I, an atheist, was talking to a Catholic colleague about philosophy. I will admit that this could proceed onto rocky ground. She asked why I was interested in philosophy and theology as an atheist. Generally my answer to this question varies depending on who’s asking it and how I’m feeling at the time, so given that she is a Catholic and this was within a work environment I thought I’d keep it brief. I told her that there’s so much more to religion and its history than the narrow vision of it that a lot of people seem to have and it’s interesting exploring areas that you didn’t know you didn’t know. Though she didn’t take this badly, I may have steered close to uneven territory: she said she didn’t know that much about religion herself.
I needed a second to process this: why do I have an inbuilt assumption that to be religious in the modern Western world you are also automatically informed? In my knowledge of ‘how far we’ve come’ since the Middle Ages I presumed that there is more to being religious than just being born into it: having a choice is now an option.
To expand. A few hundred years ago in England, if you were non-religious, or the wrong type of religious, you would be at the very least outcast, but more probably imprisoned or killed. Scripture had not yet been translated into English so the average person would not be able to read it for themselves, instead depending on their preacher for religious guidance. State rules were written or influenced by religious people and the commoner would follow them unwittingly or pay the price. Now, in the wonderful freedom of human rights we can freely practise whatever religion we choose, and we have so much information at our fingertips we can investigate the faith we ascribe to. Or is the timeless core of religion faith without any evidence? I would like to know whether, given the option, the majority would like to inform themselves more of religion, or just continue on with their belief regardless (I hesitate to say blindly). My Theology class at university, ranked fourth in the country for this subject, consisted of fewer than fifty people whilst other subjects had up to 300. Ignoring the many other factors that go into choosing a degree subject and the intellectual pursuits that people get up to away from the lecture halls, my slightly-educated guess would be to continue on regardless.
I view religion in the same way as temptation. If you avoid temptation you cannot be rewarded for abstaining. If you ignore any questioning for or against God then your faith itself is questionable. If, however, you confront the enemy and come out fighting, then that victory can only be commended. This perspective may seem to verge on pitilessness but consider the opposition to it: “I do not or cannot justify my faith to myself and I am okay with that,” and it starts to make more sense. In a discussion I could pull my belief apart and examine it ruthlessly. And I am okay with that. Don’t let the war imagery fool you; there should be no battle between different beliefs but an internal struggle is not necessarily a bad thing. Elie Wiesel has long been an advocate of questions, not answers, and this has been an influential principle for me. There is nothing more subjective than how someone feels about religion in their mind and in their heart, and there is no good reason why we should have to justify this to anyone else, as long as we can try to square it with ourselves.