Sunday, October 24, 2010

Knowing Where You Come From

Back in July, I posted about a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to an unknown recipient, but which had been commonly claimed to be written to Thomas Paine in reference to Paine's Age of Reason. I never quite got back to to that letter, though I had meant to blog about it at the time.

It came to my mind recently in the middle of a particular blog conversation.

Here's the letter:
I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For, without the belief of a Providence that takes cognisance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that, though your reasons are subtle, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind spits in his own face.

But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantage of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a great deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?

Franklin's argument against the viability of the recipient to change men's minds about religion doesn't hold much sway with me. If ideas rise and fall only according to their ability to convince others to agree with them, then our successful ideas are only forms of pre-approved conclusions that won't upset the apple cart.

I think history proves that ideas which might seem unconvincing and insignificant at first to mankind can slowly start to brew and gain strength. In fact many movements start relatively small, with a handful of thinkers and proponents.

Yet, even though I would disagree with the motivation behind some of Franklin's comments, he does strike at my heart with this comment; "And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself."

It is a truth that I can't deny.

Since our great church shopping adventure began towards the end of the summer, we have semi-regularly landed in an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) church. And, I have been pleasantly surprised by it. Not having much experience with Lutheranism, other than a few visits here and there in the course of my life, and also being aware that the ELCA is the more liberal version of Lutheranism, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

What I have found has been peaceful and refreshing to me. The service has contemporary music, but also follows the traditional liturgical forms, with specific acknowledgments of the readings, confessions of the congregation, recitation of The Lord's Prayer through song, and culminating in communion. There is something powerful in the entire congregation lining up and one by one receiving communion form the pastor and his lay helper. For one brief moment, every congregant is being acknowledged and participating in a meaningful ritual.

And so...what do I ponder with all my doubts as I sit in the pews and here a sermon from the gospels and sing along to a creed of which I am not completely certain? Do I feel like a hypocrite? A liar? A great pretender?

No. I don't. I don't feel like that, at least not at this point.

You see, I recognize what Franklin says, I owe much to my religious education. It has made me who I am. And, not only has it made me who I am, but I need it to continually remake me. I need the encouragement that I have felt from this local congregation. I need to be reminded to appeal to the better angels of my nature because I don't get that anywhere else. There is no encouragement form the world at large for me to strive to be a better person, to encourage me when I fail, to tell me that there is a better way to live life. Whether or not I intellectually assent to every orthodox doctrine, I have not arrived and I still need that emotional connection with something other than myself.

And the stories and words and parables that have moved me for almost 20 years.....they still move me. They still have the power to speak to me, even in my skeptical state, though the mode of operation differs.


DoOrDoNot said...

I followed you here from Like A Child's blog. I have a similar experience with religion. It really has given me many positive benefits. I think my character in many ways is due to my Christian upbringing. But, like you, i now question the foundation of those beliefs. I still find myself drawn to religion, even as I deconstruct my beliefs.

JS Allen said...

Most of my friends were raised atheist in officially atheist countries (China, Russia, Eastern bloc), and they seem to be at least as moral as the average American.

I've always been uncomfortable with the idea that we should keep religion around for its utilitarian benefits.

DH said...

JS Allen - I can understand where you're coming from. My grandmother was a Christian, and she is purported to have stated, when pressed about her faith, that even if in the end it turned out she was "wrong", at least she will have lived a better life for it. While a part of me appreciates the sentiment that she was trying to express, I agree that it isn't a sufficient reason or substance for religious conviction or faith.

terri said...

Welcome DoOrDoNot!

I definitely still feel drawn to religion even in the midst of deconstruction. I guess I keep hoping that once I have come to the end of deconstruction that there will be a new way to rebuild, because I want a home to live in, not a open field that leaves me abandoned to the elements.

Renovation is time-consuming! ;-)

JS Allen,

I don't like the feeling of "religion for utilitarianism" either, but sometimes I wonder what else works in quite the same way, especially as societies become more fragmented. Young people still need guidance and do I.

I don't even think it's just about morality, because in those atheist countries you mentioned, the vacuum left by religion was filled with "The Party", especially in China. Even without "religion" the Chinese people created a culture of right and wrong and even had a handy "little red book " to refer to give them guidance.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think every Christian should spend a few years in a quite different tradition, even if in the end it is only to see their original one with fresh eyes.

JS Allen, I agree that the utilitarian reasons for faith are inadequate for belief - for me, anyway. But I sharply challenge your implied conclusion about the morality of the countries listed based on your selection of friends here. Your friends are by definition an unrepresentative sample. My experience with Romania, much as I love it, is precisely opposite; the historical record is against you once you venture beyond, northern Italy and go anywhere east of there all the way to the Pacific - many seem to come round right upon moving here, but even then my friends from the Balkans and Ukraine simply stun me at times with their attitudes; and friends who have lived abroad for business purposes shudder at the lack of internal morality of the folks they work with. Sometimes it is merely a different moral focus other times it is simply an amoralism unfamiliar in the West. (Let it be noted that I know nonwesterners and nonbelievers who are my moral equal or betters, however).

JS Allen said...

@AVI - That's a really interesting point. You're probably right about the sample I call friends. I also dealt quite a bit with people from the very poor immigrant communities who were living a lot like is described in "off the books". They tended to do a lot of things we would think are "immoral", lie, cheat, steal -- but on the other hand they were far more generous and helping to one another than me or my friends ever are. It was definitely different.