Scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins is challenged on whether religion is a force for good or evil in the world.
The sofa was a murky green and too soft. Across from it was a mantel with several statues – figures of saints whose stories I had learned: Joseph the Carpenter; St Francis, the protector of animals. On the wall was a large portrait of Christ, his head crowned with thorns, his eyes pleading. On the other wall was an equally big photograph of my Great Uncle Elias, a priest.
I was sitting beside my father, initiating the most fearful conversation of my life.
He accepted my invitation to talk – a rarity as we had never spoken one-to-one. We were an old-fashioned, “children should be seen and not heard” kind of a family. Communication went in two directions: parent to child and child to child.
I was 16, a junior in high school, and had been raised as a devout Catholic. My elementary education was guided by nuns in a Roman Catholic School; in my high-school years, I attended Catholic Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes in the basement of our church hall. I had belonged to the Sodality for the Virgin Mary, went to church daily and sang in the choir.
But it had to stop.
The shame of participating, of feeling like a hypocrite, became more than I could bear. I couldn’t fake it any more. It was too important to my parents and too critical for me.
I could feel myself sinking deeper into the sofa cushions.
My father sat beside me, we turned to face each other, and I began.
“Daddy, I respect your choice of religion, and the values that you have given me. But Daddy, I don’t want to go to CCD classes any more. The information is repetitive, it has nothing to say to me. I am not sure I believe in all this. I feel like a hypocrite since it’s not coming from my heart.”
I had rehearsed the speech, over and over, and the anticipated responses ranged from him yelling in rage to him banishing me from the family.
The bride of Christ
He couldn’t have missed the irony of this. The daughter making the announcement was the very daughter who had been picked to be the nun. To them it was a prized selection – I was to be the one they would make the bride of Christ.
This choice was revealed to me one Christmas when three strange boxes appeared beneath the tree. Our presents were always from my father’s store, so were always wrapped in the same easily recognisable paper with poinsettias on it. They were familiar gifts: socks, underwear, pyjamas, a nice sweater and, every once in a while, a small piece of jewellery – all things that my father and mother sold.
But these three boxes were oddly shaped, narrow and long. “What could fit in there?” I wondered. Nothing in the store was that shape.
We were mystified, waiting on the edges of our seats while my father reached for every gift but those. Finally, after all of the other presents had been distributed, Father knelt to withdraw the first box. It was tied with a blue ribbon.
“Selma,” he called. My older, nine-year-old sister sat cross-legged and gently peeled the paper from the present. She placed it on the floor, lifted the lid, and opened the tissue paper like a curtain. Housed inside was a beautiful doll. Selma lifted her up. She was dressed like a bride, in a long fluffy wedding gown and with her blonde hair covered in a net veil.
The youngest of the three of us sisters was next. Father handed Geralyn her box. She pulled at the red ribbon, yanked off the lid and snatched at her doll. She held a bride too – a brunette with chestnut eyes and a small pearl necklace around her collar.
I was seven and had no choice but to accept the fate that this gift implied. I would be the nun.
One box remained – the one with the green bow. My bride, I hoped. A redhead, maybe. I waited without saying a word. My father handed me the box. My sisters held their dolls as I lifted the lid. They were smiling, watching my every move. I slipped my hand beneath the tissue and stared for a moment. My breath stopped. My chest hardened. A doll lay in the filmy blanket just like the others. Its brown eyes followed me as I looked towards my mother. She smiled.
“Show everyone,” she said.
I pulled her out. As she rose, her black veil brushed my knuckles. My doll was a nun – her face tightly wrapped in a white habit, her body covered with layers of black robes, a rosary encircling her waist.
Mother reached towards me. “You know this doll’s not for playing,” she said, taking it away. “We’re going to put her over here.” Removing the ashtray from the table under the window, she arranged the nun doll in the centre. “That looks nice. She can inspire you.”
I was seven and had no choice but to accept the fate that this gift implied. I would be a nun.
Losing my religion
Indentured to the identity, I worked in the convent at our school, running errands for Sister La Salle and Sister Henry, and learned all the commandments, the liturgy, the acts of charity, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I could sing in Latin and in English.
But, nine years later, I chose to shatter my parents’ hearts and announce to my father that I had not only forsaken the path of becoming a nun, but I was also not going to church and Catholic Doctrine classes any more.
He asked me what had happened to make me lose my Faith. The question perplexed me, although I knew what he meant. In almost all contexts, Faith is associated with religion. Having Faith means believing in God.
The relationship between faith as an idea and belief in a God ties us up theoretically and linguistically.
Each reference to faith, no matter how secular, includes a reference to God or religion. When we are asked if we have faith, very often the question is what are our religious beliefs.
The official profile of the word faith is dominated by Faith with an upper-case ‘F’. That upper-case F points to a divine power, to an organised religion, to principles shared with others in that community.
Without Faith, then what?
I didn’t know how to answer my father’s question.
All I knew was that my brothers went to college and came home with stacks of books that were stored in the library on the sun porch. Those bookcases housed the Great Books – a set of Western classics that included works by Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle. On the next shelf was the series called the History of Philosophy by Will and Muriel Durant. Further down were novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, and DH Lawrence. I feasted on them: on Nietzsche, on Kant, on Anais Nin. The ideas of nihilism, existentialism, surrealism, and transcendentalism became my fixation.
What I found more interesting, more compelling and more inspirational than Faith, that Catholic Christian Doctrine and the years of dogma, was inquiry.
In those days and the years that followed, I lived by a simple quote written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his book, Letters to a Young Poet: “Live the questions now“, he tells his correspondent. I took that as my personal charge – to live the questions, whatever they were and however they presented themselves – to not be concerned with answers, or religion, or the Faith that was so much a part of my upbringing.
I was choosing faith with the lower-case ‘f’ – the faith that suspends one in an ether that has no answers.
An act of faith
What is a larger act of faith than to liberate one’s self, living with no doctrine to follow, without an adjudicated set of principles, or a leader that gives one security?
To rely on the discovery of ideas, a synthesis of philosophies, a creation of a belief system based on everything from a Rumi poem to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein?
To always live the question – to understanding that faith has a flexibility that is remarkably adaptive to the challenges of life, from love to death.
While many religions encourage questioning and studying, the hope is that the believer will harden their relationship with the religion rather than erode it.
In every case, the big ‘F’ Faith dominates, even in the intimate reflections of the believer. The Faith of the doctrine knows it will survive the believer’s questions.
What the little ‘f’ is all about
As part of my Fulbright Fellowship to Egypt, I was asked to identify my religion. My answer was none. A cultural adviser recommended that I should behave as though I had one. “They want to know you’re a believer,” he suggested. “You will be trusted more.”
I nodded politely. It’s true that the question of religion comes up in every new relationship, soon after I am introduced. With my Lebanese background, an easy assumption was that I was Christian or Muslim, and I honestly admitted that my upbringing was Maronite Catholic. The question was settled and we went on to other things.
The suggestion that, as a believer, I would be trusted more is not entirely far-fetched. It’s a short cut to “do you have a moral code?”
With the small “f” faith, the system of beliefs is designed by the individual and allows each person to identify what is in their heart, what the boundaries of behaviour are; how they face their own mortality. It makes the faith an experience of leaping and questioning; it is dynamic and active.
Faith with a small “f” opens the liturgy to other sources – music and poems, art and nature. It is absorbed by the body and manifests in the drive to move forward.
When I had thyroid cancer, I believed that the doctors would do everything to make me better; when I married, I believed that my husband and I would be loving, vibrant and faithful; when I stand in front of a classroom, I believe that my knowledge is useful, that the students will be interested.
Our daily lives are riddled with acts of faith. Many of us believe that working hard rewards us, being generous to others is a gift to ourselves, taking care of our bodies will sustain our health, and loving our children will make them good adults. If we didn’t, we would just quit.
We believe others will stop at stop signs, that prices indicate the worth of something, that food will not kill us.
The lower-case faith may seem simple and intuitive. But we sometimes face moments when those simple beliefs are violated. Then we are like the believer whose Faith becomes stronger upon inquiry; we have to make a decision about where we continue to place our faith.
When a friend betrays us, do we continue to believe in friendship as a desirable element in our lives? When a marriage falls apart, do we maintain our faith in that institution?
Granted, it is easier to have one source for the answers to those questions, like a religion, than to be in a constant quest. But this journey leads to discoveries, one after another, trials and errors, failure and enlightenment, and the discoveries are euphoric.
None of this is advocacy for leaving religion or a criticism of people, like my parents, who found solace, community, and inspiration in their religious experiences. It’s an opportunity to line up faith with a lower-case “f” beside Faith with the upper-case “F”, and to recognise that among the faithful are also the non-religious, that moral codes can derive from scripture, poetry, music, and experiences, that faith transcends institutions and dogmas, and that we are constantly making choices, whether we know it or not, to believe – in something.
Perhaps if we untie the association of faith from religion, we can open up the binary of believers and non-believers. We can grow a spectrum of the way faith is assembled, adopted, and practised.
I don’t deny the value of the communities of people of consistent religious beliefs. What I oppose is that there is an inside and an outside, an us and a them, the believer and the non-believer.
So I have the faith I didn’t yet have that day on the sofa speaking to my father. The only thing I knew then was that cutting myself from the dock of religion allowed me to free-float in a sea of ideas and experiences. I believed, I had faith, that people would recognise me as a person of uncomplicated, uncompromised, generous character, that somehow, my lower-case “f” faith would instil the kind of trust that declaring a religion in my Fulbright days would have.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.