Losing My Religion?
Part 2 – Of Serpents, Satans and Sirens
For many Americans, this is the point that college enters the picture. Many students arriving at a college or university have been largely sheltered from any views about religions other than their own by their parents and pastors. A number come to us today from Catholic parochial schools or their often more dogmatic cousins, white flight evangelical academies (Our Lady of the Corrugated Steel Building). Increasing numbers come to us from homeschooling where captive audiences often learn parental prejudices as gospel truth.
But that truth doesn’t hold up well under the pressure of college life for most students. Being confronted with ideas at odds with their parents’ and pastors’ religions, many students realize for the first time in their lives that there are human beings who in good faith hold plausible views of religion and spirituality different from their own. Fairly quickly most come to recognize that lumping all those folks into the former self-serving categories of the great unwashed, the secular humanists or the eternally damned (a category always required as a means of cordoning off the elect) simply is not very intellectually honest. Worse yet, in most cases, such dismissive assessment of the other is soon recognized through critical thinking as irreconcilable with the Golden Rule, a variant of which lies at the heart of every religious tradition.
The result for many students is cognitive dissonance, a painful reality where one’s deeply held beliefs are recognized to be at odds with the reality one is encountering. Some respond to this crisis disingenuously, surrounding themselves with only those who will affirm their challenged beliefs in any number of “campus ministries” and self-described “Christian fraternities and sororities.” While organized religious institutions in the past provided chaplains to universities and colleges, increasingly, with the exception of Roman Catholics, most mainstream chaplaincies have gone the way of all flesh in a society whose true religion is fundamentalist free market economics and have been discontinued due to cost. In their place have come the many variants of non-denominational evangelical and Pentecostal groups with alluring names such as Shift. These often tend in the direction of the anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism which have long marked American conservative religion and their members regularly construct themselves as long-suffering martyrs in a hostile, godless lions’ den.
Others embrace the religion of cynicism, another intellectually dishonest path which would seek to avoid dissonance rather than face it head on. “All religions are a bunch of crap” is somewhat charming in middle school students. It’s a lot less charming in honors students capable of actually engaging in critical reasoning but unwilling to be bothered.
Then there are the few brave souls who courageously face the dissonance. They relinquish their desire – which they inevitably perceive to be a need – for certainty and final answers and make peace with ambiguity. They recognize that coming to grips with the questions they face make take years, perhaps even a lifetime. They read. They listen. They discuss. And they reflect a lot.
These students have embraced, in the words of R.E.M., the process of losing their religions. But what many come to realize fairly quickly is that it was never their religion they were losing. It is the religion that all of us have essentially inherited if not absorbed by osmosis from our families, our significant others and our culture. The vast majority of us never chose our religions, they were chosen for us. Choice involves an informed and thoughtful process. For most of us, that process comes long after our religions were chosen. Hence the resistance we all feel in engaging that process from the point of the finish line.
Another reason for resistance is obvious: cognitive dissonance is painful. As M. Scott Peck observed in The Road Less Travelled, most of us avoid growth and development as human beings because it requires ongoing effort, the willingness to endure pain and the ability to delay gratification. Thus for many people it seems much more appealing if not compelling to simply continue buying into constructs to which we’ve never really given much thought than going back to the beginning and considering religions on their own merits.
But for those students who have left behind the affirming others of their hometowns who helped maintain the seeming self-evidence of the truths of their belief system - only to encounter the disaffirming others in college who gleeefully reveal the emperor has no clothes - burying one’s head in the sand is never easy. It is also implicitly intellectually dishonest. Much like waking up the morning after one’s first blackout on alcohol, there is no longer the luxury of naivete that one’s approach doesn’t have problem. Thus, maintaining inherited religion in the face of the disconfirming others of the classroom and the dorm bull sessions often comes at the cost of one’s integrity.
The alternative, however, also comes at a price. Many college freshmen come to campus with the admonition still ringing in their ears from parents and pastors to avoid those college classes, professors and students who might endeavor to tempt them to “lose your religion.” Oddly enough, it’s the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent – the bearer of wisdom and human consciousness in the Genesis story – which is instructive here.
“God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.’ Genesis 3:3-5 NRSV.
It’s not difficult to see who’s who in this story when applied to the college setting. The primordial human beings of Jewish scripture are innocent, naïve and largely unconscious before their encounter with the serpent, much like many incoming students. But their naivete does not survive the encounter with the serpent who offers the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent has historically been associated in Christian thought with the figure of the Satan, the tempter, the tester, the challenger. Another of his names is Lucifer, the one who casts light on the subject.
The serpent is revealing two important truths: One, G-d has lied to these prototypical representatives of the human race, adam (Heb., humanity and hawwah (Heb., mother of all living). They won’t die if they eat from the tree. But they will lose their innocence and know right from wrong – becoming responsible moral agents - as a result. As Gloria Steinem observed, “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.”
The truth is that the folks back home who warned these students about the serpents at the university actually do have much to fear: college students often reject literalist-mythic religious constructs when they are required to think critically about them. The knowledge of good and evil is a powerful tool. But in the process of critical consideration of inherited religions, something terrible often happens: students disobey – and thus betray - the gods who would gladly have kept them from “knowing good from evil,” - their parents, their pastors, their significant others from whom they have inherited their religions.
Of course, the reality is that it never was their religion in the first place. It was someone else’s. And that is why the cognitive dissonance proves so severe when they are challenged in classes and in dorm room bull sessions to explain, much less defend, their beliefs – they’ve never really thought about what they believe and why.
So it’s not surprising that professors become antichrists and academia becomes the center of secular humanism in the eyes of the families, parishes and communities they left behind. From their perspective, not only is one of their own mutual affirmers – required to make their ongoing belief in patently incredible faith constructs possible - lost to them forever (because G-d has placed an angel with a flaming sword at the Gate to the Garden of Innocence). Worse yet, in the process they have become the dreaded disaffirming other standing in the presence of their former tribe drawing the tribal gods into question. In short, they have become blasphemers.
The hint of the century
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I've said too much
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
That was just a dream
By some twist of fate, R.E.M.’s song was playing on my radio as I pulled out of my driveway in Orlando, my Mazda loaded to the ceiling with my clothes, books, aquariums and computers, headed to Berkeley for seminary in 1991. I squirmed as I realized the irony of a then young man headed to seminary being serenaded about losing one’s religion. Little did I know how prophetic it would prove to be.
I had just come through an extended period of disillusionment with the Episcopal Church in the face of the takeover of my local diocese by fundamentalist evangelicals. I had joined the church while an undergraduate at the University of Florida for its intellect, its aesthetics, its consciousness of issues of social justice, its rich catholic heritage and its reformation value of conscience. All of this had disappeared in an instant with the election of a Billy Graham wannabe as the new bishop. To this day, I grieve the loss of that religion. But, in truth, I had already begun losing that religion before I even got into my car that day.
Study in an interfaith seminary consortium next to a world class university in Berkeley allowed me to stop focusing on the door which was closing behind me and to refocus on the doors which would open for me at this new stage of life: ordination to the priesthood, connection to a Buddhist sangha, experiential learning of liberation theology in Latin America, the discovery of social psychology and religion, the insistence that one’s religion and study be intellectually rigorous. The parochial aspects of my former religion would be peeled off in successive phases of cognitive dissonance and discovery. Ultimately, I would come to see all institutional religions as possible means to the end of a spiritual life including my own even as I came to value my own Episcopal tradition as the place which grounded me.
Today, I find myself grateful to my religious traditions of the Methodist and Episcopal Churches for all they provided me as my starting place to a spiritual life. I am grateful for the many teachers I have had along the way, the agent provocateurs of cognitive dissonance calling me to an ongoing life of self-examination and openness to wisdom that I increasingly find comes from unexpected places. And I have come to take my own role as teacher and mentor very seriously, including the awareness of how what I teach impacts my students.
Like many of my students, I did lose someone else’s religion. That loss was underway by the time I arrived in college and only accelerated at that point. Like them, I had to live through the pain of realizing my disloyalty and treason to those authorities that my relinquishing of their vision produced. But, like Robert Frost’s poem, I found that on my life journey “[t]wo roads diverged in a wood, and I-- I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.”
And so I embrace with great caution my role as the serpent, the agent provocateur, the siren calling them to think critically about their religion, asserting that “if the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.” I recognize the invitation to treason my classes represent and the pain of cognitive dissonance that betrayal of one’s significant others it brings along with it, the necessary first step in answering the vocation to grow and develop more nuanced understandings of religions once cast in black and white.
I also know that I have no new answers to replace those black and white easy answers a critically considered understanding of religion destabilizes. I can only offer the assurance from my own life experience that it is possible to survive the loss of someone else’s religion, the destructive step in Shiva’s dance required to make way for the birth of something new. For that journey, I offer all that I have to give - my compassion for the painfulness of the journey and my willingness to listen.
Now I've said too much
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try….
Lyrics from R.E.M., “Losing My Religion,” Out of Time (1991)
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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