Guest Post: Why religion makes me uncomfortable

The following is a guest post by long-time reader the Vicomte de Chagny. Yes, this is obviously a pseudonym. 


And despite the abolition
By the current inquisition
Of any intuition that they don’t choose,
When it comes to God I find I can’t believe that He designed
A human being with a mind he’s not supposed to use!

- Godspell

It has been said that religion is the opiate of the masses. I’m not sure that’s as powerful or accurate a statement now as it was when Marx first said it—I think television and social media have probably taken over that title by now. But if the term “opiate” is used to describe something that is used to dull thought and ultimately control those using it with the force of addiction, calling organized religion an opiate has, even today, more than enough truth in it to make me uncomfortable.

Religion has a maddening tendency to embrace either intense scholarly thought or abject mindlessness with little to no possibility of a middle ground. Some of the greatest minds this world has ever seen were religious scholars. St Augustine. St. Ireneaus. Martin Luther. Soren Kierkegaard. C.S. Lewis. In the Dark Ages of Europe, monasteries were almost single-handedly responsible for maintaining education, literacy, science and art until the Renaissance. Churches have been the museums, concert halls, and culture centers of the world for centuries. And yet no single force in history has done more than organized religion to encourage people to simply stop thinking.

While Catholicism preserved education and enlightened thought in the Dark and Middle Ages, the Church also rationed them strictly or denied them to non-clergy altogether. Those who explored science or medicine that the Church did not sanction were often burned as witches, and there was no bigger opponent to the Gutenberg printing press than Catholicism. This desire to control or even prevent “different” thoughts continues to this day, and has pervaded almost every Western religion–including, as you might imagine, Christian Science. One of the reasons I struggled with and eventually left Christian Science was the religion’s inherent tendency to encourage only the thoughts that directly paralleled or reflected Christian Science teachings.

Here’s my favorite example of this tendency. One of the most famous texts of the Bible starts out “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Similarly, one of the most oft-sung hymns in the Christian Science Hymnal begins “Shepherd, show me how to go.” Mary Baker Eddy, who wrote that hymn, also defined “sheep” partially as “innocence…those who follow their leader.” With a shepherding God to direct them, sheep (that is, all of us) by definition do not need to think for themselves. But earlier in the same book containing that definition, on the first page in fact, Eddy writes without hesitation or apology, “The time for thinkers has come.” Can these two seemingly contradictory statements coexist? Is it really time for the unthinking sheep to start thinking? Christian Science seems to think so. I’m not so sure.

See, it is here that Christian Science falls into line with most other organized religions. In the example above, Christian Science claims to encourage active thought. Almost every Sunday School teacher and practitioner I’ve ever had has used the “time for thinkers” line to urge me to think deeply, deliberately, vigorously, about Christian Science, God and my relationship to Him, the unreality of pain and temptation, the spiritual qualities that made up my selfhood and existence, the rules of Christian Science and why they were blessings that I should “follow and rejoice,” and so on. When I thought hard about those things and came up with satisfactory insights about them, I was praised as a good CSer.

But increasingly often as I grew older and passed through Principia,  I wanted to think deeply, deliberately and vigorously about, say, how Christian Science could be a religion of love but Christian Scientists could be very unloving. Or how premarital sex could be a valid expression or reflection of divine love. Or how a school whose mission is to advance the cause of Christian Science but claims it does not teach Christian Science to its students is not being completely honest with itself. Or even how the exhortation to think should apply to all active thought without exception or discrimination (cf: the Godspell quote at the beginning of this article). All the CS authorities I spoke to, save perhaps one or two, politely but firmly informed me that I was “asking the wrong questions” at best or “listening to mortal mind/malicious animal magnetism” at worst, and that either way I needed to pray–not think, pray–to get my thought back on the right path.

In the 1999 Kevin Smith film Dogma, there is a discussion about the difference between beliefs and ideas. Rufus, the apocryphal 13th apostle (brilliantly played by Chris Rock), says that mankind got religion all wrong by “taking a good idea and building a belief system on it.” When questioned further, he explains that “I just think it’s better to have ideas. I mean, you can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it.” And as noted here, people also try to blackball any thoughts that contradict it. Christian Science, for all its emphasis on the divine Idea, God’s thoughts passing to man, and the time for thinkers having arrived, is a belief system. And by encouraging thought, it actually discourages belief–which, of course, is unacceptable.

Because the conclusions of Christian Science teaching are already set in stone (to be given to us sheep by the guiding Shepherd), thinking in Christian Science is really encouraged only when it puts thought into line with those conclusions–i.e., the established doctrine and dogma of the religion. Questions and doubts are permitted, but only to push us toward predetermined answers. While I agree 110% that the time for thinkers has indeed come, I struggled for years against the Christian Science teaching that any thoughts that could potentially lead me away from compliance with and faith in Christian Science were wrong and/or sinful. And that struggle was one of the main reasons I ultimately left the religion.

As noted above, Christian Science is not the only religion that currently engages in this suppression of non-compliant thought, or has done it historically. This is one of the main reasons that contemporary organized religion makes me so uncomfortable. Many churches of varying denominations attempt to recruit/convert new members by talking their ears off about why that particular faith is right and the others are wrong, which is bad enough, but many of them also pair that lecture of faith with a siren song of belonging. Sometimes that song is an actual song, often played by a rock and roll praise band and centrally involving Jesus; sometimes it’s an invitation to fellowship with coffee and pastries; sometimes it’s the unspoken pressure to give a testimony; sometimes it’s a direct encouragement to give your life over to God; sometimes it’s all of these and more. But the underlying message is the same: do as we do, believe what we believe, fall in line with us, and you will belong; the louder you sing, the more enthusiastically you profess your belief, the more emotionally invested you become in your own salvation, the more you will be one of us. And if they’ve done their job, you won’t realize the level to which they are instructing you to stop thinking for yourself and just accept that what you’re told is The Truth, until you’ve already committed yourself to belonging with them and either actually want to stay or are just too embarrassed to leave.

I realize this description is in some ways overgeneralized. There are plenty of people who belong to different religions because they truly want to do so, and because they truly believe in the teachings of their faith of choice. There are still many great minds that embrace organized religion. And men and women of all education levels do bring great thoughtfulness to their faith–many have arrived at the great depth of their faith because they have devoted hours, days, years of active thought to the decision. (Father Tim Kavanagh, of Jan Karon‘s Mitford novels, is a tremendous fictional example of how thoughtful religion can actually work pretty well.) To say that every member of organized Western religion has been brainwashed would be a gross exaggeration. But to say that elements of groupthink, of blind and/or ecstatic acceptance that involves little or no thought, of sacrificing purposeful doubt on the altar of belonging, don’t hold a significant presence in organized Western religion today, including CS, would be just as false a statement. And as long as those elements remain as pervasive as they currently seem to me,  I will remain very uncomfortable with CS and most other organized religions.



About the Vicomte de Chagny
The Vicomte is a former Christian Scientist & Principia College graduate. He is grateful to Prin for helping him hone his critical thinking and writing skills, nurturing his natural desire to be involved in as many activities as possible, and giving him a solid foundation on which to build a CS-free life. (He occasionally appreciates the irony in that.) When not writing guest posts for Kindism.org, he writes a lot of other things under a number of other names. He likes long hot showers, ice-cold beverages, and the feeling of removing his shoes at the end of a long day – because really, everyone likes those things.

4 comments

  1. Yes, critical thinking and religion are not mutually exclusive when the former is applied to the latter, but they are mutually exclusive when the latter is applied to the former!

    And the reason for this is rather simple: each uses an way of thinking – an epistemology – that are incompatible. Whereas both critical thinking and religious belief assumes the use of justified true beliefs, what constitutes how justification is established are contrary. Critical thinking demands that evidence from an independent reality be adduced from it to justify a knowledge claim made about it. They are connected.

    Religious belief demands that evidence from reality be carefully selected to support an a priori set of faith tenets so that the conclusion of justification can be determined from groomed premises and imposed back on reality as if this tactic allows us to then deduce the religious tenets from it. Every religion seems to do this (which may help us understand why we end up with tens of thousands of different religions, each presenting itself as the One True Belief.). Reality and faith-based beliefs about it are thus disconnected. This is why CS has such difficulty recognizing that faith healing, for example, doesn’t work as a causal effect claimed to be justified if we allow reality rather than faith-based belief about it to arbitrate. This approach kills real people in real life needlessly and we see examples of this on a regular basis, seemingly to no effect on those who assume faith healing is justified by their religious belief rather than accept reality’s arbitration of it as unjustified.

    I am glad religious belief makes you uncomfortable because with more study you’ll find it is a way of knowing nothing about anything while people fool themselves into thinking such glorified ignorance is a virtue. And no one would care… if it didn’t cause real harm to real people in real life and, all too often, dependent children who have no choice in the woo their parents embrace.

  2. Just touching on one point in the guest editorial. About having CS talked about and talked about until a person finds he or she is hooked into the belief system. Perhaps talking was the experience of the writer. That talking would be a good thing.

    It seems to me, with a few exceptions, that not enough “talking and talking” is done within Christian Science when someone is considering belonging to the Christian Science group. Instead, a person he handed books and articles to read to absorb.

    I wish there was more of a talking through the concepts approach. For example, I didn’t ask every single kid or student that visited my Sunday School class. However, I asked many students if they ever met and talked with a practitioner. The reply was “no.” They didn’t even know who was a practitioner to have a conversation.

  3. What a thoughtful and well-articulated piece! If Prin taught you to think and write like that, Vicomte, then they are at least doing something right. I hope they keep it up, because they will succeed in helping even more students free themselves from the irrationality of Christian Science.

    I agree that religions generally discourage individual reasoning (to varying degrees) in favor of belief. In Christianity that goes back at least to St. Paul, who emphasized faith as the path to salvation, rather than reason.

    Christian Science is no exception, as you so ably point out, even though it purports to encourage thinking. In fact, CS has very effective mechanisms in place to discourage individual rational thought. One is community isolation. Another is the teaching that objective sensory evidence is a lie. And then there is the inculcated fear that animal magnetism, mesmerism, or hypnotism is the source of thoughts (suggestions) that run counter to Christian Science belief. You are taught to police your own thoughts (stand porter), and it seems to work quite well.

    When I was a sheep at Prin in the 70s, there was a brief period when I started to express some rational challenges to the culture. But a sheepdog took me aside and explained that I was “being handled.” Well, that worked, and like a good little lamb, I returned to the fold.

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate the kind words, While I was fortunate to have a strong writing foundation already in place before attending Prin (I’m convinced I had the world’s best writing teacher my sophomore year of high school), Prin afforded me plentiful opportunities to build on that foundation, which put me on a path to actually making a living as a writer today.

      You may find it interesting (I certainly did) that some of the Prin classes I valued the most highly and learned the most from were the ones that ultimately led me to move away from CS–in particular, I recall, a class on philosophy and religion. Many of the references in this article (Augustine, Ireneaus, and Kierkegaard, for starters) first came to my attention in that class, and it was there that I first started to articulate my ideas about individual thought and its place (or lack thereof) in CS. That class taught me an immense respect for those who feel able to approach, support, and defend their faith through reason–and sadly, just as immense a disrespect for those who refuse even to attempt to join the two.

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