Divorce, lust, terror and plunder: The position of the religious doubter.

There was a fascinating exchange awhile back between Rollingforest and Ms. Jack, Tim and Hermes regarding the appropriate response to one who doubts his or her religion. I thought I would bring it before ye denizens of this site front and center for my own edification. I am going to paraphrase select positions  referenced, but I will try to be true to their essence (but please comment if you feel you are being unfairly attached to a particular viewpoint):

Rollingforest appeared to advocate from the position of intellectual authenticity. I.e. when one truly disbelieves the religion, then its dictates no longer have any hold on that person.

Jack argued that a commitment to a religion is like marriage. And like in a marriage, when one has doubts as to its utility, one owes it to their commitments and covenants, and perhaps an abundance of caution, to maintain a practical commitment to flesh out the doubts before moving toward divorce.

Tim approved of the marriage analogy and mentioned that many who claim Christianity or Mormonism may be having emotional affairs with other world views.

There is something about both of these positions that piqued my interest and raised some strange things about religious belief that I have been wrestling with. I think that Rollingforest’s position represents a modern position that a religion only has purchase on our lives insofar as we believe it to be true, and we should follow our own authentic beliefs wherever they lead. Furthermore, if for some reason we are no longer convinced of a particular proposition of faith, we are either free to, or even compelled to abandon that faith. The falsity of some proposition frees us of any commitment because the commitment is based on a falsity. An example of a modern exponent of this approach could be Walter Kaufmann.

Jack’s analogy is an interesting take on another approach. The Bible is filled with marriage/sexual analogies of God’s relationship with his people and his people’s relationship with other religions. Idolatry (i.e. worshiping a god other than Jehovah) in religion is the complement of adultery in marriage.    However Jack’s appears to be a more neutral approach than that of the Bible,  i.e. she refuses to assume a priori that there is only one true partner and you should reject any partner when you find out that they are not it.  When one finds oneself in an unhappy marriage for any reason, we should should consider practical commitments as we sort out what is the best way to go with our head and heart.  William James strikes me as a modern adherent of Jack’s approach. (see the “Will to Believe” here and a summary here.)

Tim’s position seems similar, recognizing that some may caught in marriages that make it hard to leave, and recognizes that leaving may lead to a rejection of the correct relationship, but advocates honesty or authenticity so as not to “make a sham” of both relationships.  The “be hot or cold approach.”

Looking to the Bible I gather a stronger position, which I might call the Aaronic approach to religious pluralism. The Biblical approach assumes, a priori, that there is only one true mate.  When it comes to religion the Bible doesn’t recognize divorce or even choice of mate.   The chosen are betrothed to Jehovah or Jesus and straying is adultery. It assumes that those who are given the truth through scripture or revelation who stray to other views are always in error when they look elsewhere for spirituality.

The starkest description I can think of this attitude is found in Ezekial 23 (CAUTION: Rated R content)

Here God compares Jerusalem and Samaria to two young prostitutes who are seduced away by their foreign clients.  In the allegory the women and their children are brutally killed for their indiscretions.

“This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Bring a mob against them and give them over to terror and plunder. The mob will stone them and cut them down with their swords; they will kill their sons and daughters and burn down their houses.
“So I will put an end to lewdness in the land, that all women may take warning and not imitate you. You will suffer the penalty for your lewdness and bear the consequences of your sins of idolatry. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign LORD.”

Now, I don’t think we can imply that the Lord will be as angry with those who choose secular humanism as those Hebrews who sacrificed their children to idols (oops, except those that believe in abortion), but it pretty clear that “tough love” is the route the Lord is taking here.

I bring this up to point out that, to the Bible, casual flirtations with the wrong view may cause the Lord to “get medieval” on you.

There is a lot more to talk about here, but I will leave off here for now.

Where does the person straddling more than one viewpoint fit within your faith system?

8 thoughts on “Divorce, lust, terror and plunder: The position of the religious doubter.

  1. I’ve been arguing that leaving faith is like a divorce for some time now.

    Like many divorces you see – the spouses start out in love. Then for whatever reason, doubts enter in. One or both spouses start expecting the other to regularly “prove” that they “still love me.”

    But the problem is that you can never really satisfactorily prove such a thing. And once skepticism takes hold, it tends to undermine just about everything you can point out to a person – no matter how compelling.

    I remember an interview on Public Radio where they were discussing Young Earth Creationists. The topic came around to the “creationists'” doubt about scientific paradigms like evolution or radio carbon dating, or the findings of geology, etc.

    No matter what scientific evidence was presented, the creationists always had some sort of reason for doubting the veracity of the scientific findings. And over the whole attitude was the expressed opinion – “oh that’s just scientific theory, and that always changes.”

    At a certain point, the interviewer with a bit of irony asked the creationist “speaking frankly, is there ANY scientific evidence that would be enough to convince you that evolution DOES actually happen.”

    The creationist had to think quite a long time about that. Then admitted that she’d probably be skeptical of just about any such evidence.

    You see, once you’ve been taught to doubt something, to not take it seriously, you really just can’t recover from that. And no matter how compelling, how strong, how admirable the case may be for the old position – it just isn’t enough to overcome that sense of suspicion.

    P.S. In case you are wondering whether I actually just compared atheist ex-theists to Young Earth Creationists,

    You betcha I did.

  2. Where does the person straddling more than one viewpoint fit within your faith system?

    “Intellectually honest.”

    in all seriousness though, the marriage analogy is overused and destructive. We may be obligated to show personal loyalty to human beings or human communities, but not to organizations, and certainly not to ideas.

    If loyalty is not reciprocal than it is abusive, and an idea can’t love you back.

  3. I think that my position on the matter would be rather akin to Jack’s, though I’d avoid the marriage analogy. (Sometimes, analogies can simply get too troublesome.) When it comes to religions that have entrance rituals and serious ramifications for exiting, those are very costly decisions to make and should not be done hastily. So for the believer with doubts (assuming that these are intellectual doubts rather than emotional or experiential issues), I would generally advise them to remain a member while continuing to process their doubts. (Now, depending on the seriousness of their doubts, I might advise them – where possible – to back off from certain forms of participation that could only be performed dishonestly, where possible.)

    If those doubts blossom into what that person would consider rational disbelief, then exit would become an option. If the doubts dissipate, then remaining inside would likely be the best option. Prolonged residence between those poles is a much trickier matter, and the best course of action might vary depending on the particular variety of doubt and/or disbelief involved. Generally speaking, if someone came to actively disbelieve in one of their religious group’s major essential tenets, then after a suitable time of suspended judgment while considering the arguments for both sides, I would advise them to disaffiliate from that religious group. That seems to me like the only intellectually honest option.

    For instance, if a Christian began to disbelieve that Jesus rose from the dead, that would be a very good reason for her to cease to identify herself as a Christian. On the other hand, if she merely began to have doubts about the matter, it seems that disaffiliation would be hasty without exploring the issue much further and giving it some time. To offer another example, several years ago during a very tumultuous period in my life, I lost all belief in God and became an atheist. Recognizing the serious exit costs and having a suspicion that haste would be imprudent, I did not formally distance myself from Christianity. After a week or two when my emotional issues began to subside and I started thinking a bit more clearly again, I once again found myself able to believe in God. In retrospect, I’m naturally quite glad I chose to give things more time. On the other hand, had my disbelief with God persisted, and had I come to believe myself to be acting rationally in rejecting the existence of God, I would have at some point publicly acknowledged my atheism and ceased to call myself a Christian. To do otherwise at that juncture, I believe, would have been an act of dishonesty.

  4. I want to be clear that my comments on “adultery” were not intended for those who simply have doubts. I’d no sooner encourage a man to leave his wife because he’s simply not sure that he loves his wife than I would encourage someone to leave their faith because of doubts (and for the record I’d NEVER advise someone to leave a major because they don’t feel like they’re in love).

    What I was referring to were those who are certain they don’t believe. Think of the atheist pastor who keeps at it because he needs the paycheck and doesn’t think he can get any other job with an M.Div.

    If you’ve stripped away all the core elements (personal God, need for atonement, miracles, etc.) then I don’t really know how you can consider yourself a “faithful” member any more than someone who is having sex with his mother.

  5. . . .and I agree the marriage analogy is imperfect. Slipping on and off a worldview is far different than getting married.

  6. I’d also like to point out that the passage from Ezekiel is in reference to two nations formerly under theocratic rule. God is dealing with them corporately rather than with individual Israelites.

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