Recently Kerri Miller hosted a panel discussion on “Faith and Doubt” for her Friday Roundtable program on Minnesota Public Radio. I was invited to appear as a panelist representing the non-religious perspective with two popular progressive Christian authors, Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber. They were in town for a conference they had spawned called “Why Christian?” As media-savvy younger women and experienced radio guests, they clearly were in their element. Me, I was in uncharted territory.
But meeting them, OMG! It was like a blast from the past. Having been raised in a mainstream Lutheran church (albeit in conservative rural MN), I had taken a detour into evangelical Christianity during my college years. So Rachel’s story of young evangelical “good girl” seriously questioning her faith was one that resonated with me. Been there. Done that.
Nadia’s experience of being raised as a “fundamentalist,” falling into drug addiction, getting sober and then emerging as a Lutheran minister is certainly more dramatic than my own story. Even so, we share some Lutheran history: Nadia had transferred into Luther Seminary in St. Paul to complete her ministerial training and I had transferred out to attend a non-denominational seminary in NYC and expand my theological inquiry. She exuded a Lutheran vibe that was all too familiar—despite her funky persona and fully tattooed arms.
The difference, of course, between me and these two women (besides the obvious age gap and bodyart) is that out of my doubts, questioning and critical thinking I became an atheist while they each found their way back to religion after a “soul-searching” hiatus. I have been SO done with god and Christianity for such a long time that it is easy to be dismissive of their “faith” and infatuation with Jesus. But I have to credit these women for their willingness to concede a lot to reason and doubt. They understand the contextual nature of their belief systems; they accept modern science and evolutionary theory; they acknowledge the importance of the separation of church and state; they recognize the cracks and vulnerabilities in their personal faith; they admit to doubt. There is some common ground here among us.
These are smart women. Why, we all might ask, do they keep on believing and touting the Christian message? To find some clues for an answer, we need to listen to them and others like them very carefully. What I heard that morning in the studio was the importance and role of community in their lives. Church (and the religious philosophy espoused therein) provides a place of belonging and a psychological space of unconditional acceptance. For Rachel and Nadia and millions of others, Jesus especially embodies those qualities and hence their loyalty to his narrative (however selective and elusive I might add). For anyone who ever has been broken, unloved, outcast or lonely; or is a seeker, idealist, dreamer or altruist, such a “faith” can be a potent elixir.
Therefore, “faith” remains a safe place for many, even with their doubts and unbelief, within a church that no longer requires people to tow the party line. The Christian religion—and indeed all of religion—has been evolving over the centuries. It is not a monolithic entity and we as humanists, atheists and skeptics should not treat it as such—or treat those who identify as “religious” or “spiritual” stereotypically. Rachel’s and Nadia’s “faith” is not about dogma, rules, judgment or piety; it is about pursuing a life of love, grace, compassion and forgiveness. Their religious practice is one of open arms and a supportive home, not a place of condemnation or apathy. Perhaps that is why, albeit within a shrinking Christian demographic, Rachel and Nadia have become best-selling authors.
Yes, I still recoil at “faith” language. Not only because of its historical baggage but because of its imprecision. It’s a short-cut or code-word for anyone’s worldview—whatever the content. Even “doubt” carries a lot of religious baggage. The concept bestows a kind of credibility and gravitas on spiritual and religious leaders who own it. But I need to move beyond my own painful past and impatience with religion and celebrate the increasing fluidity of religious beliefs and doubts and unbelief that continue to evolve in our world. Be open to respectful listening and honest dialogue with others wherever they are at. Not mock or dismiss or belittle anyone.
Instead, I hope we can create the kind of community among humanists that respects the intellect and embraces our emotional needs. That’s how we grow the movement. We aren’t always particularly good at it, but we saw a wonderful demonstration of what that kind of community looks like at our last chapter meeting as we discussed mental illness—very personally. As people leave religion behind in increasing numbers, can they find a place, a supportive “home” to have their emotional needs met among the “naturally curious, compassionate and rational?” I don’t see why not. As we learn more and more about the neuroscience of our emotions, let’s put our knowledge into practice. That’s humanism.