Freedom of Expression Includes Religion: Why Do So Many Americans Raised Catholic Remain So?

I was raised Catholic and experienced twelve years of Catholic education. I believe this alone richly entitles me to write about the religion (though such personal experience should not be a prerequisite). Greta Christina recently observed that “many still consider religion to be a privileged matter, outside the bounds of free speech.” I hope you don’t think so. Reason is one four pillars of REAL wellness is reason – and this makes all beliefs affecting quality of life and mental health too consequential to avoid or ignore. It is no more disrespectful to criticize religious beliefs than it is to criticize political ideas, scientific theories, or any other hypotheses about how the world works. That’s how good ideas get refined and bad ideas get weeded out — through public debate and vigorous questioning and criticism. While Ms. Christina and yours truly may think there is nothing disrespectful about criticizing religious beliefs about how the world works, one fabulously rich organization clearly does not share that viewpoint. The Catholic Church, in fact, views its authority as sanctified, derived from a supernatural source and not a suitable topic for discussion, let alone criticism. Well, the church leaders can’t be happy with Maureen Dowd.

Ms. Dowd, an outspoken but practicing Catholic who writes a popular column for the New York Times, has blasted the hierarchy of the church in a series of fiery essays, the most recent (April 11) entitled, “Worlds Without Women.”

Dowd asked women on a recent visit to Saudi Arabia why they put up with having their rights strangled in an autocratic state more like an archaic mens club than a modern nation. She wondered, How could… spirited women, smart and successful on every other level, acquiesce in their own subordination? Then it hit her: As a Catholic woman, I was doing the same thing…remaining a part of an inbred and wealthy mens club cloistered behind walls and disdaining modernity…an autocratic society that repressed women and ignored their progress in the secular world.

Which explains why I have started to wonder why Catholics remain Catholic. It’s probably due to the relentless cultural imprinting from infancy through the high school years. Richard Dawkins has famously termed this practice a form of mental child abuse. The children of Catholics do not get to choose their worldview from among fair exposure to many. Instead, they are thoroughly indoctrinated, daily, at home, in schools and by a sub-culture in a single worldview – their own. How else could so many believe innumerable claims that are socially regressive (opposition to sex education, birth control, womens reproductive rights, stem cell research, gay rights, church/state separation, etc.), as well as preposterous? Surely the latter would be viewed as such – if first encountered as adults having a modicum of liberal education. As it is, if the Church raised little boys and girls to believe that pink elephants in heaven did back flips over a moon, few devout Catholic adults would be skeptical of such a thing. Besides, if one continues to believe in a heavenly reward for the faithful after death, why quarrel with church previews of what it’s like there? Such a claim would be at least as credible as the standard Christian fare many swallow whole – like tales of Jonah and a whale – or a similar whopper about Noah and the mother of all arks – you know, the one that saved two of every Earth species from one of the earliest (and rather nasty) acts of god. These are not atypical beliefs – they stand alongside papal infallibility, exorcisms, transsubstantiation, idol worship, a virgin birth, a three-in-one mystery, indulgences, a resurrection and a dazzling array of miracles, relics and saints.

In short, only a few escape the gravity of the pre-reason years when dogma is laid down with emotional anchors. I’m an escapee myself, after 12 years of parochial school and 18 years immersion in an Irish Catholic culture that reinforced it all. (Not only did I leave the church – I also switched from Irish to mixed breed, a reference to the fact that I describe my ancestry as a blend of European stock. Never mind that my mother’s maiden name was Fitzgibbon.) Escape for me was facilitated by a move from home soon after high school. Following that, I was exposed to naturalistic explanations about existential wonders, to science and reason, to dramatically different perspectives on the nature of existence, plus an unremitting flow of information about the corruption and perversion of the Catholic empire. Now, while recognizing the power of childhood imprinting, I wonder why so many educated, independent-minded Catholics like Dowd cling to irrational customs? Never underestimate the power of the initial traditions, dogmas and rituals, They run deep and exert a grip on 75 million Catholics in this country alone. Feminist Dowd can describe misogynistic rituals by a church blind to the benefits of welcoming women’s brains, talents and hearts into their ancient fraternity, but that’s not enough to undo Gordian knots of oppression and primal attachment.

Who can explain it, who can say where it’s going? I’ll tell you who – Robert Green Ingersoll. On September 16th in 1894, in an interview with the New York Herald, he was asked, Which do you regard as the better, catholicism or protestantism? His reply: Protestantism is better than catholicism because there is less of it. Protestantism does not teach that a monk is better than a husband and father, that a nun is holier than a mother. Protestants do not believe in the confessional. Neither do they pretend that priests can forgive sins. Protestantism has fewer ceremonies and less opera bouffe, clothes, caps, tiaras, mitres, crooks and holy toys. Catholics have an infallible man – an old Italian. Protestants have an infallible book, written by Hebrews before they were civilized. The infallible man is generally wrong, and the infallible book is filled with mistakes and contradictions. Catholics and protestants are both enemies of intellectual freedom – of real education, but both are opposed to education enough to make free men and women. Between the catholics and protestants there has been about as much difference as there is between crocodiles and alligators. Both have done the worst they could, both are as bad as they can be, and the world is getting tired of both. The world is not going to choose either – both are to be rejected.

Well, Ingersoll may still prove prescient. Maybe he was only off by a century or so. In the long run, what’s a hundred years here or there? On the book-jacket blurb of Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-seller Bright-Sided, Frederick Crews offered a rationale for reading Enrenreich’s book: Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil – please read this relentlessly sensible book. It’s never too late to begin thinking clearly. Just so. To paraphrase Mr. Crews, may I suggest that Maureen Dowd and a billion or so Catholics read Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins or other books by secularists thinking clearly about religion. It’s never too late.

Postscript: I don’t want to neglect readers immersed as children in some religion other than Catholicism. Some, like Maureen Dowd, just can’t make the break, but might be interested in good stories of how others managed it. Two of my favorite reads about piety breaks from protestantism and Islam, respectively, are Dan Barker’s Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. The latter describes Ali’s rejection of an arranged marriage in Somali, leading to doubts about Islam’s dogmas and demands and how events such as religious terrorism changed her life.