Saturday, September 21, 2013

From Faith to Atheism

What would you think was being talked about if you read the following:
"I got to come out...It used to terrify me, what people's reactions would be. But it's been so long now...I don't even care...I slept like a baby last night because I knew I wasn't going to have to live a lie any more..."
This isn't a young gay or lesbian person coming out to the family - it's Teresa MacBain, a Methodist pastor, telling NPR about "confessing " to her congregation that she has lost her faith and is now an atheist.

I interpreted the NPR interview and an article in today's New York Times in light of my Rosh Hashanah post about religion and medicine. Teresa MacBain stopped believing in God, but terribly missed the community solidarity, shared values, and supportive rituals that being part of a congregation provided. While she no longer believed in the divinity of Jesus, she had not lost faith in what she calls “the philosophy of Christ.” She averred that leaving religion did not mean she had left morality - she still adheres to the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule and other moral teachings common to many world religions.(See this article in Religion News to learn more about how she gave up her theology but retained her moral perspective.)

Here's how MacBain described the loss of her religious community:
“For me, religion was everything, my entire world. All my friendships, connections, family,  all the places I went to deal with difficulties, to do good works, to find resources to raise kids — everything was contained within that environment. I miss that social connectivity, that network.”
Not surprisingly, like a divorced person who rapidly enters a new relationship, MacBain affiliated herself with new communities - such as the American Humanist Association and American Atheists. At a meeting she met Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, who hired her to be a kind of apostle to help humanists/atheists around the country build a non-theistic form of congregational life. MacBain has left the church, but she's again in a role that is structurally much like the theistic pastoral role she occupied before the lost her faith.

Before I ended my beloved clinical practice five years ago I felt great anxiety. Even though the practice was only a portion of my work life, I felt that it was totally central to my identity. I described my fear in images like a becalmed sailboat or a car that was out of gas. In retrospect I see that it wasn't just ending my psychiatric practice that was triggering the anxiety - it was also fear of no longer being part of my equivalent of a religious congregation - the "congregation of medicine."

I chair the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Ethics Advisory Group. Typically we have 25 - 35 participants. The group sits in a U and I sit and stand in the open segment of the U. From time to time when I'm calling the group together to start the meeting I have spontaneously and whimsically said "Dearly beloved..." I do have a feeling akin to love for the group and the process we follow. Sliding into language associated with religious practice reflects my underlying feeling that a group deliberating on the values that inform health care is first cousin to a religious congregation.

Insofar as shared religious beliefs provide the glue that unites a congregation in mutual support and a commitment to social justice I feel a kinship with it. But insofar as it claims a unique truth for its theology and condemns those who do not share its beliefs I see it as undermining the health of society.

[If you want to get a sense of Teresa MacBain's pastoral skills, put her name into YouTube and sample some of the videos of talks she's given since leaving the church.]

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Religious Ethics and Medical Ethics

The Jewish New Year - Rosh Hashanah – starts this evening, and the New York Times featured a front page article on “Bar Mitzvahs Get a New Look to Build Faith.” The article touched a very personal nerve for me.

Both my parents and all of my grandparents were Jewish, but the family I grew up in was very non-observant. We didn’t belong to a synagogue and didn’t celebrate the Jewish holidays, other than a very perfunctory Seder at my father’s ailing mother’s home in Brooklyn. But at 11 or 12 I asked my parents to send me to Sunday School, an almost unheard of request for a child to make. As best I can recall, I wondered how the universe was created and what my purpose in life should be, and had the idea that religion might help me answer these questions.

They enrolled me in Temple Emanu-El, a large reform congregation that was founded in 1845. I quickly concluded that I’d made a mistake. In class we memorized prayers in a language I didn’t understand, studied holiday rituals, and learned about the history of the Jewish migration to the US. We didn’t touch the big questions I was interested in. When I said I wanted to quit my father asked me to stick it out for the sake of his mother, who was happy at the idea of my having some Jewish education, even if it ended in a confirmation ceremony and not a bar mitzvah.

It’s clear to me in retrospect that I was searching for a community that shared fundamental values and collaborated in actions based on those values. I didn’t find what I was looking for at Temple Emanu-el, but during the summer when I turned 16 (and in the two summers after that) I worked as a counselor at Felicia Madison, a camp that served poor children from New York City. When I got to college I was able to create a combined major in philosophy and psychology – a program that let me explore the kinds of questions I had in mind in asking to go to Sunday School. And I worked as a volunteer at a public mental hospital, which led to a career in psychiatry and medical ethics.

I believe that an anthropologist studying my affiliations would see the involvements with psychiatry and medical ethics as structurally similar to an involvement with religion. I consort with colleagues who share an outlook on the world, values, and a commitment to forms of action. There’s no theology, but it is a community of belief.

The New York Times article describes an initiative by 80 congregations to place more emphasis on values, community engagement, and social action, than on theology and ritual. The problem the congregations are trying to solve is family departure from the congregation as soon as the bar or bat mitzvah has been accomplished.

If I’m forced to define myself in terms of religion I identify myself as “a religiously-minded Jewish atheist.” In my clinical practice I found religious language natural to use – “that’s something to pray for,” “if it happens it will be a blessing,” “XYZ is your calling,” and more. When a patient with chronic schizophrenia asked me to remember him in my prayers I said I would, even though I don’t do anything a religiously observant person would call “prayer.” I felt that his request was for me to care deeply about him and his quest for well-being, and since I did, I felt it was truthful to say I would remember him in my prayers.

At the end of his life my father turned against all religions because he saw them as sources of hatred, slaughter and war. He was thinking of fundamentalist religion. In my view all “liberal religions” are comparably true and good, and all “fundamentalist religions” are comparably false and bad. As I examine the course of my adult life, it’s clear that the calling of medicine has been my version of liberal religion.