05 January 2016

Epiphany And Non-Religious Living

[Originally written January 6, 2011.]

If I were a religious man, I might call my blog Epiphany, which is today, as this blog is all about revelations that turn knowledge into true understanding. In modern iconography, we represent epiphanies with light bulbs in thought bubbles over people's heads.

Epiphany is the first day of the third liturgical season of the year. The first is Advent (starting the fourth Sunday before Christmas), the second is Christmas (from December 25 until Epiphany), the third is Epiphany, and the next is Lent which begins Ash Wednesday, followed by the liturgical season of Easter and then by the liturgical season of Pentecost. It is less important, in the Western Christian tradition, than Christmas and Easter and Lent, but arguably more notable than Pentecost, the other "in between" season.

At one point, Epiphany was celebrated for forty days (the same length as Lent) with Candlemas closing that season on February 2, thereby Christianizing Groundhog Day (notable because it is the day halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox). A more common modern liturgical practice is to end the liturgical season of Epiphany with Mardi Gras (the day before Lent begins), which floats to different days from year to year out of a design to have some link between the Jewish holiday of Passover, the date of which is set in a lunar Jewish calendar, and Easter, which has powerful biblical echoes of the Passover story.

The date that the Roman Catholic Church assigned to Epiphany was the date that the Eastern Orthodox Church assigned to Christmas (i.e. the celebration of the Nativity of Christ, although in the Eastern Church the Baptism of Christ was also celebrated at this time as part of a larger celebration of Christ's involvement in the world).

In the Western church, Epiphany, sometimes know as "Three Kings Day," marks the moment when the divinity of Baby Jesus was revealed and the three Wise Men from the East gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (being old men, they didn't know much about what families really need at a baby shower), and then, most generously, left for home without telling King Herod where Jesus was living in breach of their agreement to inform him. It is also celebrated as the twelfth day of Christmas (per the carol).

The fact that I can write this entire post for you from memory is proof that I have way too much religious education in a Western Christian liturgical tradition for any reasonable atheist.

I was baptised and confirmed as a Lutheran, and was a parishioner, college youth group member, and Sunday school teacher at the local Episcopal Church when I was an undergraduate, despite not really believing in God at that point, and also spend about a year regularly attending my wife's parents Korean Presbyterian Church when we lived near them and some time attending a Presbyterian Church in Grand Junction, Colorado. Some habits are hard to break and I wanted to give the possibility that the denomination rather than the underlying religious worldview was the issue. My religious education was bolstered by a college minor in history, a large part of which in my case involved medieval European history which was in large part a history of the Roman Catholic Church, since nobody else was literate enough to do much history writing in Western Europe, and involvement with classical choral music, much of which is drawn from the Latin version of the Roman Catholic liturgy.

The going to church part, the music, the regular bible readings, the church tradition, and pastoral musings of the pastor, were all quite tolerable parts of being a Christian. And, the part of Christianity I was a part of growing up, unlike the more prominent parts of the Christian faith today, was not particularly evil. Honestly, if it weren't for the whole not believing in God thing, I'd probably have seriously considered going to divinity school and becoming a minister, instead of going to law school. There are a lot of very congenial elements to being a minister, and ministers have the opportunity to do a lot of good in the world.

Most American Christians who are active church participants today are part of a religious movement deeply rooted in hate, selfishness, self-righteousness, bigotry, willful ignorance of science, sexism, and entirely too little guilt for their own sinfulness, and are also increasingly detached from millennia of church tradition. But, that isn't why I am not a Christian and I could easily have found a Christian community that wasn't morally screwed up. There are quite a few denominations of Christianity out there that are not mostly evil and are more still that try very hard to avoid questions of good and evil and morality entirely, although most of the not evil churches seem to be in dire straights as their pews grow emptier year after year. I am, I suppose, ethnically Christian, and certainly share a lot of the worldview of the minority of Christians who are committed to being morally good people.

There was a time not so long ago when "doing the Christian thing" or "acting Christian" meant something along the lines of being compassionate and merciful and tolerant. Sometime along the way, it is hard to pin down when in the late 19th century or in the 20th century it happened, that ceased to be true.

There are even Christians who can escape the trap of Biblical literalism and accept the existence of divinity, Jesus and a higher power who is active in the lives of his worshippers who can comfortably still view the anti-scientific propositions of Genesis and other parts of the Bible as a morally meaningful legend rather than as a scientifically accurate descriptions of pre-history, and those folks are particularly unlike to be evil morally. One of the fundamental tenants of Methodism, more forgotten on dusty shelves than lived these days, placed reason and experience at the core of canonical ways to understand God and to assemble a worldview, something that is hardly anti-scientific. But, I am not so pliable that I can feel at peace with myself, honoring the traditions and reciting the words, without believing that there is not a more or less biblically described divine being behind them, a position that Bishop John Shelby Spong is famous for advocating.

I ceased to be a Christian, not because Christianity or God was evil, or because I didn't like going to church, but because the more I read the Bible, learned about science, learned about history, learned how the Bible came to be, and so on, the less I believed that it was true.

Simply reading the Bible, rather than receiving it second hand, was probably the biggest reason I stopped believing. The more I read the Bible, the more obvious it became that Christianity was based on stuff that wasn't true. I didn't become aware of existing atheist philosophical arguments until long after I'd reached the conclusion myself by reading the Bible. Of course, reading well honed and researched discussions after the fact did confirm the beliefs that I had tentatively come to already.

It is hard to be an honest, self-respecting Christian if you don't believe that the God of the Bible exists, don't believe that any Biblical miracles happened for supernatural or divine reasons, don't believe that Jesus Christ had any special powers or divinity or relationship with a divine being, don't believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, don't believe in angels or demons, and don't think that there is any extranatural being or force in the world acting with moral purpose in human lives. Without this foundation upon which Christianity flows, it becomes nothing more than literature and some beliefs that other people have held and some rituals that other people (including my past self) carried out.

For me, Christianity fits in the same category as Greek mythology. It is interesting and has interesting insights buried in it. It is part of something that educated people should know because it is part of a historical cultural legacy that produced the world whose culture I lay claim to myself. It was something that some people once believed and honored with elaborate rituals. But, I don't believe that any of it is true and have no reason other than nostalgia or whimsy to carry on its traditions. And, the logic by which my worldview arrived at this conclusion encompasses all of the other world religions of which I am aware as well.

I don't have any great beef with people who have religious beliefs but aren't morally deficient as a result and don't ignore science in ways that matter in real life. Religious beliefs that I just can't bring myself to share strike me as a little odd, but I'm not adverse to people who hold them any more than I and anyone else has a strong aversion to people who put faith in horoscopes, spend money on lottery tickets because they believe that have some source for lucky numbers, avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks for superstitious reasons, think that ghosts are real, or are convinced that they are alien abductees. Whatever. Lots of reasonably good people believe some harmless but odd things.

It would be very convenient to be religious and to be part of an organized practicing religious community. But, in order to be honest to myself, I'd rather be moral without resort to higher powers, and find other ways to address the needs in life that religious practice and belief fills in the lives of others.

It turns out that once you get the hang of it, it is lot less difficult to be non-religious that I would have expected it to be. Pascal's wager notwithstanding, I feel not the slightest twinge of worry about the fate of the soul that I don't believe that I have in a metaphysical sense. Even in moments of extreme emotion and stress, I feel no impulse to pray. Having Sunday mornings free turns out to be terribly convenient. Reading the Bible and thinking about metaphysical ideas less often leaves much more quality quiet time to explore other more worthwhile ideas. Hell, even reading the Bible is more satisfying when you are reading it as a non-divine relic of a past civilization, instead of trying to use it as a guide to what you should believe and how you should live your life. Lack of religious belief has made moral decision-making and thinking much more straightforward and I certainly don't think that I am any less moral as a person as a result of it, nor do I miss in any way the role that the church would have played in the moral instruction of my children. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that it has made the moral instruction of my children easier.

I don't sing as much as I used to, and that is unfortunate. Sacred music has an extraordinary share of the market share of choral music activity, particularly for B grade singers, and I'm not such a great singer that I could be a part of the elite musical choral groups that make up a large share of the not religiously affiliated choral music groups. If I were really bothered, I'd help organize an alternative (something hardly without precedent, for example, in the case of popular barber shop quartets for a good stretch of American history), but it isn't enough of a priority for me to justify that effort, so I enjoy music, classical and otherwise, mostly as a spectator and in privacy with no one else around to hear now. It is far easier to find secular alternatives to church patronage of art, architecture, elite musical and dramatic performances, and philosophical discussion, than it is to find alternatives to participatory roles in making choral music.

I had a religious wedding, and have been to many religious funerals in my life. But, having attended some non-religious weddings and funerals, which I found more satisfactory and emotionally pleasing than the standard issue religious versions, I no longer feel that religious weddings and funerals are indispensable or even very helpful as I once had thought.

Some people feel that infant baptism or an equivalent ceremony is crucial as a naming ceremony and introduction of children into the world. We skipped it (to my late mother's great dismay), and the closest we came to an alternative was a Korean style First Birthday celebration which was entirely satisfactory as an alternative. I feel no fear that we won't be able to adequately honor our children's coming of age without religious trappings when the time comes.

I have a lot of respect for the pastoral care model of dealing with difficulties in one's emotional and family life, as an alternative to the medical-disorder model of psychiatry and psychology. Indeed, one idea that floats around in my head now and then that I've never quite managed to develop very well is a way to incorporate that into secular people's lives in a sort of chaplaincy or institutional counselor role that is demedicalized. But, the truth of the matter is that while I know people who availed themselves of those resources and benefited greatly for help in dealing with grief, to deal with impending mortality, for resolving conflicts in families, for reinventing themselves after incarcerations and addictions, and other life struggles, it isn't anything that I every experienced personally outside of a pre-marital counseling session that to put it politely, added no value. It is hard to miss what you haven't experienced all that much.

The distance I've gotten from day to day involvement in Christianity has made me more aware of the annoying sides of pervasive Christian linked practices in society. Without a belief in the divinity of Christ to give them meaning, Christmas and Easter can become something of an irritating drag, especially if you were, like I was when I was I Christian, someone who had always downplayed the commercial and pagan aspects of those holidays in favor of their uniquely Christian components. The "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance bugs me a little, and when asked to swear or affirm something, orally and in public, I prefer to affirm, even though most people these days are completely oblivious to the religious element of the concept of swearing an oath at all.

Really the biggest downside to not being a Christian is that churches are ready made social communities of families similar to you without any real specific goal or purpose whom you can count as your friends and neighbors. People are meant to live in communities, not as isolated households alone in the world, and creating those social communities without the benefit of designated volunteers, paid full time community leaders, deep ancestral ties, and "script" of interactions and events to follow is much more work. Church membership is a form of genuine interactive citizenship in a group of people who happen to be, while most "extracurricular" involvements in life, like the bar association, PTA, neighborhood association, or special interest clubs are more about some purpose than about fellowship and the pure well being of the members in a holistic sense. Every book I have read on secular living points out this institutional shortcoming, but I haven't seen those kinds of institutions emerge. My intuition, informed by involvement at one point with a group trying to organize a "Church of Freethought" that ultimately failed is that they need to emerge naturally, rather than by copying existing religious organizations, and that as institutions do emerge that fill these needs they will not be strictly parallel to churches, because they will have a different organizing principal of common bonds between participants and meet a different portfolio of needs, probably in different bundles. Even the most complete realizations of these kinds of visions, like the Unitarian-Universalist churches, haven't really thrived and become widespread even as the "target audience" for these institutions has exploded.

Indeed, the traditional "business model" of churches themselves is changing. Mainline denomination parish churches that continue to operate as they have for the last two hundred years without significant innovations what purposes they serve and how they go about carrying out those ends are in trouble. Contemporary music has made its way from something confined to black Pentecostal churches, to once stodgy, traditional liturgical denominations. The big tend it towards non-denominational megachurches that offer rec centers, pre-schools, group therapy, niche interest groups, contemporary music and more, in the context of Evangelical leaning but studiedly vague religious instruction. They wouldn't survive on the "core" business of church services alone.

Still, as the years pass, I become more and more convinced that a post-Christian culture in the United States not only can emerge, but is emerging and indeed is well on the way to becoming inevitable, even though I can't envision what all of its core elements will look like once is gels and stabilizes with great clarity. My intuition is that these institutions will be mostly secular, rather than explicitly non-religious. My intuition is that they will serve a different portfolio of needs than an traditional mainline Christian parish church. My intuition is that these institutions will be developed by people who happen to lack strong connections to religious organizations who are interested in meeting particular needs and desires that they have rather than by people who have an "anti-religious" or expressly "non-religious" agenda. Most people will probably never even notice that some of these new institutions serve needs that have historically been filled by churches. They may instead look simply like a revival of institutions that build "social capital" after an across the board decline in all non-work, non-family organizations that require the active participation and presence of their members rather than mere check writing.

These new institutions also have more than one gap to fill. In addition to filling for the non-religious some of the functional roles once filled by churches, there are other gaps in civil society that are open and waiting to be filled by new institutions. The withering of civic organizations like the Freemasons and Elks, the fading of labor unions, the shuttering in many communities of libraries driving by lack of tax revenues. Full service country clubs are shrinking at the expense of single purpose health clubs or golf clubs, as they find it hard to attract affluent thirtysomething or forty somethings.

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