The End of Faith?

Here is a story about the Catholic Church and liberal activism, a story that suggests the two forces are not the non-intersecting sets they are widely assumed to be. The story is true -- it stars my mother -- and I present it as a counterpoint to Sam Harris' widely acclaimed account of religious faith, an account I believe we liberals ought to view with considerable skepticism.

As a good Catholic woman in 1960s Australia my mother believed it was a sin to use contraception, and as a result she had six children in five and a half years. I am the eldest, along with my twin sister, a conjunction that enabled my mother to have four children two and under (one of them with a serious kidney problem). 40 years later I still cannot wrap my mind around how she dealt with this overload of offspring. For ten years she did not get a complete night's sleep -- there was always some child sick, or with a stomach upset, ailing from a cold or an itch or nightmares. Throughout my childhood I remember my mother as stoic beyond belief but, in retrospect, often on the verge of exhaustion. My father was little help in all this -- he was too busy being a sixties radical, organizing marches against apartheid in South Africa or leading student protests against the Vietnam war.

I once asked my mother how she got through our childhood without shooting herself. She told me she had thought of doing do, but realized that if she killed herself there would be no one to take care of us kids, so she would have to shoot us as well. Since there are only 6 bullets in a gun, that would require her to reload. While she might have been able to go one round in an act of desperation, a second, she thought, would be beyond human capacity.

Then there was her Catholic upbringing, which categorically forbids suicide. In Catholic theology a human life is not the property of the individual but a resource for the whole community -- to take that life is to deprive the community of the resource, in short, an act of supreme selfishness. And so my mother shot neither us or herself but carried on with the burden of raising six small children essentially alone.

My mother's story resonated in my mind as I recently read Harris's book "The End of Faith," which posits that religion -- especially Christianity -- is the source of pretty much all social evils and that rational liberalism, informed by science, will create a utopian paradise of justice and equity.

Harris's book has been widely embraced by liberals outraged at the rise of a virulent religious right. Certainly we ought to be alarmed about the unholy fusion of politics and proselytizing currently gripping our nation, but as a bone fide pinko-liberal-feminist who embraces every syllable of that oh-so-unfashionable phrase, I would like to stand up for religion and the value of faith.

As it happens my Catholic mother left the Church soon after my youngest sister was born. After six children in fewer years she knew she could not sustain another pregnancy and decided to start taking the pill. In 1964 Australia that meant leaving the Church or lying to her priest. She chose the former option. She believed she was making the right decision, because, as she says, she could not believe God would want anyone to have another child under such circumstances. In any pre-industrial society, no woman could have this many kids so close together because each child that did not die would be breast fed for several years -- naturally children would be spaced several years apart. The only reason we all survived was modern medicine and baby formulae.

After my mother left the church she went on to become one of the leaders of Australia's fledgling feminist movement. She helped to set up Australia's first women's shelters and went on to have a long career working for social justice for women and minorities. All this, she insists, was a direct outgrowth of her working-class Irish Catholicism and its insistence on the mendicant tradition of fighting on behalf of the oppressed. God did not leave her life -- he informed and supported her feminism. That does not mean one cannot be a feminist or social activist without God, but it does mean that Harris's presentation of religion as inherently repressive is just plain wrong.

While Harris is correct that religion can become a pernicious and oppressive right-wing force, it also has the power to inspire, sustain and instigate compassionate social action of a profoundly leftist stripe. This is the Catholicism of Dorothy Day and liberation theology -- a tradition that Harris blithely ignores. As a pinko-liberal-feminist atheist, and as a person who has devoted my own life to expanding the public understanding of science, I too fear the dogma, meanness and narrow mindedness of the religious right, but I know from first-hand experience -- learned at my mother's knee -- that the left hand of God is also one of the greatest powers for social change on this planet.