The scenario may seem strange read amid the Catholic environment of the Philippines, but to the secular youth, particularly those living in Western or Westernized societies, Adam Kirsch’s words in the May 6, 2013 issue of The New Yorker provide a stunningly accurate description of the religious landscape they inhabit:
“Religion and secularism often face off in our culture as megaphone-wielding opponents, each braying out the sins and shortcomings of the other . . . Religion tells us that secular people are nihilistic, pleasure-chasing relativists; and the effect is to make us flee what sounds like a punitive and sanctimonious religion. Secularism, in the voices of the celebrated New Atheists, tells us that religion is mental slavery, reaction, and prejudice; this shallow condescension makes us close our ears to secularism.”
Kirsch concedes that in modern, secular societies, “to argue for faith, at least in the twenty-first century, is already to lose the argument.” The point, however, is that one cannot argue for faith, for faith is not based in logic. Indeed, to me, spiritual, mystical, or personal faith is a prayer, and the illogical maintenance of one’s faith is a declaration of something sacred existing in the life that surrounds us. In this way, faith need not stem from organized religion. Kirsch writes: “Faith, like love, can be clinically described and analyzed from the outside, but it can be known only from the inside. That is why there is something so pitiable about the spectacle of those debates in which a celebrity atheist takes on a clergyman, and always wins.”
From anecdotal evidence, I’ve found that these ‘celebrated New Atheists,’ of whom Richard Dawkins is perhaps the best known, seem to find uneven interest among today’s secular, Westernized youth. Dawkins in particular is often dismissed in intellectual and academic circles. Rather, it seems to be amongst our parents’ generation that the New Atheists often find their most militant and faithful adherents. This is not surprising.
Those of us coming of age in a more transnational, secular, socially progressive time often have less exigent need to denounce the strictures of religion. Moreover, for those of us dislocated from our Philippine homes, religion and its rituals can provide a sense of belonging that comforts across vast stretches of ocean and time. Perhaps, if we feel less bound to adhere to religious dogma, we have an “easier” time with religion: for example, I can comfortably believe in divorce, champion LGBT rights, and be a feminist while nevertheless identifying as “Catholic.” To faithful religious observers, this is an unambiguous travesty, and I am merely instrumentalizing Catholicism, employing it as a signifier for some localized amalgam of the Philippines, home, history, family—rather than identifying with a universal religion that asserts its scriptures as the word of God. They are right, and I confess to all these charges.
Due to my upbringing, Catholicism provides me the nearest, most authentic vehicle through which to discuss and understand belief and to construct my own conception of morality (both with and against the Catholic moral framework). Yet, it is true that I need a new language and vehicle for belief, one that does not vitiate the purity and sanctity of a strictly held Catholicism for its truer adherents.
Before I continue, I wish to make clear that the New Atheists’ work to disprove or to loosen religious dogma is salutary in many socially regressive environments and is beneficial for its deprivation of reasons for war and dispute. Moreover, I am thankful to be able to live in secular environments both physically and epistemologically, and I am grateful for the New Atheists and others’ work as social catalysts in places such as the Philippines. For the moment, however, I seek here to dwell on what spirituality can give to secular individuals.
I have found myself bridling against an arrogantly or cynically atomistic framework. Additionally, I value an anti-Neitzschean sense of personal submission. Together, these attest to my desire to live with collectivity and humility. Faith, to me, is submission to the mysteries of life, an acknowledgement of my cosmic, if not divine, bonds the living world, and a willful belief in something larger than myself. That is not a choice at odds with the stance of the New Atheists, but it is a reminder that faith can provide a way of life as well as religious dogma.