Monday, May 28, 2007

On what is called Conversion

It seems to me that religious conversion is misunderstood by those who've never lived through the experience (Important: I take this to mean a move into faith from skepticism, or vice versa) -- in my experience, the move from faith to doubt, for example, is simply matter of expression: what do I call this feeling in me, this leaning in the direction of the future? I believe conversion may be as much about one's relationship to language as it is about an inner realignment. Politics serves as an effective foil: If I called myself a "democrat" in 1960, I may today call myself something else, though my convictions about the nature of Just government have not changed.

I have found that those who have never converted, one way or another, often take for granted the categories they discover in the world around them -- indeed, their attachment to their original understanding of the words "believer" and "atheist" (or "skeptic") may constitute the central aspect of their own ontology. William James lampoons the skeptic who has never considered belief in his chapter on "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" in Varieties of Religious Experience:

Q: What does Religion mean to you?
It means nothing; and it seems, so far as I can observe, useless to others. I am sixty-seven years of age and have resided in X. fifty years, and have been in business forty-five, consequently I have some little experience of life and men, and some women too, and I find that the most religious and pious people are as a rule those most lacking in uprightness and morality... The God-idea was begotten in ignorance, fear, and a general lack of any knowledge of Nature. If I were to die now, being in a healthy condition for my age, both mentally and physically, I would just as lief, yes, rather, die with a hearty enjoyment of music, sport, or any other rational pastime. As a timepiece stops, we die--there being no immortality in either case.
Q: What comes before your mind corresponding to the words God, Heaven, Angels, etc.?
Nothing whatever. There is no agency of the superintending kind. A little judicious observation as well as knowledge of scientific law will convince any one of the fact.
Q: What is your notion of sin?
It seems to me that sin is a condition, a disease, incidental to man's development not being yet advanced enough.
Q: What is your temperament?
Nervous, active, wide-awake, mentally and physically. Sorry that Nature compels us to sleep at all.

James follows this section with a particularly keen analysis: "If we are in search of a broken and contrite heart, clearly we need not look to this brother. His contentment with the finite incases him like a lobster-shell and shields him from all morbid repining at his distance from the Infinite." And of course, I only quote James to help me present what I think is the less common image: that of the religiously-skeptical atheist type. Obviously, there is the correspondingly "omni-satisfied" religious-religious type, who says contrite things like, "Oh yes, life seemed difficult to me, too, until I accepted my savior Jesus Christ into my life--since then I've been happy every day." (The political equivalent is again a useful contrast: those who have subscribed, from an early age, to one political party, without considering shifting their politics, may end up betraying their own early convictions in order that they stay true to the party-name.)

These two types, symmetrical to the point of being effectively synonymous, are unable to see that there is one overarching principle bringing them together -- William James calls it "Healthy-Mindedness," and is currently being peddled as The Secret, and has generally been found in the "Self-Help" section of your local bookstore. "I am an atheist and have no need for God," says one. "I am a Christian and have the LORD and put all my trust in him." And these words, these self-defining terms (atheist & Christian) serve to protect these two from ever experiencing the conversion.

On the other hand, the person willing to renounce the protection of terminology may discover that what he formerly took for his devotion is really just a disguise for his doubt. Similarly, the person willing to renounce the safety of labels may discover that what she formerly understood to be her skepticism has only been the fear of being overwhelmed. The religious conversion will not come until the potential convert feels absolutely indifferent about labels -- have you ever felt nothing about the words atheist, Christian, believer, skeptic, faith, doubt?

A brief personal history may help: when I was young I said "God" and felt content. A little older, I said the word "success," and felt content. A little older, a little more mature, I said, "atheism," and felt content. A while later, I said "Oversoul," "Buddhist," then "mystic" and felt content... and the beat goes on, the beat goes on.


Monica said...

Well . . . as someone who has been "converting" for the past few years, I think your point about labels and terminology ("The religious conversion will not come until the potential convert feels absolutely indifferent about labels -- have you ever felt nothing about the words atheist, Christian, believer, skeptic, faith, doubt?") is more than insightful. I've not thought about it precisely in this way, but one of the most unsettling for me (converting from Christianity to Judaism) has been my sudden inability to label myself as either a Christian or a Jew necessarily. We do like to hide in labels. But I've also noticed that I care less and less for them . . . they mean less and less to me. They don't bother me -- it's just that none of them work anymore. They are more limiting than liberating.

Nice post, Casey.

Wishydig said...

You hit the sweet spot with this post. Really. I imagine you swung through this and didn't feel the contact with the ball -- but now it's rising...slowly...rising...

That a label can become more important than the signified is so key to the conversion you're talking about. Man. That's the ultimate fault of so much faith that I see. Missing the point of allegiance.

It's the danger of a church or a school or a political party or a group of friends -- that the individual becomes convinced that the institution is to be trusted above all self-assurance. The greatest danger is in trusting the institution when it assures you that it has not broken its promise to you -- though you know that it has.

Casey said...

Monica, I love that you admit that the inability to comfortably label ourselves can be "unsettling."

And M.C.--"The greatest danger is in trusting the institution when it assures you that it has not broken its promise to you -- though you know that it has." That's perfect.

It seems that institutions (and even the big one: "society") are wonderful at appropriating what was authentic and powerful language, without authentically understanding the signified -- thereby rendering the language itself inauthentic...

Consequently, I almost hope to never have a good idea attain popular recognition because the "goodness" of my idea will immediately begin to fade.