Sometimes I think about how I used to think, mostly in terms of what I believed as a Christian, and these metacognitive reflections are sometimes elucidating and sometimes embarrassing (e.g. ”I used to believe that? Facepalm.”). I feel that this exercise can be useful in terms of remembering what cognitive flaws I suffered from and continuing to resist those biases in other areas of my intellectual life. But I also think it’s helpful because it reminds me of what I once was and where so many people still are today.
I was reminded of this when watching the latest episode (although it won’t be the latest show by the time I post this) of The Atheist Experience (air date 2/17/13). The third caller (which begins at approximately 41:30) talks about the apparent contradiction in Genesis of “on the day you eat [the fruit] you shall surely die” (2:17). I tend to agree with Matt Dillahunty’s response in one sense – it doesn’t matter to me whether a “spiritual death” or an eventual death can be reasonably exegeted from the passage because it’s just a freaking story. On the other hand, people actually believe that freaking story, and so yes, that makes me care a little bit. If someone is insistent on the truth on the passage, I would much rather they accept it as a metaphorical truth, as perhaps an insight into the human condition (even though I think it is wrongheaded as a description of our moral condition, but never mind that for now), rather than as a literal truth of two people, a deity who threatens death for disobedience in eating the wrong fruit (and one symbolizing or actually exemplifying the knowledge of good and evil), and a talking snake whose role in it is enigmatic and weird (although I would bet money that it compares reasonably with other ANE creation myths).
At any rate, I happened to be watching it with my wife in the room (which she hates, so I don’t do it often), and I found even myself reacting to Martin Wagner’s characterization of hermeneutics as “spin.” Of course, I suspect that this characterization is the result of apologists sullying what is otherwise a perfectly reasonable term – it just means “textual interpretation” – but still, it grated on me because it was in part my ability to have a less inerrantist hermeneutic that provided me a path to think about the texts freely and eventually detach myself from orthodox doctrinal positions.
If this seems a bit wishy-washy and accommodationist, consider what I concede up front might be an objectionable analogy: heroin addiction. As a public health issue, heroin addiction is difficult to cope with; a person trying to quit using heroin can’t just stop entirely because the withdrawal that a chronic user would suffer is simply too crippling, especially when an addict is likely attempting to regain a more normal lifestyle. So a much less problematic drug has been used to treat heroin addiction (and opiate addiction more broadly, I believe): methadone. This is one of those times when idealism goes out the door, and the pragmatism of “the lesser evil” has actually demonstrated some usefulness.
I sincerely think that, if not comparable to addiction, religious thinking is certainly prohibitive to seeing reality as it really is, and so yes, I really am content to let people have religion in whatever innocuous form it finds. Does that mean that I wouldn’t still prefer to see them abandon all of the ridiculous things about religion? Of course not, but in a way – if I can turn my analogy on its head for a moment – a more liberal, less irrational religion can sometimes be a gateway drug out of religious thinking altogether.
You see, I remember what it was like to be honestly grappling with questions of faith. Did I take them all as seriously? No, clearly not, but in having to face up to some difficult questions – heck, by simply acknowledging that there are some things for which there are no easy or clear answers – I allowed myself the ability to move to the next step.
I don’t know if this is the way that people who have never been religious have ever felt, and if not, it could explain how some can be pretty callous and idealistic about the matter (and let me be clear: these are largely ideals that I share). But I have some sympathy for that former me, having to deal with a whole host of problems that I didn’t create and which I largely didn’t choose (except by virtue of my birth and upbringing), and I know that I am not the only one in that position, not by a long shot.
I know you’re still out there, former me, in other incarnations, and I want you to know: I’m pulling for you. I hope, dear readers, that the same goes for you as well.