Sunday, March 31, 2013

Resurrection reply

As people have been made aware of my apostasy, a few [read: exactly three thus far] have made attempts to engage me in correspondence about matters of religion while remaining civil in tone. One mailed me a book, but two have done so in their own words. Both of them have my respect.

What follows is a response to a letter one of them wrote me in which they provided their expanded personal testimony along with an appeal to the historicity of the resurrection, among other things for my consideration. I've left out identifying remarks and portions pertaining to their personal testimony. This is, admittedly, only one side of the dialogue. However, I'm putting it up as a reference I can point people toward if and when they bring this particular issue up with me. Also, today is Easter Sunday so I felt it was appropriate.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shields of Faith: It's supposed to sound foolish

As part of my reflections on why I remained a Christian for so long, I’ve decided to try to think about some of the things that shielded my faith from internal critique. I'm calling this segment, "Shields of faith." Yeah, that sounds pretty cheesy, but what did you expect from a blog with a lame pun for a name?

So one thing that popped up from time to time when I was a Christian was just how nuts Christianity sounded. The fact that many of the claims and especially the central narrative of Christianity seemed completely absurd was not something that was lost on me. I knew it sounded crazy and that's probably why I was so often embarrassed about being more open about my faith. I didn't mind telling people that I was a Christian, but I have to admit that the thought of explaining the whys and hows of the story of Christianity did make me cringe at times. I saw someone on a discussion board put it this way:
[Christianity is a story] about the creator of reality sacrificing himself to himself to appease himself by atoning for the sins of creatures he predestined to [or at least knew would] fail to live up to the impossible standards that he devised, so that in his appeasement he does not have to force himself to eternally punish those creatures, provided that they believe that he sacrificed himself to himself in the manner recorded in four contradictory accounts of his sacrifice of himself to himself written [decades] after the event by people who weren't there at the time, and whose original writings have been lost or destroyed, and which survive only as copies of copies of copies.
Now, I would’ve taken issue with the notion that the accounts were contradictory and I would’ve argued that at least two were probably written by eyewitnesses, but overall I would’ve recognized that much of the above is not a straw man. When you express it that way it really does sound rather absurd, but not to worry…

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hell is for [some of your] children

It occurs to me that some of you reading this might be parents who are working hard to make sure your kids are brought up in the nurture and instruction of Christ in order to keep them out of hell. You should know that if they turn around and reject Christianity later, you’ve essentially made hell that much hotter for them according to many people's theology. Regardless of whether you believe that or not, the fact remains that you chose to bring them into the world in the first place knowing full well there was a chance that they might apostatize just like people like me and be damned to hell forever just like me.

Have you ever considered that? And if you have, why would you bring children into this world knowing full well that there was at least an outside shot that such an outcome would result? I’m not trying to be mean and nasty, I'm just pointing this out to illustrate that regardless of whether you view salvation as solely the work of God based on a decision God made in eternity past or whether salvation is based on an individual’s free will, in either case you can’t really trust that God will save your own children. There are no guarantees. You can work as hard as you want, but if you're honest with yourself, you have to admit that the possibility remains that one day one of your precious children will turn out just like me. It would seem that there’s really only one way to make sure that none of your children will ever be tortured for eternity in blazing fire and outer darkness. Never have any.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Q & A for the curious

For the benefit of those who may know me, I’ve prepared this little Q & A to address what I think might be some common questions people will have.

You obviously don’t believe the Bible is the word of God anymore. Why not?
Probably for some of the same reasons you don’t believe the Book of Mormon, Bhagavad Gita and the Quran are the word of God. That is to say, they all appear to me to be of human origin and make truth claims that are either internally inconsistent or run contrary to empirical observation. It may not seem abundantly obvious from your perspective that the Bible is internally inconsistent and makes truth claims counter to reality, but it is from my perspective along with the perspective of millions of other people. I’ll be happy to demonstrate this or point out other sources that do, but in all likelihood you won’t accept that evidence any more than a devout Mormon, Hindu or Muslim would accept your evidence pointing out the inconsistencies and things contrary to fact in their holy texts either.

I know you may look at the Bible as I used to and see all these wonderful and miraculous things that prove to you that God inspired it. You might point out all the supposedly fulfilled prophecies or the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead or how wonderful and wise so many of the Bible’s verses appear that seem to reflect its divine origins. These would, of course, be similar to the evidences put forward by adherents of other holy texts. Additionally, there are plenty of good reasons why none of those things are particularly compelling from my perspective anymore. I’ll be discussing why I don’t find them compelling as this blog progresses. I also understand that you will likely write off my objections as resulting from my being blinded by Satan and/or not having the Holy Spirit inside of me. If that’s the case, you really can’t blame me, can you?

So do you believe in evolution and the big bang and all that stuff?
I wouldn't say I "believe in" evolutionary theory or big bang cosmology. Rather I'd say I understand them to be the best explanations currently available for the formation of the detectible universe and the diversity of life on earth. I would also say similar things about germ theory being the best explanation for infectious disease and gravitational theory being the best explanation for why physical bodies are attracted to one another.

My lack of belief in the claims of Christianity is not bound up with any of these theories, however. So please don't try to refute germ theory thinking that if you do its absence will automatically lead me to assume the Biblical explanation that disease is caused by demon possession. Likewise, please don't assume that somehow falsifying the mountain of evidence in favor of evolutionary theory will lead me to posit six days of creation by the god of the Bible in its absence. Note that even if there were such a thing as "Intelligent Design" that would only give credence to deism, and from a practical standpoint deism is just as consequential as atheism or agnosticism.

Do you even believe in God anymore? Are you an atheist or what?
I don’t believe in the god of the Bible. That is to say, if a god or gods exist, I’m pretty sure it’s not the one(s) described in the Bible (or the Koran either for that matter). Beyond that I really couldn’t say for sure. I acknowledge that there could be either an evil, incompetent or ambivalent god or gods that exist, so I remain open to maltheism and deism on a philosophical level. I suppose that makes me an agnostic. However, since both maltheism and deism would be irrelevant to how I choose to go on about my existence, on a practical level I’m an atheist. As such, I’m fine with being labeled either agnostic or atheist.

Didn’t you feel the presence of God?
Well, I certainly felt something. I felt that when I prayed, God was listening. At times I experienced varying degrees of joy and exaltation while engaged in both public worship and during personal quiet times. I even had moments where I thought I was gaining clarity or insight on some spiritual matters. I certainly had moments where I felt like God had actually answered my prayers.

The problem with those experiences is that people of many different religions all have similar experiences. They can’t all be right. Additionally, all of those experiences can be explained by human psychology. Quite simply they could all be traced back to mental functions common in virtually all human beings cross culturally.

Aren't you just making yourself into a god?
Well, if you view independent decision-making as a god-like trait and think that self-determination and personal responsibility are forms of self-worship, then I suppose I am. If every time I prayed I was really just talking to myself, then apparently I've been pretending I'm a god for quite awhile. I just didn't realize it before.

All kidding aside, no. I don't think I'm a god. If anything I feel I have an even greater grasp of just how insignificant I am compared to the enormity of the universe and the vast expanse of time.

What if you’re wrong? Aren't you afraid you'll burn in hell?
Well, what if you’re wrong? What if the Muslims are right and Allah is going to torture you in Jahannam (the Muslim version of hell) for all eternity for rejecting the teachings of Muhammad? What if the Zoroastrians are right and their god, Ahura Mazda, is going to cast you into purgation in molten metal? What if people of other sects of Christianity are right and you either haven’t believed correctly or didn’t do enough good works? What if your own faith isn’t sincere enough and even though you’ve picked the right religious belief, as it turns out you don’t really believe? What if you’ve just convinced yourself that you believe, but at the final judgement Jesus ends up saying to you, “Depart from me, I never knew you” and you are cast into the Lake of Fire for all eternity?

Do you worry about those things? Perhaps you do from time to time, but I’m betting that most of the time you don’t. You may even find the notion that those things might actually happen to you after you die rather absurd. And yet millions of other people on this planet believe with just as much sincerity as you do that one of those things will indeed be your fate because you don’t believe the things they do or practice religion the way they do.

The reality is that everyone runs the risk of being wrong. None of us can just on a whim change the fact that we simply don’t believe these other things. I can’t make myself have faith in the god of the Bible in order to avoid the possibility of spending eternity in hell any more than you could make yourself have faith in the god of the Quran to avoid the possibility of spending eternity in Jahannam (assuming you are not already a Muslim, of course). Do you think you could make yourself believe in Zeus? How about Vishnu? You may have believed in them when you were a kid, but could you make yourself believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy again? Of course not. You have no control over that because that's not how belief works. Dorothy can't just ignore the man behind the curtain.

Perhaps you think I'm gambling with my soul and should just bet on Christianity and believe it (or go on pretending I believe) just in case. The problem is this discounts all the other virtually infinite possibilities of what kind of god(s) might exist and what he/she/they might want from me in order to grant me a pleasant afterlife and avoid some kind of eternal torture. Not to mention that wouldn't be genuine faith and certainly wouldn’t pass muster according to most people’s understanding of the kind of "saving faith" the god of the Bible demands. It amazes me how many people who are having doubts will simply cling to Pascal’s Wager when even Pascal himself seems to have understood its limitations. I suggest as an alternative the agnostic atheism wager.

What about morality? You always seemed like a decent fellow.
I don’t really plan on changing much in that respect. Believe it or not there are moral and ethical systems that exist apart from the Christian religion. I don’t plan on going on any shooting sprees or hanging out at strip clubs or neglecting my children or cheating on my taxes any time soon. I’m now OK with some stuff you may find objectionable like gays getting married and such, but in all likelihood you and I most likely still share many of the same basic, common values we always have. I’m quite certain that if you stop and think about it, you personally know or have known several other people who are nonreligious and yet seem to be fine, upstanding and trustworthy people. I’d like to think you could place me in that category now as well.
Since you don't believe there is an afterlife, aren't you sad, depressed and hopeless now?
Not really. I was a bit disappointed at first. Perhaps this isn't the best analogy, but imagine you're a kid going for a ride and you've been told you're on the way to Disney World only you find out you're really just going for a ride and that's it. Of course you're going to be disappointed. Someone gave you false expectations. Maybe if you had been told all along that you were just going for a ride, you'd have spent more time trying to make the ride better for you and others and just enjoying the ride. You would have spent less time thinking about and preparing yourself for Disney World. Additionally, you might be a bit angry with the people [or culture or institution] responsible for giving you the impression you were going somewhere that you weren't.

Sure, it sucks coming to the realization that there probably isn't an afterlife where I'll get to see my dead loved-ones and continue my existence, but I'm still young enough that I'd rather be honest about reality than persist in a comfortable delusion all while dragging others into that delusion with me. And yeah, I'm kind of pissed that I spent so long believing what amounts to a giant load of bullcrap. On the plus side, though, it's nice to know that most of the people who've ever lived probably aren't headed for eternal torment in hell after all. How's that for good news?

We're all going to die. But we're the lucky ones because we got to live. Trillions of potential human beings will never get that chance. On top of that we are part of the universe that is able to think about itself. That's pretty awesome and exciting in and of itself. I'd like to try to make the most of that. As Rush says all I can really do is take my chances and "roll the bones."

How did this happen?

It seems strange that people like my wife and me with our upbringing and levels of participation in the church would just up and leave the faith, doesn’t it? Usually when I’d heard about other people leaving their faith it’s around the time they leave home for the first time and go off to college or get out on their own. It’s not usually people in their mid-thirties who’ve gotten married, settled into a career and had kids. This, of course, has only served to increase the level of shock that people close to us have felt.

It wasn’t something we went looking for. There was no tragic event that made us angry with God. There was no immoral behavior we wanted to engage in and needed to find a way out so we could quiet our guilty consciences and happily pursue it. There were no religious leaders in our church engaged in hypocritical behavior that made us sour to Christianity. This has made it really hard for people to categorize our apostasy. Several still continue to offer their unsolicited guesses about our motives, fearing the obvious: that we simply found the claims of Christianity to be false.

My Christian Credentials

Up until fairly recently I’ve believed the basic tenets of Christianity for as long as I can remember. Growing up, there was never really any doubt that the Christian god existed, that Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again, that people had eternal souls that either went to heaven or hell after death, and that the Protestant Bible was the word of God and was absolutely true. Church attendance may have been sporadic at times, but the aforementioned doctrines were always a given.

At six years old on Easter Sunday, after viewing some sort of dramatic choir presentation in a church, I had some kind of emotional reaction and began sobbing uncontrollably where I sat. I don’t really remember much about it now, quite frankly. I remember being really upset that Jesus had to suffer and die and understanding that I was somehow responsible for that because of some stuff I had done. I don’t recall if I prayed a prayer and asked Jesus into my heart or not at the behest of some pastor or other adult, but I assume I did. The details are fuzzy, but since we’re now 30 years removed from those events it probably doesn’t matter.

About this blog

Here’s a short explanation for those who may not know. I used to believe the claims of Christianity. I don’t anymore. That’s probably going to need to be unpacked a bit further since “Christianity” is such a loaded word and often means different things to different people. Even the word “believe” is probably going to present some difficulty for people [many will say I never really believed]. For now, that’s an adequate enough way to express things.

If you know me personally and you’re just now finding out about this, depending on how well you know me, that information may be kind of shocking. I suspect word has traveled well enough by now and that most people who know me well have already heard either directly or through someone else. If you’re just now finding out…surprise! I’m an apostate.

So what am I trying to do with this blog? Well, there are a few things. For one, I’m mainly looking to record some of my reflections on 20+ years of active involvement in Christianity and share my thoughts about theology and the Bible. Also, I’d like to have a place where I can present my side of the story. I’m sure some people have wondered things about me since they heard about my “deconversion” from Christianity. Hopefully this will help clear some things up. Additionally, I’m looking for this to be a repository I can point people toward if or when they have specific questions for me about various subjects. A final stated purpose is to challenge others who may have seen or are beginning to see the cracks in Christian dogma and would just like to see what another side has to say.

A word of warning: as Dan Dennett says, “There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly.” For many that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing either directly or indirectly. If you are a committed Christian belonging to a conservative, Evangelical denomination, you’re not going to like what I write on this blog. You’re going to find it offensive and be quite put off by it. If you’re a family member of mine who has strong views about religion, you’ll very likely find it painful to read. But if you think you can handle it, stick around.

Basically, this blog is just one guy’s attempt to explain his departure from the Christian faith. As with most blogs, the narcissism will be abundant and the posts will likely become less frequent over time. There will be occasional attempts at humor; many of those attempts will fail and most will be considered offensive. Feel free to comment, but know that the comments will be moderated before they are published. This is, after all, my blog. Anonymous critical comments will be prejudged as cowardly, but hey, don’t let that stop you.

Still curious?
Read about my background here.
Read about why I left Christianity here.
See where I answer some questions here.

 I stopped believin', although Journey told me "don't"