“A Simple Twist of Faith”

On a recent post Donna (aka writerdd) made this comment:

As I said on skepchick recently, it’s important to remember that most fundies “are not the evil, bigoted fools portrayed by the media. Although these people do exist, primarily as hypocritical leaders who care more about power or money than they care about spirituality or charity, the layperson sitting in the pew is much more likely to be sincere and compassionate, with a burning desire to please God and to help humanity.”

Theresa & Kristen GonzalezIn the interest of encouraging more of these sorts of friendly reflections on the fact that most people we disagree with (whether that is theists or atheists) are usually not actually bad people, I thought I’d highlight a recent essay in Newsweek that caught my attention. Entitled “A Simple Twist of Faith”, it’s by an atheist or agnostic woman (she doesn’t specify), Theresa Gonzalez, who describes her process of trying to understand her younger sister’s (Kristen) commitment to evangelical Christianity. The essay doesn’t focus on all her points of disagreement with her sister, but rather on her concerns for her sister, and also on how many of her stereotypes of conservative Christians have turned out to be mistaken in her sister’s case.

She writes:

I was completely opposed to my mother’s decision [to homeschool Kristen], expressing this whenever I could. My arguments: This will isolate her from her peers. Shell grow up to be awkward and antisocial. She will lack the education needed to go on to college. I was even more adamantly opposed when my mother placed her in a Christian private school four years later. Shelly and I were considered Roman Catholic growing up, but I can’t remember going to church more than five or six times in my life. I was afraid Kristen wouldn’t learn about other cultures and religious faiths and would become intolerant; the fundamentalism of evangelicals seemed so extreme, so exclusive, to me…

I was slow to accept Kristen’s strong faith in God, believing it was just a phase. When she told me she wanted to go to a Christian college, I realized I had been kidding myself. And again I was filled with concern. I was certain prospective employers would label her a religious fanatic and not see the intelligent and talented person I proudly call my sister.

However, Theresa eventually came to realize that many of her fears were unfounded:

By the time she decided to go to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, I had learned to keep my opinions to myself. It became more apparent that I needed to trust her decisions and let her make mistakes, if that was what this indeed was; after all, she had proved me wrong in the past. My concerns about her being home-schooled turned out to be totally ill founded. She’s the most well adjusted and self-assured person I know, and she has been able to build many great friendships. At her Sweet 16 party, I was surprised at how Kristen, shaking her hips and waving her arms over her tiara like a teenage queen, jumped on the DJ stage with such confidence that Shelly and I looked at each other in amazement. Who was this kid? The generation gap was clear. Even the boys hit the dance floor with enthusiasm. I’d gone to a school where boys were too cool to get excited about anything and I acted more as observer than active participant at school dances.

I had always thought of Kristen as an angel who brought our family closer. Growing up in the ’80s, when being different wasn’t cool, I did little to draw attention to my ethnicity. But Kristen has embraced our father’s Puerto Rican heritage with pride. Her friends seem open to other types of people and hardly seem to notice their differences.

Kristen is now a junior at Liberty. While we don’t see eye to eye on religion, it’s nice to know that she still calls me for advice about the practical things. When it comes to faith, she’s private and doesn’t preach, and really, she’s the expert, not me. For her, religion is a personal thing, and I don’t judge (anymore). In fact, I greatly respect her for having such a strong faith in something. I wish I could believe so fervently in anything so abstract. All I can say now is that I believe in her.

A well-adjusted, open-minded, non-judgmental evangelical Christian (that dances!)? Doesn’t fit most of the stereotypes, or the impressions you’d get by reading the frequent “worst of the worst” posts here at this site, and yet in my own experience growing up within conservative Christianity (I considered attending Liberty too, though it was a bit too conservative for me, even back then) people like Kristen really are the norm, not the exception.

Anyhow, I know that Gonzalez’s concluding statement of respect for her sister’s ability to have faith will likely not satisfy the hardliners here who see any kind of faith at all as an inherently bad thing. And yet I have a suspicion (just a theory really) that atheists/agnostics like Gonzalez are also more the norm than the exception (though I have another theory that they are less likely to hang out at atheist blogs than the hardliners). Personally I’m impressed that Gonzalez is more concerned about the kind of person her sister is becoming, than with whether or not she has faith in something.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    I just must say that I am one of those people who thinks faith is bad. I certainly do not consider faith to be a virtue. But that doesn’t mean that I think people who have faith are necessarily bad.

    I have the same kind of relationship with my mother that’s described in this article. We get along fine. She doesn’t try to convert me, I don’t try to deconvert her. And we talk about plenty of other things that we have in common. (It does bother me that she thinks I’m going to hell and prays for me behind my back, but I just ignore that since she’s not preaching at me.)

    My mother is certainly not a bad person.

  • Aj

    Believe in belief or you’re a unfriendly hardliner minority! That sentiment never gets old!

    People who go to Christian colleges and have faith dance, change their mind, and keep their beliefs private? Wow… I can’t remember saying they didn’t, but thanks for setting me straight.

  • Jen

    Maybe I am a terrible, mean atheist hardlining bitch, but I have to say that my opinion of someone would go down if I knew they went to Liberty. I remember when I was receiving a mailbox full of college crap, I used to be on the mailing list for LU, and they were freaking nuts. Now that I am older, I am also thrilled I didn’t support the bastard JF, but at the time I just remember being shocked by how conservative they were- curfews, no rated R movies, strict dress codes, etc, etc.

  • http://blackskeptic.wordpress.com blackskeptic

    i definitely do not call myself a hardliner, but you read my mind. i was a bit disappointed at the fact that she wished she wished she had the faith to believe in something abstract as feverently as her sister did.

    but i enjoyed reading this post. in fact, i starred it in my google reader :) i totally agree with what you said about many christians/atheists being like the sisters. i want that message to be spread more often!

  • Vincent

    My suspicion is you are more likely to find fundamentalists like that in New Jersey than in the American South.
    Having grown up in the South as something not Baptist I faced almost daily discrimination, so I don’t see the positive side.
    I certainly had Baptist friends, but they seemed the exceptional ones; not so hung up on their religion.

  • Scott

    In fact, I greatly respect her for having such a strong faith in something.

    I am not a hardline atheist and I can understand her respecting her sisters beliefs but I have a big problem with this statement and it’s more commonly used alternative:

    “I don’t mind if you don’t believe in god as long as you believe in something.”

    The implication is that if you don’t believe in a god then you must not believe in anything. Which is then easily transfered to atheists don’t believe in anything thus they are immoral. etc

    I can’t speak for other atheists but that infuriates me. That believing in a fairy tale seems to be the only socially acceptable belief is absurd. The world is a wonderful and complex place. We humans are amazing creatures, as are all other creatures of this planet. Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t believing in the beauty of nature and humanity’s ability to learn and love be enough? At least it is real.

    Theresa’s story is a good one and the point is one that I think we all (theists and atheists alike) need to remember. However, that one statement negated much of the power of the story by perpetrating one of the worst stereotypes us atheists have to deal with.

  • PuckishOne

    I agree with Scott, and from a very personal perspective: I was raised nominally Catholic, and spent most of my young adulthood wondering what it was about me that wouldn’t “allow” me to “believe,” to “have faith” in any particular religious world view. I tried a variety of mainstream Christian churches, researched and contemplated Judaism, and studied a few of the Eastern beliefs (Buddhism in particular). It seemed to me for a long, long time that my inability to “have faith” was a failing of mine, one that would inevitably harm me at some point in my life.

    And then at some point in the last few years, it occurred to me that I had all that I needed, that I was not, in fact, incomplete without faith. All the explanations I need in my life can be found in the world around me, and as for those that can’t…well, I’m okay with that. The uncertainty doesn’t bother me; it’s part of life. Letting go of my need for superstition and a comforting fairy tale has allowed me to, finally, live my life. To suggest that this is somehow a prerequisite for a happy life is to do a great disservice to everyone, not just atheists. If we can do nothing else as a group, we owe it to ourselves to do what we can to eliminate this misconception.

  • Karen

    People who envy blind faith are typically those who’ve never experienced it themselves. It’s definitely part and parcel of Dennett’s “belief in belief” idea.

    Once you’ve been hooked by blind faith and had to go through the immensely painful process of freeing yourself, I guarantee you won’t have much respect for it. I certainly don’t.

    On the article in general, what I find most remarkable is the situation of someone being worried because their relative IS religious. That’s a pretty funny turnaround from what we typically see.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    She seems nice as a person, but attending “Liberty U” is a big red flag. If she keeps her views private then it’s of course hard to say much of anything about them. But the views of Liberty are not private, and they are definately not praiseworthy.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    People who envy blind faith are typically those who’ve never experienced it themselves. It’s definitely part and parcel of Dennett’s “belief in belief” idea.

    Once you’ve been hooked by blind faith and had to go through the immensely painful process of freeing yourself, I guarantee you won’t have much respect for it. I certainly don’t.

    What about the article gave you the impression that her sister’s faith was simply “blind faith”? I didn’t get that impression. Or is any kind of faith “blind faith” in your definition?

    On the article in general, what I find most remarkable is the situation of someone being worried because their relative IS religious. That’s a pretty funny turnaround from what we typically see.

    Really? I see it all the time, especially among nominally religious families. When I was a youth pastor we would constantly get kids showing up whose nominal or agnostic parents were freaked out that their kid was attending a Christian youth group where we actually cared about our faith.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    There are two kinds of faith:

    1) The kind for which there is no evidence, like faith that God exists or that the Bible is the “Word of God.” That’s blind faith.

    2) The kind for which their is evidence, like faith that my husband will not cheat on me because he’s got an 18 year record of not cheating on me. That’s still faith, because he could change, but it’s faith based on evidence.

    Donna

  • Aj

    “Blind” in front of “faith” is superfluous in the context of religion, all religions are about blind faith. That kind of faith is a justification for anything and everything you could possibly believe in, and there’s no evidence or reasoning that directs them from one set of beliefs to another. Religion is a mixture of indoctrination, belief by tradition, and wish thinking, I would like it to be true so it is.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    There are two kinds of faith:

    1) The kind for which there is no evidence, like faith that God exists or that the Bible is the “Word of God.” That’s blind faith.

    2) The kind for which their is evidence, like faith that my husband will not cheat on me because he’s got an 18 year record of not cheating on me. That’s still faith, because he could change, but it’s faith based on evidence.

    Donna

    I agree Donna, except that I would put the things you place in the first category in the second. There are reasons to believe in God’s existence and in the Bible, just not absolutely conclusive reasons.

    Of course, it is possible to hold belief in God or the Bible blindly as well. However, that says more about the person holding the beliefs than about the beliefs themselves. I may blindly believe that the sun will rise tomorrow without having any knowledge of the scientific evidence that says it will. However, my blind faith in that fact doesn’t mean that the evidence doesn’t exist.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Mike, I sort of agree. If people are willing to believe in God conditionally and admit that they don’t really know that God exists but they are open to the possibility that they are wrong, I don’t have so much problem with that. However, I frankly think it’s ridiculous to view the Bible as “God’s Word.” You might find some inspiration in the book, but that doesn’t mean it has a divine author. The Bible is an anthology that was written by men (and maybe a few women). I find inspiration in lots of books, but I have no need to claim that they are holy or divinely inspired.

    Atheists should do the same thing, having conditional belief based on the evidence as they see it, except that I think we are on firmer ground, not being the ones making extraordinary claimes requiring extraordinary evidence. I do not really think there is any viable evidence for the existence of God, but I do understand that different people come to different conclusions looking at the same information.

    I do still have a fear and distrust of people making faith-based decisions that impact not only themselves but me and society as a whole, especially when faith gets mixed in with politics. When faith remains private, it doesn’t bother me so much, except when it comes to health (people not getting their kids vaccinated, for example). That doesn’t mean I think people need to hide their faith, but that they shouldn’t try to impose it on others through witnessing or politics. (Witnessing is only OK in my book if the other person has asked you about your faith or if you’re very close friends who talk about everything.)

    In fact, even with my fundie and Pentecostal relatives, I’d be one of those silent, invisible atheists if it weren’t for GWB being elected in 2000 and the religiously motivated violence of 9/11.

  • Karen

    What about the article gave you the impression that her sister’s faith was simply “blind faith”?

    It was this:

    In fact, I greatly respect her for having such a strong faith in something. I wish I could believe so fervently in anything so abstract.

    When we’re talking about fervent (unquestioning) faith in something abstract, for which the only “evidence” is spiritual experience and emotional attachment, I think that’s a good definition of blind faith. The old bumper sticker, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” sums it up pretty well.

    Really? I see it all the time, especially among nominally religious families. When I was a youth pastor we would constantly get kids showing up whose nominal or agnostic parents were freaked out that their kid was attending a Christian youth group where we actually cared about our faith.

    I don’t doubt you’ve seen that in the last 10 or 15 years, but it’s definitely a reversal of the traditional scenario where a religious person is upset that their child is losing or changing religions. Given the vast majority of people in the U.S. are religious, that’s by far the dominant paradigm.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Atheists should do the same thing, having conditional belief based on the evidence as they see it, except that I think we are on firmer ground, not being the ones making extraordinary claimes requiring extraordinary evidence. I do not really think there is any viable evidence for the existence of God, but I do understand that different people come to different conclusions looking at the same information.

    Thanks for saying that Donna. This is a point that I’ve tried to make over and over again here, and I wish more atheists could affirm it.

    I do still have a fear and distrust of people making faith-based decisions that impact not only themselves but me and society as a whole, especially when faith gets mixed in with politics. When faith remains private, it doesn’t bother me so much, except when it comes to health (people not getting their kids vaccinated, for example). That doesn’t mean I think people need to hide their faith, but that they shouldn’t try to impose it on others through witnessing or politics. (Witnessing is only OK in my book if the other person has asked you about your faith or if you’re very close friends who talk about everything.)

    I agree. As Jim Wallis said on the Daily Show, religious people need to make their arguments in a way that is accessible to people who don’t share their beliefs.

    In fact, even with my fundie and Pentecostal relatives, I’d be one of those silent, invisible atheists if it weren’t for GWB being elected in 2000 and the religiously motivated violence of 9/11.

    Ironically, this is the same reason I stopped being a silent, uninvolved Christian when it came to politics. For a long time I was disillusioned with politics and thought it was best for Christians to just ignore it, and then Bush happened, and I saw could happen if the wrong sorts of Christians are able to just have their way in government unopposed. I think a lot more progressive Christians have had the same awakening in recent years, which has contributed to the momentum of movements like Wallis’ that are committed to standing in the way of injustice and bad applications of the Christian faith to politics.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    “In fact, I greatly respect her for having such a strong faith in something. I wish I could believe so fervently in anything so abstract.”

    When we’re talking about fervent (unquestioning) faith in something abstract, for which the only “evidence” is spiritual experience and emotional attachment, I think that’s a good definition of blind faith.

    Definition of “fervent” from dictionary.com

    having or showing great warmth or intensity of spirit, feeling, enthusiasm, etc.;

    Given this definition, I think Gonzalez meant that her sister was passionate about her faith. It seems inaccurate and unfair to interpret her use of the word “fervent” as “unquestioning” and then use that to presume that Kristen’s faith is unthinking or based only on emotion.

    (As for “spiritual experience” I’m confused as to why you say this derogatorily. If you’re considering the existence of God (a spirit), aren’t “spiritual experiences” exactly the kind of experiences you’d expect to find?)

    I don’t doubt you’ve seen that in the last 10 or 15 years, but it’s definitely a reversal of the traditional scenario where a religious person is upset that their child is losing or changing religions. Given the vast majority of people in the U.S. are religious, that’s by far the dominant paradigm.

    I would imagine it depends very greatly on where you live and what subculture you are a part of. In the Bible Belt, sure, you’d get a negative reaction to deconverting. But in the predominantly liberal and secular Northeast where Theresa and Kristen are from, or here in the suburbs of Chicago, where religious nominalism reigns supreme, you’ll find a lot more people who are suspicious of religious enthusiasm.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Mike, I think it’s just that no-one should ever ignore politics and think that everything will be OK!

    Also, I think discussions like this are much more interesting and productive than debates where someone has to win and someone has to lose.

    I agree. As Jim Wallis said on the Daily Show, religious people need to make their arguments in a way that is accessible to people who don’t share their beliefs.

    So do atheists. I’m actually working on a book with that goal. The bit you quoted me on above is actually part of my description of my book.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I’ll look forward to reading your book! My wife is working on a book too right now. It’s a tough process.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Yeah, tell me. Half the time I’m about to puke, the other half I’m very excited. I guess because it’s such a personal project. I didn’t really feel like this too much on my other books, but they’re all about knitting. Not usually very controversial or personal. :-)

    But now I must quit using the internet as an excuse not to write!

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    My wife feels like she’s going to puke half the time too, but that’s because she’s pregnant, not because of the book. :)

  • Karen

    As for “spiritual experience” I’m confused as to why you say this derogatorily.

    Spiritual experience is anecdotal, and its usefulness as evidence is confined to the person who’s had the experience. Someone’s spiritual experience is not evidence to anyone else, unless they are credophiles who believe every UFO, ESP, religious, New Age and ghost story they hear.

    As for fervent, I would say most passionate belief tends to be devoted and unquestioning. I wouldn’t call someone whose belief is conditional and ephemeral and oft-doubting “fervent” and I doubt that’s what the sister was conveying. And I would say all that doubly for someone who chooses Liberty University over many other universities, even Christian universities.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    As for fervent, I would say most passionate belief tends to be devoted and unquestioning.

    That seems like an overly broad generalization. Was the passion of a Martin Luther King “unquestioning”? Or William Wilberforce? Or Susan B. Anthony? We’ve learned recently that Mother Teresa, while passionate for her calling to the poor, actually had lots of questions. Billy Graham is a man of passion, and yet has also demonstrated a willingness to question and rethink his beliefs, even in old age. And, while I hesitate to place myself in such august company, I can honestly say that I am more passionate than ever for the vision of the kingdom of God, while at the same time constantly in a process of questioning and refining my beliefs (as I have been for over a decade now).

    I just don’t buy the premise that passion and critical thinking don’t go together. Of course, we don’t have enough information to say whether or not they do go together for Kristen, but then, that was exactly my point.

  • Aj

    The nature of faith is that there is no questioning. You can’t question faith, your own or others, as it quite apparant in discussion here with people on faith. There’s absolutely no critical thinking going on, it’s entirely dishonest to apply that phrase to someone who’s described as having strong belief.

    People doubt, someone who is fervent in their faith, and has “strong belief”, doesn’t doubt. Doubt is the source of critical thinking, and without it you have faith. If you doubt a belief, you don’t believe it, you don’t have faith.

    Someone maybe religious, tell other people to have faith, say they have faith, even be an employee in the church, but have doubt, and in fact lack faith. To question is to lose faith. Some people have lost it only to regret it, they go through withdrawal, scream even louder about how faith is good, and their (former) beliefs are right. These people believe in belief, they do not have belief.

    Do you believe this proposition without evidence or reason? If the answer is yes, you have faith, if no, then you either don’t believe or you have a justified belief. Some faithheads may say they have reason to believe, but don’t expect them to tell you, don’t expect them to come up with an argument that couldn’t be used to believe in anything and everything, which as a tool for discovering objective truth is entirely useless.

    How can something involving questioning and critical thinking lead to an answer that includes all possibilities? Is it wise to base your life, laws, morals, actions on such a system?

  • Karen

    I just don’t buy the premise that passion and critical thinking don’t go together. Of course, we don’t have enough information to say whether or not they do go together for Kristen, but then, that was exactly my point.

    Listen, even if this 18 or 19 year old, homeschooled, Liberty University student is a giant of the faith, like Wilberforce or you, Mike – and that’s a rather big IF, but whatever – I know what conservative religion says about doubt. You should know it, too, because IIRC you were fired from a conservative institution after you expressed doubts about some of the fundamental beliefs, right?

    Projecting doubt about one’s religious beliefs is not only not encouraged in conservative religious circles (and one can hardly get more conservative than Liberty) it’s viewed as sinful and dangerous. It’s “not a good witness” certainly, to an unbelieving relative. Over on the deconversion blog, we are following the story of a seminary student who posted some doubts on his blog about beliefs like the 6,000-year-old earth and the rapture. He still believes these doctrines, actually, but he was honest enough to blog about having his doubts and wanting to do more research to shore up his beliefs in these rather ancillary points of dogma.

    Well, guess what happened? One of the lurkers at deconversion saw his comment, looked at his blog and saw the doubts expressed, then he reported the student to the conservative ministry that employed him. The student was promptly fired. He has a wife and three children and no training to do anything other than work in a Christian ministry. In short, he’s screwed. Not for being an apostate, not for blaspheming, just for doubting and being honest enough to express that doubt publicly (not a good idea for the conservative Christian, I guess he’s figured that out by now).

    My original comment, way back when, was about the sister’s reaction to what the student projected about her faith, which was fervent devotion to an abstraction. I still don’t think that the student’s witness to her unbelieving family members is likely to have included lots of doubt and uncertainty, but if it seems that way to you, fine.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Projecting doubt about one’s religious beliefs is not only not encouraged in conservative religious circles (and one can hardly get more conservative than Liberty) it’s viewed as sinful and dangerous.

    It depends. In the conservative circles I grew up in a very high value was placed on “making your faith your own” as a teen, which did involve questioning and critically evaluating our beliefs. The assumption was that if our beliefs are true then they should have no trouble standing up to scrutiny. (In my case, some did and some didn’t, but I’m still grateful to my evangelical heritage for giving me a passion for pursuing truth.)

    My original comment, way back when, was about the sister’s reaction to what the student projected about her faith, which was fervent devotion to an abstraction. I still don’t think that the student’s witness to her unbelieving family members is likely to have included lots of doubt and uncertainty, but if it seems that way to you, fine.

    I think it does say something that one of the positive stories Theresa told about her sister was about how she critically evaluated her opinion of the death penalty changed her mind about it. Perhaps that’s not enough of a basis to judge on, but it certainly points to Kristen being open minded and a critical thinker.

    At any rate, the whole point of my post was that in my experience most conservative Christians do not fit the typical stereotypes that you are referring to. Yes, there are those in leadership that discourage doubt and critical thinking, but the average conservative Christian does those things anyway in my experience. Part of the reason I did get resigned from my previous church was precisely because I refused to ignore the questions the kids in my youth group were asking. But it was only a small handful of the church leadership that were frightened by this. The majority of the kids and their parents completely understood and supported my decision to encourage the kids to ask questions and think for themselves. Which again underscores my point that the stereotypes don’t always (or even often) fit individual Christians like Kristen or like the kids in my youth group.

  • Karen

    In the conservative circles I grew up in a very high value was placed on “making your faith your own” as a teen, which did involve questioning and critically evaluating our beliefs.

    I heard a lot about “making your faith your own” too. What it boiled down to was becoming committed as an adult to what you were taught to believe as a child.

    Questioning deeply into other religions, or even trying them out, or coming to different conclusions than the approved doctrines was NOT encouraged. Those people were called backsliders, doubters and – in some extreme cases – possessed by Satan. They were discussed in hushed tones and their stories were gossiped about as cautionary tales, not to be talked about aloud, let alone emulated.

    Sorry, but my experience is that “making your faith your own” was a hypocritical platitude.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Well, we’ve obviously had different experiences. Which again, was sort of my point, that the stereotypes shouldn’t be applied across the board. I can’t assume that your experience was like mine, anymore than you can assume that Kristen’s was like yours.


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