Watching Dogma With a Nun

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the movie Dogma, an old favorite of mine. At the end of it, I promised to write something about my journey figuring out how to follow advice from a certain character; advice to try having ideas, instead of beliefs, because an idea you can always change if you need to. I also hinted that it would have something to do with my experience watching this with my friend RJ, who is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. This post ended up being harder to write than I expected, because the conversation RJ and I had about the movie quickly became very personal.

What RJ and I ended up talking about (other than squeeing over all our favorite bits) was theodicy, and the question of how atheism answers the meaning of life. These, in my opinion, are two of the most difficult questions in all of religion, because they can’t escape being incredibly personal. I can put my meaning of life in the most beautiful prose, and I have, and I can’t make that feel meaningful to someone else. In turn, I can hear explanations for evil that I can intellectually acknowledge are at least internally consistent, but I can’t find any of them satisfying. One of the things I appreciated about the conversation with RJ was how she admitted that she’s still figuring things out, and that the answers she has work for her, but she doesn’t expect them to convince anyone else.

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about faith, evidence and belief, and it seems the one point that is consistently overlooked, by religious and non-religious people alike, is the influence of community. Not just the influence of community on what we believe, but on what we don’t want to change our minds about. I remember vividly from my Christian days how much that affected me. There was fear of ostracism, but even more than that, there was fear that if I stopped believing, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. From birth, I had been raised to make religion an integral part of my identity, and how I saw the world. It was difficult to leave religion, even when it completely failed to make sense to me, because it would mean leaving behind my entire sense of what the world was and where I fit into it.

When I ventured out, in search of a new worldview, I found myself both drawn to and afraid of communities that were similarly agreement-centric. I was used to relating to people by believing the same things they did, and defining myself that way as well. At the same time, I was evolving very rapidly, and every time I bonded with someone over shared ideas, I felt like I was glimpsing a future where I was rejected for someday having a new idea. I’ve now started to realize certain things (like people being quick to insult those who disagree with them, or trying to bond with me over ideas instead of actions) as anxiety triggers.

After a few years of drifting through social circles and philosophies, I met RJ. One of the things I noticed early on was that she talked about other people she liked by listing their faults, not as insults, but as endearing quirks. This made me finally relax around someone. Perhaps without realizing it, she was saying, “be different from me, be irritating, show me your worst side, and I’ll still like you.” I try to be open with people as much as possible, but that still comes with a certain degree of anxiety most of the time. RJ is one of the few people who I can be as open as I want to be without any anxiety.

The other reason I had trouble writing this post is that I felt it would in some way become an advice post. I didn’t think I could tell about my journey away from beliefs and towards ideas without giving some pointers to people on that same journey. So here’s the only thing I know; find people who you know will care for you even if you change your mind. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.

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