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Joseph Rauch Headshot

The Illusion of Religious Choice

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I used to be very smug about my atheism. I thought it was my naturally strong self-determination and spirit of non-conformism that led me to become an atheist. However, as I spoke with dozens of other atheists in person over the years, I realized I was mostly wrong and that we generally had one thing in common: our families did not frequently speak about religion in front of us and did not make us or even strongly suggest we partake in any spiritual/religious activities or beliefs. They didn't tell us or order us to be atheists -- they didn't take us to church or read us substantial amounts of religious literature; they didn't tell us there was a God; and they didn't tell us there wasn't a God. We learned morals but were blank slates as far as spirituality was concerned. Thus, we had more consciousness about our religious choices and it seemed that we all had more of a disposition to atheism than anything else. I do not think raising a child without religious values bears more merit than raising a child with religious values, but the development is certainly worth looking into.

I'll begin by mentioning renowned existential psychologist Rollo May's ideas of ontological anxiety, shrinking of consciousness and ontological guilt, and then I will apply these ideas to religious development for Christians vs. atheists.

Ontological anxiety is the anxiety created after realizing the overwhelming number of choices one can make as a free individual. Most people choose the path of least resistance and allow the choice to be made for them by their parents or other social pressures. Thus, shrinking of consciousness occurs, as a simple way to relieve the ontological anxiety is to eliminate the vast number of choices. I believe the majority of people who label themselves as Christians do so during their childhood because it is comfortable and easy for them to conform to their family's atmosphere, not because they have any sort of intrinsically strong faith or spirituality. In contrast, children with parents who do not offer a clear path of least resistance must deal with ontological anxiety as an individual. They are forced to pick through many choices and understand their choices more as a result. Thus, shrinking of consciousness does not occur to such a high degree and their more conscious choice is usually atheism (those who never overcome the issue of ontological anxiety are agnostic, as they do not make a choice).

Once one becomes old enough to have a perspective on one's choices, ontological guilt is created from looking back and wondering whether or not the choices one made were truly his or her own. I believe this guilt is generally not strong enough for people to reconstitute their beliefs and religious identity. People who label themselves as Christians during childhood grow up, but by the time they become mature enough to question their faith, it just does not seem worth it. They have already become complacent in a sense of community, family and identity. Ultimately, labeling themselves as part of a religious community while rejecting the parts of their faith's philosophy that do not suit them is easier than asking tough questions as to what they really believe and removing the label altogether.

I thought of this issue while following Obama's proposed mandate to have religious organizations make contraception available to women as part of their health care. Prominent members of the Catholic community were outraged even though a myriad of polls show that roughly 98 percent of Catholic women currently use contraception. Thus, the mandate would not actually produce much change even if it did force women to use contraception as opponents falsely claim. I realize that one can call him or herself Catholic without subscribing to every single tenet of the faith. However, contraception is a pretty important tenet and it seems that if one really wanted to be devoted to Catholicism or had any sort of disposition for choosing it, that person would follow the rule of not using contraception. I believe the stark contrast between the number of Catholic women that use contraception and the number that don't supports my theory that the vast majority of Americans do not have a disposition toward choosing to be faithful and are victims of ontological anxiety.

When I think of the 98 percent of these Catholic women, I wonder if they would have chosen to be atheists if their parents had not religiously influenced them. I wonder if Christianity would dominate our country for another century if the majority of American children were raised as blank slates regarding religion and if they had a real choice rather than the illusion of choice.