Wednesday, February 4, 2015

An atheist argument for staying Catholic

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.


Katherine S. said...

Well expressed Shelia.

I too have had a lot of similar thoughts. If one is going to pick a religion based on utility I agree that Catholicism wins.

The past few months I have been in a similar re-reasoning through the faith. It has been an interesting thought experiment, albeit one that leaves me wondering to what degree one can arrive at a more or less accurate understanding of reality from natural reason alone.

In my thought experiment, it seems that utility asside, from a rational standpoint, Catholicism seems to make the most sense. I have, however, been observing what I perceive to be difficulties that I had not noticed before. But if I compare it to any other worldview I find the others have more difficulties.

I guess my main frustration is that "objective truth" isn't nearly as easy to come by as I once thought, at least by natural reason alone.

Sheila said...

"But if I compare it to any other worldview I find the others have more difficulties."

Exactly! Sometimes when I express my doubts to others, they say "Well, then, what do you believe instead?" Like my choices are to accept Catholicism wholesale and no longer have any issues with it, or to construct some other internally-consistent worldview.

Atheism doesn't, to my mind, have a satisfying explanation for how Christianity came to be, or why the apostles were so very convinced that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. (There are one or two other issues with it as well.) But Catholicism makes me uncomfortable in the way it professes unchanging doctrine, while in reality its doctrine evolves quite substantially. There are explanations for this (just as atheists have explanations for Christianity) but they are not always completely satisfying. Ditto the problem of evil. The wisest "answers" to the problem of evil I've ever seen tend to conclude that it's a mystery and Christians just have to struggle with it as best they can.

Is the real answer simply "Mystery is a part of human existence, and there never will be an answer that answers all the questions adequately?"

But that raises another question ... why would God create a world in which it was basically impossible to know the truth for sure, and then punish people for not being able to figure it out?

Or is it possible that God isn't that concerned with whether or not we have the right answers? But the Church's view seems to be that he cares a great deal about things like that.

Puzzles upon puzzles. Arguments like this are just so I can keep living my life despite not having all the answers.

Katherine S. said...

For me atheism's difficulties are much more fundamental. It seems to me if one subscribes to a materialist worldview than freedom is an illusion. Yet, even the staunch materialists who hold that our actions are completely predetermined by our biology and upbringing, say that people should be held responsible for their actions (at least in the handful of articles I have read). It seems like that is a pretty epic degree of cognitive dissonance to me.

If materialism is true than it seems that in addition to freedom one must throw out love, goodness, and even to a certain extent objective truth. I am not sure what that is meaningful you are left with at that point.

Slightly related problem that is connected to the utility aspects that you brought up in your article: is it ever psychologically beneficial to hold false ideas? To phrase it differently can true mental health come from lies? Because it seems that there is a lot of psychological good that comes from a Christian framework, and a lot of psychological dysfunction that would arise (at least for me) from adopting an atheistic framework.

None of my difficulties with the Catholic beliefs/framework are insurmountable or unanswerable. They are just less straightforward than I had previously thought.

I think there is a truth to what you said about mystery. I do believe there is an adequate answer, but that I am likely not capable of understanding it to the degree I should like in this life.

I don't, however, believe that God punishes people for not being able to figure things out. I think that God does care that we strive to come to know the truth and judges based on whether we are doing the best with whatever we have been given. I think that view jives with baptism of desire.

As a child I loved the passage in the Last Battle, where the follower of Tash, encountered Aslan as His true Lord. That is how I have always pictured it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Who was it who said, "You can't reason people out of what they didn't reason themselves into"? I think it was Mencken, but Google isn't backing me up. Well, whoever said it, my experience bears it out: every time I reason myself into something (which can range from abortion to vaccines to Holocaust denial), I only set myself up for the arguments of the opposing side. The things which truly endure are those which I simply know to be true or have faith are true. It's a very scary way to live! But as Pope Benedict XVI wrote back when he was a Cardinal, to be a Christian is to be nailed to a cross that is nailed to nothing. And what I'm trying to say is that the good thing about brainwashing yourself is that you can un-brainwash yourself just as easily. So don't sweat that part too much!

I'm sure that you're already praying for stronger faith, but it seems to me (at least based on your second paragraph) that you want it to come in a vacuum or as a miracle akin to what happened to St. Paul on the road to Damascus--or simply on the terms that you find best. (I recall you saying that you wouldn't cover your head in church unless an angel came down from Heaven with a bunch of reasons for you that you couldn't refute--and even then you might not do it. LOL!) Now, there's no reason why you wouldn't get an extraordinary miracle like that. In fact, if it's what you really need, then I'll pray that you do! But I do want to put in a good word for all that suspicious "Catholic stuff" . . .

One reason we Catholics have surrounded ourselves with sacramentals for centuries is precisely that they can have the effect of strengthening our faith. Yes, they may be lulling us into a false sense of the truth, but keeping away from them is like refusing to pray because of a worry that regularly talking to a God who might not even be there will just strengthen the delusion. If you did that, you'd be fairly certain that you weren't brainwashing yourself into believing, but you'd also have put up a blockade against grace and made it harder for yourself to receive it.

Finally, here's something I heard last week, in a recording of one of Art Bell's radio interviews of Father Malachi Martin. During the second half, they both answered questions from callers, one of whom described himself as an atheist. The caller said that he sometimes watched believers and wished that he could believe, too, and Father Martin pounced on him (LOL!) to say that wishing you had faith is not a sign of the absence of faith, but a sign of the beginning of faith. I hope that you can take your struggles in the present as that beautiful sign of things to come in the future, Sheila. =)

Sheila said...

Katherine, here's the problem: if I had never heard of the Catholic Church, but tried to live a good life, I could receive baptism of desire. But since I have -- since I am, by all accounts, a well-catechized Catholic -- I don't have invincible ignorance. If I left the Church, I would be committing the sin of apostasy, and if the Church turns out to be true, most of the stuff I can find tells me that I would go to hell for that. After all, I have free will and could choose not to do that.

Now this terrifies me, not just because I don't want to go to hell, but because it seems to me that with that sort of threat hanging over their heads, even people who don't really believe will stay Catholic. So can I trust the testimony of anyone? Are my priest, my bishop, even the Pope just hedging their bets like I am? Does anyone truly believe this stuff?

Well, I think the Pope for sure definitely does, and that helps. Also the martyrs; there is a reason their name means "witness." Thank God for them, right?

The idea that a lie could be psychologically helpful isn't strange to me. The materialist view would say that humans' culture evolved, just like our genes do, and since religions have a benefit (specifically, encouraging altruistic actions and moral codes, which help us cooperate with one another) tribes with religions outcompeted those who don't. And our genes followed suit, selecting for those who have a predisposition to a religious instinct.

I kind of hate myself when I talk this way, because it is very cold. But that is the explanation given.

As far as free will, it really depends. There are atheists who do believe in free will -- I think they would say it is an epiphenomenon.

Sheila said...

"And what I'm trying to say is that the good thing about brainwashing yourself is that you can un-brainwash yourself just as easily."

Hahahaha. I wish. The trouble with brainwashing is that it makes you no longer want to unbrainwash yourself.

I started off this journey with the thought that questioning could do no possible harm, because after all the Church has all the answers and they're all true. I thought all I had to lose was my doubt. And in the end, when asking the questions, I get an answer from each side ... and the atheist answer just seems more *likely.*

Now I have said before that I'm not a slave to what is likely; all I really need is for the Catholic way to be possible. But it is disturbing to me to choose something that seems so unlikely.

Really, what it comes down to is this: if I am a servant of God, it is sinful to entertain these doubts -- no matter how unlikely it all is, I should just believe. It is possible for me to believe, so a failure to do so is a sin.

But if I am a servant primarily of the truth, I should believe whatever is most credible -- what is easiest to believe, what is most likely. In which case I should give up on the Church; staying in it is not a 100% rational choice if the probabilities are below 50%.

What I've realized, on reflection, is that Truth is not the aspect under which I worship God. That is to say, I care less about truth than about goodness. In God, of course, these things should be united, but in me they are not. And when it comes down to it, I want what is good more than what is true. So I've proven that the Catholic Church is good, not that it is true. I hope it is true, because it is good. And I choose to believe it is true, because it is good. And because if God exists -- and I think, philosophically speaking, some non-contingent being must exist -- I can't seem to believe he would mind my making my decision on these grounds. (At the same time I have enormous respect for those truth-worshipers who disbelieve in religion because they don't believe it is true ... if what they worship is Truth, won't they have been worshiping God all along, just as I am by worshiping Goodness?)

But of course this all feels a bit like taking the blue pill, and although by nature I'm more of a blue-pill-taker -- I would rather be happy than right -- it causes me to feel I must be deceiving myself. And I don't think I am deceiving myself, but merely making a choice which takes into account the various evidence -- AND the various risks.

Anyway this argument definitely is in favor of all that irrational "Catholic stuff." I have felt guilty in the past for doing that sort of thing, on the grounds that it isn't entirely rational, but this argument (as I was writing it) pretty much convinced me that if I want the benefits of religion, I should be doing not less, but MORE irrational Catholic stuff. Bring on the scapulars, eh? It might help. (Not rosaries though. I draw the line at rosaries.)

SeekingOmniscience said...

Warning: Blog-post-length comment to follow. Edit: Apparently you have a 4000 character limit. Well, I'll do it in pieces.

So I don't know if you've read any Leo Strauss. Actually, I haven't either, but one of my friends in college was exceedingly enamored of him.

Anyhow, he was famous partially for his ideas regarding philosophy and religion as the two possible ways of life. Religion required you to commit yourself to a specific way of life; to affirm that you would follow it, irrespective of any evidence that came down the road; to bind yourself to some particular community and their beliefs. Philosophy, on the other hand, required you to commit yourself to a zetetic quest; to affirm you would follow truth, no matter where it led; to never bind yourself permanently to any community, because if you decided they were mostly wrong you would have to leave. Religion was the only thing that could give the masses good morals; a few could follow philosophy, but it was not as unwavering in its moral guidance.

Now, in fact, Strauss also thought that through history (1) most people could not be philosophers, so most people needed religion and (2) even philosophers had to dissemble that they believed particular religions, because they had to blend in. And he liked to go through a bunch of famous works by various ostensibly theistic philosophers (Maimonides, some arabic philosophers), and so on, and show they were really secretly atheists. He got a lot of flack for this, for obvious reasons. But there's probably some evidence for it.

Anyhow, in the above, it seems like you're making a good argument to be a Straussian. Maybe you're making a good argument to dissemble being Catholic, if you're in a Catholic community; or an argument as to why it is advantageous for many people in society to be Catholic. But I don't... well, I don't see it so much as an argument to be Catholic., arguing from the benefits of belief in X to belief in X is something that feels kinda foreign to me, as you know. It seems pretty straightforward to me that if you tell yourself that X has less evidence for it, then you're also telling yourself X is less probably true. And if you tell yourself that, I don't know what it means to say that you choose to believe X is true. It seems maybe you could act like X is true, but what does it mean to say to yourself (1) X is true and (2) X is probably not true? This doesn't make sense to me.

But let me take the bull by the horns.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Suppose I grant that there are a lot of object-level benefits to believing in Christianity. It's nice to think there's someone up there. It's good for society to be altruistic and for people to not defect in prisoners dilemmas. It's beneficial to be in tight-knit communities. Suppose we grant that.

The problem, though--and all the really problematic aspects of religion--begin to seep through at the meta-level; not at the level of all the concrete beliefs that you're advocating (because you're a thoughtful and non-nasty person, so of course the beliefs you're advocating are nice!) but at the level of all the things that you need to do to maintain them.

So, for instance, in order to maintain these beliefs--as you point out--it seems like you're supposed to squelch curiosity. And--suppose--at this point--these particular beliefs you want to protect by squelching curiosity are beneficial. But is squelching curiosity generally beneficial? Heck no. That's a really bad move--for science, for people in harmful religions, and so on and so forth.

Or, for instance, you could say it's a good idea to follow the rigid moral code you have, because people can reason themselves to lots of crazy positions. And maybe, if in this case you have a pretty good code, that's a good idea. But generally speaking, people should try to do what they think is best rather than following a rigid code, because, well, those are often bad. If you were to be reading a book set at almost any time in history, and a character were thinking, "Hey, my traditional moral code says X, but it really seems like that's hurting a lot of people," you would want them to question it really dang hard.

And maybe, in some cases, professing a belief you don't really see evidence for has nice effects. But is it a good habit to get into? Is it good to believe that this dude is trustworthy, even if you don't have really good evidence? Or to go with your gut in difficult cases removed from experience? Generally speaking, again, you want people to try to believe that which they see as having the most evidence for it. To do otherwise can, well, kill scientific discoveries, on the large scale--or just hurt people, on the small scale. It's not a good idea to say "I think this car / situation / person is safe, because I'd like it, even though I don't have sufficient evidence for it."

Or how about this. Maybe doing irrational stuff that will help you believe, although it isn't evidentiary, might have nice effects in this case. So taking holy water, wearing scapulars, kissing relics--maybe it will help you belief, which has nice effects. But in every other case, do you want people do to things that will help them believe, although these things have nothing to do with the truth of what they believe? Is this a good idea in relationships? Is it a good idea for people in other religions? Is it a good idea in jobs?

SeekingOmniscience said...

So yeah, there are some object-level features of Catholicism that are nice, as you've pointed out. But look at the meta-level things that one does to maintain them--one squelches curiosity, follows beliefs rigidly without evidence, believes things without sufficient evidence, and does irrational stuff to help you believe apart from the truth of what you believe. And these are all really, really bad habits, with easily identifiable, genuinely harmful effects in how they influence people. They are directly related to lots of the bad things that religion has done in history--I'd point these out, but this should be obvious. And they are directly related to lots of the bad things you can see religion doing in people's personal lives.

(Relevant LW post, which I think is pretty good: This points out a fair amount of how I think all these bad meta-level ideas are, ah, problematic.)

...but more than that, I'm not really sure all of the object-level ideas are that good.

Take the idea that you're loved by someone. A long time ago, I began to ask myself what this relationship meant--what followed from the fact that I was apparently friends with Christ. Now, in the case of friends on earth, it's actually pretty easy to explain some observable consequences to being friends with people. So, if was jobless, homeless, and starving, and I knocked on your door in the winter, I have an expectation that you'd probably feed me and let me sleep for the night, oddly enough. And similarly, hopefully I'd be willing to do things for you. It would be a weird friendship if absolutely nothing follow from our friendship regarding what we can expect from the other person.

But what of my friendship with Christ? Does it mean I won't get tortured to death? Does it mean I won't get killed, along with all my friends, in a genocide? Are there any particular expectations I have about reality, that I wouldn't have otherwise, given that I have a friendship with Christ? I tried to think of some for a long time--but as it is... well, absolutely nothing that I can tell follows from with my supposed friendship with Christ. He apparently just wants people to be friends with Him... but also isn't really willing to do a lot of the things that friends do with each other. Like talk to each other, for instance. So I don't see the object-level benefit of this behavior. It's really stressful to tell yourself you have a personal relationship with someone when none of the things that usually follow from a personal relationship follow from this particular relationship.

SeekingOmniscience said...

...Hell. I'm just going to say that belief in Hell has been generally speaking a bad thing in my life, and it also has in many people's lives. And it was because I believed it, really firmly, at one point. If you think that there is infinite negative value attached to bad behavior, then if there is a 1% chance that a particular behavior actually brings about infinite negative value, you'll not do it. Or if there is a 0.01% chance. Especially if you read all the people in the past who really think that Hell is easy to get into. "If you say to your brother, fool!" etc. "Wide is the road, and many" etc. Aquinas saying that violating any of the decalogue is a mortal sin. (Not to mention the stress of trying to act as if Sunday is a nice friend-to-friend conversation, as people try to describe prayer, when you've been told by that friend that if you don't come for the friend-to-friend conversation he'll throw you into the basement and have you tortured forever. It makes it seem a bit... meh.)

I don't think I'm going to go through all the object-level things. In any event--all the object-level behaviors are things I can maintain, even if I don't believe! I can still not defect in prisoner's dilemmas! I can still be altruistic and have psychologically healthy sexual behaviors and so on and so forth! And I can do so without the stress of trying to tell myself I believe something that I don't see good evidence for. And I can do so with the nice, clearer mental habits that I gain by dropping the old ones.

[Usual caveats about this having been written fairly quickly, etc.]

Sheila said...

Well, that's approximately what I thought you would say. ;)

I don't see why you take it as given that one should always believe the more-likely thing. If you're on a jury, and you are 60% sure that a defendant is guilty, with a 20% margin of error, should you opt for the death penalty? Me, I'd acquit, because of the margin for error and the high cost of a false positive.

If I were writing to say that, as I'm 40% sure global warming is real, I had decided to cut my carbon output, I don't think anyone would care or consider I was being less than objective. What I'm doing here is showing that the risks of being wrong are slim, while the benefits of being right are high, so I give the benefit of the doubt to the religion side of things. That's my defense against any argument that my preference in the matter makes me less objective -- well, of course it does, if objectivity means going with whatever is 51% likely. But if objectivity means weighing one's level of certainty together with a risk-benefit analysis, then perhaps I am.

I mention the benefits of faith even if it turns out I am wrong, but I didn't mention the risks of abandoning faith if it turns out it was true -- that I would have betrayed someone who gave his life for me and miss out on an eternal relationship with a person who could love me more completely than anyone else ever will. That's kind of a big deal. (Honestly I shouldn't have mentioned hell, because for various reasons it's not a major part of my thinking.)

But in any event I'm not saying it would be good to shut down curiosity or ask no questions ... rather that I will keep seeking answers, while spending most of my time spent searching reading Catholic sources rather than outside ones. I'm pretty sure I will always be a Catholic with some questions. Never questioning is simply not in my nature. And if those questions still didn't have answers, despite looking for them in Catholic sources, what then? I daresay belief would become impossible for me by that point.

However I don't think boundless curiosity and constant questioning are necessarily fully good. Constant questioning will make you crazy (well, it's making ME crazy!). Like I told you about brainwashing, all it is is using the perfectly normal habit of stopping a line of inquiry -- something we have to do in order to stay sane -- in instances where it is not reasonable to use it. Saying "I will never ever stop a line of reasoning" is the way to madness... I know, having tried it.

As far as moral rules go, it helps that I've never thought of the moral code as a set of separate rules, but more of a "love God and your neighbor and everything follows from that" sort of thing. So I don't really think that this could be easily twisted into an Inquisition, holy war, or other atrocity. What would Jesus do is actually a pretty good rubric ... although of course we must admit that people are rather quick to assume Jesus would do exactly what we would do. However, Catholic moral teaching as explained today, with its emphasis on the value of individual human life, is an excellent thing in my opinion, and I don't see any place where it fails. There are Catholics who say "I know that the moral law says we shouldn't drop nukes on cities, but, well, that was one of those tough cases where we just have to go against it." Nope, not me. I feel very deeply -- not just in a religious sense -- that to purposely kill a single innocent human being is morally wrong. I can't fathom an instance where this would not be so.

However, what if I were put in an instance where I felt, in the heat of the moment, that maybe I should kill one innocent person -- let's say it's you, for fun -- to save hundreds of others. In that case it may be helpful to me to remember my religion and say to myself, "I have reasoned that God is real and he would not want me to do this, so I won't do it."

Sheila said...

Whereas I really do not see how atheist altruism holds up against temptation. Why should you not defect in a prisoner's dilemma? What could possibly motivate you to give up your life for any reason -- considering that there is no possible benefit where there is no life? If we were in prison together, and you were told by the guards to shoot me or they would shoot you ... is there anything that could possibly motivate you to refuse?

The Strauss idea is tempting, but isn't it just gnosticism by another name? That is, it has appeal because one can dictate a hardline moral code for *other* people while preserving one's own right to take things on a case by case basis. Are other people more likely to be swayed by their emotions than I am? Am I more objective or altruistic than anybody else? Wouldn't it be prideful and likely incorrect to answer "yes"?

Here I go with Kant -- you should, at the very least, have the same moral code for yourself as you would like others to have.

As far as relationship with God goes, are you saying that if my husband says he loves me, that's no good unless he gives me candy to show for it? There is no benefit from love aside from certain visible actions?

How would you feel if someone told you that, when you were a baby too young to remember, someone had given their life to save yours. Are you saying that love would be meaningless to you because you don't experience the benefit? Or couldn't you say that, at the very least, it gave you some emotional comfort to know that someone had considered you important enough to give witness to your value by the sacrifice of theirs?

Other than this detail, I admit you're right about that. Some people seem to be comforted by their relationship with God, but I am not really. However, the thought remains that if I believed more, if I could dig up better explanations and evidence, then perhaps I would obtain more comfort from my prayer life than I currently do.

But I want to stress here that you seem to be objecting to an argument that I didn't quite make -- I am not saying it is good to shut down inquiry, stop asking questions, to say, in effect, "I choose no longer to think, but only to believe." I did that once and it was such a cluster ... bomb ... that I am probably not capable of doing this again, even if it were justified. And I don't really see that this is what the Catholic Church is asking us to do when it says to believe; at any rate everyone I ask says that it's okay to have questions and try to find answers to them. The moral peril comes in when the answers you find don't square, and you have to leave ... but, well, I'm not there, I hope never to get there, but I'm not stopping asking questions out of fear that I will arrive there.

Rather, I'm saying, "Based on the available evidence, it is okay to start acting, though without having reached an end to reasoning." If we wait for ironclad reasons to do everything, we'll never do anything; if instead we only wait till we're 51% sure, we may do the wrong thing. Hence, weighted risk-benefit analysis.

Sheila said...

P.S. If abiding by the Catholic faith were personally more difficult than it is, I might very well come down differently in this risk-benefit analysis. The facts that I am straight, married, want a biggish family, and surrounded by an almost exclusively Catholic support network, all do factor in somewhat. I hope that doesn't make me appear terribly mercenary (so to speak) but in the interest of honesty, I should mention it.

This is one of many reasons I don't particularly encourage others to think the way I do about it.

Sheila said...

Okay, I read your Less Wrong link (and, of course, from there to several others) and I think there's a distinction to be made. If one "believes in belief" (what an accurate description of my state of mind) or *hopes* something is true, it is perfectly legitimate to focus one's efforts on verifying this. That is what a scientist might do when trying to find a cure for cancer. There's been some preliminary evidence that compound A cures cancer, and boy does he hope that's true -- because he wants people to be cured, and also because he wants to be the guy who cured cancer and get grant money and maybe a Nobel Prize and so forth. He isn't "objective," he has a preference. And it is quite reasonable for him to spend the bulk of his time trying to show that compound A cures cancer.

However, it would be wrong for him to falsify evidence to make it look like compound A was more effective against cancer than it is, to choose not to read studies showing it didn't cure cancer, and so forth.

When you shared your link, I thought, "I don't want to read atheist stuff, it will put me in a state of spiritual angst and I find that uncomfortable." And some days I do listen to this because I have a life to live and going from one spiritual crisis to the next is exhausting. The nice thing about spiritual crises, though, is that they will wait for you - a question unanswered (in my experience) just hangs around and bugs you. Anyway, this time I chose to read it, because if I am *afraid* of reading the wrong arguments, I may as well go hand in my "faith card" right now, because I will never have any sort of substantiated faith ... the "real faith" that I would like to have, contrasted to the "belief in belief" which I have, though my intention is that this should be a temporary state.

To seek out information which will confirm the worldview you want to have is reasonable, in my opinion. So is to live your life as if a conclusion were true, as something to do in the meantime while you work on verifying that conclusion. (And fear of brainwashing was stopping me from fully doing that (like scapulars and daily prayer and such), but it occurs to me that if it really is true, I'm avoiding potential avenues of grace.) But it IS problematic to avoid conflicting viewpoints. Though in general I don't need to seek out conflicting viewpoints; they come and find me, alas. Especially since I am not really comparing two viewpoints so much as testing the consistency of a single viewpoint -- reading Catholic sources is a great way of going looking for problems with it, even if you don't mean to.

Ariadne said...

I am not good at making arguments, so I'm not going to get involved in that aspect of this conversation.

SeekingOmniscience, I just wanted to point out that what you're describing (when you talk about not doing something because there is a 1% or 0.001% chance that it is mortally sinful) sounds like scrupulosity, which is a form of OCD, which is a psychological disorder. It's a difficult thing to live with, but it isn't the Church's fault. In fact, the Church would advise you to go with what seems more likely, because you can't completely trust a conscience that fears anything and everything could send you to Hell. I don't know if I explained that well, but I hope it was understandable.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I'm obviously on Team Truth (LOL!), but I hope you don't mind if I nitpick something that you said. I think that you make a huge leap when you say that what is true is what is most likely. Even in criminal cases, the most likely story isn't always the true one. I respect the aspect under which you worship God, but I think you're mischaracterising those for whom truth is the trump.

Then again, you may be perfectly describing other people you've interacted with and I'm just talking about myself again. =P But I do find everything equally likely! I spent several years sincerely believing something embarrassingly similar to the alternative history in Dan Brown's DaVinci Code, and even today, I can totally do an Ancient Aliens marathon and emerge from it seeing so clearly how the human race could have been engineered by extraterrestrials that it seems as likely as everything else I could believe.

Having said all that . . . if I had to rank different belief systems in order of likelihood, I'd place karma and reincarnation on top.

Someone whom this discussion has been reminding me of is Stephen Fry, who recently gave what I think was the ultimate atheist argument against belief in God. He said that all you need to do to know that God doesn't exist to look at all the children who are dying of bone cancer. (He started with that, but the list got longer.) And he said that if God were real and they came face to face after Fry's death, Fry would refuse to enter Heaven. What I found interesting about what he said is that it wasn't about what is true or not true as much as it was about what is good or not good. And his reasoning is similar to yours when he says that God can't be true because he so clearly sees that God can't be good.

(Now that I think about it, Fry's argument doesn't cover an all-powerful being who designed a karmic universe. In such a universe, children with bone cancer were probably mass murderers in another life.)

Sheila said...

If you believe in choosing the truth, how can you if everything is equally likely? "Everything is equally likely" seems synonymous to me with "it's impossible to know the truth," which is what I (more or less) think about some things.

A person who prefers what is true would worship Cthulhu if he happened to be real. Whereas a person who prefers what is good might pull a Stephen Fry and withhold worship from a God they did not think was good. I would. When people try to scare me with the thought that maybe God is this horribly legalistic being who would send you to hell for an honest mistake, all I can say is .... why in the world would I want to spend eternity with such a God? Since there is no possible useful course of action that information would guide me to, I see no point in following that line of reason.

It's a good reason for throwing out solipsism, determinism, and the belief we are the mucus of the Great Green Arkleseizure. What would be the point in these beliefs? They're useless, impossible to disprove, and if acted on would lead to choices that another worldview would consider dangerous or morally repugnant. So it seems safe to me to throw this out.

Meanwhile I think the whole probability-percentage idea is rather silly anyway. How can I tell if God's existence is 90%, 50%, or 1% likely? If I can find even one ironclad logical argument, that's not a percentage, that's for sure, right? But, since my ability to be logical is limited -- I'm not a computer, and I always must make a judgment call about whether to accept the premises -- I can't come up with ironclad logical arguments.

And of course we know that sometimes what is 1% likely happens to be true, as you point out. I myself am far less than 1% likely to exist -- what were the odds that life would be at all, what were the odds that life should be intelligent, what are the odds that in all that intelligent life there should be someone alive exactly like me? Sometimes scientists will say "the chances of x being y are very slim," and later find that it really is so. So I don't feel it is dishonest to act as if a less-likely proposition were true, just as I still buckle my seatbelt although the odds are slim that this particular trip will end in an accident.

However, I wouldn't actually admit that God's existence is less likely than his non-existence. I think the existence of an intelligence behind the universe is very likely, and given the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, that seems very likely too. There are other religious propositions which I find comparatively less likely.

I did like what I read of Stephen Fry's argument, though I didn't watch the video. It seems a very honest complaint. Given God's existence, he does not seem to care about the things we care about, or abide by the morals he expects of us -- unless, of course, he is constrained in some way we can't see. I generally vote the latter; it seems to me that in the massive web of causes and effects, it may be you can't get rid of bone cancer without getting rid of bones. And without the bones, you couldn't have had the child. And God wasn't willing to build the world without the child.

Enbrethiliel said...


I know you don't like it when I give this answer, which I really don't mean to rub in, but it's all I've got: I received the grace of faith. It's not that I chose truth (though truth does attract me more than goodness), but that truth chose me. I started believing when I was in the middle of some serious occult study, which I then had to abandon, like St. Peter and his nets. (Which is why I totally get where St. Peter was coming from when he asked Jesus what return he and the other Apostles could expect. =P) So while I would worship Chthulu if I truly believed he were real, there's another sense in which I would believe in him only if he were real and also a dispenser of grace. What I have now really isn't something I made for myself. And if God chose to withdraw this grace, for reasons as mysterious as why He chose to bestow it in the first place, I'd really be in trouble!

This is why I'm not very impressed by brainwashing, though this is just a personal opinion. If someone "reasoned" you into something, then someone else can "reason" you out. I think you witnessed a time when a certain corner of the Internet got me down their rabbit hole for two years; well, it was another corner of the Internet that got me out. LOL! It works on a smaller scale when I get myself worked up over Ancient Aliens--and so I've started wondering whether watching what is an essentially silly show may actually be an occasion of sin for me.

This is also why I'm such a big fan of sacramentals and devotions. By working to strengthen what I have, I am less likely to take it for granted and (*gulp*) lose it--though in the end, that's really up to God and not to me. And I realise I might be making him sound like a cold, uncaring God whose word is totally arbitrary, but all I really mean to say is that He's as mysterious as He is loving and merciful.

So I'd agree with you that we can't really know the truth. Remember the Angel who came to St. Augustine in the form of a child trying to pour the waters of the sea into a hole in the sand? I still think that's the best metaphor we've got for our attempts to grasp God with our minds.

But in that case, is there anything that we can do for ourselves? I think so! Off the top of my head, I'd say that it starts with the obligation of the strong to help the weak. How many of us believe only because a religious culture around us props us up? I think that's a good thing--the way so many of us are healthy only because we live in places with good sanitation. But lately, it's more popular to think that it's a bad thing. If something is not a personal, ruggedly individual effort, we tend to find it suspicious.

I don't know if you noticed a recent online discussion among Catholic mothers (at least among the ones whose blogs I read) about how it feels to be creating a Catholic culture "from scratch" for their children. Basically, the mother who got the ball rolling said that she did everything she could to create a Catholic culture in her home, but it felt a little "thin" because it wasn't a Catholic culture that she shared with an entire community and with previous generations. It turned into a bit of an argument because some other mothers took her to be saying, "Your domestic church efforts aren't good enough because you just got them from Pinterest!" (LOL!), when all she meant was that if our best teacher of tradition is Pinterest, then that's one sign that there's something wrong in the larger community. Which is not to disparage individual efforts or family-sized efforts (which are often all we've got these days), but to say that if what works for us isn't also helping others--or is even hindering them--then we may want to consider a change.

Sheila said...

Having kids wakes up a lot of people to the reality that maybe discarding our cultural props was not a good thing. We chose individualism, but now we discover that we are not individuals -- we are families, and some of the members are utterly dependent on others.

About faith though ... if faith is a gift, and some people don't get it, and God swoops down to others and hands it to them ... does that mean that those who don't have the faith aren't to blame for not having it? That all the people around the world who *aren't* Catholic are just doing what God apparently wants them to be doing?

That seems a bit pluralist to me, but perhaps it beats some of the other views out there. Because the reality that even among coldly rational people, not everyone agrees; and among average people (having stuff like feelings and biases and perhaps not stellar intelligence) people disagree all the more. If the reason that they disagree is because God has chosen some to believe and not others .... well, there's no real counterargument to that.

Though on the other hand ... it seems a bit *Calvinist.* Or am I reading you wrong?

SeekingOmniscience said...

Sheila, so I think your at least partially right that I was reacting to an argument you didn't really make. Sorry about that. As evidenced by reading material even from LW, well, you're surely interested in counter-arguments. (Really think LW is useful for help with generalized reasoning, not just about religion, btw.)

The stories I tell me about myself--well, they make me really worry when I see someone say something that makes me think they might maybe swallow a closed, self-reinforcing worldview which can never change because of its internal logic and self-reinforcement, no matter what evidence the external world has. It's like seeing someone get some horrible incurable cancer, but in the mind rather than in the body. So I kinda freak out when I see things that remind me of that, even if but distantly... and some things you say remind me of that.

Re. probability--I get confused sometimes whether you are saying "My subjective probability that there is a God is < 50%, but I choose to believe there is a God anyhow" or whether you are saying "My subjective probability there is a God is less than 50%, but I will act as if there is a God anyhow." The latter makes perfect sense--that's like saying that a 1$ lottery ticket, with a 1/100 chance of wining a milion dollars, is still worth buying--even though you don't actually believe it will win. I don't understand the former, because it seems that "believe" = "rate probability of existence at least > 50%", so the former involves saying that you believe and do not believe at once.

Re. what you said about evidence, seeking confirmatory evidence, and so on, re. the LW post--what you say reminded me very strongly of a conversation I had with Francis Feingold, where he took essentially you position as well. So I'm probably going to have a really long blog post, both to try to help clarify my own mind on this and to respond to y'all's claims.

SeekingOmniscience said...

I would like to add that I know I spelled "you're" as "your" in the aforementioned. Oops.

About atheist morality. Well, first of all, if I had to choose between shooting an innocent person and being shot, I would have to take into account the regrets, self-loathing, and possible eventual suicide that would likely follow from shooting an innocent person--and on the other hand, the peacefulness of non-existence. If the life after so shooting the other person can be counted as worse than non-experience--well then, being shot is surely the reasonably self-interested choice as well as the right choice. (I don't think I exagerate about the kind of self-hatred that would follow from such an action, judging from how I've judged my past actions, and judging by stories I've heard from other people who did bad things. One of the sadder stories I heard--just for how it sort of grabbed me, not for it being the worst--was a dude who had killed prisoners in South America during a war. He was homeless, and said he pretty much always had to have the radio on, or something to fuzz his mind. I'd do a lot to avoid that.)

So that would definitely motivate me to refuse to shoot a generic innocent person--or you. (I mean, the case with someone I know is easier--thinking about your kids, family, etc--makes it much easier to do the right thing.)

More generally, I don't see historic evidence you need some idea of an after life to be altruistic and do nice things for other people.

Romans didn't have much of an idea of an afterlife, but they still sacrificed themselves for the nation. Jews, for a lot of their history, had no real idea of an afterlife--but they still bound themselves to strict rules. I expect that atheist soldiers on battlefields are motivated pretty much the same way as Christian soldiers--not by any possible hypothetical future reward or punishment, but by a kind of felt connection to the people around them. And that seems just as present for athiests as everyone else--that is chiefly what motivates people, not some future considerations.

Of course, there are still psychopaths who don't feel that kind of connection. But generally and for the most part--they aren't moved by promises of morality and future reward anyhow, so that makes no difference.

-- is also relevant for the conversation above--as in, sufficiently relevant that I want to paraphrase it. (I still feel weird putting links to things in conversations, because I feel like should try to engage personally. But it seems better just to put the link there, because it expresses it probably better than I would. I do want to emphasize that I realize you're nothing like the worry I expressed in the former comment--and that I agree that it is ok to [at least for a time] to not read things becuase you want some time to be calm.)

Enbrethiliel said...


There's nothing like a comparison to John Calvin to make me sit up and reconsider. =P I admit that I haven't run my thoughts on faith by an orthodox theologian, and now that you say they sound problematic, I totally want to shut up about them and apologise to you for even bringing them up!

But I don't think that people lack faith because God wants them to lack faith--or that God wants anyone to lack faith. When I raised the possibility that I might lose this grace, I didn't imagine myself going back to occultism and telling anyone who would listen that Catholicism was bunk; instead, I envisioned myself reading St. John of the Cross and begging God to give me that inner light back. =P So I probably wasn't even thinking of faith!

I said I'd shut up, but I'm not, am I? Sigh! But I can at least apologise: I'm so sorry for my blather . . . especially since I'm continuing to do it . . . But there's one more thing I should clear up because I definitely bungled it earlier. If I've made my conversion sound as if it happened out of the blue, well, that's not accurate. What happened first was that after a certain number of trips to a bookstore that shelved the occult books next to the religious books, I couldn't get the face of St. Therese on the cover of A Story of a Soul out of my mind. And after I finally finished her book, I felt that I had friends in Heaven and that it was a real place. Yet I didn't return to the sacraments until some other friends in Business school, whom I hadn't even known were religious, decided to go to confession together . . . and I went along because it was exciting to get into someone's car and drive across town. LOL! If I tried to write a novel about my conversion, the character playing me would be criticised for having no agency . . . for just having things happen to her instead of making them happen herself . . . and yet that is exactly how it all played out!

Now it occurs to me that I can't be the only one you know who didn't believe at one stage of her life, then believed in another. If you know any others, you could ask them where their sense of certainty comes from and get a better answer than mine.

Enbrethiliel said...



In contrast, I am more likely to run into people who believed strongly and then stopped. One sad example is one of the friends in the group that went to confession that day. =( I also used to know a man who did daily Communion, regular confession, even (GASP!) the rosary . . . but who wasn't at peace because he couldn't justify to himself why he was Catholic. He told me that he spent his high school and college years on the question, reading numerous books on theology, apologetics, and even philosophy, but finally grew weary of never getting an answer and became an agnostic. =( I haven't spoken to both of them in yonks and I still pray for them when I remember them.

So why did I start believing when two people who were better Catholics than I stopped? I really don't know, though I would argue to the death that it doesn't mean God has doomed them or loves them less. (Ironically, astrology lets me see an answer without even casting charts for them, because of other details I know of their lives that fit certain patterns.) . . . And now the truth bursts out! What I just wrote in the parentheses represents another mystery that I'm stuck with. For I do find astrology very real, to the point that it can be considered a science. And as I said on my other blog, I'd have to be blind not to see how accurate charts are. By choosing to close my eyes, I'm going entirely on faith and denying something that has proven itself to be perfectly reasonable to me. I don't even have what a friend who went even deeper into the occult got, which was a vision of Mary telling him to reform his life.

This seems similar to what you've written in your post--except that while you worry about being a heretic, I have the scandalous example of centuries of papal astrologers as both consolation and temptation. =P But it's clear that what works to keep me believing isn't going to work for you. You've already experienced putting blind trust in others, and they were jerks. Perhaps by sharing my experiences, I'm doing the opposite of what I recommended earlier: maybe instead of supporting you where you need it, I just throw on another burden. =(

Anyway, let me know if I'm just making things worse, and I'll leave the subject alone!

Sheila said...

What I'm really trying to say is that my subjective belief in God is highly variable depending on my mood. In church this morning, I felt that the Catholic Church is an excellent thing, that God was definitely present, and that it would be foolish to doubt that. But let's get real -- within a week I will surely be doubting it again! And my point is that while my belief remains variable, there is no need for my actions to be -- the brand of Catholicism I try to practice at least does not seem to be *harmful.* I can set aside at least the fear that someday I will find I was wrong and have extreme regret for what I did while believing in the Church ... because I am not doing things which are wrong by a rationalist standpoint either.

So, yes, to answer your question, I choose to ACT out my religion even at moments when I don't believe in it, but at the same time, I also choose to continue to investigate to see if the questions that trouble me might have good answers after all.

I think the article you posted is quite helpful, and was a big part of the viewpoint that helped me get out of Regnum Christi -- the idea that if there's a thought you're afraid to think, you should think it just in case. To me, to recognize that my practice doesn't necessarily have to change when my ideas are a bit shaky -- that I don't have to seesaw back and forth between "acting like a Catholic" and who-knows-what every other day. (I don't say "atheism" because I've given it some thought, and atheism per se just doesn't do it for me. I should explain why eventually....) And that makes me LESS afraid to ask questions than previously.

The fear, you see, is that I would have to forsake a relationship, the relationship I have with God, which benefits me although it is (from my perception) one-sided ... that is, I feel that worshiping and thanking something beyond myself is a good thing, making me humble and at the same time happy, because I realize I am owed nothing, and have been given everything. But I realized that no matter what I believed, even if I thought God was a blind force -- like energy or the laws of physics or some such -- to worship him would be neither dishonest nor bad for me. Because my desire to worship is TRUE, it is a reflection of my true nature as a limited, contingent being.

(I can thank an atheist mutual acquaintance for this idea. That is to say, talking with him made me figure it out.)

And that realization is what made it no longer scary to contemplate various questions like indulgences or salvation for the non-baptized or the historicity of the Old Testament. Because I realize I don't have to throw away everything, even if some details are wrong. (And yes, I can see a decent argument for remaining in the Catholic Church even though I no longer believed in *any* of it -- I wouldn't be the only person in the pews with that attitude for sure! But that would be a bridge to cross if I ever came to it.)

Sheila said...

Enbrethiliel, you are not at all making things worse. ;) Rather, you puzzle me. You seem to be coming at things from a completely different direction than I ever have! I think astrology is bunk (sorry!) though I admit I haven't looked into it much because I don't care about it. I'd call it the human tendency to see patterns, even where patterns don't exist. You know, the way we can find a face in an outlet, or the way that, if you divide the eighth grade at school into two sections, pretty soon section "A" members seem like a totally different sort of person than section "B" members.

But that's just me. Perhaps that really is the shape in which God makes the universe, but it was a shape he never intended you to see ... as if you turned a tapestry around so you could see all the threads, and not to admire but to change it. Not your artwork, so you shouldn't.

As for faith/grace ... well you see that all still puzzles me! Because I know what actual grace is, that certainly is what you are describing, but why do some get it while others who sincerely seek it don't? Or is it offered to all of us, and some of us miss it somehow?

With your story of the Catholic quitting because he couldn't find a justification for his religion ... I think "that is silly, you don't need to PROVE it before it's worth following" but you see that is exactly the sort of thing I am doing! Ah well, we see ourselves differently than we do others, don't we?

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm actually really glad that you think astrology is bunk! Then you'll never be in my awkward position!

As for where you actually are, to be honest, I think you do have faith! =) You wouldn't be struggling with it so much if you didn't. Again, let me paraphrase Father Martin: wanting to have faith is the beginning of faith. It's already evidence that God's grace is in your life. You may feel that you have only a mustard seed's worth of it, but in my opinion, that's already huge! (I had even less, and look what I got! And my favourite Emily Dickinson poem is the one which begins, "God gave a loaf to every bird/ But just a crumb to me . . .")

Perhaps the problem is that faith is something that seems to be coming at you from without rather than welling up from within. You clearly value self-reliance, resourcefulness and reason, and can express those in every other area of your life; so it must be especially frustrating for you to have faith be so divorced from your own efforts and not to know how "to spin" it for yourself when you've clearly got all the "wool" that is necessary. (Forgive my metaphors!) If that is the case, however, I don't know what the solution is. In God's place (Oh, what a dangerous way to begin a sentence . . .), I'd think, "She needs it to come from within, so I'll let it come from within"--but I obviously can't see what God sees, which must include a great good that will come out of your struggles.

Sheila said...

Hm ... I'm not sure my problem is self-reliance, really. My problem, as I see it, is fear, fear of being taken in again, fear of being controlled. I can clearly look at the Mormon church and see it's a total scam (sorry, any Mormons who read this, but I do) and so when I look at my own church, and see many things in common with it, I think "well, maybe that's all it is." It's just so easy to use religion to manipulate people. The martyrs are one of my principle witnesses -- I mean, if they died for Jesus they certainly believed in him at a much higher level of certainty than I have -- but then you read about Jonestown and people drinking poison so they could fly away on an alien spaceship, and you realize .... people can be truly convinced of things that are utterly false.

In short, I fear this song is accurate:

However, it encourages me to remember that EVEN IF some members use inappropriate means to control people -- and there's no doubt that some bishops and priests have -- doesn't mean the whole organization is a lie. What it means is that some people weren't satisfied to have the truth, they wanted to force everyone to accept it ... and they wanted the power a religion can give you.

And what encourages me here is to give myself permission to "be a heretic" a little bit by thinking what makes sense to think. Not because I want to reject the truth, but because as long as I am afraid to think certain things, I will be too paralyzed with fear to truly believe at all! So I ask myself, what alternate worldviews make sense? Which ones don't?

In this way I call the bluff of my fear .... instead of being torn by the fear that I am being brainwashed vs. the fear that if I break the brainwashing, I won't be able to be Catholic anymore, I choose to consider what does make sense and what doesn't, on the grounds that if this is all really true, it'll hold up. And when I did this, I realized that none of the worldviews that are at all reasonable to me actually preclude Catholic practice -- because even from an atheist viewpoint, it isn't harmful to practice my religion, at least not in the way I do it. So the fear that I will wake up one morning and *regret* my years as a Catholic proved unfounded ... which makes me feel better than I've felt about it in like a year.

If I have faith, then "faith" to you means not "belief" but perhaps the desire to believe?

I think what I have is perhaps not faith/belief but love. I have love and a desire to worship. Which is not about what I *know,* but about what I *want.*

And it seems clear to me that God MUST care a great deal more about what we want than about what we know ... since mentally disabled people still get to heaven, and since even the smartest person on earth is still susceptible to error.

Sheila said...

Incidentally, if it didn't require you to do something forbidden, I'd challenge you to a blinded test of astrology. I'd gather five or six friends, tell you whatever information you needed, you'd cast our horoscopes for the next week and not tell us the results. Then when the week was over, you'd send them to us and we'd all guess which horoscope went with each of us. I would put money that we wouldn't be able to tell.

Because from all of seen of them horoscopes are plausibly vague ... you can apply them to almost anything. I remember going out for Chinese food and reading about the animals for every year. I'd think "that one sounds like me ... and that one ... and that one..." but the one that was actually mine didn't sound ANY more like me than the other ones did!

Now since you don't practice astrology, I suppose it doesn't matter whether or not you think it works, so there's no urgency to disprove it to you. In fact, your decision to give it up despite believing it works may be of more value than it would be if you didn't!

SeekingOmniscience said...

Oh, surely there's a way to do the horoscope thing so that it's acceptable to everyone's conscience? It would be in the spirit of scientific enquiry, not of superstition; the hypothesis could be that horoscopes work because of occult natural forces and not demons, so we wouldn't be devil worshipping.

Experiments are fun.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, I wasn't saying that that self-reliance is a bad thing per se.But I was also remembering what you said about not liking labour because it seems like something that just happens to you rather than something you do (and you are quite the doer), and I wondered whether faith had the same resonance for you--but in reverse, because it doesn't seem to be happening.

Going with how Father Martin phrased it, I'd say you have the beginning of faith. Wanting to believe even if you don't believe is certainly better than not believing and not wanting to.

Also, I'm actually not a very good astrologer. (Yay me! =P) So if we really wanted to do a blind test, we'd have to hire a certified professional. LOL! But my problem is not merely the practice of astrology, but the knowledge of it. Even when I was neck deep in it, I didn't care about predicting the future; for me, the real gold was in personality and relationship analysis. And if I ever had a hunch that someone had so-and-so planet in so-and-so sign, in so-and-so house, I cast the chart to check and usually turned out to be right on both counts. And I can still use signs, planets and houses as adjectives today. This kind of understanding doesn't go away.

But now that SO has brought up the spirit of scientific enquiry, I can suggest something that I don't think will be too freaky for Catholics! According to astrology, a woman can conceive only during certain times in a moon cycle, determined by her horoscope at birth. What we can do is take all the tracking data that NFP-practicing women already have and compare the fertile periods on those charts to the fertile periods that we calculate using their birth data.In such a test, the position of the planets in the sky become merely another set of coordinates in a model of time, the way dates are coordinates in the Gregorian model of time.

Sheila said...

Well, scientists are saying moonlight may trigger women to ovulate. So.... science and astrology I guess are saying the same thing there? But since most women don't have moonlight shining on them at night, it doesn't necessarily sync up. However, there was a study of Eskimos that showed something like 90% of them were ovulating at the full moon and having their period when it was new.

Biodynamic gardening kind of draws from this ... in saying that these times are better for seeds and those are better for roots, or whatever. Not sure if that one's at all backed by science.

But what about people born on the same day who wind up being quite different? I have a friend who was born the same day and year as me and it's the only thing we have in common. Everyone in my class at school was born one of two years in the Chinese calendar, and I didn't see that those of us in one of those years were more similar than we were to those in the other.

Maybe you know my sign from this blog, but if not, can you guess it? I don't know what people of that sign are supposed to be like.

It's weird to me because around here, saying "I believe in astrology" is like saying "I'm a gullible idiot" -- because that is what people will assume about you. But perhaps there is some scientific way it could be explained? I do think, though, that using it for personality types and NOT for seeing the future is not wrong. The point is that we are supposed to use God's will as the guide for our choices, not secret knowledge of the future, because we are supposed to trust God.

(I have practiced divination once in my life -- the old "find a random verse in the bible and do what it says" trick -- and it sent me to boarding school. So this is why I am so adamantly opposed to it. I don't know if it was my mind finding meaning in a verse which was what I wanted to hear anyway, or if it was the devil, but what it definitely was NOT, was God revealing his will for me.)

Enbrethiliel said...


You did mention your birthday in a previous post. And because you seem so atypical of your sun sign, I'm betting that you were born between 5:00 and 7:00 pm on that day. (*hoping I'm wrong*) In any case, your friend who shares your birthday would have been born during a different two-hour block.

Over here, where the Chinese population is as successful as it is superstitious, astrology really looks as if it's got something to it. When multimillionaires insist on having a dragon dance through all their offices, factories and warehouses on lunar new year, it seems beside the point to ask what the scientific basis is! But I'm not trying to blame the culture; I think I would have been drawn to astrology if I had grown up where you live.

And while I don't think there can ever be a material explanation for astrology, it makes claims related to health that might check out statistically. (I was never very interested in that part of it, either, but your chart should be able to tell you which health problems you're most likely to have and which treatments will be most effective.)

When I was in elementary school, calling on "the spirit of the glass" was a big thing. Basically, you used a glass like the pointer on an ouija board and tried to get the "spirit" to give you a message. I watched some of my classmates trying--and failing--to do it exactly once. I'm sure that it was bunk most of the time, but I also have no doubt that opening the door to a "spirit" you know nothing about is dangerous.

Sheila said...

Nope, 3:18 pm! It was a Saturday. The rhyme says "Saturday's child has to work for a living," which I find ironic, since I don't.

I looked up the health problems thing, because that I would think would be pretty straightforward -- nope, couldn't be more wrong. Here's what it says:

"The Twins are over-active, and prone to anxiety and insomnia, which is caused by labouring hard enough. Surely, they need to eat a wholesome diet and get sufficient sleep. At a young age, they are prone to respiratory problems or asthma, and at an older age, they are prone to flu and viral infections. At times, their arms and legs might also get afflicted due to restlessness, and hence it would be a lot more better if they could exercise regularly. Usually, their health is very delicate; though, no need to worry about it. Gemini-born tend to get overexcited and also very prone to get nervous at times, which may contribute to a lot of stress formation."

I am physically a very low-energy person, rarely get colds or sick in any way, sleep like a log generally, and am much more prone to laziness than anxiety.

It also says that I'm *tall.* Hahaha!

Of course, that's a sample size of one, but still.

Enbrethiliel said...


And this is exactly what I mean when I say I'm not a good astrologer! LOL! The birth chart "moves" when we move--especially if the change is longitudinal--and I knew very well that you had moved from one end of the US to another. Yet I simply forgot to factor that in when I guessed your birth time. If you look at the time zones, when it was 3:18 on the west coast, it was 6:18 in Fort Royal. So I got the instant of time right, but messed up the coordinates, which are the most important thing, and now no one will ever believe me! ROFL!!! Of course, it's just as well that no one will ever believe me! =)

It was also a health issue that you blogged (migraines) which tipped the scale for me in favour of that time. I recall an astrologer writing that sun signs are the easiest way to market astrology (because you can look them up in a snap), which is why they became so popular, but they're also awfully vague. (And as I said earlier, you are quite atypical of your sun sign!) Since the sun represents (to some extent) our vitality, we wouldn't look there for our health issues. Instead we'd look at the "sixth house," which is the area of the sky just under the western horizon during the time of birth. But that's about where my "expertise" ends! Although I now have a better idea of what your chart looks like, I wouldn't presume to say anything about your health any more than I'd presume to make a modern medical diagnosis! =P

Finally, dear Saturday's child, do you realise how funny it sounds when you say you don't work? It may not be for a living, but you support someone who does, and gosh, reading some of your posts on housework leaves me exhausted! LOL! Seriously, I can't think of any other friend I have who works harder than you do. =)

Also, what do you think of The Monkees? I know you love Rush and they're as different from Rush as you can get while still being a "guitar band," but they have a song called Saturday's Child. I know because I was born on a Saturday, too! =D

Sheila said...

Well, I still win on this one ... because I was born in Virginia Beach, a few hours' drive from here. My husband insists that being born in Virginia has affected me for life and that is why I was drawn to come back here! I don't buy it, but on the other hand .... I like Virginia a lot. Not Virginia Beach, though, it's not a very nice town in my opinion .... having been there only once as an adult.

If you saw how I spend my days, you'd see I'm really coasting a lot. Like I said, I'm a low-energy person and actually get sick when I overextend myself. Other mothers ask "how to get it all done" and the stories of THEIR days exhaust ME, and my answer is always "well, did you try NOT getting it all done?"

Michael was born on a Saturday too (fifteen minutes after midnight) and he is the one most like me, so far. Marko and Miriam are both Wednesday's children and as babies they're pretty similar. But Marko was born in my same year, and yet takes VERY much after John, who was born in a different one. And I think Marko and Michael are both in the same sign of the zodiac,though I'm not positive, having never looked it up.

I don't actually know anything by the Monkees! I should look them up, my musical knowledge is embarrassingly deficient. (Yes, I know you have posted stuff by them before, but I can't listen to videos on this computer.)

Enbrethiliel said...


This will just make you smile, but your chart makes so little sense to me with that birth time and birth place that, barring an analysis by a professional, I'd swear that someone got the birth time wrong.

The time I guessed originally covers the crunchiness, the migraines, the religious issues, the ages of your siblings, the dislike of makeup, and even the desire for a farm. So now that I know it's incorrect, I'd give my last wisdom tooth to find out where these are covered in your real chart.

But since I'm really never going to get an answer, let me keep my tooth and admit again that I'm a really bad astrologer. =)

Sheila said...

Yep, giant smile here. I am quite certain about my time of birth; my mom is very emphatic about all the details of that day. And I find it amusing your first thought is that *I* might be wrong! Second that your skill as an astrologer is wrong ... and last of all, the possibility that astrology just doesn't work on me. :)

The thing is that everything has a cause, and some of these causes are knowable. I love farms because my great-grandfather had one, because Laura Ingalls Wilder was my favorite author, and because when I was little we were too poor to afford many fresh vegetables. My religious issues are clearly traceable to Regnum Christi, and that's traceable to my own choices. I dislike makeup because my mom never wears it and I look up to her a lot. The ages of my siblings were a result of my parents' choices. So what's the mechanism by which the stars are supposed to affect those things? Do they override free will?

If you want to try again, I'll enlist two or three friends. The important thing is that you don't know these people. Because it's so easy to find a pattern with someone you know -- we are all so multifaceted! So naturally with me you were drawn to a description that *did* sound like me (or what you know of me).

Sheila said...

Apparently similar studies have already been done:

Enbrethiliel said...


To split that last hair and to use an unfortunate double negative, I never think that astrology doesn't work. That would be hubris on my part. (But I'm not saying it is hubris for anyone else who disbelieves!) The community of astrologers and people who have used astrology is very big. Are they all wrong? They've also been a real community to me in the past, being strong in faith and understanding where I was weak--and I guess they still are! =P If someone's practical advice has worked for 5,000 satisfied clients, that more than compensates for my inability to interpret the chart of my friend.

Also, interpretation is very complicated and I've never studied it properly. (There are some naturals, apparently, but I'm not one of them!) Even professional astrologers will admire a colleague who is so naturally intuitive that he can read a chart like a newspaper, and know immediately that, for instance, someone's Jupiter in the fourth house means a successful ranching operation and not a king's castle. I'm hardly on that level! Even when I was casting the charts of everyone around me, I would frequently be surprised at how the planets "expressed" themselves. For example, the "obvious" meaning of a tenth-house Moon is that a person's mother is connected to his career, but in an individual's chart, it might mean that his career involves marketing things to mothers in general. And I'd miss it because I wouldn't even realise that there are other things in the chart powerfully affecting the Moon.

The main difference between how you approach it and how I approach it seems to be internal vs. external. Your experience has been that it doesn't work and there are lots of studies that support you. But the same things don't move me because: a) I have seen it work although I can't repeat the experiments for others; and b) the internal logic of it is perfect. Take the stars and free will: saying that they contradict each other is like saying, "Living in this mountain village, with its harsh weather conditions and stern neighbours, is interfering with my free will!" The circumstances of an environment can affect us, but they don't have the final say--and that's as true for the "astrological environment" as the physical and social environment.

Or take the logic of the relationship between the stars and the natural, known causes of things. The stars don't create things; they just record them in "real time." I'll bet that a better astrologer would have been able to tell you that you had an ancestor who owned a farm. And it wouldn't have been because one caused the other. They happened at the same time, the way our reflection in a mirror moves at the same time.

Yes, these are things that I can't prove. But neither are they things that cancel themselves out or contradict each other the way, for instance, you find the Church's teaching on retributive justice butts heads with your sense of a God Who is good.

*takes a deep breath*

And yes, all of this woo-woo stuff is actually relevant to your post! LOL! I can say why I think astrology is sound, but not prove it to others who don't believe in it--but this is also the case with me and the Catholic Faith. This is what I mean when I say I find lots of things equally plausible and have faith in what the Church teaches only through grace. In fact, IF I didn't have faith and went by the standard in your post, I'd happily practice astrology because I can do it ethically and there'd be nothing to regret at the end of my life.

John Janaro said...

"We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (Benedict XVI, *Deus Caritas Est*, 1).

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