Your website was the first thing that came up when I googled “good news”.  I come back to it fairly often because it does something for me, I don't know exactly what.  Maybe its because you take a different angle on a lot of things....  Because of all the scandals in the church and the cover-up I've become very disillusioned with everything.  It’s hard not to be cynical nowadays, and the politicians are just as bad, even worse.  I don't know if I even believe in God any more.  I'm sceptical by nature, but I think you have to be now with all the [rubbish] in the papers and the media.  I envy people who seem to be able to believe.  At least they have some kind of anchor, but that too could be an illusion.  I don't think you would have many people like me logging on to your site, but I'd be interested to see what you say to me.  I know I haven't really asked you a question here.  Maybe my question is what have you to say to people like me who are disillusioned not only with the church but with everything?  Conor

Dear Conor,

From your question I picked out three words that I would like to look at: disillusionment, scepticism, and cynicism.  I think disillusionment is a good thing, scepticism is often a good thing, but cynicism is bad news.

Disillusionment means freedom from an illusion.  That can only be good; the origin of the word ‘illusion’, the Latin illusio, means ‘mockery’.  Since the 14th century in English it has meant ‘deceptive appearance’.  People sometimes give it their own shade of meaning, as when Freud wrote, in The Future of an Illusion, “It is characteristic of the illusion that it derives from people’s wishes....  It need not necessarily be false, that is to say, unrealistic or incompatible with reality.”  For him the illusion was religion, and for obvious reasons he wanted to keep the discussion at the psychological level and not get dragged into philosophy or theology.  It’s the same word in German: Illusion.  We can take it that the word ‘illusion’ means that something is false; and so disillusionment has to be a good thing in itself.  Advertisers are the foremost illusionists today; they are doing the same thing as traditional illusionists, but unlike these they are pretending to tell us the truth. 

The danger with disillusionment is that it tends to spread from one thing to another.  Because I was deceived many times I will tend to disbelieve just about everything.  It’s important to keep our disillusionment focused.  People are justly disillusioned with the behaviour of clergy and others who abused children, and of the authorities who sheltered the abusers.  But don't let this lead you to believe that there are no good people in the Church.  Besides, the Christian faith is about the goodness of God, not the goodness of the clergy and religious.  It’s horrible that people behaved in such vile ways towards children, and it makes everyone angry; but to spread one’s anger wider than the target is to miss the target because it fails to pick it out. 

It’s also a good thing in itself to be sceptical.  The word derives from Greek skeptesthai, ‘to reflect or to look’.  Despite the rapid growth of science and its practical influence on our lives through technology, there is still a huge amount of naive belief around: people claiming to receive messages from Mary, or seeing miraculous images on walls and tree-stumps.... In Ireland a few years ago moving statues were all the rage, but they stopped rather suddenly for some reason. 

It’s easy to become sceptical in religious matters – because of rationalism, as I believe.  The sort of rationalism that still infects religious discourse is a powerful breeder of scepticism.  Rationalism strikes at naive belief, but it succeeds only in producing scepticism.  On his deathbed the Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett said “You must believe in God in spite of what the clergy tell you.”  This showed a degree of humility, for he was a clergyman himself.  Well now, right there is a conundrum for a sceptic!  If you do believe in God you are taking the advice of a cleric who is telling you that the clergy’s advice is not to be taken.  And if you don't believe, you are apparently taking the advice of those same clerics.  Absolute scepticism always runs onto the rocks in that way; it’s impossible to believe nothing.  Just like disillusionment scepticism tends to spread like shot from a blunderbuss.  Disbelief then becomes the default mode.  There are people who believe too much, on inadequate grounds, but people are also deceived by believing nothing.  If someone who was disappointed in love were to swear never to love again, we would say they were cheating themselves.  It is the same with scepticism when it becomes a total attitude: then it is no longer a way of reflecting or looking – which is the literal meaning of the word – but a way of doing neither.  There is the more difficult path of looking carefully and patiently to find the truth.  If we stop believing that there is any truth to be found, we will stop searching for it; and that is really to be without an anchor. 

Cynicism is the problematic one of the three.  The word has a very respectable ancestry: it was a school of philosophy in ancient Greece, which had some very likeable characters, the most famous being Diogenes.  They stressed the importance of self-reliance, rejecting all traditions and social conventions.  This rejection is the only connection with the modern usage of the word.  A modern cynic rejects everything, not in order to live a life of virtue in harmony with nature, like the ancient Cynics, but because it has become a habit to pour acid on everything.  In modern usage cynicism has lost its innocence and developed a sneer.  It has no interest in the truth of anything; it is no more than a mood, driven probably by a general antipathy to human beings and a fear of commitment. 

So, Conor, I would wish disillusionment on you, and controlled doses of scepticism; but I hope you remain forever free of cynicism.  You will always meet people who have swallowed more beliefs than they can digest, and taken on commitments that are too much for them.  But that doesn't show that all beliefs are indigestible and all commitments a disgrace.  Use the sharp tools of your mind, but like a surgeon, for healing.  And don't cut yourself up.

I hope these suggestions have been of some use to you, if only to reassure you that it’s not a bad thing to be disillusioned and sceptical.  They do the necessary clearing of the site before anything new can be built. 

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