Sunday, May 3, 2009

Breaking it in

I've finally decided to put together a serious blog about atheism, skepticism, and the like. I've been blogging occasionally on another site, but it was never about any consistent theme and I tended to get a bit silly about things.

I'll start this one off by reposting an essay I posted on my other blog, which details my progress from "cafeteria" Christian to door-knocking street preaching fundamentalist Evangelical biblical literalist to skeptical generic theist to atheist.

I've also been touring local churches and taking notes about their services and their theology. Expect a few of those soon.

-- Mike

Why I Am an Atheist

Life has a tendency of throwing us curveballs. For me, the biggest was realizing that I no longer believed in God.

All my life I was raised to believe in a soft variety of the Christian god. He was an all-powerful, all-knowing being living off in some indescribably wonderful place who loved me and listened intently to even the quietest whisper of a prayer. He was a comfort when times were rough and gave me confidence when my spirit sagged.

I never gave much thought to why I believed as I did. It’s just what I was raised to be; in our family, we were Christians. We were members of the United Church of Christ, a church that tends to be liberal and open to anyone’s interpretations – basically a step away from being Unitarian. We knew there was a God. And that was enough for me, at first; just to believe. I didn’t think He needed anything from me other than that simple belief. That is, until I reached high school.

In high school, I idolized my brother. He was everything I wasn’t – strong, tall, athletic, sociable, confident. I was a shy, weird little kid with a severe lack of confidence and a tiny social circle. I looked at my brother as the perfect example of what I could be. And so when he joined Young Life, a Christian evangelist group that doubled as a sort of social club for high school kids, I had to join, too.

It was fun. I met a lot of really great, friendly people. We sang songs, had parties, played icebreaker games to get to know each other; that sort of thing. I learned a lot about what other people believed about God, about life, about the afterlife, and about Jesus. My eyes were opened to a lot of things I’d never seen before, growing up in a mild church where a sense of community and kindness seemed more common than a deep and abiding faith.

Until then, my religious beliefs hadn’t been all that important. I basically made things up as I went, and occasionally I’d read bits and pieces of the Bible to learn about what other people might think about God. My education in traditional Christian doctrine was essentially nonexistent. I could never make myself pay much attention during the church services, and Sunday school was all about the same old Bible stories kids learn about. Junior high Bible study was interesting, because we looked into more of the New Testament than I’d read before. But it was never much more than a baseline pseudo-Christian form of theism – there’s a God, he loves you, he made everything (some way or another), and he’ll heap rewards upon you when you die. Heaven was a chance to get back together with all the loved ones who went before you. There wasn’t much theology to it at all. It was just a simple, comforting, unquestioned belief.

It was in the Young Life meetings that I was presented with a kind of “soft evangelism”. Looking back on it, I can identify it as a sort of love bombing – everyone was accepting of you, regardless of your faults; they were eager to tell you what a great person you were; they sang happy songs (both religious and secular); they encouraged you to agree with what the leaders told you was right; and they really pushed for you to come to their week-long summer camp. So, of course, I went. I liked the people, I liked the atmosphere, and I liked feeling like I was accepted. I’d always been the social outcast before, and I craved that wonderful feeling of being a part of something where people accepted me despite all my quirks and insecurities.

The camp was a blast. There was a lake, a pool, a rock climbing wall – all sorts of great activities. Plenty of stuff to keep us busy and keep reinforcing the positive, warm, euphoric atmosphere. Every now and then, we’d gather in the main lodge for a series of skits or games. It was at the lodge that they hit us with the standard evangelical positions – that we all sin, that we all need redemption because God is a just and righteous judge who cannot abide with sin, and that Jesus was persecuted and slain so that we could enter into the presence of God. They told it to us gently, but in a way that still managed to impress upon us that we should feel guilty and ashamed if we rejected God’s gift after all the pain and suffering he went through just because he loved us so completely and perfectly.

During the week I discovered the Left Behind series. The camp store had all of the books in paperback, and I blazed through them one by one, fascinated by the stories and by what people believed God was going to do for his people eventually. Combining that with the “plan for salvation” that the skits drilled into us, and by the fourth or fifth day I was really hurting to be saved. I felt like the fact that I hadn’t accepted Christ into my heart as my lord and savior was no better than if I had spat in God’s face. Forget the fact that, before all this, my religious beliefs had been a comfort to me; now, I knew I had been incredibly wrong about God. Just being a good person wasn’t enough. I had to develop a stronger faith, accept Christ’s sacrifice for my sin, to repent, and follow the Bible.

I honestly don’t know what year it was when this happened. It was important to me at the time, but these things fade as time passes. In any case, I came away from Young Life camp feeling like a whole new person. I threw myself into my faith harder than ever, diving into the Bible with gusto and wondering at the glory of God’s creation. I was sure that I was saved; that my sins were forgiven and I was free of my past.

During my first year in college, I lived in what was called the Healthy Living House – a part of our dorm set off for young men and women to live away from drugs and alcohol, where some students volunteered to be counselors who would help us keep each other in check. One of our counselors was a girl named A. who lived across the hall from me. A. and I became fast friends; she was a polite, friendly, cheerful girl, who also happened to be a Christian. She and I talked about God and Jesus all the time, and eventually she introduced me to Campus Crusade for Christ.

Crusade was like a more serious form of Young Life; we met once a week to watch skits, sing, pray, etc. Being among a community of believers only reinforced my faith, and it drew me more and more toward the Biblical literalist position that so many of the other members held. After all, the more I learned about God and the plans he had for me, the more I felt like I was on the right path. I was proud to hold my head high and proclaim the gospel to everyone.

There were only two things that troubled me. The first was that many of my other friends were either atheists or members of some other religion. It worried me terribly that they were putting their immortal souls in peril by turning their backs on God and Jesus. I tried as best as I could to understand why they didn’t believe, but it all seemed so obvious to me. Of course God was real; how else could we be here?

The second was my love of science and my literal mind. As I read the Bible I of course ran into things that were problematic – why would God punish Adam and Eve if they didn’t know the difference between right and wrong? Of course, as I spent more and more time with A. and other Crusade members, I learned all the “right” answers to these and other problems. (Adam and Eve may not have had knowledge about good and evil, but after all, God put his morality in our hearts from the very beginning!)

But I still ran into things that I couldn’t so easily accept. The idea of the Earth being less than 10,000 years old, for example, or that evolution was really a lie that scientists told to lead people away from God. My mind told me that it didn’t make sense. But my fellow Christians told me not to rely so much on my mind, since I’m only a human and I’m fallible; instead, I should rely on God’s immutable, perfect word. After all, it was right about so many other things; it must be right about these, too.

So I became a believer through and through. The Bible was literally true – after all, God wouldn’t lie or try to mislead us. (Disregard the verses that say God lies; I hadn’t read those yet, of course.) Science didn’t really know anything for sure; the only way we could ever be certain about what was real was to rely on God through prayer, meditation, and proper reading of the Bible.

At some point I began to wonder if my faith was true. Not if it was correct; just if I was believing the way I was supposed to, or if somehow I hadn’t quite gotten the formula right. I felt the joy and the presence of God, the reassurance in hard times, and all the things I was told I should feel. But I never really felt like God spoke to me. I spoke to him all the time. I almost always had a prayer in my mind, if not on my lips. But I never got that strong impression that he was giving me any kind of answer – the sort of certainty I heard of people who said things like “God has put it into my heart that X” or “When Y happened, I knew that it was God telling me Z”. I never had this sort of feeling! Was I doing something wrong? It tortured me. I was in fear of my soul all over again. So I pushed even harder to learn about God and the Bible. I read The Case for Christ, Darwin On Trial, More than a Carpenter, anything I could sink my teeth into. I devoured the Bible cover to cover. I took notes. I kept a journal. I prayed more fervently than ever.

I knew I was saved. I loved Jesus more than anything. I’d throw myself on the floor, weeping, thanking him through my tears for all that he’d sacrificed for someone as unworthy of grace as myself. I begged him to take over my life and guide me in whatever ways he desired. At some point, I considered leaving school to take up the seminary. I felt like I had to tell the world about what I knew about Jesus and salvation. I had to let them know about the joy that comes with a certainty that you’ll spend eternity with the loving, mighty God who made the universe and all within it. I wanted to be a beacon to them, to guide them to the hope that dwelt within me.

It was during this time that I was credulous to essentially everything – aliens, ghosts, psychic phenomena, conspiracies, alternative medicine; you name it, I probably believed in it. It never really struck me until years later that much of what I believed contradicted my religious beliefs, but that’s primarily because I never thought too long or hard about what it would mean if they were all true. Thinking deeply about things wasn’t promoted as useful by my fellow Crusaders – it was enough to trust that things were the way God wanted them to be, and leave it at that. Nothing beyond that was really important, anyways.

I spent the first two years of my college career in the Healthy Living House. The third year, I moved into an apartment with my friend J., who I’d met through some of my classes and who I really got along with. The subject of God and religion seldom arose, and when it did he tended to change it quickly. He knew what I believed, and I could tell that he didn’t believe it. Once we moved in together, things changed somewhat. I learned that he was an atheist (or at least an agnostic, I’m not sure), which in my mind put him just a step or two up from Satan himself. I was aghast. But I was also interested. I wanted to learn why he didn’t believe what I did. After all, I thought, it was so obviously true, and it brought great peace, comfort, and reassurance. Why wouldn’t everyone want that?

And so I asked him questions. He seemed eager to answer them, and to pose questions to me in return. Often I couldn’t answer him, or when I did, he pointed out the flaws in the answers I’d been taught. I tended to brush his objections aside; after all, I was basing my beliefs on something that absolutely had to be true. It was perfect, complete, immutable, infallible, and unchanging.

The thing that finally stuck with me was his accusation that the Bible wasn’t everything that had been written about God and Jesus. What a thing to say! After all, I knew that God wanted us to know everything we could about him; why would there be anything left out? I really got upset about it. I demanded that he prove what he’d said. And, of course, he did. He introduced me to the Catholic Apocrypha, pointed out the differences between their version of the Ten Commandments and ours, and introduced me to the Gnostic texts that had been left out of the Bible.

I was staggered. How could I not have learned about all this? Surely the other Crusade members had to know about these things, too; why didn’t they ever talk about them? I told A. about what J. had showed me, and she seemed nervous. She seemed to think I’d been spending too much time with him, and that it might not be a good thing for me to be living with a nonbeliever. I was shocked that she didn’t want to learn about these things! After all, if these writings were made about God and Jesus and had survived just as long as all the Biblical texts, why didn’t we ever learn about them? How did we know they weren’t God’s word, too?

The more I read the Gnostic texts, the more I was amazed. Everything I’d learned about the origins of modern Christianity was wrong. The Bible wasn’t the complete word of God; the beliefs I held weren’t the same ones people had held over the centuries; for goodness sake, the Bible as I knew it was just the result of a vote on what was and wasn’t going to be part of the canon! What was going on here? Why wasn’t there any other Christian I knew who had read these things? Why were they so violently rejected or scoffed at by any believer I mentioned them to?

I began to do more and more research into the origins of my faith. I learned about the Gnostic ideas of God – that God manifests in the universe in several forms called “aeons”, which could be principles, physical beings, attributes, and so on. I learned that so much of what we believed to be Christianity was really just stuff tacked on centuries after Jesus died, and that there were hundreds of competing early forms that were snuffed out by that which would eventually become what we know today.

I was outraged – not at God, but by my fellow Christians who were so closed-minded about these things and what they meant about the truth of our beliefs. Why did so few of them care if what they believed was true or not? Why was it more important for them to hold onto modern teachings and to abandon the truer, ancient ones?

Eventually I began to question all the things I’d been told in Crusade. After all, they were arguments based on a distorted, limited, chopped up and shuffled version of God’s word. Why should I simply accept them? The Bible was hardly a representation of what the early church was really like – rather, it was a representation of what had dominated and eliminated other early competing sects. I thought of it in much the same way as what would happen if the Lutherans (or any other modern sect) managed to eliminate the competition and rewrite the holy text to take out the bits they don’t like and add bits that sound more appealing to them. I wanted to get back to the earliest, purest roots I could find.

Worse still was when I discovered that for all my belief, there was nothing outside the Bible to confirm that Jesus had ever done anything at all that the Bible said. The only record we had of Jesus’ words was the Bible itself, and even that wasn’t good enough, because nobody who ever met him actually wrote anything that’s in the Bible today. I just basically assumed uncritically that people wouldn’t believe all these things if there weren’t evidence somewhere to back it all up, and that this assumption was enough to justify my faith. Of course, it’s not true; seldom will you find something in the Bible that has been confirmed by archaeology, and never has anything miraculous or supernatural been reinforced by any kind of discovery.

By the time I finally learned about who had really written the gospels and just how shaky the veracity of the Bible was, I wasn’t sure what to call myself anymore. I couldn’t call myself a Christian; after all, for most people, that would mean I believed (or at least believed in) the Bible. And I didn’t. I wanted to get back to what God really was, not what man had twisted him and voted him into being, and not all the unsupported mythology. I began to resent Christian apologists, because I saw in them the sort of short-sighted ignorance I had embraced myself just a short while before. Science, reason, critical thinking, and logic became more and more important as I sifted through the evidence to try to find out the truth. And when it came to my faith, these four things would become the four horsemen of the apocalypse, uprooting everything that remained of what I’d believed.

I was out of college and living on my own now, and I was close to being a Deist. I believed that God had, at the very least, made the universe. I figured that God was the spark that ignited the Big Bang, that he had perhaps guided evolution to lead it toward where we are today, and that maybe – just maybe – he was actually still around to listen to me when I prayed. Even if he didn’t bother to respond.

After a long period of consideration I began to question God even further. Could we ever really know the difference between God not answering prayer and God not being there at all? What evidence do we have that there is a soul, let alone an afterlife? Isn’t it possible that when we see something we think is unexplainable and that it must be a miracle, that instead it’s really just something we don’t understand yet that could be entirely natural? If a purely natural explanation can solve just as many problems, why do we need to tack on the supernatural? How can we possibly claim to know anything about God at all, especially when you discard the Bible as a book of fairy tales?

And so I became an agnostic. I spent hours debating on the Internet with Christians about the bible, about god, about anything. I tried to get them to give me some sort of rational reason to believe any of it, and time after time I heard the same tired, old, and worn-out apologetics that I’d heard from my fellow Crusade members. Nobody was able to tell me why their particular flavor of mythology should be considered any different from that of the Greek, Norse, and Roman mythology I’d learned about in school. And nobody could give me a reasonable answer to the problem of evil – that is, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why does evil exist, unless he allows it to?

Then my uncle died. Numb from emotional pain and confusion, and hours away from anyone I loved, I went out to a bar the night I found out to try to shift my focus from mourning to just trying to cope. And after a little while at the bar, I returned to my car, where I wept like a lost child, screaming at God to come back into my life and tell me what to do. I poured my entire being into it. I wanted nothing more than for something solid and permanent to reassure me that everything would be okay. I wanted that old comforting certainty again. And for a while, I felt like I had it. I started praying again, if not quite so fervently as before. And, of course, I noticed that the prayers continued to go unanswered beyond the realm of sheer chance and coincidence. The more obvious the result I prayed for, the less likely I would get what I needed. I had re-entered the echo chamber of prayer, and this time I realized right away that the voice I heard bouncing back was mine and mine alone.

So I lapsed back into agnosticism again. I truly wanted to believe that there was a God out there somewhere. But I was unconvinced. Through a proper application of skeptical and critical reasoning, Occam’s Razor slowly sliced bit after bit off of my faith, until there was nothing left of it but “God exists.” And I’m not entirely sure when it happened, but at some point, that fell away too. Likely it disappeared around the time I realized that I was using “God” as nothing more than a catch-all term to describe the things I didn’t know, and I convinced myself that if I didn’t know the right answer to a question, that it didn’t make any sense to just make one up. It slowly became acceptable to me to say “I don’t know” in response to the biggest questions.

I was an atheist. I no longer believed that there was any sort of god. The universe was what it was; nothing was certain or guaranteed, and we were all stuck here on our own to figure things out and make things better for each other. Prayer was just a way to try to make yourself feel good about doing nothing of real value. Rather than take comfort in the delusion that some invisible, inaudible, intangible, unknowable being was watching out for me – after all, if his eye were on the sparrow, why all the strife in the world? – instead I took comfort in the realization that I didn’t have to know everything. Not having the answers to all the deepest questions didn’t make me shallow or lost; it meant that I was being intellectually honest and open to change.

Since then I’ve been seeking out guidance from people who’ve been where I am now. I meet regularly with a nice-sized local atheist/agnostic group for coffee or beer; I read books on humanist philosophy and ethics; I devour science and politics. I’ve gone to church a few times, though it feels like an alien world to me now, and I do it mainly to see it all as an outsider looking in.

I don’t resent my parents for bringing me up the way they did. How could I? They only did it because it was how they were raised themselves. The depth my faith went to was far beyond what they’d ingrained in me. To them, God is very generic. They believe Jesus’ death saved everyone, no matter what; that everyone goes to heaven; that our dead relatives watch over us as some sort of guardian angels; that God cares more about what we do in our lives than what we believe; things like that. It’s a very liberal form of Christianity, and it gives them peace and comfort and a way to socialize with politically and theologically like-minded people. I can’t fault them for it; our minds are wired to receive pleasure from hearing people say things we agree with or we already believe. It’s all a part of being a social species. I won’t say that I want them become atheists, too, because I don’t have any right to try to take away something that gives them hope (even if I think it’s false hope).

So, what now? If there’s no God, what hope can I possibly have? Well, if this is the only life I have, I have to do everything I can to enjoy it and make it useful to myself and others while I have it. I have true moral responsibility – if I wrong someone, I have to make it right myself; I can’t just ask some uninvolved third party to forgive me. I take great pride and joy in my ability to determine what is and isn’t likely to be real or correct. Reason, logic, critical thinking, and skepticism help me understand the world and what is and isn’t worth my time.

When I was a Christian, life was just a waiting room for something better when I died. I didn’t need to involve myself in anything worldly, because I knew that nothing in this life really meant anything, apart from worshiping God. Eternity cheapens a temporary life. Now, I know that there’s no guarantee. There’s no big payoff at the end of the game; it’s the game itself that has to be meaningful. Life is precious because it’s short, and because once it’s gone we can’t get it back. There’s no do-overs. We get one shot to make a difference to the world. And yes, the world itself will eventually be gone, and everything we do is ultimately meaningless. But I think that it’s enough to try to make life a little easier, a little brighter, and a little more enlightened for the people who will come after me, and that maybe someday we as a species will reach the point where we can throw off our security blankets. After all, there’s no monster in the closet or under the bed; there’s just the big, scary, wonderful, real world out there.


Saavykas said...

*starts a slow clap*

Jake Chambers said...

Touching story, I'm happy for you that you turned out the way you did :)