Some people can juggle three tennis balls for minutes on end without dropping them. Most people can’t. Some people can whistle a happy tune beautifully, but most people can’t. It is obvious, is it not, that whether you can juggle or whistle has nothing at all to do with whether you are a good, honest, loving person. If only it were equally obvious that those who can manage the intellectual gymnastics required to keep alive a conviction that God exists in the face of all the grounds for doubting it have no moral superiority at all over those who find this proposition frankly incredible! In fact, there is good reason to believe that the varieties of self-admonition and self-blinding that people have to indulge in to gird their creedal loins may actually cost them something substantial in the moral agency department: a debilitating willingness to profess solemnly in the utter absence of conviction, a well-entrenched habit of deflecting their attention from evidence that is crying out for consideration, and plenty of experience biting their tongues and saying nothing when others around them make assumptions that they know in their hearts to be false.
Mother Teresa’s agonies of doubt are surely not all that unusual. What is unusual is that she put them in writing and now they are being revealed to the world, in spite of her explicit wish that they be destroyed. I get mail all the time from religious leaders who admit to me in private that they do not believe in God but think that the best way to continue their lives is to swallow hard and get on with their ministries, concentrating on bringing more good than evil into the lives of their parishioners and those for whom their churches provide care. I would never divulge their names without their consent, but I do wonder: How many millions of priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, nuns and monks around the world are living lives of similar duplicity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the outing of Mother Teresa inspired a few thousand of them to come out of the closet and acknowledge their atheism! Then it might start being obvious not only that faith in God is not a requirement for morality, but that the loss of faith in God often goads people into living more strenuously helpful lives, as seems to be the case with Mother Teresa. Of course, such honesty carries a price: you have to change your mission in a way Mother Teresa never did. She could have devoted herself more single-mindedly to helping the poor instead of trying to convert them. Perhaps it was her guilt at being unable to convert herself that drove her to work so hard to convert others to take her place among the believers.
Photo courtesy of quinnanya.