Religious Thought in Wayne County, Indiana
This post is the first of several in a small series of vignettes, which comprise overviews of the ideas and content of the book that I’m currently writing. As the first part of the book focuses on religion, I will be starting there. See this post for part II on sexuality, and this post for part III on ambition.
Summary: I contend that Wayne County has a problem with religious thought, namely that that phrase is almost oxymoronic; there isn’t very much thinking in its religion. This is a problem for any kind of idea, but is acute in the realm of religion in east-central Indiana. The solution: seek out different ideas. If anyone is interested in discussing this topic, let me know in the Contact tab.
One of the most important, if at times subtle, influences on the culture of Wayne County, Indiana, is its churches. Many who grew up there likely went to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or any number of other functions in addition to actual church services. And, whether or not one is a practicing Christian or an agnostic/humanist approximation thereof, one is not immune from the impact of this influence. The content of any Christian sect’s doctrine aside, I have come to see this pervasive influence as intellectually toxic and in desperate need of remedy.
Generally speaking, there is no market of ideas regarding religion in Wayne County, because the Church has a monopoly. It isn’t the sort of market dominance held in the face of competition because of a superior product, but rather the sort given by government decree that precludes competition. Whereas the first would require constant improvement, the second does not—in fact, it invites stagnation and decreasing quality over time.
These trends are true regarding any kind of idea, whether religious, political, or scientific. If one never encounters serious opposition to one’s own ideas, they are not sharpened, or, if need be, discarded. In other words, there is intellectual decline. This was the state of the Church in Wayne County when I was growing up, and, to my knowledge, it still is. The effect of the Church’s monopoly on ideas produces two things:
- social intolerance for dissenting ideas, regardless of how well-reasoned they are, and
- believers who profess religious ideas, but cannot explain why in any meaningful way.
Since the Church’s ideas are connected to almost every major branch of philosophy and thinking, all of them decay along with it. I consider this a crisis of the mind. How can it be addressed?
First: religious individuals should actively seek out opposing ideas, including those of atheistic philosophies and other religious denominations (it is likely that the religion they practice was heterodox at its origin, so this should be no problem). To avoid doing this would make as much sense as a knife eschewing a whetstone.
Second: sincere dissent, especially when well-reasoned, should be tolerated. What do I mean by this? I now subscribe to an atheistic philosophy, but when I was religious I feared losing my religion. I was driven to hold onto my faith at all costs, even if I sincerely thought that it wasn’t true. This method of intellectual abnegation, taught in my church (and I suspect others), essentially boils down to: it does not matter what you think, only what you profess. Or: an insincerely held faith is better than no faith at all. Toleration of sincere dissent means allowing people to follow their reasoning mind, and never telling them to ignore it. If one disagrees where another’s mind is leading them, they should try to change their course with better ideas, not simple suppression of the whole thinking apparatus.
This post was partly motivated by discussions that I’ve had with religious individuals in Wayne County, recently and in the past. Almost (but not) all of them, when initially questioned, were unsure of how to formulate even basic statements regarding the fundamental tenets and implications of their faith. I am primarily alarmed not because these individuals are Christian, but because they are not thinking, which is a direct result of the Church’s current mode of operation.
Some of the Western tradition’s greatest thinkers, like St. Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis, were Christians. Would they find any of the mental rigor that made their works great in the Church of Wayne County? Generally, no. If one is a preacher, they ought to imagine C.S. Lewis listening to their sermons with a critical ear. Better yet, they should imagine the philosopher Ayn Rand listening.
If one is an adherent to Christianity, or an agnostic/humanist approximation thereof, they should do the same thing when discussing ideas with their friends. If one has no actual devils with which to argue, one must become their advocate (if anyone does need a devil, I will oblige). Why? This intellectual morass is a problem for everyone, religious or not. It is long past time for those of faith to be more critical of their life philosophy—and to tolerate sincere dissent. To conclude, I will first present a thought from the Enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill, and second, Aristotle:
“But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
 “Church” is hereafter used to refer to the collection of Christian institutions of worship, their creeds, and agnostic/humanist approximations.
 According to Pew Research Center’s most recent Religious Landscape Study, a majority of Hoosiers consider themselves “highly religious.” Among those individuals who don’t choose to affiliate with organized religion, a small minority are atheists. If one contends that Christian influence is not dominant, or at least incumbent, in Wayne County, that is a separate issue not covered in this post.
 Mill, John Stuart, “Chapter II: On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” On Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 87.
Alternatively, the whole text is available online at http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html.