This ... may or may not be helpful to anyone who isn't me.
Here's what it's for: it's for those times at two in the morning when I have somehow managed to reason myself out of everything I believe in. But I am afraid to try to reason myself back into faith, because I am afraid that I'd only be brainwashing myself into believing. I know from experience how easy it is to believe in things that you surround yourself with, so that that worldview makes more sense and you don't feel like questioning it. So if I stop questioning my faith and start reading lots of Catholic stuff to try to convince myself it's true, wouldn't that be just deceiving myself?
This is the sort of thinking that makes sense at two in the morning.
So over time, I've come up with an argument for why, if one is an atheist, but feels that maybe one could believe again, it's worth the effort. This isn't Pascal's wager -- it's not about acting as if you believe even though you don't. It's about trying to think your way back into believing, if you can.
Here's how I see it. Religion is useful. Psychologists will tell you that having a firm belief-set and moral code can be very mentally healthy. It keeps you from constantly questioning everything -- you don't have to re-reason everything every time someone asks you a question, because you have a consistent belief system that can be applied to various situations. You also have the comfort of calling on the aid of a higher power.
Morally, it benefits all of society when people act with firm, altruistic ideals. Sure, it may be beneficial to an individual to act selfishly, but if everyone acts that way, everyone will suffer. So it makes sense for all people to act altruistically. Also, it helps if their morals are consistent, not able to be swayed by one's emotions or reasoned out of at moments when one's reason is swayed by circumstances. (I should remind you that I am highly pessimistic about the ability of humans to ever be objective, much less consistently objective. When you're mad at your kids, it's so easy to convince yourself that yelling at them will "do 'em good" even though, in a calm moment, you believed it was harmful.)
A utilitarian moral system sounds rational, but it relies on the ability of humans to be able to know which moral choices are likely to prevent the most suffering and cause the most happiness, and no humans are actually in a position to know this. And many of our moral choices are made under pressure, when we don't necessarily have the time to consider all possibilities. For fallible humans, it makes sense to have a deontological moral code -- one that is rules-based rather than consequences-based, since we can't actually know the consequences. So rather than ask ourselves every time, "Would killing my grandfather cause more happiness than it takes away?" (I mean, when you're mad at Grandpa, it might seem the answer is "yes" even though it isn't true), it's better to say "My morals forbid me from killing Grandpa."
Now, when we consider morals from the point of view of self-interest -- our strongest instinct, though as I've said before not our only one -- it may seem that it's a good idea at times to make exceptions to our moral code. A person who agrees not to cheat, in the hopes that people will not cheat him, might still cheat if he knows no one else will find out about it. This is a net negative for society. So for a strict moral code to work even when people are being driven more by self-interest than altruism, it is necessary for there to be rewards and punishments for following or not following the moral code. Hence any religion that's morally useful is going to have an afterlife where we suffer the consequences of our actions. This ties self-interest to moral behavior.
(The idea of the afterlife is also very useful in keeping people from abandoning the religion -- if a person is uncertain as to the truth of his religion, he will stick with it as long as he fears retribution for not doing so. This is one of the reasons why traditional religions that focus on hell seem to be better at keeping their members. However, this argument is actually a net negative when it comes to convincing me to stay Catholic. I don't want to distract from my argument by explaining why, but perhaps you can guess?)
Now there are lots of religions that fit this description, so why be Catholic?
Well, firstly, the moral code of Christianity is superior in many ways to other religions. Jesus, whether you believe he is God or not, came up with some very radical ideas which turned out to be very beneficial: love your neighbor, love your enemy, return good for evil, give up your life for your friends.
Love your neighbor is not too radical -- altruism has always been respected. But Jesus' view of what it means to love your neighbor is radical -- it suggests putting another's good far above your own, even to the point of death. Altruism is great for the success of humanity -- no wonder Christianity was so immediately successful. They helped widows and orphans, gave out of their substance to the poor, and generally treated each other well. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that? So despite persecution, the early Church won converts hand over fist.
And love your enemy, do good to those who curse you, and so forth? That is truly radical; I can't find anyone else in the ancient world who said this. Returning good for evil halts the cycle of retribution that causes so much war and evil in the world. Of course, Christians throughout history haven't followed this teaching very well, but it's still a good teaching. If you abide by it, you personally might suffer -- that's the scary part -- but the benefits to society are wide-ranging. I am not sure that the modern world could have reached such a level of peace and cooperation as it has without adopting at least the ideal of this rule. And yet this rule is almost impossible to live by if you think you will never be rewarded for it. Why give up your life to an unjust aggressor instead of hitting first? Well, because you will go to heaven if you do. Having less fear of death -- seeing as fear is a primary motivator for aggression -- is an excellent thing, especially if it is coupled with a good moral code.
Christianity also comes with the idea of a kind and loving God who is always willing to listen to you. And that has helped people through all kinds of tight spots. Humans need to be loved unconditionally; it seems that we can't love anyone else until we have first been shown love by another. And that's a terrible thing for those children who aren't loved by their parents, because they have not been loved enough to be able to give love. Belief in a God who loves them unconditionally can help.
The Catholic Church has extra advantages over other brands of Christianity. It has a vast richness of both philosophical and mystical texts which can appeal to a wide variety of people. It is reason-based, so you don't have to check your brain at the door; odds are, if you have an idea about some part of Catholic teaching, there is someone equally bright who has struggled with it as well. It has a genealogy readily traceable back to the original apostles, and it doesn't rely entirely on Scripture -- which, if you've read some of the confusing bits of the Bible, you know is very handy.
It also has a sacramental life. These sacraments create sacred space; they appeal to all the senses and give weight to what we believe. Holy water, chrism, the Eucharist ... all appeal to us on a level other than abstract reason, making it easy to participate. Scientists can join right in with mentally challenged people; it doesn't require brilliance. Children can get something out of it. Our brains are not biological computers; they operate on a variety of conscious and subconscious levels, so appealing to more than one of these is good.
Confession is an extra special case -- because what it symbolizes, it truly is. Non-Catholics might joke about it, but in reality, it is pretty impossible to go into a dark box and say your sins out loud if you're not really sorry for them. And yet you have to, to be right with God. No pretending all is well, or imagining God is maybe okay with it even though you're not really sorry. Nope. Own up to them, call them what they are, and promise out loud that you won't do it anymore. I daresay the rest of the world could use to do this more. A big part of Catholic spiritual life is continual self-improvement -- you're never "saved," you're never "done." Did this one good thing? Okay, now do more. It's a clearly mapped out path for always making yourself into the person you want to be. I'm sure that is more likely to produce good results than an ideology that says you are fine just as you are, even if it is less comfortable.
And all those "silly rules"? Well, some of them aren't so silly. Considering how children suffer from divorce, having a prohibition against it does make sense, although some people suffer from that prohibition. Annulments help, but in some cases someone might have their marriage fall apart through no fault of their own, be denied an annulment, and not be able to get married again in the Church. So the rule might be bad for individuals -- but it can be beneficial to a community, because it prevents some divorces and creates a culture where divorce is not acceptable. And the prohibition on birth control is useful, because it's preserved the understanding (which the rest of the world lacks) that sex is sacred and results in babies. That leads to people taking it a lot more seriously, and considering it does very often result in babies even when people are using birth control, taking sex seriously is (in my mind) a good thing. It is even arguable that the prohibition on masturbation is useful in the same way -- it teaches people from adolescence on to respect the sexual power, to take it seriously, and to learn to say no to it as necessary. When I hear about husbands who pressure their wives for sex even when they're sick, or cheat because they were away from their wives for a week and couldn't get sex any other way, I ask myself .... shouldn't they have learned this by now? Learning to be the master of your impulses is a lesson that everyone owes it to themselves -- and everyone else -- to learn.
For the rest, though? Fish on Fridays, Mass on Sundays, that sort of thing?
There are two answers, one more spiritually useful and one more practical. The first is that sacrifice is a crucial component of worship. We exist in a world we did not create; we did not bring ourselves into the world and we will not decide when we leave it. It makes sense that we should honor that reality. For instance, every meal you eat, it is good to remember that no one owed you this meal. It is pure gift from your creator that you were born on a planet with abundant food, in a country that doesn't suffer from starvation, into a family that could afford to buy dinner. Dozens or even hundreds of people may have worked to bring this food to you. So say grace, be thankful. And yes, occasionally sacrifice eating what you want in favor of something you didn't choose -- eat fish on Fridays. The same with Mass -- who made you into a healthy person who is able to leave the house? You? No. So one day of the week, do what you didn't choose, because the fact that you are even able to choose is a gift. Reminding yourself in these concrete ways that it all is a gift will help you remember to be grateful -- and gratitude is psychologically healthy and pays off in increased happiness, say the scientists.
The other answer is that rules are socially binding. They force us to really commit to a group instead of hanging out on the fringes. They help us form a tie with other people following the same rules. And they discourage us from leaving, when we've gone through all this trouble to follow the rule. I would even say (and this is more from my own experience than anything else) that the more a group's rules intrude on your daily life, the more useful they are. If you aren't allowed to drink alcohol, and you are always invited to drink alcohol, one of two things start to happen: either you feel bad having to go without among your friends, and automatically remind yourself of your commitment to your religion, and thus strengthen it .... or you cut ties with your secular friends and form social groups with other people of your religion so you won't be the odd one out when people are drinking. Either way, you have increased your bonds with your group. The invention of Mormonism's "sacred garment" was genius. You can't ever not be thinking of how Mormon you are. It's on your underwear! Scapulars, rosary rings, and medals fit in here -- a constant reminder of your religious commitment, so it's not just a Sunday activity for you, but who you are.
And why is that a good thing? Well, it helps you to form a dense, strong community with your co-religionists, and it also strengthens your commitment to your moral code. I am not arguing here at all that vaguely sitting around in a pew is going to do you any good. I think that a flourishing spiritual life in which you truly believe and really practice your faith will do you good.
So, at moments of doubt, I remind myself of all this. And I think, if I believe in the Catholic faith, and I happen to be wrong, what might happen?
Well, I might be encouraged to be charitable those around me.
I might find some comfort from it.
I may encourage others to try the Catholic faith, and they too might be helped by it.
It is possible that I may take part in some of the good works of the Church, like feeding the hungry.
I will not use my religion as a way to be nasty to other people who don't follow it, because I truly do not believe that is what Jesus would do.
I will definitely encourage other Catholics to stay away from the toxic pitfalls of religion -- that is, using it just as something to feel superior to others, starting religious wars, and so forth. In this way I can help improve communities of Catholics.
When I die, I'll just die and I'll never know I was wrong. But if, somehow, I could know .... would I regret a life lived like that?
No, I would not.
So I say a little prayer, hoping it gets where I sent it, and go to sleep.