I am minded to write a similar meditation -- I've probably been dodging around the subject long enough.
I was raised Catholic, as some of you know (and others have probably guessed). I even went to a Polish Catholic school from kindergarten through 8th grade, and can sing Christmas carols in Polish, and do the sign of the cross (though I hesitate to attempt to spell the words now...). My mother is quite devout, my father, somewhat less so, I think, though we've never really discussed it. We went to church regularly. I took communion, and was even confirmed at age 13. I wish I hadn't been, in retrospect, but at the time it didn't seem worth the argument. I spent some years arguing the matter with my mother before I actually stopped going to church (sometime in early college), but in my heart and mind, I left the Church when I was 12. I still capitalize it, though, sometimes.
I have friends who claim they hate Christianity, that they despise Christians. I think what they actually hate is the organized church, and some of them have good cultural/historical reasons for doing so, I suppose, though in point of fact I have little patience with them when the subject comes up. I don't hate Christianity. I think the Catholic church does a lot of good on an individual day-to-day level, both in providing emotional/spiritual support and in taking physical care of the people in their parishes. We don't have a society where a neighborhood automatically goes to visit its sick, or help care for its elderly. I wish we did -- in the absence of such, the small church communities provide an important service. So even though the Church has messed up badly at times (the Crusades, eg.), I wouldn't throw it out entirely on those grounds.
I left the Church because I ran up against the Problem of Suffering, and none of the nuns I talked to back at Holy Cross could give me an answer that satisfied me. Perhaps a canny Jesuit could have, back then, if I'd run across one...but probably not now, so it's just as well. I'm not sure how familiar any of you are with Church doctrine, so I'll summarize -- the problem of suffering lies in the question of why it exists. Specifically, Catholicism postulates an all-powerful, omnipotent, God, and in addition stipulates that He is good. Yet why would an all-powerful good God create a universe that has so much pain?
That's the main question, and the arguments quickly branch off from there. There's the assertion that suffering is necessary for individual growth, and I'll grant you that, but what about the children who are abused and then die? -- they don't get much chance to grow out of the experience. There's the contention that God gave us free will, and suffering is a necessary consequence of that gift -- well, whose free will goes into earthquakes that kill babies, eh? Not mine. You can argue cases for hours, but what it eventually came down to with the nuns was the argument that God's ways are mysterious (boy, I heard that phrase a lot), and that a mere human could not hope to understand them. That was so *not* the line of argument to take with me at twelve...arrogance kicked right in, and I decided that I just didn't buy the answer that I wasn't bright enough to understand the answer (which in retrospect is not exactly what they were saying), and that I couldn't respect a God who expected me to take all this on faith.
That's what the problem comes down to for me, in the end -- respect and faith. 'Cause while now I can admit that it's entirely possible that there is some purpose for suffering beyond my comprehension, I've never been able to make that 'leap of faith' to simply trust that it is so. I've never had motivation to, really. Maybe it's because I've never gone through real tragedy -- my mother insists that some day I'm going to need God. Maybe. But in the meantime, there is nothing in me that wills to cross that chasm and land on the other side believing in a Supreme Being.
I'm an agnostic, not an atheist. I'm certainly not going to assert that there is no god -- there might be. Some days it seems more likely than others, but the possibility certainly exists. There might be a whole pantheon. But I can't bring myself to believe. Part of that lies in the question of *what* I should be believing in. I have friends who are Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian, and Wiccan...I respect their beliefs, but would have no idea how to choose among them -- and sadly, they are not all inclusive of the possibility of the others' being right.
Some might argue that I should just pick one and practice it, to be safe. There's an old philosopher who laid that argument out very neatly, in the form of a box (which I tried to draw but then couldn't get my computer to save as a GIF, sigh...). Imagine a box, please, with four compartments. Two columns across the top, labelled 'Believe in God' and 'Don't believe'. Two columns down the side, labelled 'God exists', 'God doesn't exist'. Then play out the four possibilities inside the box. If God exists and you believe, you're golden. If god exists and you don't believe, you're in big trouble. If God doesn't exist, and you believe, well, you're still basically fine. And if God doesn't exist and you don't believe, you're good.
Pragmatically speaking, it's pretty clear that the most dangerous course is to not believe -- the flames of hell could await you. Whereas if you do believe, the worst you get is perhaps wasting some time and energy which could be productively directed elsewhere. I think this was Augustine's construction? Unfortunately, it doesn't work for me. It doesn't work because it just seems too dumb for an omnipotent being to swallow -- if Sie knows that I only believe in Hir out of pragmatism, it rather weakens the meaning of that belief. And in any case, I *still* can't make myself actually believe -- the best I could do is act as if I do, which isn't likely to fool anyone, much less God.
Which brings me back to respect (and perhaps arrogance). In the end, I trust that if there is a God, Sie'll understand that I took a long look at this issue, and made the best decision I could. Sie'll understand that I try to be a good person, and even if I mess up sometimes, overall, I'm still trying. Frankly, I expect that to be good enough. And in Sie exists, I'll certainly respect all that Sie's accomplished, and even be grateful -- oh, what a piece of work is Man! -- not to mention the rest of the universe, in all its glories... So if God is willing to accept good intentions, good efforts and respect, we'll get along fine. And if that's no good enough -- well, as far as I can tell from my poor limited human perspective, then I won't respect God. And I won't worship Hir. And if that means I'm cast down into the nine hells with Lucifer, so be it. I may not be as sanguine if it actually happens, but I can't really see how I could honestly say anything else...
Ah, what was Lucifer's tragedy -- overweening pride, that's it. And the Greeks also warned that hubris, excessive pride, would call down the wrath of the gods. Sometimes I understand Lucifer very well...
If I could be religious, how would I want it to be? Well, reincarnation sounds better to me than heaven or hell -- especially if there's an option for climbing off the Wheel during the breaks (after death). I wouldn't even mind a god in that setup, though I'd probably see it more as Fate, saying to people as they die -- "Well, you learned some stuff, but I think you've got some more to go. I'd advise you to go back as a toad this time, or a fern, or a rich white man, or a poor, bright brown woman...what do you think?" And you could rest a bit, and then go back for another turn on the Wheel, aiming for that perfection of spirit, or for understanding of the universe, or something else entirely. And sure I'd like there to be some grand purpose to the universe, and something outside the universe, and some assurance that entropy wouldn't win in the end, and a Clockmaker watching over Hir construction, and not interfering unless it seemed likely that we were really going to destroy the Clock...on the other hand, I don't want that Clockmaker to be really infallible, because then in some sense I'd be wondering, what's the point? If you know the results of the experiment, why run it?
Okay, enough. I could spin takes on this for hours, so I'd best just stop.