Are you a member of the faith community—or the doubting community?

Because every other year or so I teach the Bible as literature course at my college, I was asked to be on a panel discussing how to deal with religion in the classroom. The event was held last night and one of the instructors wanted to know how I might respond to a student who asked me point-blank about my religious orientation.

I said that I would not dodge the question, but answer directly:

I am not part of any particular faith community, but I am a member of the doubting community, and it’s a rich tradition that—to echo Christopher Hitchens—goes back in Western culture to Socrates, and includes Spinoza, Voltaire, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and Emily Dickinson.

I said that I thought that atheists and agnostics shouldn’t be in the closet about their orientation toward religion: just as there is a gay liberation movement, there must be a doubt liberation movement as well (and, of course, there is), and I’m a part of it.

And I didn’t mention it at the panel, but any student curious about my ideas concerning religion would have little difficulty finding my blog. It’s not like I’m a person who hides. I think that the moment people hide from one another, communication and dialogue break down. And if going to a liberal arts college in a democracy means anything, it’s about getting ourselves, in all our diversity, out on the table—instructor and student alike—and in a spirit of equality, having a human conversation.

And so, as opposed to just saying I’m an agnostic, I prefer calling myself a member of the doubting community. I think that the term agnostic  implies community isolation—as if I don’t quite fit in anywhere—and so it functions to separate me from the broader cultural tradition and commonalities that I, in fact, share with atheists, deists, and liberal theists. I also think that, by designating myself as a member of the doubting community—as opposed to one of its factions—that it gives the position heft against those asserting themselves—as a cultural bloc—as members of the faith community. Shelley was an atheist and Benjamin Franklin was a deist, but they belong to me. And even the doubting Jesus of the Gospel of Mark belongs to me. Mark, afterall, was the first gospel written, and so why should those who profess faith imagine that they own Jesus? In Mark, Jesus is a doubter: on the cross he is a member of the doubting community. The doubting community, as I say, has a rich tradition.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Are you a member of the faith community—or the doubting community?

  1. aneuendorf says:

    Hello, love the blog. Great title too. I’ll come back and check you out.

    I’ve also taught sections of the Bible in literature course, but no one has asked the dreaded question. Not sure really how to formulate my response to that. I used to teach in Texas, where non-belief still gets you drawn and quartered.

    Anyway, I think of the people you list, only Voltaire, Hume, and Paine could be said to be non-believers or atheist. The others all had non-conventional religious belief structures. Socrates, at least according to Plato, believed in immortality, the afterlife, and the voice of some kind of god of oracle speaking to him. Dickinson stopped going to church but her poems are filled with mystical themes. Thoreau took the Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden (the only book he took) and seems to have been some kind of spiritualist. Lincoln of course often spoke of the Civil War in terms of God’s work, though this could have been typical presidential politicking. In any event, the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy seems to think he developed some form of Christian faith later in his presidency.

    It seems to me there are three groups: the conventionally religious, the non-religious, and the kind of smooshy middle group who might check “spiritual, not religious” on a religion survey. It is this group, I think, that constitutes a wide swath of writers, artists, and philosophers.

    I am not part of any particular faith community, but I am a member of the doubting community, and it’s a rich tradition that—to echo Christopher Hitchens—goes back in Western culture to Socrates, and includes Spinoza, Voltaire, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and Emily Dickinson.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Aneuendorf:

    I’m glad to hear that you are a proud member of the doubting community. I teach in California, and so it might be a little easier to be “out” than in Texas.

    As for Thoreau, I don’t think that reading the Gita metaphorically and as literature (as I suppose that Thoreau did) especially disqualifies him from being a full fledged member of the doubting tradition. And Thoreau is blistering in his critique of fundametalist Christian narrowness. And in his journal (Aug 13, 1838) Thoreau, sounding like Socrates, said this: “Men are constantly dinging in my ears their fair theories and plausible solutions of the universe, but ever there is no help, and I return again to my shoreless, islandless ocean, and fathom unceasingly for a bottom that will hold an anchor, that will not drag.”

    And as for Lincoln and Dickinson, I think that they show signs of a great deal of emotional complication in their relation to religion—I agree with you there—but it’s also hard for me to characterize either of them as being anything other than exemplary pilgrims on the path of human doubt, and not people of anything like conventional faith. See these two links for support of my claim:

    https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/abraham-lincoln-atheist-and-darwinist/

    And:

    https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/was-emily-dickinson-an-atheist/

    —Santi

  3. noreligion says:

    Santi,

    I suppose a few sections are literature like Psalms and some of the prophets but how can most of the Old Testament such as Ezekiel 23 be taught as literature? For that matter what parts of the New Testament are literary?

    • concerned christian says:

      Using allegorical interpretation, Ezekiel 23 is not different from many works that is considered great modern literature. Since the works of Philo of Alexandria, many have used allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. Origen’s work is a great example of early Christian approach to reading the Old Testament, and St. Augustine discuss many of the Old Testament questions in his writings. As for the question of faith, I would rather define faith in terms of actions not beliefs. It is more important to me how a person acts on his faith than what is his faith. In this regard there are some in the doubting community that I wish they are in the faith community, and also there are some who proclaim to be solid believers that I can not honestly defend their actions. Here are Wiki links to relevant subjects on allegorical interpretation of the Bible.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretation
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origen
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo

  4. santitafarella says:

    Noreligion:

    For the Hebrew Bible, I’d direct you to the books of Robert Alter of Berkeley as examples of what you can do with the study of the Bible strictly as literature. Here’s one of his books:

    http://www.amazon.com/Art-Biblical-Poetry-Robert-Alter/dp/0465004318/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270187326&sr=8-7

    With regard to the New Testament, there is not just literature (like the Gospel of Mark and Revelation), but rich veins for reflection on rhetoric. In other words, where literary discussion seems not quite right, rhetorical study is appropriate—and English, as a discipline, is concerned with both.

    For an example of literary reading of the New Testament, see here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Homeric-Epics-Gospel-Mark/dp/0300080123/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270187655&sr=8-11

    —Santi

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