My Fall From Faith

Updated: Jun 1



... I prayed today for the first time in a long time ...


From The Outside Looking In: Part 3

By Troy Shinn


When I was in elementary school, I remember getting upset at my math teacher, who was explaining how probability works.


A coin with two sides has a 50/50 probability of landing on either face, she explained. But I couldn’t wrap my brain around the purpose of quantifying something that was beyond human control.


“Isn’t it up to God to decide whether it’ll be heads or tails?” I asked. “How can anyone know?”


The teacher patiently explained that probability isn’t about saying that something will happen but rather how likely something is to happen.


Still, it was the first time I found my faith, or at least my understanding of it, challenged. It wasn’t like this shattered my concept of God or anything, but it was the first time I remember realizing that the knowledge that informed my faith could be challenged by other pursuits.


I was raised Catholic and, while I wouldn’t say my family is extremely religious (we didn’t pray before every meal, for instance), we did go to church often when I was younger.


There was only one Catholic church in our town, so on those many Sundays we went to mass we’d see the same people and do the same things. We’d go to the morning service, we’d eat our donuts in the mess hall afterwards and catch up with family friends. Then, there would often be short Bible study classes before we headed home and promptly returned to life as usual.


As is the case with any routine in life, my religion naturally shaped my understanding of how the world works and what was important. To use an art-related example, I remember being so proud as a kid that Catholics made some of the best and most iconic works of art in history -- from Ave Maria to the Sistine Chapel.


I wanted to connect with my faith the same way I studied in school. But the difference, I found, was that curiosity was far more welcome in school than in church.


Another anecdote, this time several years ahead of the coin flip lesson in math class:


I was in a Bible study group for middle school-aged children (I was probably in the sixth or seventh grade). Our teacher was explaining the story of Jonah, who, after disobeying God’s word, found his ship sunk to the bottom of the sea and he was swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah spent three days and nights in the creature’s belly before he agreed to God’s command to travel to Nineveh and warn the residents of His impending divine wrath.


This all seemed a little far-fetched to me -- living and breathing inside of a fish -- so I asked if this story actually happened the way it is recounted in the Bible.


The teacher scolded me for missing the point of the story: that questioning the Word of God is a sin and that, if I didn’t want to end up swallowed by a giant fish myself, I’d do well to heed the lesson that Jonah learned.


This didn’t sit well with me. Even as a kid I found it hard to believe that the miracles in the Bible were true. When the impossible happens in fairy tales we shrug it off as myth or fantasy, but when it’s written in this book we can’t question it?


I couldn’t abide by the idea that my religion couldn’t be studied and criticized. Because the more I looked into Catholicism, the less enchanted I became.


I asked my mom the same thing later that day and she surprised me with her answer: the stories in the Bible aren’t meant to be taken as historical fact. Rather, they are allegories with lessons from God that we are supposed to contemplate and live our lives according to.


It was something that I had an inkling of for years, that the point of the gospel is more important than the specifics. But my mom injected a bit more nuance than I had ever been exposed to before in matters of faith. I had flashbacks to my grade-school lesson in probability.


This, once again, changed my understanding of spirituality. It was no longer something that I should take as fact -- not on par with the academic pursuits I cherished in school. Religion, it seemed, was knowledge of the soul. School was knowledge of the world.


Not that this shook my faith entirely, mind you. I still attended Bible study. I’d already been baptized, had my First Communion, and studied for Confirmation -- all critical sacraments in Catholicism. I still liked the sense of community and the moral lessons that were offered every week in mass. And knowledge of the soul is important, too, after all.


But I still couldn’t abide by the idea that my religion couldn’t be studied and criticized. Because the more I looked into Catholicism, the less enchanted I became.


I learned about the Crusades: centuries of war and bloodshed to control a tiny stretch of land that eager conquerors never even set foot on themselves.


I learned about the Inquisition: an era of Church-sponsored capture and torture of Muslims and Moors to oust other so-called “heretics.” Is this how “The One, True Church” spread and upheld the Word of a loving and understanding God, I wondered?


Christian armies destroyed and ransacked religious artifacts and cultural treasures of Jews, Muslims, Turks, Armenians, and a host of other peoples. Even my love of Christian art was tainted by the knowledge that all of history was rigged to make European culture -- and therefore its religion -- look more important and divine.


These were all crimes of the past, people assured me. A church changes with its people.


But then, even though it was old news by the time my diocese of the Church really addressed it, I learned of the Catholic sex abuse scandal: A decades-old (if not centuries-old) practice of sheltering rapists and abusers in the clergy from facing justice for their crimes.


And it was that very mentality that my old Bible study teacher preached -- don’t question God or the Church -- that allowed all that corruption to fester and spread.


That… that wasn’t ancient history, was it? And we’re still seeing how many men of God helped cover it up and lie to the faithful about it. All across the nation, victims are filing lawsuits against clergy members and Catholic institutions for criminal or negligent conduct.


Just last year, lawsuits were filed against U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick by alleged victims in multiple dioceses that he served in. He became the first known Cardinal to be stripped of the cloth specifically due to the sexual abuse scandal, according to a Washington Post report last year.


That’s just one example in a host of lawsuits brought against priests and members of the hierarchy in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York and New Jersey.


The more I learned of my Church and its history, the more I began to see that the things carried out “in God’s name” were more in the interests of greedy men with too much power than any semblance of real divine will. The people who claimed to hear the Word of God were just as fallible and prone to sin as the rest of us, weren’t they?


And it was that very mentality that my old Bible study teacher preached -- don’t question God or the Church -- that allowed all that corruption to fester and spread.


I saw that mentality baked into the ritualistic and stuffy traditions of the Church, too. Things are done at mass the exact same way that they were done throughout the Church centuries ago. Things are not questioned. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the original sin in Eden was to ignore restriction and pursue knowledge.


All this made me appalled, not just with Catholicism but with the very idea of organized religion. However, I was so invested in the weekly activities of my church that I felt like I couldn’t totally abandon that part of my life.


By high school, I was attending church mostly as a way of staying up on volunteerism. I had dozens of hours of community service I had to complete to graduate with honors, and I had to volunteer in order to qualify for college scholarships offered through the Church, too.


So, church changed mostly into an avenue to achieve my goals and maintain my social circles. The sense of community I felt didn’t have to be tied to whether I believed in the teachings and practices of the Church, I thought. So, I continued to attend Bible study and I eventually went on a mission trip to Browning, Montana, to perform volunteer work on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.


It was there that I encountered the last straw for my participation in the Church.


The missionaries consisted of a few dozen of us high school-aged students and a group of adult supervisors, including our youth group leader. It was a week-long program to do work on schools and churches -- painting, weeding, fixing fences, that sort of thing.


We also learned about Blackfeet culture and attended lectures, including one from a Chieftain named Beware-Sleeping-Wolf. He recounted stories from Blackfeet elders about how their ancestors were sent to brutal conversion schools -- places where native children were beaten or punished for speaking anything other than English or praying to anything other than the Christian God.


While this all provided yet another example of how religion could be used for cultural genocide, the immediately disheartening part of the mission trip for me was in the behavior of my fellow volunteers -- my fellow Catholics. The ones I was closest to in the group spent most of the trip griping about having to do work or having to be away from their iPods and gaming consoles.


I was frustrated that people who claimed to want to be closer to God by doing good things in His name couldn’t look past themselves to just do what we traveled hundreds of miles to do.


We’re all still teens, I chalked it up to. They’ll see the value in time.


Then, embarrassingly, those same friends violated my privacy by reading the personal diary that I’d brought along to document the trip. I was away from my tent talking to the local priest when they took it out of my bag and read it.


I didn’t learn about any of this until the train ride back home, and only because one of them decided to fess up to it. Aside from the humiliating things that they may have found in the pages, I was mostly hurt by the fact that this act of selfishness robbed me of the last thing I liked about my church: the sense of community it gave me.


Here was a personal lesson in what Catholics had done so many times before: allow the trespassers to apologize publicly and then disregard the victims.


The mission leader, a counselor by trade, got wind of all this and tried to salvage the last few hours of the trip. She asked me what I needed.


“Time and space,” was my answer. I wouldn’t get it.


Instead, she placed us all in the same cramped train car so that the perpetrators could apologize to me. They cried, apologized and said they knew it was wrong when they did it. Dutifully, I accepted their apology -- despite not feeling ready to forgive just yet.


When other people found out, many of them (even some in my family) said that I shouldn’t have brought my diary along or left my bag open if I didn’t want it read. Here was a personal lesson in what Catholics had done so many times before: allow the trespassers to apologize publicly and then disregard the victims.


Of course, I don’t conflate my violation of privacy to the heinous acts that the Catholic Church has been responsible for. I know, too, that the selfish actions of a handful of teenagers is hardly the same as the Church itself wronging me. Nonetheless, I finally came around to feeling like I’d given enough of my time and energy to these people.


The whole episode reminded me of what I had seen time and time again: that religion was, for too many people, something to pledge faith to but not actually practice. It wasn’t questioned, so it could easily serve its purpose of making believers feel personally good without having to ever change.


I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. I lumped all organized religion into a category of “big, corrupt waste of money and space.” I needed time to analyze what it was, exactly, that I believed in if I was to become separate from “faith” as I’d come to know it.


Was I an atheist? It seemed equally arrogant to say that there wasn’t a God (or gods), even if it takes a form that is completely different from the way short-sighted humans imagine it. Maybe I didn’t believe in a God of fairytales and omnipotence, but that didn’t mean there isn’t proof in this world of a beautiful design to nature and its many laws.


Did that make me agnostic, then? I guess my stance pretty well aligns with the idea that no one can really know the nature of God -- whether one exists or not. Agnostics, like atheists, might say then that because it can’t be proven, faith is not worth pursuing.


Faith isn’t a club or a cult. It isn’t a robe or a hat. It isn’t a prophet or a Pope. It’s not about conversion or loyalty or tradition.


And there it was. The problem. I had this underlying idea, like many do, that belief is about the label we put on it and what rulebook comes with it.


Faith isn’t a club or a cult. It isn’t a robe or a hat. It isn’t a prophet or a Pope. It’s not about conversion or loyalty or tradition.


Faith is the personal journey we each go through to understand life and our place in it. It’s about stepping outside of ourselves and realizing that we are tiny little things that must make sense of our surroundings. It’s about the ways in which we connect to that goal, be it through acts of prayer or science or art.


I still think that most of the world’s religions too often lose sight of that vision. Not only is it human nature to be greedy and biased, but any system that groups people into “saved” or not -- us and them -- will be even more corrupted by political and personal agendas. I still think too few religious institutions, not just Catholic ones, are truly held to account for these failings.


I doubt I’ll go to church any time soon. I doubt my faith will ever overlap fully with any of the so-called “organized religions” of the world. But failing to find a label for it doesn’t mean that life should be lived without faith or that faith cannot do wonderful things.


I can’t shrug off the validity of an addict whose life was saved by their faith in a God who gave them strength to fight their sickness. I can’t look down on the people who wake early in their war-torn towns to clean rubble off of prayer mats so they can perform the Fajr. I can’t ignore the connection I feel in works of art that come from those expressing their own understanding of divinity.


And who’s to say that when one prays they must pray to the God of their ancestors -- the God they were taught, rather than the one that they found? Who’s to say that we can’t celebrate faith and still stand against corrupt religious leaders and systems? Who’s to say that true faith can’t come from any number of sources and cultures?


I prayed today for the first time in a long time.


I didn’t pray to a deity or a religious figurehead. I didn’t ask for anything or thank some higher power for giving me my life (though, being grateful and humble can be an act of prayer itself).


I simply bowed my head and admired for a moment that I find myself with life left to live -- and good things left to do with it.


To read other opinion pieces from Curbside staff, including the first two articles in this series, visit the Musings Page of curbsidepress.org.