Guest Post by Paul Sunstone.
My mother, who was a Christian, intentionally raised my brothers and me as agnostics.
You see, mom had a theory: Questions such as whether God exists, whether Jesus is our lord and savior, whether there is a heaven and hell — all such questions were far too important to be decided by little boys according to her. Hence, she strictly forbid us reaching any conclusions about religious matters until we were able to reason as adults. As a consequence, I grew up resisting — for the most part — the temptation to arrive at any firm conclusions regarding religion.
Of course, it is almost impossible to grow up in a society that is 80% Christian without unconsciously adopting many of the views and assumptions of your Christian friends and neighbors. Looking back, I think I adopted so many Christian views and assumptions that I might have been fairly labeled a Christian in all but a handful of ways.
For instance: I neither believed in nor disbelieved in god, but — like any good Christian — I thought the question of god’s existence was crucially important. More over, the god I neither believed in nor disbelieved in was very much like the God of the Christians. In those and in a hundred other ways, I was more or less a Christian — without being aware of myself as such.
Consequently, I can look back now and see how I have spent a lot of my life freeing myself from Christianity. And one way I’ve freed myself from Christianity is by freeing myself from the Christian notion of self-sacrifice.
Growing up, I was taught that a good person was, among other things, self-sacrificing and even self-effacing; that he or she not only did what was beneficial to others, but did it for little or no reward of any kind. Unfortunately, that was one of the things about Christianity that I took to heart. And for so long as I took it to heart, I could not understand what it meant to be true to myself.
The notion of being true to myself sounded suspicious to me. If you were busy being true to yourself, weren’t you by necessity neglecting other people? The people you should be sacrificing yourself for? Being true to yourself just didn’t make much sense to me, so I never really investigated it.
When I finally did get around to examining the idea — which was not until mid-life — I discovered that it had a lot more going for it than I had imagined. As I learned how to apply it, I found it gave me a richer sense of purpose and meaning than I had suspected it would.
I think an important key to understanding what it means to be true to yourself is to grasp that our beliefs are not what we most need to be true to. Of course, beliefs are of crucial importance in Christianity. After all, whether you spend eternity in heaven or hell largely seems to depend on your beliefs. But that prejudice can be misleading for beliefs are of much less importance to being true to oneself. Beliefs come and go. If we make a reasonable effort to have true beliefs, then we are almost certainly required to change and update our beliefs as we gather new information. For that and other reasons, it is risky to make them paramount.
I am of the opinion that, instead of focusing on what we believe — and then trying to be true to those beliefs — we should focus more on our talents. And then try to turn those talents into socially responsible skills. In my experience, that brings the richest and most lasting sense of meaning and purpose.
There’s a saying (often mistakenly attributed to Aristotle) that goes something like this: “At the crossroads where your talents and skills meet the needs of the world, there lies your well-being or happiness”. To illustrate, imagine someone with a talent or gift for music. By turning that talent into musical skills, he or she is being true to themselves. Then, by using their skills to meet the needs of the world for music, they increase their chances of finding some measure of happiness. Yet, in my experience, even if they do not meet the needs of the world, even if they keep their music to themselves, they are likely to find happiness and a sense of well-being simply in turning their talent into skills.
I do not hold Christianity entirely responsible for my not having discovered the rewards of being true to myself until mid-life. I think there were other factors involved as well. But I believe Christianity — at least to the extent it made me suspicious of being true to myself — impeded my progress in that direction.
There have been several other ways in which I believe my life has improved as I’ve freed myself from the Christian ideas and assumptions I unwittingly adopted while growing up. But that is by no means to say I think of Christianity as an evil that must be abolished. Rather, it’s just that in my own case I have discovered — time and again — that it is a poor fit for me.