I’m almost 50 years old and I’m still not as open about some subjects as I’d like to be.
The ‘tricky’ subjects in life for me usually relate to childhood, family, or relationships, and certainly religion is deeply connected to the first two.
I don’t really want Mom to read this, not because I want to hide my beliefs from her, but only because I know it may hurt her to read this. But I’ve warned her about this blog, and of course it’s her decision whether to read it or not.
In fact, for most people who enjoy what I write, this is quite a departure, so feel free to just skip this. It’s not particularly well-organised, and it’s almost entirely devoid of humour. Maybe you should go watch a basketball game, or play some backyard cricket? Or even better, plant a tree?
The point of this
I am not writing this to convince someone else that I am right. I don’t think you can really understand what you believe unless you can explain it to someone else. And I believe that publishing is a true test of the strength of your belief and having to digest your own thinking.
It’s a bit of my personal coming out story. While it’s certainly not anywhere as difficult as coming out as gay, to declare myself an atheist is no small matter for me, given my personal history.
I am sure than many people will take my writing the wrong way. I pride myself on the clarity of being able to communicate what I believe, but I cannot predict nor control the feelings of the small number of people who read my blog. I do not claim to be omniscient nor infallible (and I don’t believe that any being is), nor do I claim to be the intellect or philosopher of any depth comparable to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens.
This is simply my story, and my beliefs.
My father was a Southern Baptist Missionary, and both he and my mother deeply believed, and dedicated their lives to their beliefs from an early age.
Growing up, religion was the most important thing in our family’s life. Nothing else even came close. We attended church three times a week, with my father leading most of the services. Dad, of course, worked at the church Monday-Friday as well. Children of ministers or missionaries are often problem kids for a variety of reasons. I was a pretty good kid, though I was often confused with my parents serving in a double role as the representative of god in your community. Is Dad upset at me? Is god? Both?
I don’t fault my parents for my childhood. I had an exceptionally lucky childhood. I won the “birth lottery” in so many ways. My parents made it clear they loved me every day of my life, and I know they did what they believed was the absolute best for me, and they gave me all the opportunity in the world to pursue my dreams. I cannot thank them enough. While the erosion of my beliefs created a distance between my family and me in my twenties, they did nothing to cause this, other than holding a belief so strongly that I could never imagine being able to have an open conversation about it.
Were my father alive, this would be immeasurably harder to write. Dad did not believe in grey areas, and neither did the religion he served.
In the Southern Baptist religion, the “profession of faith” is the most important event of your life. You ask Jesus into your heart, and accept him as your personal saviour, and then, when you die, you will go to heaven. This is a massive oversimplification of the belief, but to a six year old boy, this is about as much as you can understand, along with the belief that this is the biggest accomplishment in life and the best thing you can do.
You are conditioned to look for this experience, and you wait for anything to pattern match what you’ve heard about every Sunday since you could understand a sermon.
I was walking home from the school bus one day, and as I rounded a corner of the dusty gravel road, I felt a feeling come over me that I could not explain. So the most natural explanation for me was that it must be god. And I’d been taught that when god asks, you say yes. So, as a six year old boy, I said yes.
A week or two later, I made a public profession (you come to the front of the church during the “invitation hymn” at the end of the service to tell the whole church) and followed that up two years later with being baptised. The concept that a six year old or eight year old could make or even understand the meaning of that decision still shocks me. I was barely emotionally aware at age 30, and my close friends might still debate my ability to understand my own actions today.
With those two milestones out of the way, I no longer had to worry about the big stuff, and could go on with life. I had a talent for understanding systems, and for academic work, and Sunday School was just another chance for a gold star. I accepted what I was told, won awards in statewide Bible-drills, and every once in a while I’d feel that feeling that I thought was god.
My comfort with organised religion eroded rapidly during high school, as the politics of churches were often on par with the pettiness of student government, and I saw more than my share of hypocrisy in myself and others. I heard a popular pastor talk about how god had created AIDS to rid the world of gay people. Even as homophobic as I was at the time, this attitude didn’t show any of the compassion of the New Testament. I heard bizarre interpretations of the book of Revelations. I realised that most people in churches did not appear to be rational or open minded or any better than people outside the church (and often, worse). I saw that this ‘holy book’ wasn’t written clearly and seemed to confuse humanity rather than paint a clear picture. I saw the church preach against movies it didn’t understand. The church, the members and its teachings were not governed by thought or divine insight. They was governed by rules, dogma, opinion and the desire to control.
I silently moved away from believing that the Bible was sacred or accurate in high school, to thinking that maybe some parts of the New Testament were true, thinking that there could be a god, but that it was less and less knowable what the truth was.
Most of all, I knew that what I had felt as a child, was just ecstasy. I had felt it so many times since, and many having nothing to do with god, and in fact I had felt it in a number of situations where my behaviour was in direct violation of the tenets of the church. There was no one in my heart, there was no one talking to me, there had just been just a conversation in my own mind, and I’d played both sides.
The End of Belief
In university, I retained some hope that being surrounded by more intelligent people might help me see examples of religion or a rationale for belief without the blind devotion and steady diet of irrational thought. It was disappointing — even among religious people who held Ph.Ds, there was timidity or simply the inability to even approach doubt or admit the contradictions and antiquated thinking in the Bible.
I studied and learned more about the Bible than I had in Church, and all the things they won’t tell you inside the bubble of conservative Christianity.
I still went to church at times. I tried again in Austin, Texas — I found a very liberal church with lesbian deacons and even a Sunday school teacher who would admit that often the bible didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
I was always willing to listen to both sides (and still am today).
I traveled to other countries and saw that your religion was more a function of your parents than your values. The idea of the spiritual birth lottery, where salvation is more likely because you were born in the right family, went against any idea of spirituality or fairness or a just divinity. I could not worship or respect a god who arbitrarily damned or saved people because they didn’t get the same chance or exposure to “the truth” as others. The hippie notion of accepting all religions is ridiculous — they do not agree on the most fundamental things. The idea that one religion is right and that the afterlife is largely a function of the belief of your parents is also not something I can accept.
From Agnosticism to Atheism
The obtuse nature of the Christian religion made it impossible for me to believe in Christianity. If the Bible was divinely inspired and the selection of its’ books guided, why would you ever include Revelations and confuse 99% of your followers, who can’t even parse it? The suffering of humanity made it impossible for me to believe in a god. Maybe something spiritual existed, but all the religions I’d seen didn’t have any credibility to me, and I wasn’t going to keep looking for something without any evidence.
While a number of atheists proclaim to be spiritual, even Sam Harris, I do not. I no longer believe there is anything except science, in the laws of physics that govern the universe, biology, physics, and all the other wonderful spaces where we still have so many questions, but are finding real answers each and every day, and continuing to challenge the answers we have. I understand Sam’s point that we can reach a level outside of the norms of human consciousness, but I think calling it spirituality is confusing. And here, I’ve fallen into semantics. Ahem. Back to the topic at hand.
I do believe that humans appear to, by default, want to believe in something bigger, and that it is very difficult to look life in the eye and realise that there is no meaning, and that for humans, just believing in something is easier than accepting the truth.
The idea that any being would create the Earth we live in (“Intelligent Design”), and allow the suffering that exists, is something where religions have spent countless hours justifying. Man’s Search for Meaning is often cited as a great explanation, though for me it does little but convict any deity who would have created the environment for suffering and genocide not just in Nazi Germany but throughout history. To me, the book of Job is simply the end justifying the means (letting god “play god”), and it is more tragedy that a hero’s journey. Why Job continues to worship an all powerful being who let him suffer is beyond me.
The fact that so many people cannot imagine a better existence, devoid of suffering, for all beings on Earth, and still believe in benevolent omnipotence, is still a shock to me. I have heard phrases like, “In order to give humans free will, god had to….” which again strikes me as not understanding omnipotence. If something is omnipotent, then everything is to their choosing. They have chosen to let you suffer, to kill your child, to reward people who harm others. They are responsible for everything, because they are omnipotent.
The Towing Jehovah series (spoiler alert, skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to read it) begins with the body of god falling into the Atlantic Ocean, then being towed away into the polar ice caps by the Catholic church, then eventually being put on trial for crimes against humanity. The prosecution wins their case at the end, simply by presenting the fact that if god is capable of creating paradise, which is supposedly what heaven would be, then god could have just created paradise and didn’t need to create all the other artefacts of life, suffering, death or any of the imagined, fictional constructs of hell, limbo, purgatory, etc.
Even if you could prove to me that a god exists, I would not worship anyone who has created the world we live in.
I could write ten more pages about this, but it is starting to sound more like evangelising rather than explaining my perspective, and that’s not what I intended.
A Fatal Allergy to Dogma
Beyond my spiritual beliefs, I’ve concluded that religion in every form I have experienced or read about is harmful to people. And dogma mixed with faith are the deadly cement that are the foundations of this harm.
The fundamental command is to “Just believe”. How many times has the justification for horrible human behaviour been “It’s what the Bible says” or “It’s in the Koran” or “That’s what’s in the tablets that Moroni brought to a con artist.”
If your only reason for doing something is because it’s in a sacred book, or you consider a verse in a scripture to be the end of all arguments, you no longer are making rational decisions. You’ve signed over the ability to think freely to a collection of myths.
The literal and non-literal interpretations of scriptures (i.e. all ‘holy books’) is unsystematic and opens everything to individual interpretation. The adherence to literal interpretations becomes quickly laughable as science disproves more and more of the literal interpretation, and yet once you back off, the entire script becomes suspect and the gates open wide to any prophet on the street corner telling you how you attain whatever vision of the afterlife your sect has agreed on.
This is what makes me the saddest: so often, the answer that religion uses is simply that it’s written in a magical book, and thus we must follow it, and not question it, or question why. The idea that Abraham would kill Isaac if god asked is not a sign of a deep and beautiful faith, it is a sign of the pervasive infection that comes with absolute faith.
This can be seen time and time again in history — the use of scripture to justify the worst: The Bible was used to justify the brutality that the “master” enacted on slaves. The KKK found rich territory for recruiting in conservative Southern churches. Much of the Islamic faith is stuck in the stone age and justifies structural misogyny on religious grounds. Right wing conservative Christian gay conversion therapy drove ‘converts’ to suicide. And so on.
While “Religious persecution” is a common thread throughout history, it is more often that a religion that is doing the persecuting. The number of people killed in the name of Christianity, and now Islam is staggering, and far outweighs the number killed by non-believers. It’s just one religion killing the members of another religion. And often using the church as a political puppet.
And it hurts me to see people who I love deceived so greatly.
What I see in Religion Today
Today religion is often the arm of political weaponry to keep billionaires in power and large corporations in control.
The “Family Values” movement did not create a moral nation, but it did lure Christian conservatives away from policies of empathy and human rights and towards supporting corporate greed, packaged with legislating religious dogma and minimising empathy and care.
The current US President (#45) is the best example I’ve ever seen of a charlatan proving that the devout can be used as political puppets purely by giving lip service to the tenets of faith while believing in none of them and clearly living none of them as well. His speech at Liberty University during the 2016 campaign, where he demonstrated that he doesn’t even know the books of the Bible, is a sad testament to the fact that Christians will ignore who he is, purely because he claims to support their ideals. While votes are often paid for by corporate dollars, these votes are being bought with hypocrisy.
The Catholic church is now proven to be a global factory of pedophiles and its’ major product is the abuse of children. Turn the Catholic Church into a company, and the entire management team would have been sacked, and the company might be in bankruptcy.
This is why I fear religion the most: its’ power to eliminate rational, human thought as well as human compassion. I have seen and known far too many people, who are intelligent, caring, and empathetic, disregard all three because of the interpretation of their church, demonising birth control, openly evangelising hate speech, and showing none of the mercy that their scriptures dictate.
Now, individuals of course may have a practice that goes against the core beliefs or common practice of their religion, but I am going by what I have witnessed, studied, and read, in visiting mosques, chapels, cathedrals, churches, temples, and meetings as common practice.
There are so many things that can divide families, and religion is certainly one of them. When you believe that a non-believer will burn in a lake of fire for eternity, and that non-believer is your son, your brother, your Uncle, then you cannot simply agree to disagree, because the consequences are forever. My family mourns the coming loss of my immortal soul, and that I will not be with them in Heaven.
Of course, I mourn every day that my family spends time focusing on what I consider mythology and fairy tales. It hurts to see the people I love wrapped up in delusion and often ignoring science and compassion, and being misled by people they have chosen as leaders.
While this fits all my above statements about dogma and fantastic beliefs with no evidence or basis in science, I do admire the lack of hypocrisy in some of my family members, who do practice what they preach. While I wholeheartedly disagree with the preaching, many religions are propped up by cowards who do not believe but participate socially or culturally, but who will not speak out against the harmful practices of their church, and remain in the role of “follower”. Of course, there are also many people who are open publicly about their lack of belief but who are clear about their non-faith-based reasons for participation in ceremonies and ritual.
When we disagree with religious doctrine, we need to be vocal. Freedom of religion is critical, and I would never deny anyone’s right to practice if it does not infringe on the rights of others. And just as critical is the freedom to criticise racism, homophobia, and misogyny if it is part of the core beliefs of a religion.
I did a disservice to my family for twenty years in not being open about my beliefs, though I did try and show it in the practice of my life, in my refusal to take communion, in my absence from a church, and in my support of beliefs that contradict the credo of the church I was raised in.
The Positives of Religion
Of course I have witnessed a number of positive impacts of religion. Religion creates community that is often missing in the secular world, and does a better job of charitable work. While the trends are shifting as people look for meaning outside of religious practice and are dedicating themselves more and more to the betterment of humanity, it is without question that I have personally witnessed and experienced the care of a church community.
Much of the New Testament and other religions have some great core values. Loving thy neighbour as thyself is a great principle, but it is damaged if it drags in dogma and lemming-like obedience. In the end if you only extract those principles for living, it is something more like a guide to living (like some approaches to Buddhism) rather than the practice of belief in an entity that serves as a higher power. You can learn a great deal from reading the Bible and the Koran — everyone should read them, but you don’t have to believe that any of it is true to appreciate it as important historical literature and see its’ value.
I also realise that a lot of people will read this blog, and their own beliefs will come to the surface to violently disagree with what I’ve written here. I didn’t get here by regurgitating what others have told me. I got here by reading, listening, learning, and constantly challenging everything, whether from proclaimed saints, sinners, atheists, pagans, or priests.
Let me also say that I think I’ve exercised a great deal of restraint in not making a priest joke here. Because, if you know me, you know they are my favourites.
I also know a lot of devout people will pray for me after reading this, and will mourn the loss of my soul. While I believe they are misled in their actions, their actions are motivated by love and caring, and an attempt to save what I do not have, an eternal soul.
Of course, my journey is not over, and I will continue to talk to people and understand what they believe and why. Because I do believe in constantly challenging my own beliefs, I had added a book by D’Souza (a modern Christian apologist and critic of “New Atheism”) to my reading list, though I removed it (turns out he’s just a political nut job) and found a better substitute (Ravi Zacharias). If you’re a Christian and you’d like to read a different perspective, you might try God is not Great, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, or The End of Faith.