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Spiritual Autobiography SPRING 2009

My spiritual biography is best summarized as a feeling of indifference and bewilderment

towards faith; an agnostic questioning combined with faith for the sake of faith itself- for faith’s

utility in the temporary life with a constant anxiety towards what will become of one’s collective

human conscience in the afterlife. My spiritual autobiography is essentially a conflict- a

competition between thoughts to be that which is considered right and whether such a though

necessarily be consciously considered true and believable. It is subconsciously repressed

because of the cognitive dissonance it causes- like the age old idea that if you ignore a problem it

might go away- but I will attempt to release it and verbalize it as best I can.

My spiritual life was heavily influenced starting at a very early age. I was born to devout

Coptic Orthodox parents with my mother being especially devoted to the faith and its system of

beliefs. Upon birth I was promptly baptized, and as I child I was confirmed to be a deacon/alter

server and serve in the celebration of the weekly mass. I was made to go to Sunday school on a

weekly basis, along with multi-day seminars, conferences, and conventions in various cities. It is

under this backdrop that I began questioning my faith and organized faith in general.

When coming to church I started to feel a sense of disdain. Good Friday masses could

easily lasted 13 hours straight and even Sunday masses lasted about four hours or more. I

remember one particular Sunday when the homily alone lasted three hours. Additionally, one

was expected not to eat or drink anything (including water) for 9 hours before communion.

Furthermore, much of the mass was in Coptic as per tradition. Thus, standing at mass for long

periods of time hearing words spoken in a language I was not very fluent in (though people were

expected to study it enough to become fluid in it, and preferable take Greek, Latin, and Aramaic
lessons with the priest, too) every single weekend began to become frustrating and irritating. It

was at that point that I began to openly question my faith.

I started by tearing apart each ritual and tradition questioning why it was there. As a

young Constitutionalist and Libertarian and asked, “Where exactly in the Bible does it say to do

this or what utility does doing this hold in light of what the Bible says?” I was annoyed by the

seemingly arbitrary nature of the religious rituals and further annoyed by the sense of out

datedness that the faith exerted. I did not like the double standard of women not being able to

serve on the alter and thought the whole notion of the transubstantiation- where in the Bible did

Jesus give just anyone who went to theology school and was ordained the power to turn bread

and wine into his body and blood?

I was perhaps most annoyed by the convenience with which religion explained away all

the happenings both on a micro and macro level in people’s lives, and how readily it changed and

adapted to a growing scientific body of knowledge when it was supposedly composed of ultimate

truths. Did someone may an unexplained recovery? It must have been a miracle. But did

someone just die? It was their time to go. Did someone horrible event happen to a group of

people and not to another? It was God testing just the first group. I felt that even though

religious authority claimed people could openly question their religions, the suppositions being

presented were inherently untestable and therefore unarguable and unreasonable- either you just

believed it or you did not since there is no way to tell fact from fiction. The argument that much

of religion is beyond human comprehension may or may not be true, but it certainly did not help

the situation.

I began listing all the things in the Bible which I saw the faith as taking too literally and

supported my points with sections in the Bible that would seem to contradict if not taken quite
figuratively and with a liberal mindset. My mom took the idea that I should stop questioning my

faith or else I would go to Hell and my priest just explained the fact that they are done by

tradition, not from the inspired word of God, but rather just their symbolism (an argument I

found counterintuitive since most people did not even know the symbolism behind all the

motions in the mass). Needless to say, I was not satisfied with the response I got.

At the same time this was happening I was attending a Catholic grade school. For a

while, Catholicism seemed like a good alternative to my faith. The masses were brief and in

English, the systems of belief were not at extreme, and the central ideology of Jesus being the

Son of God who died for our salvation, etc. was the same. So I soon took my questions to the

priests and nuns of the school (it was served by three priests). I got more agreeable answers in

that the less conservative nature of Catholicism allowed for more liberal translations of Bible

passages that could be better adapted to one’s life, but I still did not feel that the responses were

satisfactory. They sounded more like pre-rehearsed lines that sounded good rather than genuine

internal reflection on the meaning of life.

Furthermore, it seemed like that the principles of Catholicism were being bent by each

priest to his own personal needs, and this lack of consensus and unity put me off from the faith-

how can you say you hold truth and have made correct interpretations of the Bible when you

can’t even agree on interpretations between your fellow clergymen? One example of this when it

related to a real event was when someone wrote graffiti on the men’s room stall. The vice

principle gave all the boys of the 7th grade detention because she didn’t know who did it and

wanted to guarantee that person got detention. The only problem was that about half the class

was on a field trip at the time, and they couldn’t have done it, but she gave them detention

anyway “to be fair” (though I don’t know how fair it is to punish everyone for what a single
person did). This brought up the idea of the justifiability of collective punishment according to

Catholicism. I used many points in New Testament scripture to argue that it was not justified

within Catholicism (ex. the Rapture and the notion of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory). One priest

agreed (the one who didn’t like the vice principle) while the other one disagreed and used stories

of God’s collectively-punishing/sometimes unreasonable wrath (ex. Babylon) to support

collective punishment (the one who liked the vice principle). So is collective punishment

admissible according to Catholicism? According to the answers I got it depends on the priest or

even maybe if the priest likes the punisher.

As a result of these experiences, and the failure of the two religions to satisfy my logical

self, I began a faith of great disdain towards organized religion to the point of developing a bias

within myself. I still thought that most religion people were really nice and it’s a perfectly

normal choice to believe in religion, but I began to see some problems that I perceived religion

as causing. I looked to Christianity’s history and began to see abuses of power and alterior

motives of church leaders. For example, I saw Middle Ages Catholicism as a scheme to control

the serfs and keep them from rebelling by convincing them they would go to hell if they rebelled,

and a way for church leaders to gain vast amounts of wealth while living as hypocrites and

yielding considerable power in the political arena. I saw how even today countries that fail to

have separation of Church and State can have a religiously-influence government that can

discriminate against minority religions (ex. Christianity in Saudi Arabia).

Looking deeper, I asked why the religious vastly outnumber the non-religious. I then

took an extremely cynical view that modern religion brainwashes its followers and teaches them

how to brainwash others in order to keep the religion going. I saw religion as a virus that had to

keep on infecting other hosts. Infectious agents abounded, from pamphlets being distributed that
say how you should live your life and what you should believe in to the many hours of TV and

radio shows (including ones my parents watch) that feed propaganda directly into the homes of

millions. I saw religion capitalizing almost instantly on any technologies that would help it

spread its words and infect the minds of others (ex. podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, and Digg). I

equated sermons and homilies that galvanized believers to the rallies in Nazi Germany that

brainwashed people into attitudes of hate and racism (though most religions’ intentions are much

more admirable according to our fundamental sense of right or wrong). I was missionaries as

spores that traveled to new territories to spring up new colonies of faithful followers. Any

religion that failed to infect enough new converts would die off and different religions would

adapts or produce spinoffs to fill in that niche.

One prime example of my contempt of organized religion came when I was in the eighth

grade was the attack on the World Trade Center. I saw it not so much as an attack on America as

a primary target, but an attack on America as a secondary target for helping Israel. This brought

into light the conflict in the Middle East. Granted, most of the people in Israel and in the

surrounding Muslim states are moderate, docile, and perfectly capable of living with each other

in peace and with mutual respect for one another. But it only took a handful of extremists to

execute the attack on American and it does not take many to create a sense of hate and violence

in the region. Likewise, I believe some of the Zionists in the Israeli government are somewhat

extreme in how they are handling the situation and the settlement of the West Bank.

This tense political situation led me to essentially blame religion. What if both the Arab

nations and the Israeli nations were of the same religion and ethnic background, or even the

world all had one religion and heritage (or possibly no religion)? Numerous conflicts from the

one taking place today to the Crusades to the A.D. 634+ Islamic Conquests could have likely
been avoided. If everyone in times of the Old Testament was Jewish there would be no other

heretical pagan cities for God to destroy and everyone would be the chosen people. In most

situations where people fight thought the world, the opposing forces are of different religions or

ethnic groups. When people believe they are fighting for the sake of God or other element of

religion, entities which are irrational by nature, the ability to reason and resolve conflicts is

inherently hindered (ex. How can you reason with a suicide bomber who firmly believes God

wants him to take as many lives as possible for a heavenly reward?) Therefore I came to the

fearful conclusion that religion has been one of the deadliest human elements throughout history.

Eventually, when I was in high school, my irrational bias against religion subsided. I

realized that just as cliques form in elementary school classes, people will almost always

congregate into separate groups based on differing ideologies and in turn blame other groups

when things don’t go well just to protect their own egos. The corruption of religion is sourced in

basic human instincts. There will always be an in and out group. Some biologists might say that

we evolved this characteristic so that those of us with more similar genomes can outcompete

those with less similar (assuming we have more desirable genes that boos survivability) genomes

that thereby increase our fitness- relative genetic contribution to the next generation of people.

While I think this seems a bit farfetched, what is obvious is that we are competitive by nature.

This competition is overall helpful by driving progress (ex. technologies that came from the

USA-Soviet Union space race, businesses trying to do things better and more efficiently than

rivals, students studying harder in competition for graduate school placements, etc.), but when

mixed in with religion it can lead to some of the conflicts we see today.

Furthermore, one needs to acknowledge all the good that religion has done and continues

to do all around us. I held (and continue to hold) the belief that for many people religion has
excellent utility and serves vital functions that would be way beyond what it would do if religion

was simply a fairytale, like some atheists profess. Ever since pre-history, religion has existed in

various forms. People formed and debated beliefs about the divine well before written language

and modern societies (ex. the Tsodilo Hills of Batswana contain religious artifacts that date back

70,000 years). Religions have developed independently for each other in many cultures

throughout the world, and these religions have a surprising degree of similarity (ex. belief in the

afterlife, a superior being, the ability to communicate w/deities through prayer or ritual, etc.).

Clearly, the emergence and persistence of religion is a testament to the benefits of religion for

society (though some might argue it’s an evolutionary byproduct and not an adaptation and

others might argue that is no longer holds as much utility as it did in ancient times, like tonsils,

but I would argue the fact that it continues to grow and evolve). Considering the many resources

religion can use up in various cultures (ex. building pyramids/cathedrals, not doing anything

productive on the Sabbath, sacrificing humans, etc.), the benefit of religion must be considerable.

Either that or it is a very strong offshoot of the cognitive structures we have evolved.

There are many theories that try to explain this. I could easily go on for another 30 pages

of what I specifically believe under the umbrella of evolutionary cognitive psychology. One

could consider central themes like good versus bad (as in good or bad for your survival, ex.

kosher laws restricting food that could have been especially risky in ancient times) or regulating

emotions like sadness or revenge. But in the interest of preserving a central focus, I will bypass

such narrative. It is here, though, where I find comfort, where I see the cross roads of religion

and reason. And it was through email discussions with professors who do research in this area

that I have met traveling to their lectures that I finally found somewhat satiable answers to some

of my quandaries related to religion.


But there is one factor that upsets me even though I find some comfort in the suggested

psychological and biological biases for religion. It is a recognition of myself as a mortal being

with an infinitely limited cognition. Bacteria can’t begin to comprehend us so how can we even

think we would be able to comprehend a higher being if it existed. Looking back through

history, even Orville Right probably was surprised he was able to help invent a flying machine,

let alone imagine he would live to see supersonic flight. Therefore, I find that a large part of my

religion is a belief of the fact that I know almost nothing, and thus agnosticism plays a large role

in what I believe.

On a more emotional, rather than intellectual, level, I wish I could whole-heartedly

believe in a religion. I think it is beautiful how religion can bring together people from all parts

of the world. As a Christian, I have traveled half-way across the world to most countries and

instantly have something in common with a person I never met before just by seeing them

wearing a cross and I can even go on to celebrate mass with them that very day. Religion can

provide comfort to people when a loved one dies through a funeral and the belief the loved one is

in heaven and everyone will eventually be reunited when they die, as I have seen it do for my

father when his parents died (when I was ten). It can help a couple profess their love for one

another through marriage at a ceremony with the rest of the religious community, as I have had

the joy of seeing at many friends’ weddings. When someone feels desperate or hopeless, prayer

to God can create a sense of hope that God will help to fix whatever is wrong. This is the case in

nearly every tragedy or crisis I have seen a religious person face. Personally, I have seen it with

family members and their sick loved ones nearly every day I have volunteered in a hospital. I

cannot imagine the anguish they would face if they did not have that outlet of prayer to rely

upon. And the idea that God works in subtle and mysterious ways towards an ultimate good will
ensure that the faithful don’t create unreasonable expectations of overtly manifested divine

interventions or a reliance on God to do everything.

Ultimately, when volunteering at a soup kitchen one day, I realized that a belief in

Christianity would allow me to find a uniting factor in all the good in life and thus begin to give

it meaning as part of a path to an even greater good in the afterlife. I find that it is love that gives

life its meaning (or maybe the feeling we equate with love due to the limbic system causing the

release dopamine synthesized in the ventral tegmental area). When people feel no longer loved

by anyone, they turn depressed (though most of the time it’s their mistaken belief that no one

loves them which leads to depression) and may eventually commit suicide. For me, I see

religion’s greatest function is to create more love from one’s everyday life, and enable one to

spread more love to those around him. It is for these reasons that even though I believe religion

may be somewhat arbitrary and may or may not be true that I still want to believe in it. My faith

is still not strong enough for me to wreak the benefits that religion may bring, but I do pray that

one day I may have a core faith without regard to our worldly desires to justify what we believe

with logic or reason. So my spiritual autobiography is best summarized as a loss of faith and a

desire to get it back.

Reflection

My spiritual autobiography created in me a greater connection between my struggle to

find faith as an emotional function and my attempt to justify it as an executive thinking function.

It caused me to reflect on some of the influencing events within my life again, and become

reconnected with my past. This gave me an opportunity better incorporate what happened in the

past to what I may believe in the future. One thing that stuck me is the parallel to the apostasy

process described in the McKnight and Ondrey’s Finding Faith, Losing Faith. My
autobiography related well to the “Leaving Church, Finding Freedom” chapter but does not

particularly coincide with the conversion process or the following chapters regarding the

conversion of Jews, Catholics, or Evangelicals.

Perhaps the quote statement I found that best describes my initial loss of faith is when

McKnight says, “…those who leave the faith discover a profound, deep-seated and existentially

unnerving intellectual incoherence to the Christian faith. The faith…simply no longer makes

sense.(15)” The process of conversion is described in the book as six steps. First there is the

context. For me this was being surrounded by devout Christians who did not question their faith

very much (at least not openly) but were mostly liberal enough to find Christianity to be a “good

way to God, but not the only way to God (34)”. This context caused me to begin questioning

faith and not finding answers, just as John Loftus had gained a substantial degree of education in

the subject but eventually came upon questions he couldn’t answer. I also distress at the major

role that others have had in creating traditions and shaping/modifying/selectively editing the

scriptures that make up the modern bible. These formed the basis of the second step on

conversion, the crisis.

My quest was in seeking rational thought that didn’t evoke a strong cognitive dissonance.

As McKnight wisely stated, “The fundamental crisis of those who leave the faith revolves

around intellectual cognitive incoherence.” One major influence on my life that shaped my quest

was (and still is) a long bout of clinical depression (along with a few other secondary disorders).

Throughout my entire conversion process, this followed me like a shadow. It created in me

indifference and a lack of motivation to find faith. It caused me to wonder what good any faith

was and to hate my life, just coasting along until it ended. But it did lead me to have an
encounter, one that created a commitment and consequences but did not fill the void I had and

thus was secondary to the quest I am still on.

Science and psychology (ex. SSRI’s & therapies) helped create in me a new joy that

religion claimed to be able to do but failed to bring about. I began to look at religion as an age

old device instilled within us to serve as a therapeutic cure-all for any psychological needs we

may develop. I saw modern therapies as having displaced religion in this regard, as while they

did not work as well as I had hoped, they did make a big difference. The commitment came in

what I have chosen to pursue as a career, currently a BIO/PSY major with a Neuroscience minor

hoping to go on to Psychiatry. But eventually I realized that the scope of science is much more

limited than that of religion, and science can only augment religion as a source of truth.

Eventually I did reach a conclusion similar to Dan Barker’s that, “the truths of religion are

unknowable through evidence and reason.” I thought that would end my quest at agnosticism,

but a desire to gain what Christianity has to offer has left me with a yearning to regain faith and a

hope that I eventually will. I am essentially waiting for another crisis. This process turned out to

be spot on with the anatomy of apostasy McKnight presented in the first chapter. But

considering I still have not reached the crisis phase, the following chapters in the book seemed

much less related.

In writing this reflection I also saw a deep contrast between my story and some of the

other stories throughout the course. One story that my autobiography somewhat parallels is that

presented in the Confessions of St. Augustine. Both Augustine and the presentation of myself

had pious Christian families. Both lived as young men seeking out higher truths- the event

serving as the crisis. Augustine did express much more guilt over some of his sins during that

period, though. Augustine thought he found truth in Manichean doctrine and I thought I found
truth in cognitive neurosciences. But the stories diverge somewhat from there. Augustine was

brought to Christianity by Bishop Ambrose (the encounter). He found solutions to his intellectual

reservations about Christianity in some of the Neo-Platonist readings, and considered

Christianity the truth he sought and there by commitment as a Bishop eventually followed. He

seemed obsessed with the salvation of one’s soul- beckoning to the fear of Hell some say is used

by Christians as a control tool. But I still have not found any truth and made such commitments

with such consequences on my life.

There were some stories that were read in class that my autobiography did not parallel in

any way. For example, Ignatius of Loyola lived a very dramatic and extreme life with major

physical expenditures involved in his faith. He was born to nobility and became a solider

somewhat concerned with worldly vanity, only to be hit by a cannon ball and then strengthen his

faith in the months he spent recovering. I had no such extreme crisis and no strong aspirations

for the future. Furthermore, I never saw visions of divine being as he believed he did. His shift

to a more extreme version of Christianity as a “Solider of Jesus/God” entailed starving himself

along with other forms of flagellation, near suicide, giving up all his possessions/living off alms,

facing the Spanish inquisition, and eventually starting the Jesuit order. His story is mostly that of

commitment and consequences, and I have not reached this point yet.

The stories of Vera Brittain and John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiographies are also quite

different from that of my own. Brittain’s Testament of Youth is a very verbose work that only

covers her story until 1925. It seems to focus heavily on a very tragic central crisis- World War I

and her involvement as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse. Death is a common crisis, but in the

war Vera loses multiple loved ones including her brother Edward (with whom she grew up in a

relatively privileged household) and the fiancé Roland. These seem to create for her an
emotional urgency to strengthen her faith and in the process she is empowered to become a

major figure in the pacifist movement. Unlike her, I did not have such a devastating experience.

Additionally, the details and outpouring of emotion portrayed in her work seems to indicate it

served as much a purpose as therapy for her as it did to publicize her story.

Bunyan’s autobiography similarly conveyed a sense from the tension of the writer.

Bunyan grew up in a poor family and was somewhat extreme in its crisis too, except his crisis

was one that he created in his head. His spiritual autobiography is best referred to as an escape

from a guilt trip he inflicts on his self. His contextual sins were nothing more than common acts

like swearing and at one point he believes a divine voice asked him to pick between his sins and

heaven. He also spends a lot of time worrying about the unforgivable “eternal sin” he might be

carrying. He eventually reaches a resolution in that he can be saved, becomes a Baptist preacher,

and holds onto his faith strongly despite multiple imprisonments. My autobiography lacks such

a guilt element and the resolution, let alone a resolution tried by multiple trips to jail.

The story of Edmund Gosse’s autobiography is somewhat relatable to mine. He was also

brought up by very religious parents- fundamentalist Evangelicals and had to struggle somewhat

to reconcile faith with science. And the style of his writing was much more down to Earth. I did

not, though, have to take care of my mother dying an untimely death and did not face high

expectations from my parents concerning the occupation of a leadership role in my church

(especially since my father was not a minister) long with a somewhat devoid and isolated

childhood. Furthermore, the central focus of Father and Son is just that- the relationship

between him and his father. He ends up rejecting his father’s fundamentalism and thereby

distancing himself from his father, whereby I did not have to create such a divide between myself

and my loved ones to find independence


Overall, I found Spiritual Autobiography to be a statement of the development of my

spiritual beliefs throughout my life and a reflection of how various cultural and historical events

have played a role in that development. While my ideas have not changed because of this work,

it allowed me practice in self-reflection and introspection that will benefit the my reasoning and

thinking process in the future as my spiritual Autobiography develops.

Bibliography

Augustine (Trans. Henry Chadwick. ). Confessions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. Macmillan Company: New York, 1933.

Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Penguin Putnam: New York, 2002.

Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son: A study of two temperaments. Project Gutenberg: Nov, 2004.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The Autobiography of St. Ignatius. Project Gutenberg: Feb, 2008.