Don’t ask, just believe

Louise Antony has an excellent essay, ‘For the Love of Reason’ [pdf], in Philosophers Without Gods (OUP 2007), a book edited by herself; it takes off from the difficulties she had with various religious truth claims when she was a child, and with the way adults reacted to her difficulties and persistent questions. First up is Limbo – the unfairness of it – ‘original sin’ in particular: ‘this sin that Adam committed got “passed down”…’

I found it repugnant, the idea that a crime committed by one of my ancestors could sully my personal soul. It was an idea quite at odds with the liberal, meritocratic principles to which my parents seemed otherwise to subscribe. (p. 41)

She returns to this tension frequently – the way particular religious claims and also the refusal to question such claims were at odds with principles otherwise valued by her parents and by other people. It’s one that occurs to me often too, with some irritation.

But there was something that bothered me almost as much as Limbo itself: the way grownups reacted to my questions about it. First they’d offer a perfunctory, stock, and utterly impertinent response. “The souls in Limbo don’t suffer,” they’d all say. Huh? Maybe they’re not in actual pain, like the souls in hell, or even the ones in purgatory, but these poor souls are being deprived of the Beatific Vision…So the next move would be “but they don’t know they’re being deprived of anything.” Double huh. It’s OK not to share your chocolate with your sister as long as she never finds out you have it? This “ignorance is bliss” reasoning seemed specious to me even as a small child. And it was, once again, inconsistent with the messages I got in every other, non-religious context. My father, for example, was an elementary school administrator, and he was passionate in his support for public education. He would go on and on about the need to cultivate in children – to inculcate in children – the “desire to learn.” He would have been incensed had anyone suggested that as long as an illiterate child had no conception of the pleasures of reading, it was fine to leave well enough alone.

And rightly so. Well-spotted, young Louise.

Not many adults were willing to go on to round three. They would grow impatient. “Louise,” my mother would say, “you just think too much.” Sometimes they’d get positively angry. What was the matter with me? Why did I have to argue about everything? Didn’t I realize that some things just had to be taken on faith? (p. 42)

But that’s just it, of course. Young Louise’s questions were good questions, and she was right to be worried by them and by the feebleness of the answers to them, and the fact that no better ones were forthcoming; and ‘faith’ is exactly the wrong response to troubling questions of that kind. And, as she indicates, we know that in other contexts, yet we are told to ignore what we know in this context. So we are more or less bullied into believing in a moral monster who has total power over us.

None of the nuns or priests from whom I received religious instruction were of any help on the matter of Limbo, nor, for that matter, on any of the other issues that troubled me. There was also the Trinity: how could there be “three persons in one God”? I remember trying to wrap my childish head around this “holy mystery” [So she tried various analogies – a family, a clover, moods.] Finally Sister, clearly exhausted, told me that I’d never understand the Trinity because it was a mystery of faith. Mysteries of faith are, by their nature, incomprehensible. We must simply believe them. But how can I believe something I don’t understand, I asked? “Just memorize your Catechism,” was Sister’s reply. “Belief will come.”

Belief will come, independent of the understanding – dogmatic, unreasonable, authority-dependent belief, cut completely free from understanding and genuine explanation. In short a disabling of the ability to think. This is why some assertive atheists think that religion taught to children is a form of abuse.

What I got from all of this was that thinking was fine and good, but only in its place. A little learning might be a dangerous thing, but a lot of thinking was worse. Today I am a parent, and I know firsthand the tedium and frustration of dealing with a child who won’t stop asking “why.”…But with all that said, I still, to this day, resent the way I was made to feel as a child–that my questioning was inherently bad, that there was something wrong with me for wanting things to make sense. As I’ve said, the reactions of grownups to my questions about religion were doubly distressing to me because of their dissonance with the principles adults were explicitly promoting in other contexts….” My parents and teachers, counseling me about personal behavior, stressed the importance of doing what I knew was right, regardless of what other people thought. Why in religion was I supposed to dumbly accept whatever the authorities told me?

Why indeed? And there is no good answer to that question.

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