Clergy Doubt #5: Left Convent Life First, Then Religion

2/18/15 12:45 est Update:  The Friendly Atheist now has a post about Mary Johnson’s discussion in the comments section here with Thomas J. McDonald about transgendered people. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2015/02/18/the-catholic-churchs-transphobia-has-never-been-a-secret/

Editor’s Note: The second Catholic in our series on Clergy Doubt that leads to disbelief  was a nun with Mother Teresa’s order for 20 years. When responding to my request to address questions about how her religious doubts grew into disbelief, she told me that she didn’t really start doubting her faith until after she left religious life. Other issues contributed to her leaving the convent, as she explained on her website: “As I yearned for personal intimacy, intellectual freedom, and the opportunity to make a creative contribution, my community demanded self-denial and unquestioning obedience.” Here she explains how she reconsidered the actual beliefs of Roman Catholicism once she was out of the convent.

===========================

DoubtBy Mary Johnson

1. What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?

After I left religious life, I began to see how much my beliefs had been shaped by others telling me what I was supposed to think. I began to see through the holes in religious authority first, especially as I saw so many ways in which religious authorities abused their power. I began to realize how dangerous it was when some people tell others what they should think.

2. How did you initially react to the doubts?  (e.g., discuss them with others, keep them to yourself, do religious or secular reading, something else?)

I thought about it a lot, and just felt so happy to let it all go. I did some reading that helped, especially Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.

3.  What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?

I had a friend who was transgendered. When the Church came out with a document saying that transgendered people are actually just sort of making the whole thing up, I realized how often the Church claimed to know reality, but that they often didn’t know what they were talking about at all. It became so clear that they were trying to fit reality into their system of beliefs, instead of adjusting their beliefs to the reality of the world.

4. How did the doubts affect your preaching/teaching/other responsibilities? Your interactions with your congregation and your family?

I was already out of religious life by then. My family has taken my loss of religious faith fairly well, but I lost some friends who said that being around me was dangerous to their faith and that they needed to cut ties with me. This was very painful, especially since I never made any attempt to convert them to my point of view.

5. How did you come to the realization that your doubts were overcoming your beliefs; that you were no longer a believer?

I deliberately let religious faith go. I just said, “I’m not doing this any more.” That felt so good.

6. How did you think of yourself at that time (e.g., agnostic, atheist, spiritual-but not-religious, non-believer, different-believer, something else?

I don’t like labels. I just realized that I was finally letting myself think my own thoughts, and that felt so good.

==========================

DSC_0347Bio: Mary Johnson worked for twenty years as a nun in the Missionaries of Charity where she became a trusted assistant to Mother Teresa. Since leaving the convent, Mary has married and written a well-received memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, which received the 2014 New Hampshire Literary Award as the Outstanding Book of Nonfiction.   She left the Catholic Church and has become a humanist celebrant, speaker and teacher. She serves on the Board of A Room of Her Own Foundation, an organization that empowers women writers. Her work has appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous other publications. She has appeared on The Rosie Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, NPR and the BBC. www.maryjohnson.co

License: <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

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  • “Defining god as existence is a bit like defining God as the Universe and all the forces therein. It lets you into the believers’ club on the flimsiest of reasons.”

    “Flimsiest or reasons”…. This fascinating attitude perfectly represents the standard conceit.

    It represents an atheism founded on a neolithic residue of stunted strawgods. Easy to dismiss but not relevant to our times.

    God as Existence, the Universe in its Entirety including the perceptual and conceptual elements therein.

    This is the rational starting point of contemplation, informed by an intuition of the underlying infinity.

    • Anita

      “This is the rational starting point of contemplation, informed by intuition of underlying infinity.”

      Sorry bmckay, to me, this statement is just a collection of words. I need words to represent some modicum of sense before being able to engage. What is it you’re trying to say?

      To answer my own question, I think you’re saying that contemplating the nature of infinity ( in itself a difficult concept, though not beyond the realms of human thought), requires the notion of a god? If this is the case, I beg to differ.

      I’ll make my case:
      I see atheism as the default position. There are no gods/goddesses or other supernatural entities. If you want to posit such a being/entity you have to make a case. To date, I haven’t heard any convincing case . The best theists seem to offer is a ‘feeling’ they have. Well….I don’t have this feeling and I don’t ascribe value to this emotional response by others.

      • “Sorry bmckay, to me, this statement is just a collection of words. I need words to represent some modicum of sense before being able to engage. What is it you’re trying to say?”

        You leave out the meat of the statement and then tell me, that remaining shreds makes no sense?

        I did not imply that contemplating the nature of infinity “requires a notion of a god”.

        I said:

        “God as Existence, the Universe in its Entirety including the perceptual and conceptual elements therein.

        This is the rational starting point of contemplation, informed by intuition of underlying infinity.”

        I am in no way implying any supernatural entities or multiplicity of gods. Much less any sort of finite entity.

        When you repeatedly re-stage the conversation to be about what you have an opinion against, well …. “it makes no sense”.

        • Anita

          “God as Existence, the Universe in its Entirety including the perceptual and conceptual elements therein.”

          I’m not unfamiliar with this line of argument bmckay; it’s a way of rationalising God belief and I’ve heard it often enough.

          Let me pose a question of you. Do you think that I believe in the universe in its entirety?

          In answer to my own question of course I do.

          In what ways do we differ? I confident that the universe of my perception and all that it contains, exists, ( and is not a figment of my imagination). I define it as just that and see no need for redefinition.

          Tell me in what way ways our understandings diverge.

          • Thank you. This seems a little more like a discussion now.

            Anita – “Tell me in what way ways our understandings diverge.”

            This is pretty easy to answer. It was stated in the original fragment, which is now taking its turn as the missing clarification.

            brmckay – “This is the rational starting point of contemplation, informed by intuition of underlying infinity.”

            I am engaged in the contemplation and experience of the underlying infinity. The essential characteristic of the Entirety. This for me, is what being a human being means.

            For you, probably not. Something else then.

            An artist surrenders to art, a musician to music, the yogi to Īśvara.

          • Anita

            ” m engaged in the contemplation and experience of the underlying infinity. The essential characteristic of the Entirety. This for me, is what being a human being means.”

            Having the capacity to contemplate the universe is most likely confined to the human species as far as we can determine; though I must say that the mental abilities of other species have surprised us of late! So let’s start with the presumption that we are the only one’s with the vision so far.

            When we think about the universe in its entirety what do we imagine? In my case, it’s a vision of stars and galaxies as informed by the Hubble telescope. I take on trust that these images are actually as shown and that I’m not deceived by some agency with another agenda. Our current, collective understanding in countries with the technology, is given to us by the cumulative knowledge afforded by science.

            Understandings prior to those proposed by the sciences, were vastly different and dare I say, ‘immature’.

            I can’t see how we can untangle our basic understandings from the technology that informs us. What we decide to call the sum total of our knowledge of the universe and all it contains seems like an irrelevance to my thinking. The one thing I wouldn’t call it is a capital ‘g’ God! (This word comes with too much baggage).

          • Thank you again.

            The comparison of our worldviews gets clearer and more useful.

            “When we think about the universe in its entirety what do we imagine? In my case, it’s a vision of stars and galaxies as informed by the Hubble telescope. “

            I also love the wonder of astronomy and physics. But also, and especially, the Life Sciences. The stories of behavior and adaptation.

            None of this distracts from the other thing I’m calling contemplation.

            The field of scientific inquiry is about studying the parts and pieces. The relationships and the laws affecting things.

            Cultivation of the holistic perspective on the other hand, is more akin to art. Engaging intuition and reason, equally, and with mindfulness.

            The subjective elements of self awareness, perception, thought, imagination, feeling and experience of existence in general are not relegated to insignificant and secondary roles.

            These components are equal to atoms and molecules, galaxies and quasars when considering the Entirety.

            The underlying infinitude being the essential, and defining nature of Entirety. All parts holographically representing, and being represented by the whole.

            This is obviously (to me) worthy of the term God. So I happily use it.

          • Anita

            Hi bmckay. It would seem that we see things through the same lens, though our chosen nomenclature is vastly different. I’ve just searched my online dictionary and your definition of god was certainly not amongst those listed. All permutations had the notion of personification or elements of the supernatural. Is one permitted to make up one’s own word definitions for the sake of an argument?

            I can’t help but wonder where this esoteric/idiosyncratic definition would place you in terms of the rest of the congregation (assuming you attend services)? If I were in your shoes, I’d find it incredibly difficult to reconcile my views with those, whose understandings of a deity include finding a ‘parking spot’, or help with finding lost keys! In fact, I would find engaging with atheists far more mentally stimulating. At least we’re all on the same page!

          • “I’d find it incredibly difficult to reconcile my views with those, whose understandings of a deity include finding a ‘parking spot’, or help with finding lost keys!”

            Though paying no attention to synchronicity, doesn’t make it go away either. It is the constant state.

            Just remove the filters; The controlling script of acceptable expectations.

            The problem I usually have talking with atheists, is the prevailing need to reinforce their lack of God belief. This usually manifests as ridicule and a facade of certainty.

            As for talking with believers …, the thing is, … keep at this contemplation thing long enough, and you are no longer looking for God as other. As a center of responsibility for creation.

            The ripening of the inquiry is in recognizing, that the center is everywhere, and otherness has been the problem all along.

            There is nothing idiosyncratic or even esoteric about what I have been saying. Your fixation on the popular culture and legacy of the Abrahamic story-line, is the controlling script that makes it seem so.

            I assumed the above, because you don’t seem to recognize the influence of the non-dual and monist schools in my commentary. Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, Yoga, Vedanta… Finding a place to start that is not an argument, but rather a reconciling eye opener, might change the script.

          • charlesburchfield

            I like this!

            ‘The problem I usually have talking with atheists, is the prevailing need to reinforce their lack of God belief. This usually manifests as ridicule and a facade of certainty.’
            And this!

            ‘The Finding a place to start that is not an argument, but rather a reconciling eye opener, might change the script.’

            Sometimes I will ask ‘what do you do for fun?’ When I sense peeps are in their lizard brain!

            This is really good!

            ‘ripening of the inquiry is in recognizing, that the center is everywhere, and otherness has been the problem all along.’

            The problem for me is when I’m feeling other than my centered self because of mental/physical pain, suffering alone & see no end to suffering like this day after day as I’ve done recently I can’t find the center. Today I reached out for help to someone who, thankfully, was centered. Needed the reminder to stay sane! Better now emotional balance someway restored & dignity intact mostly. Yes I would say from experience that restoration is in the ‘surround’. connection is there too when I was most in need today.
            `◾]°•}

          • Thank you for your reassurances. And for sharing a bit about the hard path!

            I’ve recently become “old” and am learning about chronic pain and enfeeblement. When I get entangled in the wave of it, this life seems like it will be over soon. Then I have to really! pay attention to something outside of it. Otherwise the day gets squandered.

          • charlesburchfield

            Definitely grok!
            Here are a few James Hillman quotes that helped me today.

            If you are still being hurt by an event that happened to you at twelve, it is the thought that is hurting you now.

            Loss means losing what was We want to change but we don’t want to lose. Without time for loss, we don’t have time for soul.
            Depression opens the door to beauty of some kind.

            “Of course, a culture as manically and massively materialistic as ours creates materialistic behavior in its people, especially in those people who’ve been subjected to nothing but the destruction of imagination that this culture calls education, the destruction of autonomy it calls work, and the destruction of activity it calls entertainment.”
            ― James Hillman,

            Our lives are determined less by our childhood than by the traumatic way we have learned to remember our childhoods.”
            ― James Hillman

            I’m the result of upbringing, class, race, gender, social prejudices, and economics. So I’m a victim again. A result.”
            ― James Hillman

            The biography of the soul concerns experience. It seems not to follow the one-way direction of the flow of time, and it is reported best by emotions, dreams, and fantasies … The experiences arising from major dreams, crises, and insights give definition to the personality. They too have “names” and “dates” like the outer events of case history; they are like boundary stones, which mark out one’s own individual ground. These marks can be less denied than can the outer facts of life, for nationality, marriage, religion, occupation, and even one’s own name can all be altered … Case history reports on the achievements and failures of life with the world of facts. But the soul has neither achieved nor failed in the same way … The soul imagines and plays –
            and play is not chronicled by report. What remains of the years of our childhood play that could be set down in a case history? … Where a case history presents a sequence of facts leading to diagnosis, soul history shows rather a concentric helter-skelter pointing always beyond itself …

            It seems, as one becomes older, / That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets, which meditates on time, age, and memory, goes on to say, “We had the experience but missed the meaning, / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / In a different form, beyond any meaning.”
            ― James Hillman, The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life

            Words are like pillows: if put correctly they ease pain.”
            ― James Hillman, Inter Views

            To the question, “Why am I old?” the usual answer is, “Because I am becoming dead.” But the facts show that I reveal more character as I age, not more death.”
            ― James Hillman, The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life

            “…the puer eternus figure is the vision of our own first nature, our primordial golden shadow, …, our angelic essence as messenger of the divine… From the puer we are given our sense of destiny and mission, of having a message and being meant as eternal cup-bearer to the divine, that our sap and overflow, our enthusiastic wetness of soul, is in service to the Gods, bringing eternal refreshment to the archetypal background of the universe…. A beginning is always meaningful and filled with the excitement of eros.”

            James Hillman

          • Kevin Osborne

            Hi Charles! Attention out is definition of centered.

          • Anita

            ” The problem I usually have talking with atheists, is the prevailing need to reinforce their lack of God belief. This usually manifests as ridicule and a facade of certainty.”

            If you’re been paying attention (and I doubt that you have), the problem with atheists stating their position of non-belief is fairly recent. As I said in a previous post, it used to be mandatary for us to listen in respectful silence, while believers stated their position. This is no longer the case (but the troops are not happy. How dare we be so bold)!! Say it isn’t so! To this day, I never bring up the subject without being put on the spot by someone sharing their believer status.

            “The ripening of the inquiry is in recognizing, that the center is everywhere, and otherness has been the problem all along.”

            Do you engage with believers? Do you refute their claims that god has found them a parking spot or found their keys?(While simultaneously letting thousands die agonising deaths in some impoverished neck-of-the-woods).

            “Your fixation on the popular culture and legacy of the Abrahamic story-line, is the controlling script”.

            You should not be surprised that Yahweh or Jehovah have been assumed the deities of choice as these are the most prevalent in our western societies. I know a little about Buddhism but very little about the rest.

            To the best of my knowledge Buddhism is often considered not an actual religion because the Buddha was merely a wise person who found enlightenment through the process of meditation and contemplation. From what I’ve seen of the adherents in Japan and on television, they seem to go through the usual rituals of praying for favours and expecting an afterlife.

            In conclusion I’d like to point out that this is an atheist site. It’s not often I have the chance to share opinions with fellow travellers. Still less frequently do I get a chance to debate believers. I very much enjoy doing this, but those of my acquaintance would not be likely to reciprocate. So I find myself here in another country, expressing my opinions and the reasoning behind my views. Contrast this stage of affairs to the possibilities open to the Christian, Jew, Moslem or Buddhist!

          • When I engage with believers it is much like I’ve been doing with you.

            I don’t refute their thing, but make them work for it. Point out unexamined assumptions and scripts. Present something new. Raise the standards. Especially if they are talking past me and reciting Bible verse to intimidate rather than inspire.

            I basically respect everybody for as long as possible. And most people are cool about it. I often enjoy couching the same shtick that I’ve been running past you in terms that Jesus obviously understood.

            Its not clear what I haven’t been paying attention to exactly. I also keep my thing to myself, unless there is an obvious need to go out on a limb. But if I do, I try to bring my best game to the moment and proceed with joy.

            It is also nice to occasionally sing to the choir, and hang with the like minded. To jam and share new chops.

            As for Buddhism it is an atheistic religion. As always there will be levels of attainment and understanding. The roshi or monk does not ridicule the superstitious layperson. But rather engages in skillful means to teach. They also must understand that their own attainments are only provisional. Until the awakening of Buddha nature. The integrity of the Whole.

          • Anita

            Bmckay, are you of a view that there’s a universal consciousness? I ask this because your mention of the Entirety suggests some form of unifying force, rather than a set of disparate forces and matter.

            In my estimation you don’t hold to a singular belief, instead choosing to think through things philosophically without the constraints of a prescribed outlook. Just guesswork mind you, but I can’t imagine a religious body taking kindly to your departure from the norm, or your questioning! 😉

            My ‘paying attention’ comment related to the fact that non-believers (atheists) are now afforded the liberty of owning-up to their ‘thought crimes’, whereas in the not too distant past such a confession could lead them to the dunking stool OR WORSE! This could happen again, so it still pays to be cautious.

          • “are you of a view that there’s a universal consciousness? I ask this because your mention of the Entirety suggests some form of unifying force, rather than a set of disparate forces and matter.

            The dominant (i.e. prescribed outlook) is exactly this, the attitude that “the universe is a set of disparate forces and matter”.

            This represents a disconnect that I usually refer to as flatlandian in nature.

            It practically dictates that there will be religions and supernatural imaginings to make up for the “Gaps”.

            The infinite potential latent in Entirety, is the mother of Self awareness. The Universal “I”.

            The subjective complement to objective existence. The witness.

            Our personal versions of this are highly abstracted, and biologically constrained. But the undivided integrity of Entirety remains; In no way diminished.

            The limited sense of autonomy and disassociation that we rehearse; The “prescribed outlook”, is optional.

            The integrity of the whole is seamless. It is eternal. It is the dimensionlessness of “Now”.

            “…I can’t imagine a religious body taking kindly to your departure from the norm, or your questioning! ;-)”

            This is the way of the individual, and politics just wastes the opportunity to find it.

          • Anita

            So I take that as a “yes”.

            I see a bit of ‘fudging’ going on here. You’ve wrapped your answer up in a great deal of verbiage that looks excessive from where I stand.

            Okay, let me try consider your point in words of the layperson. The Universe and all it contains, is bound by physical forces so as to ensure that events happen in keeping with these processes. In other words, one would not expect an event contrary to such laws and constants. Am I on the same wavelength?

          • “I see a bit of ‘fudging’ going on here. You’ve wrapped your answer up in a great deal of verbiage that looks excessive from where I stand.”

            I need you to show me what this fudging and excessive verbiage looks like. What part is redundant and how would the statement be more clear without it?

            I wasn’t outlining where you stand, but rather where I stand.

            So your paraphrasing of my interpretation doesn’t sound anything like what I was saying. For instance, where in your orderly, and bound by forces version of the Universe, does awareness of existence fit in? The root of Self. The prototype of the sense of I.

          • Anita

            Again, Hi. Much more coherent. Thank you. However, I have no intention of sifting through your post in order to point out the wordy passages.

            Now, without recourse to dictionary definitions or the musings of various philosophers up to and including Sam Harris, my understanding of consciousness is that it requires a human brain, (limited as we now are by lack of knowledge of any other lifeforms inhabiting the Universe). A degree of consciousness is present in other sentient beings, but as yet we’re not sure how far this consciousness extends. Certain birds seem to have the ability to count, for example, and the octopus seems to have a degree of cognition far greater than we’ve imagined. In time we may find varying abilities in a vast array of non-human species, but for the time being it’s better to stick with those animals we know best; human beings.

            Consciousness suggests an awareness of our own thought processes and the fact that we are taking part in this activity. As there is no evidence of this ability extending beyond our own human capabilities, I think that it’s safe to assume that we are the only ones in possession of such until proven otherwise.

            We have the luxury of imaging situations where our understandings could lead us further afield, but as yet this would be pure speculation. There are absolutely no indications that our time would be well spent in pursuit of this goal.

          • Since you’ve drawn your line in the sand, I won’t be offering up any more essays.

            I was not talking about the myriad manifestations of consciousness. It was about the potential of existence to experience itself, and the underlying boundless infinity that supports it.

            Thanks for the conversation, I don’t need to go over the differences in our viewpoints till the end of time.

            This last of your comments is a good summary of your views. So I’ll say goodbye.

          • Anita

            It’s been nice chatting bmckay. I would like to leave with one final word; Peter Boghossian describes ‘faith’ as pretending to know things you don’t know and have no way of knowing. I suspect that is where this conversation was heading.

            Contemplation is just that. One isn’t entitled to slip from the realms of the ‘maybes’ to an alternate reality without very good cause.

          • Since you never stepped outside of the “prescribe outlook” to see what I was being said. You haven’t technically earned the right to preach at me.

            And, like I said I do my best to make “them” work for it. But it never really changes anything.

        • charlesburchfield

          I am drawn to your conversation tonight by this:
          ‘When you repeatedly re-stage the conversation to be about what you have an opinion against, well …. “it makes no sense”.
          I encounter many peeps on the blogs i follow & suffer pain of frustration over this very puzzlement! My mind & heart is open to an explanation only in so far as i am willing to honestly do my own inventory, fearlessly examine my own blockages, denial issues, hidden agendas. I am capable of being extremely judgmental & projecting my crappie on others no matter how good i think my intentions are! Here are some things I found helpful on a website about hidden agendas.

          ☆■The people & situations in your life are symbolic of what is going on within you. if the problems re-occur, then life is telling you what you need to work on in your hidden agenda.
          ☆■those on the Path will treat you with honesty & kindness.
          ☆■those of a dark nature will see honesty & kindness as a threat to them and a weakness to exploit.