As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently read Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler. I mentioned before that I didn’t find it very convincing, and I will go into why in a bit. But first I want to mention what I did like. Jennifer Fulwiler is a great storyteller. The book was very easy to read and had a great flow to it. She is great at conveying emotion through her writing. And the writing itself was great. But, as great of a story as it was, it is not something that could ever could ever convince me that there must be a god. I’ll explain why as I go through some of the major points in the story.
Jennifer began her book by discussing her childhood growing up without religion. She talks about how she had two loving parents that supported her, and that she had a good childhood. I think all of that is great. But then she talks about how she decided that she was an atheist at the age of 11 after her camp leader at a secular summer camp tried to convert her to Christianity. While I feel bad that she was put through that at a camp that was meant to be open to everybody, I do not think that that is a good reason to become an atheist. I won’t say that she wasn’t an atheist, because she very clearly believed that there was no god, but I would not say that she had put any thought into her atheism. In fact, she only gave herself the title to elicit a reaction from others. To create an us vs. them paradigm. In case you’re wondering, she was the “them.” She also never took it any farther than that. She didn’t try to learn about Christianity, or any other religion. She didn’t try to discuss their beliefs with her friends to gain a better understanding of their positions, or to better understand her own. She never bothered to read up on atheism or learn any philosophy pertaining to the situation. In short, she was about as knowledgeable in her atheism as a Christian who never goes to church, never reads the Bible, and never thinks about their Christianity.
Jennifer then talks about an existential crises she had at 11 when she realized that she was one day going to die. As I had a similar crises at a similar age, I understand what that can be like. However, unlike Jennifer, I didn’t bury my fear, refuse to think about it, or let it control my life. I realised that my feelings were normal by talking to other people and (most importantly) reading books. Jennifer seemed to assume that nobody else ever had those types of experiences (an assumption that she makes numerous times) and she never bothers to try and understand them or talk to anyone. If she had, she’d realise that such feelings are a part of growing up. As a result of not dealing with her feelings, She mentions that her crises lasted well into her adulthood. She mentions that she tried to bury the existential crises by having fun and trying to be successful. This, again, is very silly. For one, burying emotions is never healthy, for another, she behaved very immaturely as a result. She avoided religion like the plague. She never bothered to educate herself about what religions are out there. She never bothered to learn about what people actually believed. And she still didn’t bother to learn about her own experiences or beliefs. Seriously, a few philosophy classes in college would have helper immensely. And, despite not knowing her own beliefs let alone the beliefs of others, she still felt entitled to sit around and criticise others for their beliefs. Seriously, at least know what you’re criticising before you criticise it.
She continues to avoid all things religious for years after finishing college. She had managed to achieve her success where her career is concerned (which is, for some reason, the only type of success that many people consider success), but she still hadn’t bothered to learn about religion. Even after she began dating a Christian, not only did she not learn about his beliefs, but she actively avoided learning about them. To my mind, that’s a first date conversation:
Me: So are you religious or spiritual at all?
Imaginary date: Yes, I’m a Christian.
Me: Oh, really? What denomination?
Imaginary date: Baptist.
Me: That’s interesting. May I ask your views on evolution?
Imaginary date: I’m a young earth creationist.
Me. I think it’s time for the bill.
However, given her boyfriend’s opinion of atheists, I can understand why Jennifer would keep it a secret. I don’t, however understand why she’d stay with him: her then boyfriend (now husband) antagonizes her about her not being a theist and says that she will one day see things his way. He mocks the idea of evolution (assuming that she accepted it, which it turned out she didn’t), then he told her that she’s rational and would one day see that there had to be a god. Seriously, who the hell would be such an asshole to someone they loved? We’re not talking about a 16 year old boy either. This is a 29ish year old man. The way he spoke to her was very much in an “I don’t respect you, you’re just a status symbol.”
Her husband continues his self-centred worldview by deciding to quit his job and start a business despite having a pregnant wife who will soon be unable to work. This, understandably, puts Jennifer in panic mode. But, despite it being a terrible time to drastically change lifestyles, her husband continues with his plans. Jennifer does support him, but, given that he quit before telling her, I can’t imagine her support was truly necessary. Jennifer even mentioned a few times that she felt like she was just along for the ride. So much for marriage being a partnership.
When Jennifer’s child is eventually born, she mentions having felt a lot of fear. She was terrified to let anybody hold her child, or to have her child away from her side. Basically, she felt like every other first time mother. However, Jennifer concluded that her fear could only be as a result of her atheism and the inevitability of death. This is very silly reasoning. Given her sleep deprived and stressed out state, I understand that her logic wasn’t really working that well, but she remained adamant that her feelings resulted from her atheism and the permanence of death, and not her new motherhood. She ends up concluding that god must exist. This really does not follow. For one, it assumes that only first time mothers who are atheists can experience these fears. For another, it assumes that god somehow changes how people feel about death. We may believe that different things happen after death, but both atheists and theists can fear death. As such, I don’t think this is a very good reason to suddenly assume that god must exist. Especially since this assumption apparently comes out of nowhere.
Throughout the first few months of her son’s life, Jennifer experiences extreme distress. Despite this, her husband continues to spend all his time working. Yes, they have a new business that requires a lot of work, but he is not really a father for months. This is something he really should have, and probably didn’t, consider before quitting his job.
As a result of her conclusion that god exists, Jennifer tentatively begins researching religion, beginning with Buddhism. I’m glad that she is finally bothering to learn about something as important to human society and interaction as religion, but this is something she should have done years ago. And her initially research is very much half-hearted. She never really considered Buddhism (probably because she had a very Westernised view of it) and she never really bothered to consider any other religion. In fact, she seemed to assume Christianity (something many people do in the west) the moment she assumed god must exist.
She eventually started a blog to talk about her changing beliefs. She even specifically picked people to follow her blog (something that seems quite dishonest to me) based on how much she agreed with their arguments. The fact that she began her blog and reached out to people is great, because it shows that she was finally thinking about religion. But I wonder how much deeper her understanding would have gotten if she had talked to a more diverse group and gotten more diverse answers. Yes, it would have increased her confusion, but she also would have thought about things in a more nuanced way. She ends up realizing that everybody that she had picked based on having decided that they were the most well versed were Catholics. I highly doubt this. It makes sense that they would mostly be Catholics: she was picking based on her assumption that Christianity was true, and most Christians are Catholics. But it is unlikely that she didn’t think that one or two protestants defended their beliefs well. After all, the types of people who start blogs and write about their beliefs tend to be quite well versed in their beliefs, and they can generally defend their beliefs well. Of course, there are people out there who don’t, but convincing arguments are not only made by Catholics. She initially brushes the Catholics off as crazy, but decides that they are right because her husband said they were. Seriously, she assumed they must be crazy for no other reason than because they are Catholic and then changes her mind because her husband is convinced by their arguments. This is another bad reason to accept a belief. She’s merely appealing to her husband’s authority.
Her husband eventually decides he’s pro-choice. Jennifer initially disagrees with him, but she doesn’t really know why. Or at least she says she didn’t. She eventually looks deeper into Catholicism and decides to follow every rule. She assumes that the Catholic Church must have a good, God-given reason to create those rules, so she decides to follow them all. She finally decides that being pro-choice is wrong as a result. And as a result of reading some court cases on the topic. But again, she never looks at the actual debate. She never tries to understand what the pro-choice (or pro-life) arguments are. She never tries to understand why a woman might choose to abort. And she never considers that the woman’s life isn’t the only life that is considered when people get late term abortions. Once again, her reasoning is very poor.
She ended up deciding that God let her uncle die horribly at the age of two because earth is full of nothing but suffering and there is no suffering in heaven. This is after feeling very angry for a while that God would allow a child so young to die. This seems to be a commonly accepted reasoning for accepting tragedy among Christians, and it shows that she was listening in church, but it is still poor reasoning. She never really looked into what different people had to say about it. She just went why, why, why, why, earth is terrible. This, again, is very black and white thinking.
She finds out she has a rare blood disorder during her second pregnancy and disregards her doctors suggestions because faith. She was told that her condition is very dangerous and can kill her, but she puts herself and her unborn child in danger because her religion tells her that contraception is bad. I can’t help but think that this is very stupid: if her church tells her that she should continue having children regardless of the consequences, that means that her church only values her for her ability to have children. But, I have to say, I was more angry with the American medical system at this point. Due to the privatization of medicine, Jennifer was looking at $10-20,000 for treatment. She was sent to a high-risk pregnancy centre so that she could have the baby safely. The lady who dealt with payment plans (a concept that is very foreign to me as a Canadian) told her that she had to pay $2000 up front for treatment. When Jennifer said she couldn’t afford it, the lady basically told her that she had no choice. She could either pay $2000 or she could go elsewhere (aka she could die). Wow. That is absolutely the most fucked up thing I have ever heard. $2000 is more important to the US medical system than a persons life. I am so fucking glad I live in Canada where my government doesn’t value my pocket book more than it values me. But how dare Obama try to make this kind of situation unheard of in the US (as it is in every other developed nation). How dare lives be put ahead of profit.
She ends up having four more children despite knowing that she was risking her life because faith. Again, to me this is very stupid.
As you can see, I do not think that Jennifer’s reasons for becoming a Catholic. If she is convinced, fine. But her reasoning was not very thoughtful. For me, I’d have to be reasoned into faith before I could accept it (something that Jennifer doesn’t really accept). But then, I’ve never ran from religion, or from learning new things. I never felt comfortable mocking things that I don’t understand. And I certainly don’t think about religion in shades of black and white.