For many years I was attempting to conciliate my agnostic internal philosophy on the supernatural and my Christian culture. I was risen by a Catholic family, in a Catholic country and attended to Catholic school. Despite whatever system of believes I hold internally the Christian Catholicism is part of my cultural heritage and cultural self-identity.
When I was a little kid I had personal questions on the afterlife. The both alternatives I could grasp as a kid were unsettling, disturbing: that my being were finite (v. g. eternal nothingness after you die) or my being were eternal (regardless of heaven or hell). Now, looking in retrospective, it seems I never had a deep believe on heaven, limbo or hell.
Yes, I was worried that my acts and thoughts lead me to hell, but I could not actually picture in my mind the eternal torment of hell, or the eternal glory of heaven. My thoughts, speculations and fears only lead me to the judgment after death, not actually to the eternal suffering or eternal wellbeing.
Reincarnation seemed less disturbing but yet. The idea that my being would start over again and again, probably for eternity but without memory of an eternal past. There was however a disturbing thought, anyway: if my future me would not remember my present me it would mean that my present me would be finished, dead. My future me would not be an afterlife. Anyhow, while less disturbing, I did not actually believed in reincarnation.
So that was me as a kid, immersed in a Christian culture, being taught at home, at mass and at school what to believe on the nature of humankind, history, morality and afterlife from a Catholic point of view.
Unlike other Christian denominations, mainstream Catholicism does not hold a fight against Science and evidence-based understanding of the natural world and human history. I went to a confessional school, ruled by the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Lasallian Brothers), since fourth grade. (I took third grade in a lay-ruled confessional school; before that, I went to public school in a secular country.)
At school I was taught both the myth of creation and the theory of evolution, as well as a few theories on the origin of the Universe. Evolution and creation were not taught as a controversy. Evolution was taught in science class, where we were exposed to the origins of Darwin thesis as opposed to Lamarck, and how spontaneous generation was discarded. We learned on Mendelian inheritance and DNA, and the possible origin of life from natural processes. We were taught on the origin of Earth and the solar system. On how to prove that the Earth is round and orbits around the Sun. We were exposed to some thesis on the existence of the Universe including the thesis of the static Universe and the expanding Universe, and how probably it all begun in an event called the Big Bang.
I was taught the biblical creation story in religion class in third grade, before any scientific theory on the origin of the universe or the diversity of life. But when the conflict came between the biblical story and what we were exposed in science class we were taught the official position of the Catholic Church after Vatican II: the Bible is not a book of science and history, but the Bible is infallible in theological matters. The creation story in the Bible is allegorical.
There was no controversy. I never heard a priest negating the scientific theses. I never heard a science professor claiming that the Bible was wrong.
Religion class in La Salle school was not only catechesis. We were taught on the origin and existence of religions, including some of the theses of other religions. We were taught on the question of historicity of Jesus (of course, it was a confessional school so the conclusion was that Jesus indeed existed as a human being).
There was no controversy between science and religion in my mind either. I accepted most of what I learned in school on scientific matters, probably because that was also consisting with one of my favorite TV shows: Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos. I did question a little more what I was taught in religion class. I didn’t question religion for the magic. I had already conciliated that part. I didn’t question the history of ancient Israel, probably because there was no much to compare it against. What I questioned was the theology.
I remember, when I was 14, our religion teacher challenged us to express what we believed and what we didn’t believe. I don’t recall what exactly I believed back then but I do remember what I claimed and why. I said I was an atheist and my main supporting thesis was the problem of evil. How could an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god allow evil? Another question was the scope of the revelation. Why isn’t the revelation universal? Why are there other religions? It seemed to me that God were rather a human construct rather than humans a creation from God.
Religions have a mythical aspect and I accepted part of the Christian myth (v. g. the history of the Kingdom of Israel) and rejected other (the literal biblical creation). But according to post-Vatican II, the believe in the myth is not fundamental. Religions have theological aspect, v. g. what’s the nature of God. I’m not sure what I accepted or what I rejected, in theological terms, back when I was 14. Religions have a ritual aspect, and when I was 14 I was a reluctantly practicing Roman Catholic. Religions have a cultural aspect, and I deeply identified myself a Catholic and a Christian back then, and probably I currently do. Religions have a moral aspect, however I am not sure how separated is this aspect from the cultural one. Religions have a spiritual aspect, the personal feelings a human being experiments as interpreted by the theology, the practice and the culture of a religion. I guess I held that spiritual aspect back then when I claimed to be and atheist, and those feelings have been one of the main reasons I had rejected the label of “atheist” later in my adult life.
But, as I said, my school was a confessional Catholic school, and one of the requirements for taking my high school degree was that I were confirmed as a Catholic. So when I was 16, I took the confirmation catechesis and confirmation ceremony with a mixed feeling. I rationalized that if I was indeed an atheist, the confirmation would not hurt me. On the other hand I would put my best to sincerely commit as a good Catholic.
So I took the confirmation. Later that year I took my high-school degree, and the next year my family moved back to Sweden. I had lived in Sweden when I was 6–7, and previously in this post I described it as a secular country. I’m not sure if Sweden pass a strict definition of secular as the Church of Sweden was an integral part of the Swedish state and hold the registration of every Swedish citizen, but for practical matters it behaved as a secular country with freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Of all religions’ aspects (mythical, theological, ritual, cultural, moral, spiritual) the cultural aspect was a key element when I was 18–19 years old living in Sweden. I became a less-reluctant practicing Catholic, and when I was 19 I joined a youth group at church. I committed to renew my theology and my morality. I wanted to be a good Catholic Christian.
I had friends from different religious backgrounds and different commitment on their own believes, and different cultural expectations. One thing is to know from textbooks other religions exists, another one is to share with them.
I eventually came back and began college in a Jesuit ruled University. While at the beginning I wanted to continue my religious renewal and to join some religious student group in College (there were plenty) I didn’t (I later joined a student group that had no religious purpose in their chart).
However I kept realizing that I didn’t hold a deep believe in God. No matter my attempts to be a good Christian, I was relegating the myth on God (father) to the same drawer I had relegated the myth of Creation, the myth of Abraham, the myth of Moses, and the myth of Jesus. (If you are offended by my use of the word “myth” I am not claiming that a myth is a falsehood, but rather a story, a narrative.) I guess I never internalized the mystery of the Holy Trinity or understood what exactly the Holy Spirit was.
For many Christian theologians (including many Catholic theologians) no part of the biblical myth is sacred. Even Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong claims that the myth, including the God’s myth, is a burden to Christianity (but I hadn’t read Spong’s thesis back then). Just as the creation myth was proved false any other myth could be proven false and the Christian faith should not be invalidated.
I still praised the Christian morality based on the (alleged) teachings of Jesus. I still felt the cultural communion with my fellow Christians, and while my reason was telling me that God was not necessary, my feelings kept me thinking that there should still be something out there.
So I rediscovered the term “agnosticism”. I didn’t have a strong believe in the supernatural, including the Christian myths but I couldn’t prove them false, either. I still felt identified as a Catholic. I still felt that there might be something out there. I would not embrace the term “atheist” as it would have meant a rejection, rather than an incredulity of the myths, and would have meant resigning as a Catholic.
I found many meanings of what agnosticism was, and somehow I adhered (or reinterpreted) Thomas H. Huxley‘s original definition of the term: I lacked an enough feeling of certainty on the trueness or falsehood of the thesis of a supreme being.
I was 27 or 28 when I reached this conclusion. I didn’t need a supreme being to understand the universe. I didn’t need a supreme being to explain my feelings on spirituality. I didn’t need a supreme being to identify myself as a Catholic Christian. I didn’t need a supreme being to justify morality. A supreme being has not been proved by science, and a supreme being has not been disproved by science (and it seemed to be unknowable by science). So I was still a non-practicing Roman Catholic Christian and I was an agnostic.
I knew about Richard Dawkins by his work The Selfish Gen. I read that book when I was younger, and found a compelling case on how Evolution works. I didn’t knew and didn’t care that Dawkins was an atheist. I also read The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking, and I found intriguing the concept of a Universe without a clear beginning in the singularity as a plausible thesis that left no room for a creator.
While I didn’t came to The God Delusion or the later works by Dawkins, when I first learned he advocated that religious belief is incompatible with science my reaction was that Dawkins failed. After all, there are many people who hold a religious belief and do good science. I also respected the Amazing Randi for his works against pseudoscience and debunking charlatans, so I felt somehow betrayed when I realized Randi included organized religion into the things he was against.
The first time I found a Young Earth Creationism website my reaction was one of incredulity. How can people still believe on the creation myth and claim evidence-based prof on that? Wasn’t the whole Creation/Evolution polemic solved in the US back in late 19th century or early 20th century?
Of course, I knew there was people who believed literally in the Bible, people who refused medicine preferring praying instead. I knew Ned Flanders in The Simpsons reflected a reality. What I didn’t knew is that some of these people were attempting to fight science in scientific matters and posing as scientists.
As a young Catholic I grew up without that dichotomy between science and religion. Even if I chose a less religious path in my life many of my classmates became later more religious people (inside and outside the Catholic Church). I know of priests and pastors doing hard science. So why should these (mostly evangelical) Christians need to undermine science to promote their religiousness?
During the last year I joined the debate. What is the motivation of Dawkins and Randi to fight religion? What is the motivation of evangelical Christianity to undermine science? What does that mean for my understanding of the World.
I still disagree with Dawkins: a person can hold a religious belief and engage in hard evidence-based science. I still disagree with fundamental skepticism that claim religious based believes incompatible with skepticism (you can believe whatever you want, religious or non-religious, as longer as you are willing to question your believes). I cannot respect the position of some religious leaders and apologetics who engage in undermining evidence-based science (I would respect a position that science is mundane and therefore unimportant, even if you consume the fruits of science). I find fascinating the thesis by Spong on a non-theistic Christianity. I don’t find contradictory my last years in which I tried to conciliate a Christian identity and an agnostic philosophy on the supernatural and the supreme beings.
But that’s not me anymore.
While I still appreciate and hold some Christian values, I cannot relate to the whole Christian morality (whatever version) in a way I cannot honestly claim to be Christian any more. I cannot relate to some of the teachings from Jesus (or alleged to Jesus the Christ).
I now recognize that my spiritual feeling that there might be something out there is just an internal feeling. I realize that finding an spiritual meaning of my life might be more comfortable and might help me overcome some personal problems. But I cannot trust a comfortable lie. A comfortable idea in which I cannot believe.
I’m still culturally Christian. I’m still culturally Roman Catholic. I relate to the myths and stories. I relate to the celebration of Christmas and I love the myth of the manger. But cultural identity in absence of any other religious element is not enough for me to call myself a Christian.
I’m not a Christian. I’m not a theist. Neither hold I a pantheistic world view or any other non-theistic religious world view.
I have realized that when I claim I don’t need a superior being to understand my world, my epistemology, my ethic and moral code, etc. while not having a personal connection to the idea of a supreme being, that’s quite much the definition of an atheist: someone who lacks a believe in a god or gods.
I am still an agnostic, as I described myself some 13 years ago. I have no comfortable amount of certainty on the trueness or falsehood of the thesis of existence of supreme beings. But for any practical purpose that also mean that I lack believe in a supreme being. I embrace the term “atheist” without the need to dash it with me being an agnostic.
Is this the end of the road in my personal search for my world view? Probably not. From that little Catholic boy who found uneasy the idea of an eternal afterlife (even in Heaven) to the 40 year old who still struggles to accept he being an atheist rather than a Christian, my life has brought me several ways to look at the religious question and probably will bring me some other challenges in my worldview.