Due to the recent poll, I was pointed to a diary post at the Daily Kos. In it, a pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage Mormon tries to explain why they won’t leave the church, even though they disagree with the church’s stance in Prop 8. The argument he chooses is that the church is within its rights to regulate behavior within the church; outside is another matter. The diarist alludes to reasons why they won’t leave the church, but isn’t very specific. Finally, the diarist asks the following question to another member of that community:
am I wrong to maintain my membership in my church? I love the Gospel, I think it is beautiful, and I don’t want to be outside it. I know you did what you had to do? Is my choice wrong? I don’t think so.
In the ensuing comments, many people (mostly militant atheists) helpfully suggest that the appropriate response is to stop going to church or to remove one’s name from the roles. This is because they aren’t listening to the diarist (who doesn’t want to leave the church) and because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of religious life. They think it is like shopping.
Many people believe that religion exists solely to make your life better. Many militant atheists, in particular, seem to believe this. Religion, in this thought, is there to soothe pain, to explain the mysterious, and to comfort the weak. “We, noble, brave, and strong, don’t need those consolations, but it is nice for those nincompoops out there to have something to cling to if they won’t be rational. At least, it is nice unless they decide to use religion to kill people…nevermind, let them suffer until they get it.” In this worldview, if a particular religion holds views or makes demands of you that you find potentially offensive or inconvenient, then you just go find a new religion. It is all about finding the religion that justifies the way you already live and causes you to have the most certainty regarding the meaning of your life and your place before God. In other words, choosing a religion and choosing an outfit are essentially the same act.
This is stupid.
It is stupid, primarily, because it denies the critical element that brings most people into religion, which is an experience with the ineffable. Most people who believe believe because they have felt, heard, seen, experienced some event that they feel is best explained by recourse to supernatural forces. Something happens in your life (you say a prayer, you cry out in pain, you wish for your mother’s love) and, a little unexpectedly, you get a response, an overwhelming response that doesn’t seem to come from within you. It tells you things; it opens your eyes and ears; it makes you want to be better; it makes you better. The initial faith experience is, I think, almost always like this. You don’t choose faith initially; it chooses you.
What you do with this, over time, changes according to the individual. Some people cling to it; others let it go. I personally think that, after that initial experience, faith is a choice; “will I continue to believe in the import of that event or will I let it fade?” In any case, this is where the consumer model of religion fails. I would imagine that the majority of the truly religious have joined a particular religion not because of its similarities with their already-held beliefs but rather in spite of the dissimilarities. Religious lifes means that we join groups because, to some degree, we believe God approves of the group. We join churches because we believe God told us that was the way to connect to the divine. We may well prefer another group that was more closely aligned with our personal beliefs, but we are where we are because we believe God told us to go there. Negotiating the difference between our understanding and a church’s is never as simple as “voting with your feet” because God found you in that church and, therefore, it can’t be all bad. To reject that church entirely isn’t to just walk away, it is to rewrite and revise your lived life. A church isn’t a political party, a social club, or a name brand. It isn’t something someone can or should easily discard.
So, o diarist, I agree with you. There is nothing wrong with remaining in the church, even if you disagree with some church policies. Tell your friends with their Dawkins and Hitchens (the Jack Chicks of the atheist movement) that suggesting otherwise fails to grasp what is important about religious life: the counsel of the divine. If they don’t get that or if they reject it, that’s their right; but it isn’t their right to regulate behavior outside of their little militant group.