This week my wife's been out of town, and I decided a couple of weeks ago to 'retire' from personal training on weekends. So this weekend has been a much-need indulgence in pure, unadulterated laziness. I've been playing the new Deus Ex and Civilization games, and stretching my legs with a little house cleaning so my wife doesn't return home to a full-on bachelor pad.
This morning I was thinking about the types of discussions I've had over the years; lots of them are esoteric trudges through the mires of obscure philosophy that inevitably end in impasse, but it wasn't always that way. Originally, my blog was a way for me to reflect on my own personal journey away from religious faith.
Recently, my wife and I were talking about having kids. The cost and time demanded by a small business has a way of putting a damper on such things, but we took a moment to reflect on how, even though our lives aren't perfect, they're pretty damn awesome. These are the halcyon days. I'm a big believer that it's a mistake to live one's life chasing happiness; happiness is something you have to create in the present. I bring this up because my wife and I are both non-believers, and as a young Christian I'd have found it simply inconceivable that I could live a happy, fulfilling life without my faith. But, like so many other apostates, my loss of faith was liberating. So today, I'd like to revisit that journey.
The early days
That changed in the early 90s when we moved to another part of town, just up the street from a large Presbyterian church. My parents started attending regularly, and toted my brother and I along as well. But even here, religion was pretty abstract to me — sort of a nod to our shared desire to be good people and see each other in the afterlife. When my parents insisted I attend confirmation class, I rebelled in appropriate defiant-teenager fashion. I attended once, and hated it. I didn't like anyone there, and it just seemed completely pointless. My parents' insistence that it was a cherished tradition didn't stand a chance against my general social awkwardness, and this led to a huge fight with my father that left me grounded for two weeks.
During this time, my brother had befriended a guy who worked at a local music store, who happened to be music director for the youth outreach at a local evangelical church (in case you're wondering, the parent church was Higher Dimensions, which dissolved after Carlton Pearson, its head pastor, embraced Universalism). Sunday nights hosted an event called the "Power House" at a small building around the corner where Christian rock bands played and young people could play pool, arcade games, and eat burgers. I had attended plenty of times, but only as a positive social outlet — not because I was particularly devout.
When I was grounded, my brother asked me if I wanted to attend "Hellfighters" with him on a Saturday night, at the same building as the Power House. This was a group that had started as a small Bible study before growing into a fairly large sized evangelical youth service. Because it was a church function, my parents approved. And because I wanted to get the hell out of the house, I enthusiastically agreed.
The evening started with a small-group Bible study. Afterwards, everyone congregated in the main event room for "worship", and this was my introduction to evangelicism. After a fiery sermon from a guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, music started and shit got real. People 'speaking in tongues', waving their hands in the air, falling on their faces (which my brother explained as being 'slain in the Spirit'), etc. And that's where I ended up — on the floor, in this bizarre state of prayer-worship. I loved it.
The soldier for Christ
That was in February of 1994. In the months that followed, I became an enthusiastic and devout Christian. I carried two Bibles with me to school, and started a lunch time Bible study with friends. I wore Christian t-shirts. I (regrettably) trashed some of my 'secular' CDs. At one point, I was attending church functions five nights a week. My schedule looked something like this:
Monday: Small-group discipleship
Wednesday: Higher Dimensions youth service
Thursday: Large-group discipleship
Sunday: Church with family in the morning, and/or Guts service in the evening.
It consumed me. I frequently spent my evenings in those prayer-worship sessions, sometimes lasting an hour or more. One of our music directors made a cassette (they still had those) called, not ironically, In the Closet, which was soothing new-agey music meant for (obviously, guys) your prayer closet.
But despite being deeply absorbed in the community, my Christianity had a shallowness to it that, over time, began to tug at me more and more. This hit me hardest the most one night when we were out 'witnessing' at a local mall. A child fell. My friends tried to intervene, saying they could could pray and and God would 'heal' her. The woman was justifiably not amused. A security guard walked us out and insisted that while he was himself a devout Christian, there's a time and place for that and we'd crossed a line. My friends were indignant, but I sympathized with the woman. I like sharing my faith, but I didn't want to shove it down people's throats. I thought about the leaders in the church I most admired, and they were the ones who had gone to seminary and spent their time educating others. Hey, I thought, Maybe I could be a youth pastor someday!
This spurred a more serious inquiry into my faith. If I was going to be a leader in the church, I needed a deeper understanding. It wasn't enough for me to just regurgitate the platitudes of others; I wanted to have a clear understanding of the theology of my religion — to know precisely why we practiced Christianity the way we did, why we were convinced that we had the most honest and real understanding of the Bible — something those people going through the motions in stuffy pews would never understand.
In my late teens I went through a prolonged bout with depression and anxiety. I withdrew from social events, including the church. During this time I turned to self-study, reading books by C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, and several others in addition to my usual devotionals and study guides. I read the Bible intently. But, in a digression from the evangelical ethos which insisted that I restrict my reading to Christian sources (since the Devil was always trying to undermine my relationship with God), I also read up on comparative religion, Eastern and Greek philosophy, and read several books by famed rabbi Harold Kushner.
I remember being a bit surprised by how many parallels there were between other faiths and my own. It was hard to me to fathom how, if these people were really so separated from God, they could by living by principles that aligned so closely with those I aspired to. Weren't these heathens? Heretics? Lost souls?
Why are there so many religions?
During this time, one question pulled at me more than any other: Why are there so many religions? At first blush, this may seem like an innocuous question. Certainly I was very familiar with apologetic arguments for the exclusivity of Christianity and various justifications for the manner in which God had apparently chosen to reveal himself. But those arguments didn't do much to explain why there were so many religions in the first place.
I knew that humanity had been around for a very long time — many many thousands of years before civilization (it's actually at least 100,000 years). I knew we'd started in Africa and spread slowly across the globe. So why didn't God reveal himself when everyone was still in Africa? Or why didn't God appear in more than one place? What was so special about the people of Israel?
I noticed the peculiarly obvious fact that it was never other cultures that proclaimed the people of Israel as "God's chosen". It was, not surprisingly, the people of Israel themselves. Other cultures begged to differ. And indeed, in studying comparative religion, I found that it wasn't all that uncommon for cultures to think that they were uniquely on the right side of the divine in a lost world.
But perhaps most damning was that even if God didn't reveal himself to everyone, nobody else seemed to agree with the Jewish people about what humanity's problem was in the first place. The very concepts of sin and atonement, while they certainly have parallels in many religions, were certainly not ubiquitous. Scientists on opposite sides of the planet can, without any contact with one another, make the identical discovery about the world. The objectivity of scientific truth means that it is, at least in principle, available to all. Religious truth, however, seemed to be more a matter of cultural circumstance.
Of course, as I mentioned, I was familiar with justifications for this inconvenient truth. God had his reasons, so we're told, and apologists are keen to speculate upon them — even if they frequently attached qualifiers about divine hiddenness (no one, after all, really knows the mind of God). The problem is that these justifications only work if you already assent to the claims of Christianity. I imagined myself as an outsider, as someone from one of those other cultures completely isolated from Christianity, asking those same questions. Answers were not forthcoming then, and nearly twenty years later they are still absent. Divine hiddenness, indeed. I simply could not reconcile the idea that a God who is maximally loving, who desired all of humanity to come to him and be saved, would choose to reveal the One True Faith to a single tribal culture in the Bronze Age.
This led me to consider another possibility, one that was rather discomforting: that there wasn't anything special about Judeo-Christian faith. The reason it looked like a product of cultural circumstance, just like every other religion on Earth, is because it is. Certainly that's not the answer I wanted to believe, but even my cursory understanding of Occam's Razor made it clear that this was the answer that made the fewest assumptions. Theologians and apologists had not been able to provide the answer I was looking for, and despite my best efforts I couldn't make sense of it myself. I turned to the last place I thought answers might lie: the Bible.
Want to rattle your faith? Read the Bible.
Perhaps I should have been prepared for the fact that answers to my many-religions questions were not forthcoming in the Bible. It was, to say the least, disheartening. Instead, I turned to the theology of the faith itself, particularly the book of Hebrews. Hebrews explains how the death of Christ is wed to the Old Testament covenants that involved ritual animal sacrifice. The Jewish people sacrificed animals to appease the wrath of God brought upon them by their sins; Christ was a perfect sacrifice that allowed the old covenant to be discarded and a new one, based on faith, was forged.
Except, none of this made any sense to me at all. Why did God want ritual animal sacrifice in the first place? What does that have to do with forgiveness? Perhaps, I thought, God wanted people to make a sacrifice — farm animals, in those days, were precious resources. But that explanation evaporates with Christ, since he took the sacrifice upon himself. What was so special about the "blood of Christ"? What did that have to do with God's willingness to forgive people? And why did God spend centuries on ineffectual covenants in the first place? How does an omnipotent deity "sacrifice" anything at all — Jesus could have, conceivably, poofed himself right back into existence or simply refused to die in the first place. Generally when we mortals talk about "sacrifice", it means something quite different. We don't get to come back a few days later and float into the clouds.
|My brother and I being mature people in our "Hellfighter" days|
Worse, Christianity holds that Christ is God. How can God sacrifice himself to himself to fulfill his own covenant? A covenant whose terms were, as far as I could tell, completely arbitrary! Adding insult to injury is the fact that modern Christianity (generally) holds that humans are "fallen", and born into sin. Even those few who reject Original Sin still accept the Biblical decree that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". In other words, the system is rigged. You're a sinner, and there's nothing you can do to change that. But God can save you, as long as you assent to the belief that he created a convoluted system of arbitrary covenants and "sacrificed" himself to himself to appease himself of the terms he created so he could forgive you for being what you had no choice to be — a flawed human being. I should point out that it's utterly irrelevant whether someone believes it's all literal, as in the "penal substitution theory of atonement", or they believe it's either all or in part metaphorical. Either way, it doesn't make an iota of sense.
Confused and frustrated, I sought out some church leaders to discuss these matters. One chaplain, in particular, was particularly patient with me as I probed for answers about the blood of Christ, ritual sacrifice, and atonement. But he couldn't offer anything more than trite platitudes about having faith, that there are some thing we just don't understand. Maybe that was good enough for him, but I couldn't assent to beliefs that were, on their face, ridiculous. Frankly, I didn't think it was too much to ask that a logically coherent explanation of basic Christian theology was forthcoming. These aren't tertiary issues of theology, after all — they're the fundamentals of what Christianity is in the first place.
I never chose to abandon my Christian faith. It just sort of left me. I remember one day I was reading the Bible, searching for answers and only feeling like each passage added to the mire. My apostasy was an epiphany: I don't believe this anymore. I had tried my best to make sense of it. I had read books by theologians, consulted with church leaders, and scoured the comparatively sparse 90s internet for answers. Above all, I had spent countless hours reading the Bible itself. But despite the pastoral calls that we follow the book of Proverbs and lean not on our own understanding, it felt dishonest of me to try and pretend like this stuff didn't matter, to just try to forget about it and believe anyway.
It was then that I fell upon an empowering revelation: I didn't owe Christianity anything. It was not my duty to writhe and squirm under the weight of unanswerable questions. If it didn't make sense to me, I was under no obligation to believe it. I didn't need to earn my way to Christian understanding; Christian claims had to earn my assent. After all, it's not like I was being unreasonable; I wasn't asking God to appear before me and give me a divine Bible study. I just wanted coherent, sensible answers to some of the most simple, obvious questions any Christian can ask. I could not will myself to "just believe".
At this point, my earlier studies on comparative religion cemented themselves more deeply. It was clear now that the reason Christianity appears not to make any sense is because it doesn't. The reason Christianity (and Judaism, by extension) appears to be the product of and a reflection of the time and culture in which it emerged is because it is.
I left Christianity behind. As I was heading off to college, I felt like I could start anew. I was going to make new friends and didn't have to surround myself with Christians or attend church services. And sure enough, I found it remarkable how many new friends I made who shared my skepticism of religion. While I had been worried that I was going to have a hard time finding my place without religion, nothing could have been further from the truth.
I remained an agnostic theist for almost ten years after my initial deconversion, mainly because I believed that some kind of god — even if only a deistic one — was necessary to explain the existence of the universe, morality, and the complexity of life. It wasn't until I started studying science more deeply that I realized that the answers provided by a "god" were no answers at all, only raising more problems than they resolved. Around 2008, I began to feel comfortable calling myself an atheist.
Life without religion
As a believer, I couldn't conceive of life without faith. God got me through my toughest times. But in the aftermath of my apostasy, I realized that it wasn't a deity — it was my own strength of will, along with my friends and family. Today I live a wonderful, fulfilling, happy life completely free of religion. Far from being depressing, I've found that I'm much happier not having to perform the constant mental gymnastics required to ease the cognitive dissonance I felt as a believer. I have a deeper appreciation of my life, knowing that it's the only one I have — not some preparation for an eternity I probably wouldn't want anyway.
The funny thing is, life without religion is otherwise the same as life without it. I still love music, but I don't go into guilt trips if I want to listen to blasphemous metal. I go to operas and symphonies, watch movies and TV, play guitar, spend time with my wife, go to the park with our dogs, play video games, cook, read fiction, work out (a lot), tend to our gym and its members, and hang out with friends. Many believers love to caricature non-believers as miserable nihilists, but the truth is that I, and all the other non-believers I know, are just as happy and fulfilled as anyone else. About the only time when religion even comes up is when some self-righteous politician says or does something atrocious and tries to justify it with appeals to their religion. My personal interest in religion and philosophy is pretty well confined to the internet and rarely bleeds into my day to day life.
There's a reasonable caveat in all this, in the spirit of intellectual honesty: maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I just didn't talk to the right theologian or read the right books. Maybe I didn't think about my questions the right way. Maybe there is some evidence or argument that I've yet to familiarize myself with. But the reality is that there are only so many hours in the day. I'm not going to re-convert, ever, because at this point I really just don't care. I gave it a sincere try. I did everything I could to hang on to my faith in the face of crippling doubt, and I don't regret trusting my own capacity to think for myself. In the years since, I've found subsequent engagements with believers to be similarly frustrating — the shifting goalposts, the evasions, the equivocations. If there's anything that has a snowball's chance in hell of happening, it's getting a theologian to provide a straight answer to a simple, direct question. But if upon my demise I'm whisked to judgment and find out I was wrong, then I hope God would see my sincerity and empathize with my frustration. If not, then I would happily cannonball into the lake of fire and roast with all the other heathens, because I surely wouldn't kneel before a petty tyrant anyway.