Fear, Doubt and Religion

We are hardwired for fear. In its purest and most primal form, fear protects us. It is what alerts us to danger. It is what makes our hearts quicken and hairs stand on end when we encounter ravenous wild animals in the forest and see tornadoes making their way through our neighborhoods. It is what lets us know that we need to run and hide or seek protection and safety.

Fear, as it was intended, is good, but somehow humans, as we have a tendency to do, have managed to pervert it, twist it and exploit it, so that which was originally intended to protect now serves to harm. Anyone who suffers from anxiety can tell you just how damaging fear can be, how, when we take an instinct designed with the intention of preserving our safety and set it in overdrive, destructive it can turn.

I have spent much of my life being afraid of everything. Afraid of being bad, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of taking chances, afraid of not being intelligent enough or good enough or enough of anything for that matter. In short, afraid of not being perfect. When I had children, I became overwhelmed with the fear that I would somehow make a mistake so large, so earth shattering that I could allow harm to come their way. Their well being lay in the balance and it depended on one thing-that I remained fearful enough to protect them from life and all its dangers. And I must say that being charged with protecting someone from everything is a miserable task. How stupid and silly we become when we so fully commit ourselves to the impossible.

Over the years I have worked on improving my ability to judge what should truly elicit fear and what is nothing more than a part of life with all its uncertainty. But fear still stirs me in deep and powerful ways, and I have to remain ever vigilant of its powers.

Over the past ten days I have given a lot of thought not only to fear but also to religion and its connection to fear as well. Perhaps it was the fact that last Sunday was Easter. Perhaps it was because I did not attend mass on this most holy of holidays, or perhaps it was seeing the parking lot of the church down the street filled with the cars of the faithful. Whatever the reason, I found myself dedicating a significant amount of time thinking over the matter. I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic schools almost my entire academic life, even earning my undergraduate degree from a Jesuit university. Up until about seven years ago I attended mass regularly and did my best to be a good member of the Church. The problem is that I was not “blessed” with faith. I have always questioned and doubted. My mother once told me a story of how as a little girl (I think I was about five or six years old), I rolled my eyes and incredulously responded “Oh come on mom,” when she taught me about a miracle a saint performed. There it was. My lack of faith. My skepticism. My cynicism already rearing its ugly head at such a young age. I was told to pray for faith, to believe. But I didn’t believe, not completely, not everything. And I feared my lack of faith.

Growing up, I viewed my skepticism as being rooted in some form of evil. As stated in the Bible, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed ” (John 20:29). Unfortunately, I was like Eve. I was lured by Satan and bit into the metaphorical apple. I wanted “wisdom” (wisdom being used as a pejorative here). I questioned and doubted. I was Doubting Thomas. And doubt, when it comes to matters of religion and faith, is something to be feared.

I have learned, however, that there is something inherently damaging about fearing your very nature. “Lack of faith is bad.” “Doubt is bad.” For me these principles of blind faith seem to fly in the face of logic. It wasn’t until after graduate school and spending years teaching English and critical thinking that I realized that my talents lie in my ability to analyze, evaluate, doubt, consider and revise. I see my ability to think critically as my strength. It is something that could only be bad or bring harm when used with nefarious intent. I have learned that if I approach matters of religion with an open heart and mind and a healthy dose of doubt and awareness of the possibility that some things might not be true, not literally at least, that when I do believe something, the belief is strong and powerful.

Spiritually I consider myself a work in progress. I no longer fear that I am bad and going to hell because I don’t attend mass. I am a believer. I believe in much, but not all, that the Church teaches. But I am no longer frightened to say that I don’t fully trust the Church as a human institution. I just don’t. Of course I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher nor a historian for that matter. I am sure there is much out there that may convince me otherwise. But until I have the time to study and reflect and learn, I cannot truly believe. Should I fear my need for more knowledge? Should I fear that my faith needs to be fueled by some fact and study? I don’t, not any more. What I need is time. I need time away from the Church to research it and study and analyze and evaluate and ultimately decide what it is I truly believe. Rather than considering myself a fallen away Catholic, I prefer to view myself as a Catholic on sabbatical. I also don’t consider myself a free agent in the religion market. I am looking to work flexibly within the parameters of the traditions within which I was raised. I am, however, no longer so afraid that I feel the need to go to mass and go through the motions as if I can fool God into thinking I believe in what I am doing.

When it comes to matters of fear and religion I have learned that I do not need to feel afraid that the Church no longer serves as my moral compass. I believe in being good for the sake of being good. I believe that our job here on earth is to love and care for each other, for everyone. If I’m not mistaken that belief is in line with the teachings of Christ. Humans were created to think, to doubt, to gather information and, based upon sound judgement and reason, decide what to believe. That is our nature. If we are to be believe that we were created by God and that God is goodness and love, then we cannot fear that God will condemn us because, even in our search for the divine and spiritual, we question, doubt and seek knowledge.