empty, but I am. =( Well, actually, there is one more thing, but it's TLP-ish and it probably misunderstands where you are coming from yet again, so never mind.

Earlier, when you asked me whether I thought any argument or piece of evidence would change my mind, the answer that instantly came to mind was: "No, but I'm sure there's a psychiatric drug that could." I ended up not writing it because I worried it would come off as sarcastic, and because my understanding of faith as a kind of altered state of consciousness is so far away from where you are coming from that I didn't think it would be helpful. But I've been thinking about it a lot because your blogging has been that kind of drug for me lately. After an extended stay on your blog, I find it easy--and even quite pleasant--to believe that God doesn't exist and that the material world (with its epiphenomena of consciousness in some higher organisms) is all that exists. It's such a novel feeling for me that I sometimes bask longer in it before shifting back to where I normally am. And what absolutely baffles me is that I can switch gears like that, while you can't. Because you clearly want to.

Maybe (and here I'm just aiming in the dark again) the muscles you should be strengthening aren't the reasoning muscles, but the imagination muscles?

Belfry Bat said...

... No, Enbrethiliel, I don't think Sheila is lacking in Imagination; if anything, I think her imagination is more visceral than necessary. But she has formed some particular emotional habits that interfere with keeping cheerful when addressing God, and she construes this as evidence against God wanting to comfort her. Part of the habit (as reflected in reminiscences on this blog) predates the RC misadventures, but to be sure the chronic depression facet of her PTSD isn't helping.

What habits I particularly mean are: Sheila wishes to be, in a sense, totally responsible for what she believes, and in particular to be able to think her way into all of it; this certainly exceeds the intention of the Church's teaching on what can be known by unaided human reason (specifically, that God exists and is reasonable, knowable as Creator of the visible Universe and Master of its Natural Order. Finit). At the same time, she wants the result of her thinking to be either to conclude that God doesn't exist (or doesn't actually care about us) or to conclude that God does exist and find that this makes her happy.

Let me say that again: Sheila is trying to think her way into being happier with God and the world, or else give up on God. And I suspect this is a kind of depression. We certainly wouldn't encourage her to think her way into feeling that John or her children or her parents love her. The rational evidence on these points may well be confusing, but we've no reason to doubt any of them. [Yes, I believe you, Sheila, that you want to believe what is true for Truth's sake; I'm saying that your doubts, as you've expressed them, are essentially affective, before they are reason; and I don't mean that to sound like a fault! If I were feeling as you have been, I'd probably doubt, too!]

I have been trying, with my exegetic exercises, to suggest that there is a different way to contemplate our Scriptures, because one manifestation of Sheila's total-repsonsibility habit is to hold fast to the reading that she has first construed, which is however quite foreign to tradition. [No, Sheila, I'm not calling you a heretic! Just that this is your oddness; I've a different kind of oddness, and Enbrethiliel a third] My hope has been that practising a contrasting way of thinking might mitigate a habitually-suspicious mode of thought, but perhaps it has been unwise to encourage the thinking part of it.

Dear Sheila, Others have suggested consulting with a priest; I rather think I have, too (but I also think I would say it should be a good priest). And I really am sorry if that wasn't a helpful suggestion. Until a good and really helpful and wise priest shows up... I suggest a vacation. Just take a stretch in Rivendell, over which the "42" Questions shall have no power or dominion. They can wait --- the lovely thing about eternal verities is they won't be different next week. Make a game of relying on someone trustworthy for a while, just for the sake of relaxing a bit. Don't even tell me you've already tried that, if you have! Try it again whenever.

Sheila said...

Ah, the joy of relaxing and believing what you are told to believe! It is very pleasant. It also doesn't last, because the human brain (like the eye and the ear in Lamentations) is never satisfied; it never stops thinking. And while the heart is comforted by feeling loved, and the stomach is comforted by being fed, the brain feels happy when given things that make sense, and is miserable when asked to believe things that appear contradictory.

You may remember, BB, a few months back I said I was totally going to stop reading anything that made me uncomfortable and stick with only the best of the best Catholic sources. And I quickly got to the point that even THAT was unbearable. I tried the bible -- then just the Psalms -- and then just the New Testament -- and then just the Gospels -- and even THAT was full of obvious contradictions! The only thing left was to sing hymns, which I did. But after awhile I pulled enough hope together to believe that, after all, if it is true, there should be some evidence out there somewhere which would help, and so I took up the search again. My failure to find any of what I thought was out there is why I am unhappy now.

And I think you misunderstand the way I read Scripture. I know how the Tradition does it. I just think that Tradition looks suspiciously like a bunch of philosophers trying to force a meaning out of a text that it quite obviously was never meant to mean. It's what they have to do -- I certainly don't want anyone actually taking it the way it appears to be meant -- but that looks a lot less like inspiration than it looks like creative reinterpretation.

Just the other day I read an article about menstrual taboos in Nepal -- women forced to sleep in sheds far away from the house lest they get their whole families unclean. It's horrible and leads to sickness from cold, lack of food, and poor hygiene. And I think, "If an all good and all loving God had a short amount of time to explain to humans what they should do to live a good life, why in the world would he include something like THAT? Why wouldn't he mention something like "don't beat your wife"? Is it because the well-being of women is not very important to him? Certainly that is an interpretation well-supported by tradition, but I don't think you "like" it any better than I do, Belfry Bat.

I know John loves me because he has told me so, and because he doesn't say things that seem to mean the opposite, and because he often does things specifically out of love for me, and because he endeavors not to hurt me. There's a leap of trust, sure, but it is from very good evidence which I can see with my eyes. If he had written me one very long letter at the beginning of our relationship, never replied to any subsequent letters of mine, and all I had were several friends of his reassuring me that he was still alive and still liked me -- well, we wouldn't have gotten as far as the altar and I think most people would be horrified if I'd kept up a relationship with a guy like that.

Sheila said...

As far as responsibility goes, I'm as reluctant to believe irresponsibly as I am to drive drunk, and for similar reasons. There are people who believe they have to beat the devil out of their children and people who believe they need to blow themselves up. Probably they have some reason for believing this -- not proof, mind you, but a good rationale, plus some deep religious feelings they attained through prayer. And then there's the wonderful surrender, when you choose to just *relax* and believe what you are told to believe. God (and his ministers) do the thinking for you; all you have to do is obey.

To me that's no different from participating in the Holocaust because you were just following orders. It's irresponsible; it is a bad thing to do. You should never believe 100% what has not been proven 100%. And the more "iffy" a belief's demands on you are, the more firm your evidence has to be. That's just good sense, and though I learned it the (very) hard way, it's not the delusion of a damaged soul.

E, I know exactly what you mean about switching worldviews; didn't I say the same in my post about glasses? I'm surprised you find mine pleasant; I don't. Well, sometimes I do a little. Other times it is terrifying and I feel the universe might fly apart at any moment, and if it doesn't, no matter, no one cares about me anyway. I find comfort in believing in "some sort of God," not because I have evidence, but because I feel I have to. I try on different ways of thinking about God, different myths, and see if they help. Some of them help. But if I could choose, not which to believe, but which universe to live in -- which was TRUE -- I'd pick the Catholic one; I really would. Who wouldn't? I would like to go to heaven; and if there's no heaven, I can't go.

There are indeed drugs that will give you religious experiences. So will (I've heard) the beginning of epileptic seizures. I read of one man who had such a seizure and converted at that moment from atheist to devoutly religious. A second seizure decades later reversed the effect and he became an atheist again. It's a little discomfiting to hear our brains are as malleable as that ... and a little tempting to try to get hold of the right drugs so that I could have a transcendent experience like that. ;) But I don't think, knowing what I know, that it would work on me. I'd simply start explaining the experience away the moment it was over.

Enbrethiliel said...


Grrrr! My comment got eaten! >=( At least it's easy to reconstruct . . .

The Catholic view is very heavy for me. When I have to think myself back into it, I feel the weight of the world settling onto my shoulders. It's not a constantly crushing burden, of course, because I am able to forget, for extended moments of frivolity, that I can save souls by prayer and sacrifices . . . but it is a burden. To use a personal analogy, a world without God is like emigrating to an American city where I don't know anyone and a world with God is like staying in the Philippines with my huge, messy extended family. As much as I love my family, you know that I wouldn't mind the former at all!

Yeah, I forgot about your metaphorical glasses. Hey, do you think you could keep the Catholic lenses on for longer and longer periods at a time that it gets harder and harder to think yourself back into the other lenses? #hopefulsuggestion =P

Sheila said...

:) The America vs. Philippines analogy is a very good one! And it also may point out something of a cure ... that after awhile in America, you'd realize it's not just less heavy, it's also *lonely.* You'd miss your family -- even the annoying bits.

Whereas the longer you wear the Catholic lenses (especially if you've got the nagging suspicion that they're the wrong prescription because you're always bumping into things that your glasses failed to show you) the *worse* they get, I think! Especially if you're conscientious, as you point out. If you really, seriously think about souls in purgatory, souls on earth yet to be saved, what Jesus has done for you and how little you've ever done for him, you start to feel guilty that you're not doing more. No matter how much you're doing, you can always be doing more.

Now I don't think that the Catholic Church really recommends you take this approach -- at least most confessors nowadays would tell you not to, though I don't know what rationale they use to explain it. But I have done it, and when I got to the point that I felt guilty for every bite I ate because I *could* have been fasting and offering it up, I think it's easy to see that it wasn't healthy. And yet -- and yet -- I could never find a good excuse not to do that.

On the other hand, I almost can't in a materialist worldview either. Because if this life is all there is, then it's massively unfair that I get three square meals a day and someone in Africa doesn't get any some days. All the huge number of people suffering -- if God will not make it up to them, if the misery of this life is all they ever get -- well, that just makes it all the more massively important that I help out. What right do I have to spend a dollar on a candy bar when a dollar would bring clean water to a poor child? And so it goes on. I seem to have replaced Catholic guilt with humanist guilt, plus of course the mother guilt that's never going away. Is it my personality? Because I don't think everyone feels this way.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I once took a pair of glasses back to the opthalmologist because he had got the grade wrong, so I know what you mean. Never mind bumping into things. What about the headaches???

I think modern confessors are right to ask us to lighten up a little--though I wish some wouldn't take it to extremes! Not everyone can do what heavyweights like St. Therese and St. Faustina could; and it's as useless to feel guilty about it as it is to feel inadequate for not running like Usain Bolt or swimming like Michael Phelps. (After St. Therese got to be in charge of formation, she said that her biggest difficulty was guiding another soul in the way that was right for it instead of imposing her own way upon another. Her way is one of the saintliest and easiest the Church has ever known, and she herself admits it's not for everyone!) And when all is said and done, it is not we who are ultimately responsible for saving the world, and any little we can do is through Jesus anyway. Jesus Who went to parties and had friends! The answer to "You could be doing more" is "But I don't actually need to do anything!" =P And both are perfectly right without canceling each other out.

As for feeling guilty . . . Yeah, maybe it is just your personality. ;-) LOL! But I don't know . . . I confess that I really don't get what foreigners mean when they talk about "Catholic guilt." In the Philippines we have the idea of an "inner debt" that you forever owe anyone who has done you a major good deed--even if you die paying the debt off. If you don't, then you're a total ingrate. Is that like it?

Belfry Bat said...

Dear Sheila,

You are angry about many things. To be sure, there are plenty of people doing stupid things, and dull enough not to notice that their poor results are a reproach to them.

Would it be good for husbands to alienate their menstruating wives, absent the cold and illness? No. Is the cold and sickness perhaps an auxiliary sign that the alienation is a bad idea? At least it's possible. Are men sometimes stupid enough to ignore the signs? Definitely. In short: I don't know why you are so sure that God doesn't say, very loud and clear, we ordinarily shouldn't beat eachother.

If our neighbors could never suffer as the result of our own choices, there wouldn't be any such thing as fault, or virtue; there would be no such thing as harm, or mercy; at most there would be smart and stupid.


If we're still friends when I get back from the countryside, we can talk then about how we read and parse and understand --- the Bible, my own remarks; literalistic and poetic. Because somehow you've misunderstood me, again --- construed a meaning that isn't supported by the words I used. Being not a prophet, I don't write with subtexts! I wasn't telling you to sit-quiet-and-believe-me, or to believe anything, or make any act of faith; I only invited you to rest from mental struggle for a while.

Sheila said...

Bat, what you were doing was gaslighting -- "diagnosing" me with PTSD and over-responsibility as a reason to discount what I was saying. I don't think you exactly meant it that way, which is why I responded politely, but it would be better if you didn't assume quite so much about my state of mind.

Here is the thing: if common sense (hm, my wife is cold out there in that shed!) can get us further than divine command, why does God bother with the divine command? I would expect God's law to be more perfect than anything I could come up with on my own. Not something that, if taken literally, would be terribly harmful, but it's just barely okay so long as we don't take it literally!

E, I actually *have* gone so far as to never eat a food I enjoyed, never drink a drink other than water, never read a book, never watch a movie ... and it wasn't "extra holy," it was terrible. Gerard Manley Hopkins used to mortify his senses by not looking at flowers, and I wonder if he was only depriving himself of something good for him. (I'd love for him to be canonized someday, so long as no one starts suggesting his Lenten penances are to be imitated.) I am not sure it's "pro level" to do that sort of thing, it might just be straight-up bad for you!

I certainly have experienced "inner debt" -- it's that feeling that I owe my neighbor for all that venison he gave me and that I really should do something nice for my friend for washing my dishes so many times. Catholic/humanist/mother guilt is the thought that people NEED me to do more, so I always need to do more. Regardless of anything they have or haven't done.

Enbrethiliel said...


What you're saying about your experiences seems to me to reinforce St. Therese's point that what is perfect for some people is not for others. I know a convert to Russian Orthodoxy whose spiritual director told him not to read anything for a year, not even the Bible. (Of course, he was allowed to listen to the readings when he went to daily Mass--or whatever worship is called in Orthodoxy. And I mean no disrespect by that "whatever"!) My friend still gushes about that experience as a time of great spiritual riches. He actually makes me want to do it, too. In fact, he has already inspired me not to read the Bible "on my own," but to stick to the daily chapters and verses assigned by the Divine Office. I do look up stuff when discussions make them necessary, but I've found that I don't like reading the Bible without someone with authority holding my hand.

The Filipino idea of "inner debt" goes a lot deeper than favours that can just be reciprocated and eventually written off. When I explained the concept to a Canadian friend (no, not the one joining us here!), he said that it sounded like a debt that can never be paid off--therefore not really a debt at all, but something more akin to slavery. It's as if your neighbour gave you venison when your entire family were starving and then you felt obligated to let your children wait on his children for the rest of their lives. LOL! (But seriously, it happens.) Anyway, is Western Catholic guilt like that? The Church gave you baptism and all the other sacraments; therefore, you must always give the Church what her representatives ask?

Sheila said...

Nope, never mind, it's nothing like that. I mean, I've heard mothers say "I gave you life so you owe me everything," but I sort of think that's a terrible attitude. And certainly some people try that approach with God -- "he saved you from sin so you should try to match that somehow" -- but that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the depth of NEED in the world. It was so intense in boarding school that I remember a time when a friend of mine sat up in bed in the middle of the night and yelled "THE SOULS NEED ME!" So I am not the ONLY one, apparently.

The appropriate answer to your question about not reading is that that devotion is appropriate for some and not for others, and you shouldn't assume it's appropriate for you. I gave up reading for Lent once and it didn't go well. I think you are supposed to find a professional who can tell you if it's okay ... like how you're always supposed to consult your doctor before going on a diet or taking up an exercise program (though I don't know anyone who actually does that).

Belfry Bat said...

Dear oh dear... indeed I never meant PTSD as a diagnosis... somehow I thought you'd used the expression yourself... and I am terribly sorry for that little stumble.

Indeed I don't believe there is anything wrong with your reason; if I do have any qualms about the conversation itself, it's that (and this is the mathematician speaking) we can't logically get to something from nothing, so to get anywhere we have to start somewhere, and to get to the right place, we do have to start with relevant correct assumptions; and in our conversation, the principal place you start is with such assertions as "I don't like the death penalty", or "medically, there is no good reason for circumcision" --- and where we can get with those sorts of beginnings are other things you might like (or not), and the silences of medical science. I don't like the death penalty any more than you do. And I don't like prisons. I also don't like the idea of folk walking about with thoughts of murder in their hearts. But I haven't found, in our conversation, anything that can reasonbly find a settlement of your particular doubts.

Rather than continue chasing doubts and the weirdness of human habits (lest it become itself a habit), is there perhaps something you already believe without question that you haven't mentioned?

(and,... I don't like to keep digging into the side-tunnel, but... clearly, common sense isn't working for our Himalayan Out-builders, so I don't understand how it's working better for them than Divine Command)

Belfry Bat said...

((I'm sorry, that was... maybe that was me trying to miss the later point on menses-superstitions, but, you know, you did rather miss my point about what God's speech might sound like in the superstitious communities))

Sheila said...

I just don't like it when my past as seen as a reason why my hesitations and suspicions aren't rational. It's as if a person were to say to a grown child-abuse victim: "The only reason you are so adamant about not beating with your kids with a belt is because you were abused." Well, obviously! Doesn't mean it's wrong, though, does it?

You want to know something I believe without question. Um .... I am not sure there is any such thing. I believe that the physical world exists and that my senses and the senses of others are usually credible, if limited in what they can perceive. I believe this because it seems more likely than not; it's not a belief that's immune to critique, but it seems a good explanation of the world. And I believe that I should follow my own moral intuitions, not because they are infallible, but because they are the best I've got. Certainly I am willing to question my moral conclusions if it can be shown that my highest directives (love others, don't harm anyone) are better served by different means than the ones I'm using, but I'm not really willing to question that loving others is a good thing, because loving others is how I choose to live my life.

Aside from either of those two things, I hope I'd be willing to question anything, and insist on believing the thing that has better evidence.

If I ever said I didn't "like" the death penalty, and left it at that, that was very sloppy of me. I oppose the death penalty because I think life has value, and that no benefit of it outweighs the harm of killing someone. And this is not exactly an un-Catholic position -- the last three popes have reaffirmed it!

You're a little hard to understand at this point. When you say "what God's speech might sound like in the superstitious communities," do you mean, "The Bible is not the story of what God actually said, but of what the Israelites mistakenly thought God had said"? I was going with that up to a couple of months ago, but I found the Church has condemned this interpretation. What the inspired authors really meant to say, that is what the passage really means. (With perhaps additional meanings over the top of that, of course.) So if God says, "Stone adulteresses," what he actually literally did say, and what he meant to say, was "stone adulteresses." There can be metaphor, but if there is, it has to be known and intended by the human author.

And that's why I don't understand it: if God knew that common sense alone wasn't going to be enough, that men are going to force women to live in cold shacks for a quarter of every month, why wouldn't he trouble to say "don't do that"? Why instead would he suggest that we SHOULD do that? Is the suffering of women for thousands of years just not important to God? Or is God somehow incapable of teaching bronze-age Israelites anything that they couldn't plausibly have figured out on their own?

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