There have been people I know that have left their professed faith in God, possibly due in part to my own apostasy. I feel I owe those people something, to help them get acclimated to a worldview that is perhaps frightening on first glance.
So this week I'll be talking about "Whence Atheism"; where it comes from, why it makes sense, and what it means to a person living a life with no God.
I've had people ask me about my reasons for converting to Atheism; if I am to discuss what I have come to believe about religion and theism, that has caused me to reject both of them, I think it is important to understand why.
What a Christian will often assume when I say that I am an Atheist who was formerly a Christian, is that I do in fact believe in God, but I'm angry with him. Some kind of horrible event happened to be that put my faith to the test, and my faith failed. That I am hurt, and broken, and if I would only open my heart to God I could be healed and filled with the Holy Spirit.
A popular theory, if the person happens to know that I am gay, is that I'm angry at God with regard to my sexuality. But I needn't be, they explain; depending on the side of the aisle they stand on, they either tell me that renouncing my urges is GOOD for me, and God can help and make me whole again, or that God himself never actually said anything anti-homosexual -- at least not in the RELEVANT parts of the Bible -- and I shouldn't be angry at God for the actions of man.
I can't blame people for making those assumptions. They are the assumptions/arguments I myself would have made as a Christian. But that doesn't make them correct (as I suppose I'm going to argue, that's part of what makes them incorrect).
I'm going to try to keep this short but I can't make any guarantees. I want to make sure it's all very clear. We'll start with how I became a Christian.
I was born in America. My parents took me to Sunday school, I was baptized when I was five, I went to a Lutheran grade school from 5th-8th grade, and a Catholic high school. The story of Jesus was as much a part of my life, and the view of history that I accepted, as the story of Washington and the cherry tree. It wasn't a matter of fundamentalism where I INSISTED that the story was fact against all contradictory evidence. Until I was in high school, it never occurred to me to even question it.
Come high school I started suffering from some heavy-duty depression. Some things were really bad, some things just seemed bad, and everything was hard to deal with. It was genuinely a clinical depression I was suffering with. It would come and go with no particular cause, and when I was depressed life just crushed me.
One particularly bad night I was crying in my bed, as I did with unfortunate frequency. I thought of what I had been taught my whole life about God, and Christ, and how all you needed to do was open your heart and they would be there. Even though I was a "Christian" all growing up, I had always believed in the truth of Jesus' existence and how he loved us all, I had never actually called out to God in time of need. But I did so that night. And my tone was accusatory.
"I was taught that you would be there for me!" I said -- and yes, I did say all of this aloud. "But I've never felt you! Please help me! I need you, why haven't you been with me?"
And suddenly, I felt God. I was suddenly comforted, I felt warm and unafraid, like someone strong and kind had taken me in their arms and was holding me. And I sensed an answer to my question; it wasn't a voice, and it wasn't words, but somehow I still understood: "You've never asked me before."
Well, that was it. God was real and was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I was in it for the long haul.
Anyone who knows me knows that I was fully devout in my beliefs. I TOTALLY believed in Christianity. I COMPLETELY accepted the existence of God and Jesus Christ -- not only accepted, but felt I had a deep and profoundly moving personal relationship with him/them/however it works.
I was never a fundamentalist, though, and I never accepted things on blind faith. God didn't give us the capacity for logic to ignore it. So if something didn't make sense, I had to find an answer. I wasn't afraid that the answer would make me lose my faith -- for one thing, I knew that the truth was what it was, and so there was no way anything else was going to derail that. And if it turned out to NOT be the truth, well, it would be good to find that out. I was not afraid to question. And in most cases, I had an answer.
To make a brief example, I believed, and had strong arguments for the case, that the Bible was NOT anti-gay. I read the Bible, researched the three verses that address it, did the whole nine. I could tell you, logically, with proof, that the Bible's condemnation of homosexuality was introduced by human translators. Not that proof and logic mattered to the people who really wanted to believe that the Bible gave them free rein to hate.
I DEBATED for the side of Christianity, with some serious dyed-in-the-wool Atheists. I could come back and respond to anything they said, and God help me (pardon the expression), my arguments made sense to me at the time.
I loved God so much, and felt his love for me so powerfully, that worship services regularly moved me to tears.
So. What the hell happened?
Whatever else I may believe in, I believe in Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth. I believe that an understanding of mythology, as a storyteller, is essential if I am ever going to have anything of value to say. So in the midst of my holy rolling, I read up; some mythology books but mostly his analyses. There's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces", of course, but there's also the lesser-known (a pity, since it's his magnum opus) "The Masks of God", a four-volume discussion of the evolution of religion/mythology.
At one point in one of his books -- I forget which one -- Campbell mentions an anecdote about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. I don't remember the specifics -- which is sad, since it turned out to be momentous for me personally -- but essentially they had a conversation about how so many religions shared the same basic structures, values, and intentions, and what made Christianity so special? Tolkein responded with, paraphrased, "It just is."1
But I had to think about that. Having read so much, put so eloquently and lovingly by Campbell (who believed in none of the religions but was a joyful disciple to all of them), I had to ask myself: is there anything about Christianity that makes it, objectively and intrinsically, more valid than any other religion?
Never one to shy away from a question like that, I put it to the test. I looked at the criteria by which I had dismissed -- out of hand, for the most part -- all the other religions and mythologies of the world. I no more believed in Allah or the savior-less Yahweh of the Torah than I did Thor or Zeus. Fairly put to the same criteria by which I had rejected the other faiths, did Christianity rise above and prove itself as distinct, and obviously true?
Intellectual honesty forced me to admit: the answer was no.
This turns out to be a quote by one Stephen Roberts, a very famous one and a conclusion I reached independently, but would have stated less eloquently:
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
But, I had FELT God's presence! He had come to me and comforted me! How could that have not been true?
I realized: I had attributed that response to the Christian God only because that was the God I had culturally been raised in. If I had been raised a Muslim, I would surely have been certain Allah had spoken to me. Etc. Because it wasn't a moment of faith, just an encompassing feeling of well-being. I chose to assign its source; no such source was revealed to me.
Around the same time as I was wrestling with this stuff, I had been reading up on Scientology and discovered that one of the reasons they are successful in brainwashing people into what is CLEARLY an insane cult is that their "auditing" process can successfully trigger that kind of profound, so-called "religious" experience. Buddhist monks are capable of triggering it through deep meditation.
Surely such an experience could not be intented to validate the faith of the person experiencing it -- because people who held totally contradictory (and in some cases, clearly fabricated) beliefs were all prone to experience it. So what did it mean?
Well, it meant it was something inside us that did it, it was us transcending ourselves and getting a glimpse of something more. I don't really know what that "something more" could be, but when I had that thought, I had another religious experience. I had basically managed to bring one on willingly. So one led me in, and the other led me out.2
I'm willing to be convinced. I was able to be convinced, albeit indirectly, that my faith was misplaced, and I am perfectly open to being convinced that there is, in fact, a God. But to date I have neither found nor been given any compelling evidence to suggest that this is the case.
All the seams seem clear to me when the story seemed airtight before. It's interesting to me to enter conversations on this subject from "the other side" now, and see the same arguments that I know I used to use, and see so clearly the flaws that I never saw before. I take it as a challenge to see if I can get that person to see them too.
That's the challenge I will be undertaking in my next few posts.
I hope that this has been clear and interesting. If anyone has any questions, or rebuttals, please don't hesitate to e-mail me or post them in the comments.
- I may be mistaken, but I believe it was this exchange that inspired C.S. Lewis to go into his career of apologetics. If you have any information on this exchange or if it was related to Lewis' ministry, let me know.↩
- As it turns out, some neurologists have even been able to find and stimulate the part of the brain that regulates these religious experiences. Their "God Helmet" has created a very real and moving experience in their experimental subjects. This doesn't disprove the existence of God, but like the rest, it destroys any notion of certainty or necessity.↩