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!”
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.
- “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes” Karl Marx http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people
- 23 Psalm http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+23&version=KJV
- Shepard, show me how to go, by Mary Baker Eddy CS Hymnal p. 304 http://www.hymnary.org/text/shepherd_show_us_how_to_go
- Kevin Smith, Dogma http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogma_%28film%29
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.