When Doubt is a Good Thing
As a Pastor I've preached lots of sermons on the idea that it is okay to doubt. Usually the sermons come on the Sunday after Easter, when the church hears about how one of the disciples, Thomas, doubted the Resurrection of Jesus and (the risen) Jesus handles his doubts with compassion.
Until yesterday, though, I never thought how important doubt can be to one's own sense of well-being, until I heard a radio interview with Shalom Auslander on the program Fresh Air. I've heard Auslander before, on my favorite radio program This American Life, and I found him, like most of the contributers, to be insightful and funny. Until now, though, I had no idea that there was a darker side to his Ultra-Orthodox Jewish upbringing.
Auslander grew up in a disfunctional family with an angry dad, and in his heart of hearts is an image of God very much like his own dad--a mean bully. Years of therapy, cutting himself off from his family, and extensive study of religion have not budged his conviction that God is real, and also a meanie who is out to get him if he disobeys a long list of ridiculous laws that are impossible to obey perfectly and that he has therefore abandoned. If you've ever wondered why people hate religion and find it to be oppressive and evil, Shalom Auslander is Exhibit A. He wants to have doubts, he behaves like a person who has far more doubt than faith, but the fact is that he has never had a single real moment of doubting.
So, what is the solution? The Soviet Union outlawed religion and it just went underground. Today the Russian Orthodox church has regained its stutus in Russian culture. And, on a deeper level, the Soviet society never did away with the oppressive aspects of religion that folks like Auslander condemn. On a recent trip to Russia, we brought back Soviet propoganda that could have been written by Jerry Fallwell. It focused on the importance of avoiding strong drink, tobacco, and extramarital sex, and on taking care of your kids and working hard without expecting any reward except solidarity with comrades. I don't think I have to tell you how successful this propaganda was in reducing the Russian appetite for pleasures of the flesh. If anything, the lurid way it depicted these excesses may have given them the extra thrill of forbidden fruit for some citizens.
When it comes to religion and morality, there's the soft sell, the hard sell and then there is indoctrination. The United Church of Christ, my denomination, is dominated by churches that practice the soft sell and emphasize the postives of living a moral life--like, you don't have to keep your lies straight if you don't tell any! Soviet propaganda represents the hard sell. What Shalom Auslander experienced was indoctrination, and it led him to the opposite extreme of behavior after he left his home and school, because he had yet to develop a moral compass based on personal integrity.
I am personally morally opposed to participating in indoctrination, but according to how our US Constitution is currently interpreted, religious indoctrination of the kind Shalom Auslander experienced as a young child is perfectly legal. In a recent court case, the leader of a small sect in Utah was convicted and sent to prison for indoctrinating an underage girl that she must marry her cousin and submit to having sex with him. Most indoctrinated children are not encouraged to break the law or to submit to becoming a victim of a crime, however, so prosecution will do little to ease the pain of people like Shalom Auslander.
I think the question is, do those of us who find comfort and joy in religious faith owe some kind of moral debt to those like Auslander whose lives are shattered by religious indoctrination? Auslander resents people like me, what he would call religious moderates. He believes that people like me make it possible for groups like Al Queda to perpetrate unspeakable crimes against humanity in the name of religion simply because we lend legitimacy to religion. I don't agree with him, but how do I reach out and try to help someone who thinks I'm perpetuating evil just because I like to pray, read the Bible, sing hymns and eat suppers with others who like the same things? It's kind of hard to blame the guy for seeing things in black/white, either/or terms, given his first eighteen years of life, but I'm not going to be able to see things the way he does, so how do we bridge the gap?