This morning I had received a letter via email from the administrative clerk of the Protestant church in Austria, stating that I was freed from my debts to the church. After many years abroad, I had not paid the church tax and also did not bother to de-register from the Protestant church, so I owed over 700 euros to the church. All members had to pay a church tax, which was legally enforced by the government of Austria. If I wanted to avoid the payment of church contributions (about 300 euros a year), I had to deregister and declare myself without religious affiliation, which is like a formal divorce from the church.
There is no sense of finality in US churches, because the state could not enforce church taxes as the constitution included a separation of church and state clause (to be more precise, the state could pass no laws to promote any one religion). Attending a church in the US is like the free market. One could attend the classic services, which involve long sermons and the Lord’s prayer, which attracts older churchgoers, or services that remind of rock concerts, with bands screaming Jesus endlessly, which tend to attract younger churchgoers. One could attend one church or multiple at a time, and not go for years before finding one’s way back to it.
I could pragmatically claim that my deregistering from the Austrian Protestant church came in the wake of my physical absence from Austria, which was certainly true, because I did not receive the mail until my brother pointed it out last year. But what does the deregistering say about my own religious convictions? On paper, I have become an atheist, but have I become an atheist in belief? The short answer is yes, but let me explain my spiritual journey.
Having grown up in secular Austria with a state-sanctioned church (which is the opposite to Christian America with independent churches), I had not become truly religious at an early age. My mother had retained a basic Christian belief, thinking of actions in highly moralistic terms. She is deeply convinced that mishap only happens because we had done evil things in the eyes of God. Her parents became Christians and made sure that all the children went to Bible studies. In Sunday school, my mother had learned English and Cantonese, and because she attended a school funded by American missionaries in India, she developed the desire to go to the US.
My father occasionally attended church (when my mother dragged him there), but believed that “all gods are the same”, displaying the quasi-Buddhist upbringing that his own mother passed down to him. My now deceased grandmother would kneel down on some days to pray to a Buddhist shrine. However, my father did believe in ancestral worship, as I remember the shrine with the photo of his own father (my grandfather), hanging above the doorframe in our Vienna apartment. On some days of the year, he would light up incense sticks, give it to my brother and me and we had to swing it a couple of times in the direction of my grandfather’s photo, and I was naturally confused as a kid what that meant.
Attending the local schools, there was religious instruction in the Protestant and Catholic tradition inside the school building, while Muslim and Jewish education had to happen outside the public schools. Religious classes were always considered special, because only very few students attended Protestant instructions. The only memory that I had in primary school were the two siblings, a younger brother and older sister, who would make fun of each other and tell vulgar jokes. In secondary school, our instructors were a pastor couple. In the first few years, only the wife taught at my school and in the later years only the husband. Pastors tended to earn very low incomes, as most of the church taxes funded the physical maintenance of the church. Therefore, they supplemented their meager incomes by teaching religion in public schools.
Religious instruction had between 5-10 students, and it was meant for relaxation, because the A would be guaranteed and all we did was to talk about moral principles. There were no written or oral exams unlike with the other classes. I don’t even recall any time spent on reading the bible. We did have to memorize all the book names in the Old and New Testament. It was a class meant for discussions, which are encouraged by the teacher. While growing up I developed an envy for the non-religious students, who would spend the hour of religious instruction hanging out in a room, entertaining themselves.
The Austrian law did not permit coerced religious instruction, so there was no alternate program to religious instruction other than appoint a substitute teacher and let students do whatever they wanted. Looking back at it, time was spent more productively discussing moral and religious issues with the instructor than to draw hundreds of circles in a book or chatting about yesterday’s TV program. (It would be hard for me to talk about TV programs anyway, because my parents enforced an 8pm bedtime, which is when all the interesting programs were scheduled, which actually helped my intellectual development, because my brother and I, who shared a bedroom, discussed and debated after 8pm, thus sharpening both our reasoning skills.)
There was only one detail in religious instruction that stayed with me. One of the students had asked the instructor what she believed would happen after death. The crude model that folk wisdom taught us is that the good people land in heaven while the bad people land in hell. The instructor responded that we would have to account for our actions (good deeds and sins) and after confession would enter heaven. What was remarkable to me in that reply was how fast and resolute she said it, and ever since hearing that I was automatically skeptical about anyone suggesting that we could ever await eternal hellfire.
My brother and I were both confirmed in the church of our religious instructor couple. This was in eighth grade, and I also met many other students from other schools. There is still a photo of me in the church with a silver Nike jacket, which I did not surrender until last year, when it irredeemably ripped, when it had 12 years of life expectancy. Not bad for a piece of textile. During confirmation we had to attend religious instruction in the church building, which happened once a month for the entire academic year ending in confirmation in May. One of the highlights was the camping inside the community room adjacent to the church, where I was the only person beside the pastor to secure a couch for sleep, while the others slept on a hard mattress on the ground. I didn’t feel bad, because I also did not own a sleeping bag, and would have had to make do with blankets.
During one session, there were three American women coming over for instruction, but they seemed more like entertainers rather than religious educators. I remember them telling us how important it was to speak clearly (an important lesson for me, as I am a natural mumbler), which required you to consistently open your mouth and articulate words carefully. To train better speech patterns, they told us to put a pen into our mouth between the teeth and then speak. Nobody could understand anything you say while having the pen in your mouth, but the point was to keep the mouth open while speaking. Wow, I got practical advice to be more charismatic.
I quite frankly do not recall any detail of religious instruction or any activity. It could not touch me emotionally. Instead, what I was looking forward to every week was the marble cake with tea or coffee the pastor served us during the afternoon break, and I had made sure to devour at least 2 or 3 slices, consuming them with great pleasure. During the year of our confirmation, we were also welcome to attend the church service, which was almost exclusively visited by the elderly. When the pastor would give his sermon, he would give us youngsters a wave. Only a handful of people bothered to show up every Sunday, but I did so nearly dutifully. When I bowed down for prayer, one of the fellow confirmands looked at me disapprovingly, which really suggested his own ignorance and not mine as I thought back then. I no longer bow down during prayers, which betrayed my secular attitude.
Another highlight beside the confirmation ceremony was the weekend retreat in Rechnitz, a two-hour bus ride outside of Vienna. It was a getaway from family, and, therefore, something I could absolutely look forward to. I also had to deal with an altercation from my school. A neo-nazi sympathizing student had kicked me in the balls, and I reported him to the principal, who formally spelled out a warning to that student. Because he was my classmate, I had to see him everyday, and the anger in his face suggested that he could have beaten me up anytime. I was fortunate enough that he left school after the end of the semester, and I did not know what he was doing afterward. When going to that retreat, we could write our prayers and concerns on a piece of paper, roll it up and burn it inside a bucket. I wrote about the school bully. It was an interestingly serene moment, watching everyone putting in their piece of paper, and seeing the flames engulf the paper. It was a cathartic experience, primarily because of the social solidarity afforded from the confirmation process. Church was genuinely there to provide a community, though it felt stronger if you really believed in the content.
The most bizarre moment happened after our return from Rechnitz. I had received a phone call from a girl, whose voice and name I did not recognize. She said that she had fallen in love with me while in Rechnitz, and I declined the advance bewilderedly, and was sad to hear her sobbing voice at the other end of the phone as I hung up. It was truly a strange experience.
Confirmation happened smoothly, and I remember the photo-taking with my gray suit and blue necktie. While standing in the group photo, I had realized that this would be the last time that I see many of these confirmands. They would go back to their own life. I went to the McDonalds with my family afterward for celebration, and I essentially never stepped foot into that particular church again.
I was not a regular churchgoer. We went to another church a couple blocks away from our place, but I enjoyed the walk there and back home more than the actual service. Another highlight was the holy communion as I longed to bite into the bread and the sweetness of the grape juice offered to us, even if it was only one sip.
Had I continued to stay in Austria, I would have graduated from high school there and after that would have lost all access to religion, because the end of compulsory schooling also meant the end of religious instruction. Upon immigrating to the US, my cousins and aunt took me to the Chinese church of which there were quite a few in downtown Philadelphia. The service became quite engaged, because the English services would have songs with guitar, piano and drum rather than the organ. The highlight of Chinese services was the complementary lunch, which was funded by voluntary cash donations. We also went to the Friday fellowships sponsored by one of the church deacons in his own house. He would serve a free dinner, followed by two hours of Bible studies, i.e. the reading of a chapter in the Bible, reflections on it and then prayers. After that was done, we would play video games until late in the night or just have a conversation about our lives, which was the highlight of the fellowship.
The seriousness and intensity of the Bible study and the messages of the sermons by the pastor certainly left a deep mark in my 17 or 18 year old self. I was also invited to some church retreats (I attended two of them), which is essentially Bible studies on steroids, also involving a lot of singing. I got a feeling of how one could develop religious fundamentalism just by being in a certain environment in America. No doubt, you could get those boring, European services too, but they are mostly attended by old, white people. My mother took me to the German church service in northeast Philadelphia, which was filled by old people of German descent, while the English service in the same church apparently had a more even age distribution (could not confirm, as I only attended the German service, but that is what the pastor told me).
The routine of Sunday church attendance, which was doubled up by the Friday evening fellowship transformed me into somewhat of a believer, though when I went to the secular high school, I was as secular outwardly as most students. It felt good to be part of the church community, where other believers cared about you and hung out with you, while my friendships in high school tended to be rather superficial. There never was a language barrier as my English was quite good from the beginning, but there was a cultural barrier accessing Americans.
So what is the essential message that I got from the American church in a way that the Austrian church did not make clear to me? The basic principle of Christianity revolves around sin. We are basically born as evil people, but don’t worry, there is this human and simultaneously super-human son of God called Jesus Christ who was strung up on the cross by the Romans for seducing the youth to believe in him and thus implicitly challenging Roman authority. As Jesus died on the cross, he rose up on the third day, and he cleaned the rest of us from our sins as long as we believed in him. That is a story with a very seductive message, and it got reinforced every week I attended the church, like a never-ending drug. Could it be believed? Many millions and billions of people believe it, so there must be something to it, no?
What was quite troubling, however, was the permanent cycling between guilt and relief. The guilt comes from the reminder of being a sinner (because we can all recall an episode of where we were unjustly angry with a friend or family member), and the relief comes from the belief in Jesus, which reminded me of Karl Kraus’ depiction of Freudian psychoanalysis: it is the disease of which it purports to be the cure. (1) You suffer from the Oedipus complex because of a childhood trauma. (2) You need to come and talk with me about how to resolve your childhood trauma.
When I graduated from high school, I really did not know which college I should go to, and in any case, I had to complete my military service in Austria, which lasted for half a year. I completed basic training in the guard unit, but wasn’t fit enough for the elite guard unit, which dressed in fancy uniform and welcomed foreign officials on a visit to Austria. It did not look that appealing anyway, because I met one very ecstatic and eager recruit in the guard unit, who showed me his bruises on the side of his hips, which came from the gun, which they had to bang very hard onto their hips during their exercises.
During basic training it was quite strenuous to stand all day long and exercise from morning to evening. You learned how to stand still for hours on end with your hands resting in the back or on your side, and not scratch your face, even when it became extremely itchy (or scratch quickly and risk rebuke from the officer). The only light were the three scheduled meals that served great Austrian food, though with the upshot that we had to quickly gulp down the meals and immediately resume exercising and standing upon the completion of the meal. The strain clearly was too much for my tender scholarly body, as I caught two cold infections and an ear infection during basic training. At least the ear infection got me off from the march with heavy backpack. When I reported to the military hospital to explain that I heard emptiness when knocking at my head (indicating that fluids clogged up the ear passage), the doctor joked that maybe I had nothing in there.
After basic training, I was assigned to the barrack guard unit, being screamed at two times. Once for letting in a late-coming recruit without reporting him (no one told me I had to do so), and a second time for not checking the papers of an incoming supply truck (not true, the commanding officer just did not see me do it). After standing guard for two months (so boring, I could only survive mentally by bringing in library books and devouring one book per shift; the highlight was Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945), I was assigned to “special purposes”, which practically meant to pick up the leaves falling from the trees in autumn. When the snow came in the winter, we were practically unemployed, because the military hired professionals to pick up the snow. There was another hard-working nerd next to me, and another lazy recruit, who could not care less and frequently reported half an hour late for duty, usually with the excuse that the bus came late (never mind that the other recruits always made it on time, probably using the same public transit route). A few weeks in, the guard recruits asked me for taking over their shifts, and I would sell myself for a cheap 15 euros per shift. I sold perhaps six shifts, four of them as commander of the guard shift, which upset some of the junior guards that came in during the same month as me. The junior guards had to stand outside, even in the cold.
The end result of my stay in the military was to become disconnected from religion, but I harbored no extreme doubts yet.
After the military duty, I would return to the US and begin community college, which was the only affordable institution that also made it easy to first enroll in the spring semester. I also had a pleasant chat with Ralph Faris, the director of the Honors program, who was immediately impressed by my political knowledge as an 18-year old greenhorn. The Honors program at the Community College sent automatic invitation letters to all students, who scored high on the math/ English placement entrance exam. So I jumped right to it. Honors ended up being the best academic experience I have ever had, because of the intense learning environment, and the discursive thinking and arguing they taught us in lectures and seminars.
During that time, I continued to attend church services, but it became less frequent, as I effectively spent less time with my aunt’s family and more with my studies. There was no single reading in the Honors program, but the variety of humanist writings from Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and even Bhagavad Gita that made me more critical about taking religious beliefs at face value. What these great thinkers illustrated is the existentialist dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre that “men are condemned to be free”. Classical liberalism wants man to be as free as possible and finds it normatively desirable, while Christianity sees only freedom in the belief in God, though freedom as such is bad. Nietzsche, the early existentialist, was quite friendly to the liberal notion. The realization that God no longer existed would open up people’s freedom to generate their own meaning, though not everyone is mentally capable of pursuing meaning, so most people cannot be free.
In Sartre’s formulation, freedom takes on a more negative connotation, because popping the concept of God means that humanity has to find another justification for existence, which is nothing more than existence for existentialists. One might argue that existentialism itself becomes a religion, because of its atheist confidence. I still remember an argument I had with a church intellectual (who, ultimately, became a pastor), and he called me an empiricist for demanding the proof in God, and he turned it around to put the burden of proof on the empiricist. Prove that God does not exist. But would it be fair to demand the empiricist to prove that a unicorn does not exist?
More importantly, existentialism and atheism lack appeal because it is a religion for intellectuals. The unquenchable desire for knowledge about the world makes it more difficult to embrace the claim to the supernatural. A scientist can be a devout Christian (by essentially separating the positivistic reality from his religious identity), but if he is trained in humanistic studies as well, it is unlikely that he will become one or stay one. So why does the human mind demand spirituality?
Uncertainty, meaninglessness and loneliness are the three enemies of human existence. Uncertainty is our inability to predict the future and our inability to prevent adversity from occurring. For example, a dictator takes over my country and makes my life a living hell. An earthquake destroys my house and all my valuable property and I have no house insurance. I get cancer. I lose close relatives and friends to death. I lose my job. What happens after death? There are many adverse situations that defy simple logic and simple explanation. Secular people make themselves feel better by acknowledging the dictum “shit happens” or “that’s life”. But for many people this acknowledgment is deeply dissatisfying, and they need spiritual support or prayers to lift their spirit, and the genuine belief will improve the emotional state even as the objective situation is not improving.
Without a solid anchor, human life is meaningless. One might argue that animal life is also meaningless, because their existence consists of food hunting, eating, having sex and sleeping. But this insufficiency is a purely human contemplation, because only beings with higher and more abstract mental reasoning can articulate questions relating to the meaning of existence. Animal lives by bread alone, but man does not live by bread alone, but also needs meaning. The attractive element of Christianity and other organized religions is that there is a professional staff that can provide for the spiritual welfare of its members, explaining to us that the meaning of life is articulated by God. For secular people, the existentialist claim that we ourselves have to define meaning (because otherwise life is meaningless) is sufficient.
Lastly, organized religion provides the organization that enables us to be social, and was with Aristotle man is a political (social) animal. Secular people might counter that they can join yoga clubs, soccer clubs, or mahjong clubs where they can satisfy the social needs that humans have, but none of these activity-based social circles contain an all-encompassing moral community. My participation in the Sunday soccer club on campus is very important for my mental health, as I get adrenaline when my team scores and when we run after the ball, even as it is a physically straining activity with a high risk of injury. But there is very little conversation, and no coherent moral framework that binds us together as part of the same community.
One of the most influential Honors curriculum readings that keeps on reappearing is Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue, where he claims that the moral disorientation in the postmodern present is the belief that there is no integrated moral community, and all truths are relative. If all truths are only relative then individuals break down into localized islands and communicate with the smallest circle of people, like close friends and immediate family. The moral community is very important, and the church offers a stable institution for sociality. Emile Durkheim claimed that the focus of religion is not God, but community, which is not a surprising statement because without a community of believers, one becomes an isolated cult.
Only when one can coherently accept that life is uncertain/ unjust, meaningless and lonely can atheism be sustained. As such, a truly secular or atheist person does not go out and try to convince religious people to abandon their religion. There are some notable and prominent exceptions like Richard Dawkins, whose argument I have not read myself. But the problem in militant atheism is that only humanist and other secular people are open to his line of reasoning, while for the rest of the people he is just an obnoxious unbeliever. Credible proselytizing is unilateral. In other words, it is credible to have a Christian try to convince an atheist to believe in God, but not for an atheist to convince a Christian to become atheist. An atheist should be tolerant with a religious believer requiring the moral community that provides spiritual safety, meaning and sociality, while a religious person is also justified in attempting to recruit more members into their moral community (and not vice versa). The secular crowd is an aggregate (though Dawkins and co. attempt to transform it to a community), while the religious crowd forms a community. Why would Dawkins fail in his attempt to create a secular community? Because if religion were to disappear overnight (which it won’t), the secular community would immediately fall apart. Without an external enemy, there is nothing to be argued against and no reason to exist.
Among secularists, there is a fine distinction between atheists and agnostics. The atheist believes that there is no god(s) and the agnostic does not know whether there are gods. In practice, there is not much dispute between these two camps, and I practically find myself between these two camps, holding them equally true even though they are mutually exclusive from a logical perspective. I had an intellectual friend that I encountered in church and he stated a quasi-agnostic position. “I don’t know whether there is a god, but it is safer to believe in one, because if I believed in a god and he exists, I will be fine upon death, but if he did not exist it does not matter. On the other hand, if I did not believe in a god and he exists, that would be trouble.” Deists are the category between secularism and religiosity, because in that model god(s) exist but they don’t care about us humans. Therefore, the burden on moral action is on human beings.
After that atheist/ agnostic thesis, what is my religious practice today? The free market nature of religious practice in the US means that I am not totally escaping religious activity. When I went to Oxford for my masters, I had enjoyed the choral songs in magnificent churches, that were plentiful, which I consider to be more of a cultural experience than a religious one. When I came to Princeton, the Chinese Christian fellowship eagerly invited me to their group activity, the weekly fellowship (while the general Chinese association was unenthusiastic in their advertising), so I went to some of their fellowships, even though my Chinese reading skills were not that great, but I thought it would keep my Chinese alive. My house manager/ landlord is a Chinese church pastor, and they would hold their weekly service in a public school building. Occasional participation in the service keeps my Chinese skills fresh.
Is it credible to be a non-believer attending religious services? I don’t visit the church that often and when I do, I try to use the time to contemplate on other social phenomena while the pastor is talking. The Chinese services I attended often take the nature of Bible studies, which require active participation in the discussion, which is why the believers become very committed, because as they talk through their religious experience and hear it confirmed by the other members, they become more committed to it. I try to say as little as possible, and it can get quite tedious and boring if one lacks commitment. I can imagine going to various church services in the future, though I doubt it is going to be more than occasional. Church still provides some basis of sociality and socializing, and it is hard to find another secular institution to replace it.