“Would you take your kid to church?”
It’s about half passed midnight on a meager, autumn evening. Or was it still summer? I guess its doesn’t matter, really. But I recall an open window to my back and a breeze poised to stick; a breath of damp air lingering along the nape of my neck. Maybe it was summer.
A once brimming bottle of rye rests vacant in the corner. Ravaged in the hours preceding, the empty bottle of Bulleit takes form in the slouched postures and slackened dispositions posed around the dining room table. Tonight we had settled, well, careened more so, into the topic of religion. The table was unanimously agnostic, bordering atheist depending upon your definition. So when the question was tabled, ‘would you take your kids to church?’ the reflexive answer was a resounding, ‘no.’
Most of us at the table you could call reformed, our upbringings once anchored to a Christian scaffolding. That is, until we’d found our stride and shed the braces; Forrest Gump-like, the wind at our backs. Not to say that religion played a deliberately insidious role in our lives, it just limited the breadth by which we could comprehend it. It offers definitive truth in a world where no such thing exists. You’re taught how to live under the guise of truth and the assurance of certainty, even though its uncertainty that may very well be the only thing we can sincerely call true.
That scaffolding, the knee braces of religion, does in fact provide one sure footing in reality, but all the same it inherently limits the means by which you come to understand and experience it. And when such braces are ripped, or worn, or even gently set down at one’s side, its easy to feel resentment towards the knowledge you just before held as truth. The truths that brought clarity but now glow dim, leaving you a stranger in a new world. More so, you’re embarrassed; humbled, shrunk down a size. So the knee-jerk reaction is to resent, to turn face 180 degrees from the direction you were scorned.
Santa Claus is your father, the tooth fairy your mom, bees don’t actually have knees, the NBA is fixed…the truth comes to us regardless of when we may be ready for it. As a child it may have occurred by accident, a wanton curiosity killing both the cat and your idyllic understanding of life and death. Then, you grew older, and more proverbial cats were left sullied as you delved further into books, rated-R movies, and parents’ dresser drawers. Or, perhaps you were blanketed by the pristine and pastoral tales of animated, talking vegetables atop a kitchen countertop; Bob the tomato and Larry the cucumber, your watchful legumes atop the wall, guarding your innocence from the sinister debauchery that was BET late night.
If the oddly specific examples just listed weren’t clues enough, I fell into the latter situation. Not necessarily sheltered, but steered nonetheless. When the reality of death first hit me in my four year-old mouth there was the reassurance of an everlasting life in heaven to soften the blow. When I first left the country on a mission trip and discovered the thrill of new experience, that thrill wasn’t a cocktail of dopamine, adrenaline and myriad hormones racing through my impressionable mind as I climbed and snorkeled, made new friends and fell in teenage love a thousand miles from home…No, that feeling, that exciting, euphoric state, that was the love of Jesus Christ, young man. That was the holy spirit you feel within you.
And when I was propped up behind a podium and told to tell my life story of redemption and salvation, all thirteen grueling years of tribulations, I did. I committed my life to a name, to an idea, and I waited. I waited for something like that ecstatic feeling I’d felt before or that reassurance that had quelled my first existential panic, but nothing ever came. Life moved on.
With only the dusty eloquence a comedian can, Bill Burr equated his experience of losing his religion to the moment in curling in which the player finally lets go of the stone. There’s no riot, no press conference, just an eerie distancing between you and what was once held. So as life moved on and the distance grew — the absence of a stone once held flowering doubts along the way — I just let go.
In the same rant, Burr notes that he simultaneously scoffed at the beliefs of Scientologists while still believing that “a woman who had never [had sex] had a baby that walked on water, died and came back three days later.” Why does one makes sense and not the other? How can we reason that one story of a man hearing voices is true and another isn’t?
Well, it isn’t really reason at all. It isn’t logic that shores our grip to the truths we hold, its feeling.
Take the hypothetical story designed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt: A family’s dog is killed in front of their home. They heard that dog meat was good, so they cut the dog’s body up and eat it for dinner. Most of us, including the subjects in the original study, conclude that such would be wrong. But why? No suffering occurs, the dog was already dead. There is no consistent, logical reasoning to opposing the family’s choice. It just feels wrong.
We feel, and then we reason to makes sense of said feeling and intuition.
Today, its said we are living in an age of “post-truth.” A reality shattered by the advent of fake news and alternative facts. But what makes today so unbelievable? Are we really going to credit Donald Trump with swinging the straw that broke the camel’s back of capital-t Truth? Or is this no different than any other shattered belief? A moment in which we must begrudgingly take on the increasing responsibility of a world with one less truth to hold on to. Yes, Santa isn’t real. No, barbies are not anatomically correct, why would you think that? Yeah, a horse’s ass can hold the highest public office in the United States of America.
Granted it seems that uncertainty keeps increasing, but operating with uncertainty is just another day at office for the three-pound lawyer inside your skull. At any one point in time an unstable, fluctuating stream of light is reflected upon our retinas yet we perceive a stable image. You walk down a hallway and the walls seem stable and set in place, yet all the while your eyes are constantly bombarded by new information as the relationship between you and the wall continually changes. In essence, you never sit, stand or exist still, your brain just provides you this illusion.
Reality by subtraction. We must, by nature, perceive the world in a subtracted, simplified state. Just as the inner ear provides a sense of balance while we jostle, jerk and run our way through reality, so too must our conceptions provide us a sense of stability. So, by nature, we reason the world in -isms and -ists, black and white, us and them. It is by the same principle that our eyes, inner ear and brain work to provide us a stable, simplified image of reality that our notions of cause and effect, justice and injustice, right and wrong, good and bad, eat the dog/don’t eat the dog, all operate to provide us a stable, operable model of reality. It’s just that the latter is still evolving yet today. And thus, so is what we call truth.
When astronomers scour the night sky for habitable planets, potential host rocks for life and signs of intelligence, there’s a particular area situated just near and not too far from a star that supports the conditions to foster life — the goldilocks zone, not too hot nor too cold. Equally so, rightly balanced between stupor and sobriety, a kind of goldilocks state of mind may just exist. Loosened just so, coherent still enough, a habitable state of mind for conversation that fosters the fleeting signs of our intelligence, if only for a flash. You know the cognitive climate, relaxed enough to reveal your ear fetish yet still one or two drinks shy of “the world is run by inter-dimensional psychic vampires.”
It was in this state of mind that we found ourselves that mild summer night. Greased for sincerity, one’s eye for irony (i.e. bullshit) just a bit sharper. And that’s exactly what our initial reaction had been. We’d instinctively substituted one truth for another. We’d answered with what felt right.
“Would you take your kids to church?”
“Of course not.” *the chorus echoed*
Blind and dogmatic, we responded out of reflex because our own question prodded our doubts. But then we paused; a reverb washed the table.
“Yeah but what if the reason we’re so adamant about not taking our kids to church is because we were so strongly pushed there in the first place?Wouldn’t withholding them from it build a curiosity just the same as our experience built contempt?”
Rather than substitute one truth for another, maybe the answer is in providing no such certainty in the first place. Never present a stone of truth to hold on to in the first place. Let them figure it out on their own. Let them go to a church, a mosque, a Jill Stein rally, a satanic pyre, Comic-Con. And when they ask if Santa Clause is real, if there is a heaven, if Joe Pesci really died for the sins of mankind, answer with “I don’t know, but lets find out.”
I can’t be certain though, maybe its just one of those things I won’t ‘get’ until I have kids. You know, like working on only two hours of sleep or getting puked on in public…