A Skeptic’s Faith

First published at 365gay.com on August 13, 2010

“The trouble with atheism,” my friend said with a smile, “is that you don’t get any holidays.”

Sometimes even tired jokes can be insightful.

The friend was a Catholic priest, speaking to me (an atheist) as I spent a week with him and several dozen other priests and brothers. I feel surprisingly at home in such an environment, having once been a candidate for priesthood myself. To cite another tired but true phrase, you can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the boy. (The boy asks indulgence from his readers for what’s going to be a strangely personal column.)

I left the Church, and ultimately, theism, with some ambivalence. While I’m well aware of the Church’s sins—especially against my LGBT sisters and brothers—I’m also the grateful recipient of its gifts: a rich intellectual and aesthetic tradition, a passion for justice, a commitment to human dignity, a willingness to grapple with the “big questions.”

To be sure, its members and leaders have not always lived up to these ideals. But for the most part, I experienced the Church as a community of remarkable people striving to do their best in a broken world.

I left it, not from anger, but from philosophical dissatisfaction. In the words of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the mysteries of religion are like “wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure; but chewed, are for the most part cast up again without effect.”

As a philosopher, I couldn’t help chewing, trying to make rational sense of it all. In time the doctrines of the “One True Church” started looking no more compelling than the many competing “false” ones. Eventually the whole endeavor of organized religion seemed inadequate: attempts to explain mysteries by appealing to even greater mysteries. I stopped believing.

That was fifteen years ago. In recent years, I’ve become more outspoken about my skepticism, as I’ve recognized the dangers of people’s thinking that they have infallible backing for their beliefs and prejudices.

Yet none of that erased my awe at mystery or my longing to understand. I continued to harbor faith in some thread connecting all things, even while I declined to call that elusive thread “God.” Any being who was abstract enough to escape the theological baggage would be too impersonal to be worthy of worship.

And yet, even a skeptic’s faith can be tested.

On my second day with the priests I received the shocking news that my best friend from junior high through college was in a coma. Michael (not his real name) and I had last corresponded back in March, when I mentioned him in a column. [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-remembering-prom/]

Shortly thereafter Michael learned he had an aggressive cancer—something he kept from most friends, including me. The day after being released from the hospital following chemotherapy, he suffered a stroke. Neurologists weren’t detecting any brain activity, and his partner and family were beginning to discuss removing his ventilator. That’s when I learned of his illness.

My priest-friends, naturally, started praying. I appreciated the gesture but declined to join them. Even as a theist I had problems with petitionary prayer: If God always knows and does what’s best, why petition him? Wouldn’t it be unjust for Michael’s fate to hinge on the prayers of strangers? In any case, such questions became moot for me as a skeptic: there are indeed atheists in foxholes.

I was singing with the priests when I got the phone call. To the surprise of his doctors and family, Michael had woken up.

Let me be clear: I no more attribute this positive turn to divine intervention than I would have attributed his death to divine neglect. Again, if God always does what’s best, then it’s self-serving to praise him only when one likes the results. What tested my skepticism was NOT Michael’s unexpected surfacing. (He’s still responsive, by the way, though his condition is precarious.)

What tested it, rather, was spending time with this community of fellow truth-seekers and longing once again to be a part of it. Unlike some members of their hierarchy (not to mention their congregations), these men didn’t claim to have all the answers. They acknowledged God as mysterious. But they prayed nonetheless.

I still don’t understand how to pray before a mystery: to praise its glory, to ask its assistance, to beg its forgiveness. But I feel oddly connected to those who do.

It’s not the holidays I miss, but the community of seekers that goes with them.