Educated out of Faith? Holding onto my Beliefs in the Land of Academia
June 24, 2011
“Come on, let’s say hello to Nancy,” my mother urged, nudging me slightly as we stepped out of our pew. The church service had just ended, and my heart was pounding. I was visiting my parents in Buffalo, NY after a significant amount of time away, and while I loved returning to the Catholic church of my youth, I dreaded seeing all those former teachers, family acquaintances, and other parishioners who’d known me since childhood. Would they be disappointed to see how I – who once served on three parish committees and talked about becoming a nun – had turned out?
These people couldn’t possibly know that my church attendance in my new home had become sporadic, or that some of my political views had diverged from traditional Catholic teachings, or that at times my very belief in God wavered. But I knew these things, and like Dostoevsky’s guilt-ridden Raskolnikov, I couldn’t help but read my own insecurities into their pleasant smiles.
Nancy, a woman in her seventies, was a veteran member of the parish. I knew her well from many Sunday afternoons during high school when I would accompany my mother to parish council meetings. “So, what have you been up to lately?” she asked.
I began telling her about my latest activities– studying for a Ph.D. at University of Toronto and teaching beginning Spanish to fifty sweet but reticent eighteen-year-old undergraduates. “Do you plan to stay in Toronto permanently?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded honestly. “The academic job market is a roller coaster – who knows where I’ll end up?”
“You’re educating yourself away from us,” she said.
These words caught me off guard. I knew that Nancy meant that I was “educating myself away” from my hometown, with no plans to move back any time soon. However, my underlying insecurities gave them a different undertone. Might she mean that I was abandoning the faith in which I’d been raised?
Her comment forced me to reflect on my own religious journey. I was raised Catholic, and throughout my childhood I rarely questioned Church teachings. My first shock came on my first day of high school in the cafeteria when one of my new classmates declared her unbelief. “There isn’t any evidence for God,” this black-clad atheist declared. “I think it’s just a story we’ve made up.”
I nearly spit out my chicken souvlaki in bewilderment, but I quickly launched into a diatribe defending all the teachings of my youth. However, her words remained with me – especially as we engaged in more debates and, as our high school years passed, became close friends. I soon realized that, like it or not, atheism was a force to be taken seriously. The teachings of my youth were no longer the absolute truth, but one of many paths towards it.
When I arrived at my non-sectarian liberal arts college and saw my new classmates in all their pink-haired, multi-pierced glory, I knew I wasn’t in Catholic school anymore. My resident advisor eyed me quizzically when I asked where to find the nearest church in town; the girls on my hall viewed my religiosity as outmoded. And while I later realized that several of my classmates and teachers were indeed religious, I realized that nonbelievers were a huge presence not only in my new college, but in society at large. I had no choice but to take them seriously.
Unlike what I’d previously been led to believe, atheists were not bad people; in fact, many of them seemed to live much more ethically and meaningfully than a lot of religious believers I knew. And yet, while many of the people I spoke to looked at religion with interest and curiosity, they did not feel a need for it in their own lives. They did not report feeling like they were missing something; there was no “God-shaped hole” in their universe. For them, religion simply didn’t figure as necessary.
When I moved to Toronto for graduate school, I found myself in a definite minority. There are many reasons for the lack of religious belief in academia. One is its ongoing debt to the Enlightenment tradition. During the eighteenth century, thinkers like Voltaire stormed into the dusty halls of the old religious institutions, affirming scientific reason based on evidence and raising a suspicious eyebrow toward any kind of mysticism.
All academic disciplines, including the humanities, are heavily influenced by this rationalist approach. As I focused more and more of my energy on approaching texts critically, I found my own beliefs challenged. If every text can be subject to rational inquiry, just what exactly is the place of revealed truth? As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor remarks in A Secular Age – his study of the decline in Western religiosity – we now live in a pluralistic society where unbelief is the default position. And this can make it very difficult for people who are struggling to maintain their religious faith.
At one moment in my senior year of college, I became struck by depression and temporarily lost my faith. When I told my philosophy professor about my situation, she offered me two books – Fritjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions and Martin Buber’s I and Thou – that transformed my understanding of religion. I started to view faith not as a set of dogmas, but as a way of understanding human experience.
For both authors, religious experience shakes us out of our habitual ways of thinking and compels us to face the divine presence in our lives. Schuon suggests that all of the major world religions consist of two dimensions: the exoteric realm of belief, doctrine, and ritual (inhabited by the masses) and the esoteric realm of contemplation (inhabited by a small, generally self-selected group of monks or nuns who have opted to devote their lives to the mystical pursuit of divine knowledge. For Schuon, the realm of the esoteric is a point of intersection of all religions as well as the centre of each individual religion itself. When focusing on the esoteric, one sees that religion is not about explaining phenomena in the world, but about experiencing the presence of the divine. In this schema, questions about doctrine and belief fade away; only the experience matters.
Jewish theologian Martin Buber takes a similar approach in his I and Thou, which describes religion as an alternative way of relating to the world. In our everyday lives, we tend to view phenomena in our environment – places, things, and indeed other people – as objects for our instrumental use, or understanding, or interpretation. This he terms the “I-It” relation, and it is in this state that most of us lead the greater portion of our lives. However, there are moments when something in our environment catches us off guard, and we come face to face another subject with whom we enter a relation based on equality. For Buber, it is in this moment of mutual recognition that religious experience lies.
I am happy to say that these readings saved my religious beliefs when I was twenty-one. However, lately some of the old doubts and questions have been coming back. If religion is fundamentally experience, then what is the place of doctrine and belief? I can follow Schuon and argue that experience lies at the core of all religion, but what of the periphery? What will happen to us if it just withers away? And finally, while Schuon manages to reveal the lack of contradiction between different faith traditions, can his model be extended to those who subscribe to those of no faith?
The conflict in today’s world, as I see it, does not lie between one religion and another, but between theism and atheism – faith and no faith. For atheists of the Richard Dawkins persuasion, all religious believers are misguided; their claims are simply wrong when held up to empirical scrutiny, and religion holds no legitimate place in the modern world; for many believers it is easier to relate to other theists (even those coming from other religious traditions) than to non-theists. But if we start from the premise that we are on different paths toward truth (and not in absolute possession of the truth), is there a way that we might all turn out to be right?
These are the questions that I continue to grapple with while struggling to maintain my faith in the land of academia. And, at this point I can say that while my perspective on life has definitely become more secularized over the years, I haven’t educated myself out of faith. God appears in so many ways – not only when I must make tough decisions or grapple with life’s uncertainties, but also in the everyday experiences of appreciating the beauty in a work of literature, or witnessing the flash of understanding as one of my students comes to master a new concept, or reconnecting with an old friend who, after a long absence, happens to reappear in my life. Everyone’s path toward the truth is different, and while I don’t consider the religious perspective to be inherently superior to the non-religious one, I also can’t accept it as inferior. For me, the rational approach just isn’t enough to make sense of the world, or my own place in it. There are some experiences that I can only understand as divine.