Interview of Aurélien: Questioning Religion

An Interview by Amy Schief

I had the opportunity today to meet with Aurélien and talk with him about his InterGifted peer group: What Comes after Religion? His group’s first discussion was set to take place that very evening. Lucky me that we live in the same town in Switzerland so we decided to meet at an odd little café that neither of us had ever ventured into. The coffee was ok, but the conversation was great!

Aurélien SallinAurélien hails from Switzerland and is currently working on his Master’s degrees in Philosophy and Economics. He learned about InterGifted through our very own Jennifer Harvey Sallin (yes, Aurélien is Jen’s husband), and decided to form a group exploring all the thoughts and feelings involved when one begins to question and perhaps eventually abandon a certain set of religious beliefs. The goal of Aurélien’s group is to create a space for like-minded people to come together to discuss their own experiences, and to hear from others how it has been to question and perhaps even brake away from religious beliefs.

I asked Aurélien if his idea to form the group came about as a desire to help others through the process, and if he had looked for something such as this when he was starting to question these issues in his life.

He shared with me that, for him, the process of leaving religion has been and continues to be a very personal experience. A group such as this is a first when it comes to sharing these thoughts and feelings with anyone other than close friends. Through the group, Aurélien hopes to share and learn from what others have experienced along their particular journeys. He doesn’t particularly see the group as a support group per se, however if people are supported and helped along the way, that would be great.

In the group’s profile on the InterGifted webpage, Aurélien poses the question:

“What does it feel like when we abandon a certain set of religious beliefs? What triggers a decision to free ourselves from such beliefs?

I was interested to find out if Aurélien had experienced a specific trigger or event that started him on his journey.

His religiosity as well as his curiosity and questioning began early on in his life, but for him, there wasn’t a single event or trigger that caused him to challenge the beliefs he had been raised with. It was, and has been, rather a long process of doubting, searching, and discovering.

However, reflecting back on his time in Rome with the Vatican Swiss Guard, where he spent two and a half years before returning to university, he told me what an eye-opening experience it was for him. “We were all supposed to believe in the dogma, and share the faith, that are unambiguously given by the Catholic Catechism” he explained, “and we were all supposed to be more or less the same: Swiss, male, Catholic, and believing in God and the Church’s teachings. However, I was struck by how differently we all interpret dogmas and moral precepts.”

P1030051“It was as though we each used religious beliefs as a way to give meaning to our realities, as though we were ‘demanding’ faith and religion in order to make sense of our own existence. With this realization, I started to see that faith is a bottom-up phenomenon – we create it because we need it – even though believers think it is ‘received from heaven’ or top-down. I started to wonder if faith and religious beliefs were based primarily on subjective psychological projections rather than objective metaphysical beliefs, and in this light I started to see religious convictions as standing on shifting sands. This was a big revelation for me.”

In this mindset, Aurélien came to believe that the nature of the search for God and religious truth has to be considered through the filter of one’s particular mind, and not outside of it. Metaphysical arguments on the existence of God and church doctrines no longer made sense to him, because he saw that they were used as justifications and attempts to make sense of the fundamental fears and existential questions we all struggle with as human beings. This, he thought, could explain how believers can cope with so many inconsistencies in their belief system.

Another sticking point for Aurélien was the lack of evidence for beliefs: one significant moment was when he was serving at the Easter service, listening to the Pope insist that Jesus was really risen from the dead. Aurélien asked himself, “How can such an intelligent man (Pope Benedict, at the time) incisively assert such an obviously questionable claim? Why”, he asked, “are we supposed to suspend our need for evidence when it comes to religion? If I’m suspicious of unproven claims of our time – UFOs or the like – why should I not be suspicious about unproven claims of 2,000 ago?” In the end, he came to feel that no one seriously valued skepticism and reason when it came to faith.

When he left the Guard, Aurélien made a promise to himself:

“From now on, and as long as you wish, try to live without the idea of God, and see what will come up.”

He says he’s struggled with feelings of guilt (such as for having betrayed God and the Church) and shame (such as for not being able to believe and not being humble – he was taught that “humble people don’t question God”). But he has also felt much more positive about his life and somehow liberated.

I was curious about his positive experiences.

Aurélien told me that, while the process has been emotional and challenging in its own way, it has also been an opening of sorts. He has come to realize that outside of the world he grew up in, a lot of people don’t care about religion, and God doesn’t have a very predominant place in their lives. This, in itself, allowed him much more intellectual freedom in terms of a self- and world-concept than he had been accustomed to.

He also described a “moral awakening”, which has helped him find his way step by step out of guilt. He’s learned that moral questions are not as simple as they seem when framed within religious dogma. “Once you shake faith and develop a distrust of the church, you realize that moral questions and ethical problems are more complex, and that there is probably not a clear-cut answer for every action and thought.” In realizing this, Aurélien says, he freed himself from a lot of ethical misconceptions and preconceptions, which were simply not accurate. It has given him the chance to experience new points of view, allowing him to see the grey and other colorful areas in life, instead of trying to force himself to see only in the black and white of church dogma.

I would venture to guess that his InterGifted group will be a continuation of this intellectual and moral opening and liberation!

Follow-up Interview

The day we met, Aurélien was very much looking forward to seeing how the first group would transpire, as was I. A group such as this in a community such as InterGifted can only lead to interesting and thought provoking discussions! And in case you’re wondering exactly how it went, read on (and don’t miss Aurélien’s summary!) 

Aurélien, how did everything go with your group’s first discussion?

The discussion went well! It is an intense and very emotional topic for some of us, and sharing our own stories and emotions requires a lot of courage. But I think it has a therapeutic effect and helps us overcome our sense of guilt and reaffirm our self-identified values. From my point of view, it was a success, and I am looking forward to the next discussion! 

Happy to hear that it all went well! Yes, courage indeed. I would say the fact that people felt so comfortable sharing about such an emotional issue says a lot about the tone you set for your group, as well as the fact that coming together with others who. How was the experience of leading a discussion such as this?

I was a bit nervous because I am not used to leading discussions and, even less, sharing my religious experiences with others. Doing this in English also scared me a little (given it is not my mother tongue). But as the discussion evolved, I didn’t feel there was so much a need for a “discussion leader”); it was enough to simply bring together the various points of view and link them to our discussion topics: “spirituality vs religion”, “guilt” and “giftedness”. 

It’s such a great feeling for everyone involved when a discussion like this just flows and there is a sense of openness and safety to share such personal experiences! Were you surprised by anything that took place?

I was surprised by the stories that I heard. I had never thought about how much spirituality is separated from religion and how, for some, spirituality is seen as a freedom from religious institutions. In my own experience, when I decided to give up religion, that also implicated giving up any sort of systematic spirituality; I put everything under skeptical scrutiny. But it was interesting to hear that for the others in the group, non-religious spiritual teachings are experienced as a “new start” and help them find purpose in life. It is a topic that I hope we will pursue in our next discussion. 

Sounds like a great topic for your next discussion. Now that the first discussion is behind you, would there be anything you would change about the group’s description?

I would not add anything, but I will certainly use a less formal approach for our next discussions. I saw that it is much more spontaneous than I had expected, and I’m very glad about it! 

Hurray for spontaneity! Aurélien, thanks for chatting about your group and for your openness and willingness to share your thoughts with all of us! I’m looking forward to reading the summaries of your future discussions. 

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