Free Will vs. Compelled

Church-2678We had Easter at Michele’s familial home the weekend after the Indiana pizzeria said they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. Sitting around, what I like to think of as the typical American family table, we had a couple of interesting conversations about politics that spilled over to religion (or religion that spilled over to politics). We were, very roughly, evenly split between Liberals and Conservatives and the Conservatives were spit between those who had gone to church that morning and those who hadn’t.

One thing we did agree on, surprisingly, is that people should have the right to be assholes, within limits, but that governments shouldn’t. To be clear, I wouldn’t say that we completely agreed, but we did come close to agreeing that there were differences between public acts in public spaces and private acts in private spaces. We all agreed that if a store is open for business, they have to serve everybody that walks in, but we differed on how restrictive they could be in the hypothetical catering of a wedding.

That conversation drew us into a – unexpected, for me – minefield. Maybe it shouldn’t have been unexpected, because I was the primary wanderer, owing to my fascination with religion’s special privileges. It is illegal for me to take peyote because I enjoy it, but, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, I can take it if I am taking it as part of my religion. My question was Why should religion get special privileges? The only answer I got to this question was something along the lines of We are a Christian Nation, as if that would answer it. As the conversation staggered on, however, my question did get answered in a fashion.

To back up, when we are in Napa on a Sunday morning, or around a religious holiday like Christmas, Michele usually goes to church with her step-father, Jim (who was one of the church goers in the group, duh!). During the conversation, Michele’s stepfather said something, I don’t remember what, that led to Michele countering that she wasn’t raised as a Christian and wasn’t a Christian now. Jim was surprised, If you aren’t a Christian, why do you go to church with me? Michele said that she went because she enjoyed it. That was even more surprising to Jim.

Isn’t that why you go? asked Michele. No, I don’t go because I enjoy it, I go because, as a Christian, I have to go, Jim  said, laughing in a dismissive way as if that should be self-evident. In a way it was the answer that I had been looking for.

Still, not being a believer, Jim’s answer shocked me. Actually, I am a little reluctant to say Not being a believer, because I think of myself as a believer in A Divine that transcends what we know of the ordinary world. I don’t believe that science knows all the big answers and we are now only working on filling in the details, I don’t believe the world is all material and we are only a result of our DNA. I do believe that there is A Mystery, I’m just not a believer in any particular religious dogma (and I especially don’t believe that there is a personal God that cares how we act, that holds a grudge if we don’t go to church, that is interested in how we have sex or what we ate for lunch).

My life is not governed by a god telling me to live it a certain way. Not being a believer in that dogma means that I don’t get my morality from somebody’s interpretation of what God wants us to do. The church goers were pretty adamant that, without God telling us the rules or providing the moral guidelines, to say it in a little less dogmatic way, we would have no morality. Michele said that she is a Scientist and her morality is based on the scientific principle that acts have consequences. I sided with Michele and added that I liked the Buddhist Eightfold Path that includes don’t harm others and the Church goers looked at us like we must not have any moral principles at all, like maybe we were OK with serial killing.

Looking across the table, I could almost understand that somebody could believe that they weren’t homophobic, but their God is and they have no choice but to follow along. That gulf between our beliefs, between our belief structures,  seems much bigger than I had imagined.

4 thoughts on “Free Will vs. Compelled

  1. Steve, I’m just jealous that you can spend time with family and have stimulating, rational, open-minded, thoughtful discussion around the table.

  2. Vern, I do think that you, and many other atheists, think more about religion than most church goers. I know that when I get in a discussion with a strong believer, I will often ask a question and they will say something along the line of “Well, I don’t know exactly, I haven’t thought about it”. And, of course, I have thought about it…ad nauseum.

  3. Gail, it has been a long time coming. Michele’s family mostly talked about the menu and the weather which I think is pretty typical WASPy and my family talked – argued – about politics (a Jewish aphorism is that if you have three Jews, you’ll have four different opinions, arguing at the dinner table is in our DNA).

  4. Anthony, I don’t understand the preoccupation many churches have with gay marriage either. I don’t understand why they are not up in arms over adulterers getting married, or large corporations steeling from poor people, but that does not seem to be a problem.

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