"What series of events made you reexamine your faith, and how did you decide that your religion was wanting?"
Because the asker is a good friend of mine, I honestly didn't mind answering, but I asked for a few days to write it all down. I didn't want to just tell the bones of the story and miss any details that I thought were important to me, as part of my own journey into applying rationalism to religion.
Then, not an hour after my first friend asked me, a second, and then a third. I told them basically the same thing I told my first friend, and that they could expect me to answer them in the space of a week or so, because I felt it was an important thing to tell it like it happened.
This is the end result I've come to. There are arguments that you all know and have heard at least ten times. It's long and gets a bit emotional in some parts (which I find a little awkward, so I hope you can forgive me), but this is how it happened.
This is the very brief story of my deconversion. I do plan on making this essay public on my Facebook and my personal blog, but I'd like it to be read by more reasonable people first. I've posted it here just as it would appear on any public site for my religious friends to read (which is why it addresses them and any other religious people). I've had it proofread by my lovely husband, but I'd like it (if any of you endeavor to read this) if you'd let me know if you find any spelling errors. And, as always, comments are most welcome. :)
Let me start this off by saying that I'm not trying to be offensive. I'm not trying to make anyone upset, nor is my objective to 'deconvert' anyone from any faith. I know that by being outspoken about this subject, I am opening myself up to lose family, friends, acquaintances, job opportunities, and even to receive threats.
My main goal is to explain why someone who, just a few short months ago called herself a Christian is longer identifying as such. Not because I need to justify myself (I know why I made my decisions), nor do I feel like I answer to anyone but myself. But some friends have expressed confusion and a desire to understand where my change of heart and mind came from. I'm afraid that I won't be able to touch on every point that helped change my mind, because I do want to make this as brief as possible, while still being true to the way that my loss of faith happened.
This is for you, friends.
Last year, I decided that it was time to re-read the Bible, from cover to cover. It had been a long time (nearly ten years) since I had done that, and I felt that so much time had passed that I should do it again. I had done a lot of growing and changing over that near decade and I wanted to refresh my memory and my commitment to the faith I had. (I'm one of those people that reads all of a software license and the fine print of every advert. It's ridiculous to ignore the actual rules of what you're agreeing to.)
So I did. I read the book and a bit extra (Apocrypha, anyone?) and took notes. There were a few passages that I didn't remember from the last time I read the Bible, and there were some that I did remember, vividly. There were some bits that I didn't understand (I marked those to return to later) and there were some that I understood for the first time, due to recent education through classes and general reading.
There was something else I noticed for the first time while I read. Contradictions. Like, a lot of them. I considered keeping track of them, but I didn't honestly think there would be that many. There were, and it was distracting. I put it out of my mind though, because anyone who knows a little bit about the Bible, knows that it was written by a lot of different people at different times, edited again and again and then translated into so many different languages- it would be ridiculous to think that there wouldn't be discrepancies, right?
Well, no, not if you believe that the Bible was written by the hand of God.
A Few Examples of Contradictions – Are We Punished for the Sins of Others?
[Table from the Skeptic's Annotated Bible]
(After reading these all in the Bible, I didn't agree with the concept any more than I had originally, but I did think that back in the times when the Bible was written, it was assumed your family would be punished for things you did as a deterrent. I found myself making that rationalization- they used any 'law' as a deterrent/motivator for the people during that time period- more and more often.)
'Okay', I figured, 'well, “written by the hand of God” is obviously just a turn of phrase. In fact, I didn't (and still don't) know of any Christian who actually thinks that God sat down one day and wrote the Bible, because the books of the Bible are often called the name of the person who the text is attributed, even if that's not entirely accurate. God didn't literally write the Bible, he inspired many people and those people were imperfect, so the result, divinely inspired though it may be, is imperfect. That doesn't mean that it's not true.'
I moved on, and read further. God punished people for believing lies when they didn't know better (Genesis 12:17, Genesis 20:18), killed people for telling the truth (Numbers 14:35-36), hardens the hearts of people for the purpose of killing them later (because of their hardened hearts- Exodus 14:4-28) and punished children and generations of a family for something an ancestor did (Original Sin- which I had never bought into- wasn't the only instance of this, and that bothered me a lot. See the above chart for other examples).
'But!' I said to myself, 'This God was the God of the Old Testament, the God that most modern Christians don't really take into consideration.' And I thought that was true. The God that demanded and rejoiced in burnt offerings (Exodus 20:24), animal sacrifice (Genesis 15:9-10), slavery (Leviticus 27:3-7), genocide (Exodus 17:11-13), infanticide (Hosea 13:16), rape (Numbers 31:17-18 which also allows for pedophilia and sexual slavery), murder (Numbers 16:49), racism (Numbers 25:6-9), and all other manner of terrible things isn't the God of modern Christians, right? So I put it out of my mind until I got to the New Testament.
I had always been taught that the laws of the Old Testament didn't count in the New, because of Jesus. Jesus's blood was the new covenant. There wasn't any need for the old laws, right?
Except that's not what the New Testament says. In fact, Jesus himself says otherwise. (All emphasis is mine, but no changes have been made).
.“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. " (Matthew 5:17-19 NIV)
Jesus goes on in Mark (7:9-13 NIV) to criticize people who were not upholding the law by killing disobedient children:
“And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
“Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.” (John 10:34-37 NIV)
Well, alright. So the rules that any moderate Christian doesn't follow, should be followed. Even before my initial re-reading of the Bible, I was aware that most Christians today are cherry-picking which rules to follow and which rules to ignore. We don't kill people for working on the Sabbath or force rape victims to marry their attackers, or any of the 603 commandments (aside from the 10 that everyone knows so well). I've read back and forth between Christians and Jews, the Christians saying that since the Jews were the object and audience of the Old Testament, that the Christians are released from having to follow those rules. Well, even if that is so (which I think sounds more like a cop-out than anything else), why wouldn't Christians want to follow the explicit word of God? Why wouldn't they want to try to be more like God's chosen people, without giving up anything of their own religion? It's in the Old Testament, which is part of the Christian Bible. So, beside the fact that we don't normally like to go about killing people who wear cotton/poly blends, why wouldn't Christians want to try to follow the word of God as closely as possible?
The argument bothered me, the passages bothered me, and the dawning realization of the scope of how much most people don't know about the faith they claim to have was much bigger than I realized. If I asked anyone, I'm sure they wouldn't think Jesus wanted them to kill unruly children. Or, I'd be told that it was a parable or a metaphor. But, in the context, that doesn't make sense. And beyond that, there are only so many things that can be taken as metaphorical, before there isn't another option but to take it literally. “Kill these people for not following rules” doesn't lend itself to being terribly metaphorical when people were actually being killed for not following these rules.
'But', I comforted myself, 'that didn't make Jesus any less miraculous, or God any less real, that just means that the times changed and that we are no longer in need of certain rules'. The idea bothered me, but I put it aside. I told myself that one doesn't have to follow all of those rules to be a follower of Jesus, or to believe that he was the son of God, especially since most Christians flat out ignore most of the rules that they're supposed to be following- even the people who were teaching the rules.
Jesus did do miraculous things in the Bible. He turned water to wine, healed the sick, walked on water, raised the dead, and fed a huge crowd of people with a very small amount of bread and fish. He did things that were called miraculous.. But, if I'm going to do what Jesus asks in the above passage from John 10, I have to believe him only if he does the works of his father. The works of God. I have to hold him to that standard. (Because there were other people in his time frame that claimed they were the Messiah- a brief list of which can be found here and it was claimed that they did miracles as well, so I can see why Jesus would want to be held to a higher standard.)
(I think this is where the 'skeptic' switch got turned to the 'on' position. I've always enjoyed being a relatively rational person, but for some reason it never occurred to me to apply this way of thinking to religion. I suppose it's looked down upon. But as soon as it happened, I couldn't undo what I saw in my rational mind.)
I believed that God made THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE. From atoms to quasars to black holes to earthworms. Viruses, bacteria, howling monkeys and anaerobic microbes. The things we didn't understand then, and the things we're still trying to work out now. The makeup of carbon and the blueprints of stars were his doing. And I'm supposed to believe that Jesus is his son, is actually HIM? The guy who did what amounted to parlor tricks compared to God? The one who left no evidence of any of his miracles? And, in a time where other self-appointed Messiahs were also performing 'miracles'? Heck, even in the Old Testament, when Moses went to Pharoh, the High Priests of the Egyptians were able to perform little tricks too.
Even looking at Jesus's healing of the sick and lame, which I would think was the most miraculous, simply because disease wasn't understood then, his miracles were overshadowed by the fact that, if he had this power to heal the sick, well.. why didn't he heal all the sick? Why let many suffer? Why not do away with all disease? Wouldn't that have converted lots more followers? Wasn't he there to save souls in the first place? Why not do everything in his power (which should have been quite a lot, considering) to help people understand who he was? And, stepping back for just a moment, if Jesus was the son of God, and also God himself, why did he create sickness in the first place? Why allow humans, his most precious creation, suffer? Even if people were supposed to suffer for bad choices (or other peoples' bad choices, depending on if you believe God punishes people for the mistakes of others), I can't help but wonder if babies with malaria really had it coming to them.
I was uncomfortable with how disbelieving my train of thought was (as I'm sure most Christians are that are reading). I didn't like doubting Jesus, the Shepard. Jesus, the lover of the meek and mild. The perfect Prince of Peace.
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
(Matthew 10:34-36 NIV)
“But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”
(Luke 19:27 NIV)
Jesus is demanding death to those who didn't want to follow him, for whatever reason. Maybe they just didn't understand him? Maybe they weren't there for his preaching, or to witness his miracles? Maybe if Jesus had healed everyone, they would have known to follow him? Surely they would have known?
“When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
(Mark 4:10-12 NIV)
Did Jesus just say that he speaks in parables to confuse others, so that they won't be able to get forgiveness? That's not the Jesus (Prince of Peace?) of moderate Christianity- or at least, I didn't think so.
In fact, there are quite a few examples of how Jesus says he's not intending to be peaceful. There are also examples where Jesus says just the opposite.
Is Jesus Peaceful?
[Table taken from the Skeptic's Annotated Bible]
So that's a little disturbing. A lot disturbing, actually. 'But it's okay!' my apologetic mind screamed, 'Because the Gospels were written at least a generation after Jesus was gone! So chances are that he didn't actually say that!'
Okay. But then what did he say? And for that matter, how can we know he said anything? We know of people who were around at his time, because they wrote things and their contemporaries wrote about them. That's not the case with Jesus. In fact, most of the evidence that pointed to a historical Jesus (with the exception of the Bible itself) has been shown to be either not from his time, or manufactured. So while there may have been a Jewish teacher named Jesus, who was possibly crucified by the Romans, there simply isn't any evidence of him, beside the Bible. (In the interest of space, please see Evidence for the Historical Existence of Jesus Christ here.)
And the portions of the Bible with Jesus in them were written 70-90 years after Jesus died.
I looked up some Christian websites and found that most Christians weren't bothered by any of this. On one Catholic website, there was a Q&A section, and one question addressed this directly. The question was this:
“Why were the Gospel accounts written long after Jesus' death?”
The answer, given by a Father Bob, was this:
“It all depends on what you mean by a long time! The consensus of modern scholarship is that the Gospels were finalized in the form we now know them within several generations of the death and Resurrection of Our Lord: Mark shortly before AD 70, Matthew and Luke between 70 and 90, and John by the end of the first Christian century . Historically speaking that is not a long period of time. It also must be remembered that the Gospels developed in a mostly oral culture, so the stories were told and retold for years before they were committed to writing. Additionally, it is very possibly that the sacred authors drew upon early written accounts of Jesus' ministry and sayings.
The first Christians saw no need to write things down for posterity because they believed that Jesus would be returning in glory very shortly. It was only when it became apparent that the Second Coming wasn't necessarily too expected in the near future that they finally realized the importance of writing down the message concerning Jesus that they were preaching.”
The page can be found here
Now, besides the fact that Father Bob gives no sources on his information, what bothered me even more was the fact that he says that 70 to 90 years isn't a long time. Speaking geologically, historically, or even generally, he's right. But when considering the lifespan of the average human during these times is now generally said to be about from 26 to 30 years, 70 years is a lot longer than we consider it to be now.
If there was contemporary written evidence used by the writers of the Gospels, why don't we have that now? What did they take from? To be honest, the closest written documents that the contemporaries might have taken from certainly weren't Jewish (see the table below). And since Jesus was so infamous in Jerusalem, don't you think that some Roman somewhere would have written about the upstart Jewish teacher who was given over by his own people to be killed?
There are other parts of the Jesus story that would have been written about, too. Like why the men of the Jewish council would set aside their sacred traditions in order to meet on the first night of Passover. Or the slaughter of the innocents. Or those dragons Jesus did away with (okay that one is in the Apocrypha, but it's still a Jesus story). Or that Pontius Pilate released a known killer of Romans into the city. Some Roman must have written about that, surely. But we don't have any of that.
And yes, many parts of the story was from an oral tradition, but anyone who has ever told a story, a joke or just recalled an account to someone who wasn't there knows that we all change small details- sometimes not even realizing we are doing it. And these stories were being retold, by many people, as the truth. As, quite literally, gospel. Something to base one's entire life off of. Something to die for.
'Alright!' I said to myself, 'But even if there isn't any evidence of Jesus beyond the Bible, nor of his miracles, that doesn't mean that he didn't exist, and that he wasn't special. He claimed to be the son of God! Not just anyone could get away with that. And he was backed up by many different prophecies from the Old Testament!'
[Table found on Google Images]
Okay. Maybe not that unique. Jesus did have a lot of the same characteristics of lots of the gods and heroes of older oral and written traditions. And maybe those prophecies that were fulfilled, being available to the Jews of the time, were more self-fulfilling than we like to admit. And, being that they were the ones doing the writing, it's not absurd to consider the possibility of some details being changed to fit circumstances.
Considering the likelihood that the Bible had been tampered with, the stories that had been written down were from even older oral traditions, and that even if everything in the Bible had happened, there was absolutely no proof, I had a bit of a crisis.
Since I was having trouble expressing my doubts further than 'there seems to be something wrong here, but I can't quite put my finger on it', I jumped on my computer. In the Google searchbar, I typed in “reasons to believe in God”. I figured that if I found some comforting Christian website that helped me understand why none of these things added up in the Bible, that I'd regain my equilibrium, and be able to face my faith without doubts. I found a few very interesting things. Here are a handful of them (and my responses) to show how well looking for a reason to believe worked out for me..
The Earth/universe/eye/brain/human body is designed perfectly.
It does seem that way, at first, but if you examine the claim that the Earth (or universe or eye or brain or human body) is perfect, you begin to see the problems with the statement.
Earth: Earth is about in the middle of the habitable orbit (coined the 'Goldilocks Zone' because it is neither too hot nor too cold). But that habitable orbit is anywhere between about 0.95 to 1.37 AU (or 88 million to 127 million miles) from the Sun, so Mars is in that habitable orbit as well. And, just roughly estimating that there are are between 200 and 400 billion stars, there are bound to be some planets orbiting these stars, some of which are going to be randomly in the 'Goldilocks Zone'. If two out of our eight planets in our solar system have managed to end up in a habitable zone, that's a huge degree of chance that there are other planets that could support Earth-like life.
The Universe: There is nothing about the universe that suggests it was created specifically for us. While we don't understand a lot about the universe, that doesn't mean that we won't be able to understand it ever.
The Eye: This is a particular favorite of a few people who think that the human body is perfectly designed, because the eye acts like a camera, it can recognize an amazing amount of colors, and because it is hard to imagine evolution giving us such an amazing tool. Except it's really not that hard once you think about it, and once you understand basic evolution. It happened in a few stages, the first being a light-sensitive patch of cells(so as to tell when it is light and when it is dark). The second being the patch of cells arranged in a cup shape (so one could tell from what direction the light is coming). The third is the development of a pinhole-like camera, the fourth is the development of a crude lens, and the fifth is the refining of the lens.
The creatures that had slightly more cupped cells in the second phase were more likely to be able to sense movement of predators, and therefore passed on their genes more often. Their offspring (over lots of generations) were slowly beginning to focus on general shapes, and had a great advantage over the offspring who just had the cup-shaped cells. That's how evolution works. (Here's a great video showing the evolution of the eye.)
Not to mention, of course, that anyone who's taken grade school science knows that the images our eyes send to our brains are backwards and upside down. Our brain has to unscramble the images before we can make sense of them. Not to mention humans have blind spots. That doesn't seem to perfect to me, it seems like what arose out of necessity, and it worked well enough to keep it around.
The Human Body: I have heard a lot of arguments that the human body is perfect. Now don't misunderstand, I am in no way saying that it's not an amazing thing. But it's far from perfect. Our wiring is faulty at best (some nerves have to double over themselves to get where they're going), our cells have the nasty habit of liking to suddenly reproduce explosively, and we are constantly at war with mirco-organisms that we are unable to detect using just our senses. Really, just because our bodies have a good map of arteries and veins doesn't mean that our bodies couldn't be put together a lot better.
God gives us moral direction. You can't be moral without God!
Well that's a little disheartening. The idea that the vast majority of mankind is holding off murdering/raping/stealing/blowing up other people and material objects is because they're afraid of some kind of supernatural punishment? I can try to be a good person without needing to be threatened. Actually, it seems more dishonest to only be good because of the looming threat of punishment or promise of reward. Why not just try to be a good person?
If you don't believe in God and that life has a design, you don't think there's any reason to life. God and religion give life purpose!
I don't need to think I'm so important that I deserve a supernatural reason to exist. I'm not special, I'm just another mammal. I don't need a pre-deigned purpose. If I just live my life as a good person and try to make the world a little bit better, I will have done my fellow humans right, and will be very happy with that.
I think it's self-centered and narcissistic to think that in this entire universe, out of all the millions of billions of things going on right this second, that someone would assume that the grand creator of everything would have a specific purpose for me- the barest flash of an inconsequential dust speck.
Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot was an atheist!
Even if all three of these people were atheists (which isn't true) that doesn't mean that all atheists are homicidal maniacs. That's like saying because the Spanish Inquisition was run by Catholics, that all Catholics are out to torture and kill. I hope that's not true, anyway. On top of that, this 'reason' to believe in God really isn't a reason at all, it's a finger-pointing blame. There are lots of 'reasons' to believe in God that are like this one.
Would anyone die for a lie?
This argument is basically saying that the apostles (and is sometimes extended to all Christian martyrs) wouldn't have died for the sake of their faith if they had not witnessed the happenings firsthand. There are a few problems with this argument, but the simplest and most damning, I think, is that other religions have martyrs too. Does that make those religions absolute truth as well? The followers did believe it enough to die, after all.
Most people have some sort of faith in the supernatural. Even [insert any well-known name here] believes in God!
Just because the majority believes in something does not make it real, or the best option. Two hundred years ago, the white majority thought it was alright to own blacks as property. Just because the majority believed in it did not make it right or the real best option for everyone involved.
Also, even if [insert scientist, celebrity, author, sports star, politician, musician, comedian] does believe in God, so what? That doesn't prove that God exists, that just proves that that individual believes in something that isn't provable..
Something can't come from nothing! So even if everything else scientists say is true, that doesn't account for the beginning of life, so therefore God must exist.
Even though science does not at this point have a good working theory of how life came to be on Earth, there is evidence that abiogenesis is possible (see the Miller-Urey Experiment, it's really interesting). There are theories about the possibility of panspermia as well.
Neither of these hypotheses have to invoke the unexplainable or the supernatural because the universe and our world operate on very specific principles. Furthermore, to assume just because we don't know something now and therefore it must be God's doing and unknowable, is absurd. A long time ago, we thought lightning and earthquakes and hurricanes were signs that God/gods/nature/the spirits/someone else was upset with us. Now we know the causes of these things- and it's not because we've offended Poseidon.
This can also be seen as an argument from incredulity- just because someone cannot fathom how something works means that it couldn't have possibly happened naturally- which is, of course, ridiculous. For instance: I'm not that great at mathematics, though I do find the subject interesting. Just because I cannot fathom the formula that tells us the luminosity of a black hole doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It does exist. And it was created by someone who had more experience and more training in mathematics than I have. I cannot in good conscience pretend that things don't exist just because I personally don't understand them.
Religion gives people hope and makes them feel safe. Why wouldn't you want to be a part of that?
This was a big one for me, in many different ways- but there was one thing that kept bothering me about the assertion that religion gave hope and warm fuzzy feelings. It was this: even if these beliefs make me feel nice, that doesn't make them true. Do I care whether what I believe is true?
Do I care what I believe is true?
Well, yes. I do. And I realized that making the claim that one believes in God is making a claim about how you think the universe and everything in it works. It's a claim on reality, and everything around us.
To make the extraordinary claim that there is a supernatural God that created everything, knows me, knows my heart, cares about what I (and 6 billion others) do and say, and has the power to bend time and space if he so wanted to, and is all knowing, all loving, all powerful, and everything wonderful- I better have some damn extraordinary evidence. And there isn't any.
There's a book comprised of other, shorter books, written at least 1500 years ago (and some much longer before that) that gives the accounts of some desert people and the rules they had that made sure that their social construct didn't fall apart, and the God they ascribed those rules to (because why would anyone follow rules without an enforcer, and what an enforcer that can get you after you're dead!) . There are even older oral traditions in the book made of smaller books, though most of the mostly-nameless authors can't agree on details. Then the book of smaller books was translated many times, re-written, translated more, and changed by many different men at many different times, sometimes on accident and sometimes not.
A bunch of scribbles written by a desert dwelling people from the Bronze Age on, tampered with until today, is not a good piece of evidence. It is especially not a good piece of evidence for a God who wanted me to get the message that he gave to those people. Anyone with half an ounce of common sense knows that the best way to convince someone of anything is to demonstrate what you are trying to prove. Why would a God, who wanted me to know this message of his love for me, let it be conveyed 2000 years later, through a book that didn't resemble the original book that was written mostly way after the things in the book said happened, and was written by people who hadn't even seen the things happen. Why would this God, who was all powerful and all knowing leave it up to that sort of poor evidence, when he could just show me? And, on top of all of that, give me a rational mind, with which to pull this all apart and come to the conclusion that it just didn't add up?
What kind of God would do that?
If God created the world in all its splendor, why didn't he tell us about it? Why isn't there any science in the book made of smaller books? Why didn't God tell us about bacteria, about small little cells that can get inside of people and make them sick or die? Why aren't there any mentions of other people, all over the Earth? Other languages? Why just this one small place, with this one small mindset, for this one small people? Why isn't there anything in this book but wars and killings and rules on who you should kill and how and when. Interspersed are some truly lovely bits, like “don't kill”. No one else sees the irony.
And, even if God was all loving and all good and all powerful, why does he let so many suffer? Why do I see Facebook statuses day after day thanking God for a good parking spot at Wal-Mart, or thanking God that they didn't have to pay as much as they thought they would have to to get their car fixed, or thanking God that they got that payraise they'd been after for six months- when there are children dying of disease and starving in slums and getting raped or sold into prostitution. Why on Earth would a good God allow those great injustices to happen? Even people, flawed as we are, can see that these things are bad.
Their faith is being tested? That's sick. That's cruel and terrible. They're earning a better afterlife? What a disgusting and vile answer. So that the Christians can earn points from a silent observer in the sky by sending crosses and Bibles, or taking the Mother Teresa route and using dirty, work-blunted needles on the sick and dying? Giving no more than asprin to people dying of AIDS, cancer, and malaria? Why won't God hear the prayers of the people who are crying out in pain?
I have tried to remain clinical and reasonable with my answers to these (and other) reasons to believe in God. But the only time I got a good answer to the question, “Why does God grant the prayers of people in the US, who aren't dying in the street, but neglects other people who have life-threatening disease and circumstances all around them?” was when I was answered my own question with this: “Because there isn't an invisible being in the sky who cares about us. Nature isn't sympathetic, and humans are susceptible to catching diseases, being injured and dying. It's a matter of chance, and when one is born in a country with less than adequate water purity, food, and medical supplies, the chance of getting a serious sickness at a younger age goes up quite a bit. Because the world works just like you'd expect it to if there wasn't a God.”
At this point, my God was dwindling. The savior I thought I had known was a stranger. The good laws that I had always tried to follow (don't lie, don't steal etc) were eclipsed by laws that I could not in good conscience follow (kill homosexuals, kill those who work on the Sabbath, kill disobedient children, hate and abandon your family etc). The rules that I thought didn't matter because they were in the Old Testament, that actually were upheld in the New. The universe and the world acted in the way one would expect the world and the universe to act if there were just natural laws (gravity, physics) governing, with no help from any deity.
I was upset. I desperately clung to the religion that I wanted to believe in, but with these rules and laws, I couldn't bring myself to commit to it anymore. I needed answers, I needed to know about what much smarter and more educated Christians thought, and how the Methodist church in specific responded to these issues.
I decided to talk to a pastor, and try to get in touch with a few other people who I knew, that knew more about what I was reading than I did. I figured I had talked myself into a corner, that I wasn't able to see the answer because I was too close to the problem. I thought that if I talked it through with someone who was more educated than I was, that it would be more clear to me.
Well, that didn't happen. I did go to a pastor, and I did ask my questions (some of them), and I found a few things that bothered me. When I asked about the Methodist church's stance on some of the rules in the Bible (because I was at that point, still a Methodist), I wasn't given an answer. I was told the pastor's opinion. I was told other Methodist opinions. I wasn't given what I asked for. So I asked more questions. And when I wasn't getting simple “I don't know” answers, I was given more personal opinions and feelings. The few times I was given a Bible verse as an answer, I could usually pull one or two Bible verses that contradicted it. It was frustrating.
Nothing solid, nothing that helped me see where I had been wrong in my train of thought, or in my questions. All throughout the conversation, though, the pastor commended me for digging into the Bible and really trying to learn. He said that my questions were good ones, and that I was a good person (and a good Christian!) for asking questions and using the brain that God gave me to try to know Him better.
We spoke for quite a while, and somehow got to the topic of heaven. He asked if I believed in heaven and I told him that I wasn't sure. I explained that from what I understood of the body and the brain in specific, that the personality and the 'mind' were products of the brain, and that once the brain dies, the memories, thoughts, and personality go with the brain. The control center is dead, and so would be the messages sent by the control center. And I couldn't see anything that made the concept of a soul seem realistic, or even possible.
The pastor's body language and tone of voice immediately changed. He told me I relied on science too much, that I relied on logic and rationalization too heavily. He said I couldn't make sense of an emotional experience. It had to come from the heart. Reason had no place in a church, and that I had to come to terms with that myself. I had to have faith.
In my mind, all I could think was 'But that doesn't make sense! You can't base a huge commitment like religion on just a feeling! You've got to have a reason to believe what you believe, and just saying that you believe it doesn't answer the question, it begs the question!'. In my mind, I had a brief moment of sensation, a surreal feeling of going over some metaphorical bridge. I couldn't put a name to what I had just gone through, so I thanked the pastor for his time, and left.
I realized, driving home from that meeting, that the sensation I had felt was a mental demand to figure out why I believed in God. Why did I think that I knew God, and that God loved me? I made a list. It looked something like this:
I was healed when I was a small child.
I was raised in a Christian home.
Most of the rules of modern Christianity are good ones, although personally I feel that many are outdated and barbaric.
Having a God that watches over me, cares for me and loves me is a good feeling.
A few days later, I went back to that list and just about laughed out loud. It was so self-centered and basically said nothing about who God was or why I believed in him. Here are the replies that I gave to my own list:
I was healed when I was a small child- It seems that doctors and medical staff along with medical technology don't get enough credit these days. Combined with the malady itself, I wasn't on death's doorstep or anything like that, so there is no reason to believe that my general health is attributed to anything other than those doctors and medicine.
I was raised in a Christian home- and if I had been raised in a Hindu home, I'd probably be asking the same questions about those Gods. Nope, not a good reason to base my life on something.
Most of the rules of modern Christianity are good ones- while this isn't false, there is a lot of room for improvement. Not to mention that most evolutionists have shown that ethics evolve within social species, so “don't kill” isn't even that good of a rule. We would know that killing would put us on the outside of the herd, so to speak, even if we didn't have the cognizance to write it down, or to speak it out loud.
Having a God that watches over me, cares about me, and loves me is a good feeling- Just because I want these things to be true doesn't make them true. And just because I felt it in my heart and thought that I 'knew' God doesn't make God real. I recalled a line from Neitzsche, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith proves nothing.”
Just because I want it to be true does not make it true, and just because it made me feel special and good does not make it real (nor does it make me special or good).
I sat back, after replying to my own list and thought. I cared about whether or not what I believed was true. I cared about reality. I cared about proof and evidence and reason. I wanted to follow where the trail took me, and it had led me to realize that there was no proof nor evidence for a God, or any sort of supernatural deity. Not to say that there was proof against the idea. And then I wondered where that left me, the person.
I tried on the label 'agnostic', which seemed at first accurate, but after a while, I began to wonder about the implications. Pure agnosticism, as I understood it, was saying that there was no way to truly know, and therefore God had as much a chance of existing as not. That simply wasn't how I felt. It seemed that the more I really observed the world, the less likely it was that God was a part of it, or even there at all. Why, then, would there be starving children in one war-torn, disease-riddled and Christian country, while other secular countries were doing just fine, even booming?
Atheist then, I thought. There are a lot of negative connotations with the word, and I didn't want to have to defend myself against what surely would cause an uproar by labeling myself as such, but it fit the bill. I didn't believe in any gods anymore, nor the soul, other supernatural events such as miracles, or anything of the like. Not because I wanted to disbelieve, but because there was no evidence to back the claims up. If the evidence showed that these things were real, then I would change my mind. I felt like that was the most rational and reasonable way to go about it.
That night, I was in bed, and the thought occurred to me that eventually, I was going to die. It was a literal 'dark night' for me. I was anxious, I was scared. What would death be like? Would it hurt? Would I be alone? This wasn't the first time I had thought about these things, but the point of view was quite changed. What would nothingness feel like? I didn't want to not exist anymore! I liked existing! I liked being me, having a mind and an opinion and a voice to speak it! I didn't want to disappear into nothingness, I didn't want to simply vanish into the past, as a memory. I didn't want to die.
The next day, tired and a little frazzled, I collected myself and made an effort to look at things through a rational eye. I read a lot of atheist and godless literature that talked about death and dying. I didn't want to hear some reassuring talk about deities and an afterlife. I wanted something that addressed the struggle I had gone through. I wanted to know that somewhere else, someone who had thought the same things I had thought and worried about the same things I had worried about had come through. Not only come through, but been comforted while still facing reality. I wasn't looking for anything to believe in. I don't think I can just believe in something anymore. But I wanted to know that it was possible to come out of the realization like the one I had, and to not be negative or bitter. I didn't want that. I wanted something that addressed the human condition without making it either into a fairy tale or a bleak story with an even bleaker ending.
Some of these essays and papers I found were for people who really were in the process of dying, the sick, injured or elderly. Some were very aloof, and questioned why someone should be afraid of death. I don't think I'm afraid of death, but as someone that's been alive as long as I can remember, I don't really look forward to the day when my metabolic processes stop and I am no longer a living thing. I was a little offended by a few, that suggested that we shouldn't care about death at all. Death does happen to us all, and it is an eventuality, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't care about it, or at least, not to me. But I'm the sort who likes to face things head-on.
One woman, Greta Christina, wrote about how death in a lovely, very comforting way. She said,
“I don't know what happens when we die. I don't know if we come back in a different body, or if we get to hover over time and space and view it in all its glory and splendor, or if our souls dissolve into the world-soul the way our bodies dissolve into the ground, or if, as seems very likely, we simply disappear. I have no idea. And I don't know that it matters. What matters is that we get to be alive. We get to be conscious. We get to be connected with each other, and with the world, and we get to be aware of that connection and to spend a few years mucking about in its possibilities. We get to have a slice of time and space that's ours. As it happened, we got the slice that has Beatles records and Thai restaurants and AIDS and the Internet. People who came before us got the slice that had horse-drawn carriages and whist and dysentery, or the one that had stone huts and Viking invasions and pigs in the yard. And the people who come
after us will get the slice that has, I don't know, flying cars and soybean pies and identity chips in their brains. But our slice is no less important because it comes when it does, and it's no less important because we'll leave it someday. The fact that time will continue after we die does not negate the time that we were alive. We are alive now, and nothing can erase that. “
In fact, that piece of writing touched me so deeply that I made sure to write down that I wanted it read at my funeral. (The whole article and website can be found here. Some of the articles are NSFW, but I don't see why that article wouldn't be okay.)
And then I couldn't force myself to worry about death. I found myself wanting to be more engaged with my friends, wanting to do more within my community, wanting to help more people more often. Instead of praying for someone, I wanted to actively do something for them. I didn't want to mumble something to a god who might be there, but probably isn't. I wanted to do good for the sake of doing good. And that's what I've based my life off of now. Being the best person I can be, and treating others (other people, other animals, the planet I'm on) well. I don't think we should look for rewards for doing something right. The reward is the right that is done, and I get to share that with others by doing right by them.
So here's the ending of my little tirade. I hope it's made sense in the sensical parts and was distressed in the distressing parts. It was terrifying, taking that first step away from what I was raised to believe, what most of my friends and family believe, and I'm going to have to defend my stance probably for the rest of my life. I'm alright with that.
If you're a religious person and you're reading this, I hope I've explained well why I'm not among your ranks anymore. I hope I have made you think just a little bit, about your own faith and why you believe what you do. Know that my perception of you as a person has not changed, and that I still want to maintain our relationship, whatever it may be. I don't want to cut all ties with my religious friends, and I hope that you don't want to cut all ties with me. I hope we can continue to keep our communication open about this and other topics. Feel free to email me, message me, Facebook me, or even call or text me if you want to discuss this or any other topic. Thanks for reading.