Friday, January 4, 2008

Musings on Faith

Recently on Ask MetaFilter somebody asked the question,

"How to secularists deal without the comfort of religion?"

I thought the discussion thread that follows was quite interesting, and so I forwarded it to my longtime friend J, with whom I've had stimulating conversations about religion and spirituality in the past. The last time we got onto the subject was about 5 years ago, and at the time I remember that he said he identified most with Scientific Pantheism, even if he wouldn't go so far as to call himself a Scientific Pantheist. I don't remember what I said at the time... Then as now I would have had a difficult time describing my personal sense of faith, which has evolved from my upbringing in the United Church of Christ.

Were I put on the spot and commanded to declare a religious affiliation, I would have to say Christian, even though I have not regularly attended a congregation since I was in high school, nor is my personal construct of a supreme being of the "old guy with a white robe and long beard" type. The more I have learned about other religions, the more nebulous my sense of "God" has gotten; there are so many similarities from faith to faith that I cannot subscribe to the notion that the monotheistic God I was raised to believe in is somehow fundamentally different, or more or less valid than the monotheistic Gods other people are raised to believe in.

During our renewed discussion on this subject, I found out that J. has moved beyond pantheism to atheism; I had made a comment to the effect that I tend to feel sorry for militant atheists - not because I believe they are going to hell, or that they're bad people, or that they're somehow inferior to me, but because they so often give me the impression that they find little joy or wonderment in the world around them. J. countered that he knew very few atheists who didn't feel some kind of awe when presented with a beautiful sunset or stunning vista... or, for that matter, an elegant mathematical formula or piece of software code. It's just than an atheist doesn't make the added distinction of attributing those things to a supreme being.

The thought that keeps rattling around in my head is, then, how is being in awe of nature itself --or the raw physics and geometry of the universe, to put it more fundamentally-- not a kind of faith unto itself? I understand the desire to decouple it from the notion of a singular deity or formalized system of worship, but it seems like that's a semantic distinction, and that everyone is dancing around two sides of the same coin. I think people get hung up on semantics, and always approach the topic of religion with their own baggage (good or bad) and prejudices - I know I felt sheepish reading J's response after I had painted atheists with such a broad brush.

When I petitioned to join the Freemasons, I didn't have to grapple with the 'Supreme Being' question at all, but the modern, skeptical, analytical, 21st century part of me felt like I ought to... I don't often sit down and question my faith, but when I do I'm a little bit surprised to find how strong it is.


Tim said...

No atheist can be made a Mason. In Masonry, You are required to profess a belief in Deity, otherwise no obligation can be considered binding upon you.
I have grappled with the "Supreme Being" aspect of Masonry due in part to the image of God that within the US and the West most often reflect the Christian traditional view of God. My view reflects what a mute would say upon first encountering some great illumination or rapturous sight. He is beyond speechless; he couldn't begin to voice a description of what he saw. I know, that as Human Beings we need the convention of using words to enable us to understand one another, but when it comes to G_D - well, I'm always at a loss and very uncomfortable.

A.C. said...

You put your finger on something I had trouble expressing in that post- being at a loss and uncomfortable when it comes to discussions about God; even among the various sects of the Christian faith alone, beliefs and interpretations vary so widely that it seems impossible to not step on somebody's toes.

When I was researching Freemasonry early last summer, the "You must profess belief in a supreme being, but which one or how you choose to keep your faith is not to be dictated or debated by the lodge" aspect was one of the key aspects that motivated me to seek membership.