Losing Our Religion: A Response

Religious symbols

Religious symbols (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NPR did a series last week called “Losing Our Religion.” In this storythe only one I heard in full–the interviewees talked about their ambivalence and in some cases rejection of faith. The ones that really struck me were those who experienced suffering and untimely death in their families, and concluded that God couldn’t exist, because deity is not compatible with suffering.

“So at some point, you start to say, why does all this stuff happen to people? And if I pray and nothing good happens, is that supposed to be, I’m being tried? I find that almost – kind of cruel, in some ways. It’s like burning ants with a magnifying glass. You know, eventually, that gets just too hard to believe anymore.”

It’s hard for me to put my thoughts together on this, so it may be a bit disjointed, but here goes.

In some ways I understand doubt very well. Like many others in the modern world, I respect reason and am skeptical when people claim things just are because they are. I want to know things for certain, and the things taught by faith cannot be known for certain.

Another quote that really stuck me was this one, from Daniel Radcliffe:

I have a problem with religion or anything that says, ‘We have all the answers,’ because there’s no such thing as ‘the answers.’ We’re complex. We change our minds on issues all the time. Religion leaves no room for human complexity.”

How did he come to that conclusion? In my experience, religion is excruciatingly nuanced and complex, if you take the time to dig into it. And yet an awful lot of faithful people do paint religion exactly as he says.

Maybe it’s human nature to try to simplify the world so you don’t have to wrestle with it anymore. But faithful people have done the faith a real disservice by trying for so long to make it into something that provides “all the answers.” Because Christianity is a constant wrestling match between belief and doubt, between the best and the worst of your nature as a human being.

Here’s what I know about faith:

  • I doubt all the time. It seems irrational to believe there could possibly be Somebody out there bigger than everything, with a Capital-P Plan. And yet there are moments in each of our lives, regardless of religious belief, when we suddenly become overpoweringly aware of something Bigger Than Me. Motherhood provides those moments to religious and non-religious women alike. And I have found that when my brain quiets and I become open to the power of nature around me, I can feel God. Perhaps one reason faith has suffered such a beating in the modern world is the fact that we are never quiet, never free of music and texts and tweets.
  • Faith that you can claim by words (“Are you a Christian? Have you been saved?”) or wearing a pretty little cross, is okay as a first step, but if it doesn’t challenge you and make you uncomfortable two or three dozen times a day, then it’s pretty immature. Faith is something that should always be needling you, challenging you to be more than you are. Not affirming your own self-righteousness.
  • Faith can be a comfort, but that’s not its purpose. Anyone who thinks religion’s purpose is to make us feel better, I submit, is completely stagnant in their faith, and when tough times come calling, it will shake the foundations of that faith. Why do bad things happen? Because people do bad things. Blaming God for it is a copout. But if people–especially children–are given an insipid, watered-down, feel-good kind of Christianity, how can we be surprised when they recognize it as woefully insufficient for the real world?
  • There is much more commonality between faith and science than the current monologue would lead you to believe. Faith and reason do not stand at odds. The underpinning of my advocacy of natural family planning is the belief that a human’s body and soul/mind are connected. That where the body goes, the mind tags along for the ride. How often does science demonstrate the same thing? All the time. Thus, a woman who is raped has not only bodily injuries, but injuries to the mind and soul. And how many times have studies shown that when you exercise and eat healthier (physical), you feel better, too (spiritual/mental)?

Even many people who have sworn off formal religion still recognize the inherent spirituality of these last two examples. Shouldn’t this tell us something important? Namely, that there is something beyond us in this universe? Whether it’s God or The Force, something is out there, built into the very fabric of our beings. Let’s at least start from that point of commonality, and seek truth beginning from that point.


Faith and emotional manipulation


We are all a product of our experiences. Two people can react to the same experience in very different ways, but nonetheless they are both formed by what they felt at a particular time. At times I’ve been accused of being a “super-Catholic,” because I never really fell away. I’ve been pondering this lately, and I think I know why.

My freshman year of high school, a non-denominational organization called Youth For Christ rocketed into prominence. I thought that meant it was for all Christians, and indeed, it seemed to cross boundaries. The most popular kids in school and plenty of the invisible majority walked the hallways wearing snappy black T shirts that proclaimed, “Jesus loves U2. Jesus: if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.”

One night they brought in a high-powered speaker. They filled up a large room with teenagers: in folding chairs, standing at the edges and the back. I don’t remember much about the talk itself, except that it scared me. It was about “almosters,” people who are almost good enough for Heaven, but not quite, and who thus will burn in fiery damnation for all eternity.

I started thinking of my faults, of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and what would happen if I forgot to confess something. I got more and more scared…but alongside the terror grew another, quieter sense of discomfort, one I couldn’t put words to.

Then came The Altar Call. You know: “If you want to profess Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, get up and go to the back, where we have people waiting to speak with you.” And suddenly, the shuffling chairs, the whispers and sniffles and scraping sneakers all around me, made me realize something that cut the legs from beneath the fear.

We were being manipulated. Manipulated, in the name of religion.

That moment of clarity changed everything. I sat in my hard folding chair with my eyes closed, my arms folded, and prayed. Prayed that I wasn’t imposing my will on God’s. That if this was truly from God, that I would be open to it, even if it felt wrong. I kept praying as the speaker backed off his altar call: if you feel like you want to make the profession, but you need help to do it…if you feel moved, but need more information…if you simply want to ask questions…

At this point, I felt a stab of disgust. I realized he wasn’t going to be satisfied until the room was empty, until every person had gone to get “saved.” And I knew, with absolute certainty, that this wasn’t how God worked.

I sneaked a peek. The holdouts were me and one other girl—also Catholic. At this last, shameless call, she gave in.

I did not.

When it was all over, the last holdout and I went to the leaders to express our displeasure with how non-inclusive this experience was, and asked if we could bring in somebody to offer another perspective on being not quite good enough for Heaven. Oh, no, they said, we’re not going to get into doctrines of individual denominations. That’s how you tear groups like this apart. I hadn’t really expected a Protestant to buy in to the idea of Purgatory, but still, it irked. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized why: their entire presentation represented a sliver of Christianity, and not the whole.

I never went back.

It’s tempting to impose the more mature faith of my thirties on my fourteen-year-old self. Of course I didn’t have it worked out then like I do now, just as I’ll have it worked out better when I’m sixty than I do today. But I do believe that experience sensitized me to emotional manipulation in the name of God. Maybe that’s why my TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) two years later fell so flat, and made me so suspicious of retreats in general: that entire weekend felt like a giant emotional manipulation.

I know that many people have found their faith bolstered by such experiences. No doubt true conversions have happened off of altar calls employing fear tactics. God can use any circumstance to achieve His purposes.

But mostly, I think it harms Christianity. Because when you get back out into the real world, that amazing little thing called intellect kicks in, and you start to see the flaws. You realize that you’ve been manipulated. And then what? What saves a fledgling faith when it realizes it is based on manipulation?

True faith is based on love, not fear. True faith is not contrary to reason, but incorporates it. True faith recognizes that God doesn’t take sides, that He exists in the middle, above, and all around every point of view in our petty human concerns.

This is the basis for my faith. What experiences have shaped yours?

Who Needs What?


“Why are you here?” Monsignor asked us during his homily this morning…and then fell silent. I felt the ripple of discomfort ripple across the church, beginning in my chair. We’re used to hearing rhetorical questions from the pulpit, but somehow this one sounded like a real question.

He let us stew for a couple of seconds, like the disciples in the Gospel who Just Didn’t Get It, and then went on. “A lot of people don’t come to church because they say they don’t get anything out of it. But it’s not about you—it’s about God, and worshiping God.”

I’m sure everyone has heard the I-don’t-get-anything-out-of-it complaint, as well as the counter-argument: you get out of it what you put into it. Monsignor’s take is a little different—his point is that such arguments miss the point altogether. The point is God. Church is about God.

And yet the Sabbath is for people, and not the other way around. These two ideas seem to be at odds, but as I got to thinking about it, I realized that they actually aren’t.

Two nights ago at dinner, Alex was telling his daddy all about playing with his little neighbor friend. “Did you tell his mommy thank you before you left?” Christian asked.

Alex froze in the act of spearing a bite of chicken and threw him a puzzled look. “No.” Why would I do that?

“Well, you should,” Christian said. “You should always say thank you when you played at someone’s house.”

“Okay,” Alex said. “But I probably won’t remember.”

“Oh, but this is something that’s easy to remember, isn’t it?” Christian said.

I wanted to say that our neighbor doesn’t really care if he says thank you; adults generally don’t need thanks from children. It’s nice, but it doesn’t change anything. We’re so used to taking care of kids, we don’t expect gratitude. Of course I didn’t say this, because the point wasn’t that the neighbor needed Alex’s gratitude; the point was that Alex needed to be grateful.

One of the prefaces in the Roman liturgy says “You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself Your gift.” God doesn’t need our thanks—it doesn’t make him better or holier. We do it because it makes us holier.

So no—God doesn’t need us there on Sunday morning. But we need to be there, to re-center ourselves, to remind ourselves that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s a gift to us. At a minimum, the simple act of sitting butt in a pew forces us to set aside time for someone other than ourselves.

But imagine—just imagine what would happen if everyone came into church with the eagerness and the mental presence that we give to golf or scrapbooking. If we came expecting this to be the best hour of our week. I highly doubt that there would be boring liturgies. Not for long, anyway. People wouldn’t stand for it. They’d leap in and do something about it. What form that might take, I don’t know, but I am sure of one thing: it would change the world.

God is in the middle


It’s tempting, because it’s so easy.

We live in a culture where everything is reduced to sound bytes. A writer has one sentence to hook a reader or listener; going “in-depth” on the nightly news takes two minutes; each movie shot lasts two seconds, tops.

In a sound byte, there is no time for detail, no room for nuance. Pollsters ask us to offer our opinions: Yes or no? Democrat or Republican? For or against health care reform? “It depends” is not one of the choices. We are forced, by lack of options, to pigeonhole ourselves, when reality is that our opinion lies in the middle, and that we probably never had the information to form a proper opinion at all. Yet the resulting numbers are broadcast as inconvertible truth, shaping the universe we live in.

Once, during a heated debate, a man I know raked some of us over the coals for sitting on the fence—for taking the easy way out, trying to play both sides. Someone much more eloquent than I pointed out that those who sit in the middle are the ones caught in the crossfire. Holding the middle ground hardly constitutes “taking the easy way out.”

I live my life in the middle of two groups of people. On the one hand, I am a teacher of Natural Family Planning, which plants me among deeply conservative Catholics. On the other, I am a liturgist and writer, whose ranks run the gamut of political philosophy, but who, as a group, tend to lean to the left. Many of the people I know on both ends of the spectrum, in both the secular and the sacred political spheres, come across angry, bitter, and blind to the inconsistencies in their convictions. I want to jump in and try to moderate the rhetoric. But I’m afraid of damaging relationships, and I’m also well aware of the limitations of my own understanding. So except among my closest friends, I keep most of my opinions to myself.

But how can I make the world a better place if I don’t say what is given to me to say? I firmly believe that God—and thus truth—is in the middle on almost every issue, both in politics and in the Church. (Almost.) Our world is painted in black and white—in “red” and “blue”— and maybe it is easier to give in. To choose a pigeonhole based on one issue, maybe two, and hitch a ride on the bandwagon. But God is not a Republican. And God is not a Democrat. I reject all attempts to classify the world—political, religious, or everyday—in either/or terms. I reclaim the middle ground. And beginning today, I’m going to take the risk, and say it out loud.

“I Hate Church”


The other day I was listening to my WLP showcase CD in the car (I promise, this is not as geeky as it sounds; I was trying to decide if our choir could handle one of the pieces for Christmas Eve) when Alex suddenly piped up from the back seat, “Hey, Mommy, this is the song we sang when we walked at church.”

It was Steve Janco’s “Draw Near,” and we did indeed sing it while “walking”—to Communion. I got the teensiest little shiver at this glimpse into my son’s head—a glimpse that reveals that despite the number of times we hear “I hate church!”, something he has experienced there actually made a connection. And that gives me hope.

Hope is something I need. Church is tough for kids—for adults, for that matter—and doubly so because it’s 100% aimed at adults. Our parish offers children’s liturgy, but not every week. The rationale is that we don’t want to create separate communities within the community. If the kids never attend church with the Big People, they will grow up disconnected from the larger community. Besides, the problem is larger than liturgy that goes over children’s heads.

What is the problem? In short, the problem is that familiarity breeds contempt…and virtually everyone, even a liturgy geek, takes for granted what we do every week. Taken for granted, liturgy becomes something we do by rote, with our minds & hearts elsewhere. In place of ritual, we have repetition; in place of prayer, glib recitation that skips off the lips without ever penetrating the ear, much less the heart.

That’s the problem. The solution is twofold: good liturgy and an invested assembly.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Good liturgy requires a long-term view. You need priests who are committed to the process; you need skilled lay people with a gift for oratory and hospitality and reverence; you need money for trained musicians…and trained musicians frequently have no pastoral skills or sensitivity. (That may sound harsh, but I am a trained musician. Trust me, we’re a self-centered lot.) You need staff members and a music ministry and assembly members who have been catechized to participate, who don’t put the blinders on when we go outside their preferred musical style. You need people who are willing and able to read the documents thoughtfully, without imposing their own biases. The documents leave a lot of latitude, but some people run roughshod over them, as if latitude equals no rules at all. Others ignore what latitude is granted, on the misguided premise that everything about the Church was better a hundred, or two hundred, or a thousand years ago, and everything would revert to Ye Goode Olde Days if we just put things back the way they used to be.

I’m talking about Catholic worship specifically, but remove the documents and substitute pastors for priests, and the rest of it applies across the denominational board. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and with great frustration, because my son “hates” church. I try not to attach too much importance to this, because he’s four. But I’m a liturgist at heart. I dream of having my whole family leading music together. Alex on drums. Christian on piano. Me singing and playing flute. Nicholas and Julianna singing, playing guitar, whatever it is they end up being good at.

So when I hear, “Church is BORING,” it hurts me…because Alex is right. It is boring. And it isn’t supposed to be. How do we bridge the gap between repetition and ritual? Between childhood and mature understanding? How do I keep “I hate church” from becoming a mantra that he rides right out of the Church?



The other night, Christian and I watched “Righteous Kill.” For those who aren’t familiar with it, the movie stars Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino as New York police officers tied up in catching a serial killer who knocks off Bad Guys who got away with their crimes. The movie starts with DeNiro, a jaded, volatile fallen-away Catholic, confessing to the murders. So you know right away that he’s not the real culprit, and you spend the whole movie speculating who is.


It’s an engrossing, well-done movie, but… (Spoiler alert!) …in the end, who ends up being the real killer? Pacino, the “faithful Catholic.” Neither is this an unimportant side point in the story; faith, and the loss of it, is woven into the whole movie as a major subplot.


One of my biggest gripes with news and entertainment is that religion and religious people are always, always painted in a bad light. Halfway through this movie, I was trying to solve the mystery, and I thought, “Well, at least the devout Catholic guy isn’t the bad guy for a change…” Then suddenly I realized: oh, man, yes he is. Of course he is. Who else would they pick to vilify?


Not much suspense left in that one.


There is much that frustrates me about the pursuit of faith, or lack of it. People we refer to as “cultural Catholics” drive me nuts. Actually, anyone who calls him or herself Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, but doesn’t integrate the faith into life, drives me nuts. How can you compartmentalize your faith like that? It’s like the world comes first, and then God—but only as long as He doesn’t inconvenience us. If you truly believe in God, in Heaven and Hell, in a just ending to an unjust world…how can you do anything other than put God first—or at least, struggle to do so? I don’t mean you should walk around spouting chapter and verse at every moment—that’s just annoying. But if you really believe what you say you believe, it ought to be visible in the way you live, in the choices you make. As Rich Mullins says, “Faith without works…it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”


I know people who are fallen away Catholics, who never took the time to really dig in and understand the Church’s teachings. I know people who haven’t fallen away, but who fuss about rules and incidentals without taking time to try to understand. It’s far easier to pass black and white judgment than it is to learn and understand the rich complexity of Catholic teaching. Catholicism takes a deeply thoughtful approach to the Bible and tradition, incorporating all of Scripture (not just the most sound-byte-y parts), as well as the context in which it was written: the languages, the cultures, the times. Even “rules” aren’t arbitrary, but are based in Scripture and faith. And the teachings themselves approach even the hairiest topics with compassion…even if those who represent the Church sometimes don’t.


And therein lies the problem: people. Sure, there are problems in the Church, as in any institution made up of human beings. I’m not trying to suggest that discussion should be closed off, that we should ignore pedophile priests or power-hungry bishops. Jesus challenged the religious establishment all the time; that’s why the Jewish leadership wanted him dead. But it does bother me that the blanket portrayal of religion in general, and my Church in particular, is so negative. Unfortunately, the zealots—on both sides—are the ones who get the press. No news is good news; conversely, good news is no news.


So in the end, all we hear about religion is money and corruption and zealots. And terrorists. But that’s not the real story. If it was, the institutions would have fallen apart generations ago.


What I would love is to see more books written like Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, which is a post-holocaust story published in 1960. There are imperfect clergy members there, too…in fact, all of them are quite imperfect…some of them even corrupt…but he also portrays the simple faith, without turning them into caricatures. I’ve never figured out how he did it, but I want to learn to emulate it.


I have much more to say on this topic, but for today, I think I’ve written quite enough.


Two weeks from tomorrow.

For liberals and conservatives, in an election year


This is a really thoughtful column on the strengths and weaknesses of liberalism and conservatism–particularly within the Catholic Church, but I think that the lessons apply much more broadly. It is long, but if you can take the time I think you’ll find it worthwhile.

I’d post the entire text, but I’m not sure that’s legal, so I shall err on the side of caution and simply give you the web page, which I think you’ll have to cut and paste, unfortunately: