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."


  1. Overall, I think it's great that you take the time to explain your thoughts behind your "departure from Christianity". I am impressed by this blog because you take the time to acknowledge how others feel and make a genuine attempt to explain what brought you to this point.

    As an atheist, I've been asked the same questions that you mention in your Q&A. For the most part, I don't even have the patience to explain to others why I feel or think the way I do. I don't try to convince people to not be Christian; in fact, I think that most people need to have that spiritual pillar in their life to hold them together. Even for my kids, I encourage them to attend church and eventually I will encourage them to read for themselves. At this time in their life, with their minds filled with fairytales, maybe it would be a good thing for them to believe that some higher power is looking out for them. Perhaps you can do a separate blog on how you explain things to your kids. Are we allowed to make requests? :)

    I don't know if you've had similar experiences, but sometimes it’s just easier to not to mention my beliefs. When people are talking to me about religion, oftentimes it feels like less of an intelligent discussion and ends up being more of a battle of good vs. evil with my soul on the line. I would like to think that this blog would be a good way to explain some of the basics of how you feel. In fact, maybe invest in some business cards and tell people to come back and talk to you after they've read the blog, just so it can be discussed after some of the framework/fundamentals have been built.

    I've come across Christians that believe in what they believe and they don't know why. I applaud the fact that you've spent lots of time, effort, and perhaps heartache on trying to figure out the "why". I didn't start out by making my mind up that I was going against conventional Christian philosophy. Who has the energy for that?

    There are a couple of things that really resonated with me (in your blog):
    "... 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."
    For me, I may be oversimplifying it, but for lack of wanting to go into the weeds with labels, or when discussing it with others, I also consider myself an atheist.

    I liked the comparison of living your life and a trip to Disney.
    "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."
    I personally don't believe in an afterlife. For me, that means that there aren't any "do overs" or "see you laters (in heaven)". To me, it makes every moment we have in our lives more precious.

    1. Thank you for your friendly, thoughtful and constructive comments.

      As for the kids, we're completely open with them about what we think about things, but we also let them know that not everyone agrees with us and that there are other views on these matters. I'm confident that my children know more about Christianity than most professing Christians. What we probably need to work on is in exploring other views as well. I'll give some thought to your suggestion about generating content regarding how we deal with these matters, but I don't know if I'm ready to go there just yet.

      Like you, I’m not that interested in trying to convince people not to be Christian, depending on what the term “Christian” means for them, of course. The problem is that many who apply that label to themselves seem to think, as I once did, that their Christianity should necessarily extend to everyone else around them and that if others don’t practice it the way they do, there is something defective or deficient with them. Because of this many often either show pity and disapproval, or find themselves greatly distressed by others who do not share their views. This is especially true for Christians who believe that nonbelievers are going to spend eternity suffering torment if they don’t adopt Christian faith and practice.

      On top of this there is, for many, a desire to cherry-pick certain mandates from their dogma and attempt to impose those mandates on society at large, whether or not other members of society recognize any intrinsic value in those mandates. People’s theology impacts foreign policy decisions, environmental issues, social issues, education, and much more.

      I’m fine with a “live and let live” approach when it comes to people’s personal beliefs and if people want some kind of spiritual pillar in their life to hold them together, that’s fine with me too. But the fact of the matter is that I think most expressions of the major religions have it very wrong, just as their adherents think I’m wrong. Many of those expressions of religion are damaging to humanity in general and cause unnecessary suffering for millions. Some of the more militant expressions are threatening to me personally. I’d like to have more right-thinking people in the world and if expressing my views can in some miniscule way help bring that about, perhaps I should express them more openly.

      Additionally, I’m not so sure that as many people need that pillar to hold them up. I don’t really see religion as a crutch as much as I see it as a pair of goggles. I think in many cases Dumbo can fly just fine without his magic feather.

      I’m still working through this, of course, and I understand the desire to keep a low profile, but there are some folks out there who make very compelling arguments for being open about unbelief.

  2. For me it was a total relief to know I was just going for a ride, after all. When I was a kid I used to lay in bed being almost as terrified as heaven as I was of hell. It was the forever and ever that got to me. What a relief to realize that most likely life just ends when we die. (Though I'd love to make it to 85 or so with my wife first. It's just such a hell of a fun ride these days. Disney World can suck it! ;-)

  3. Hi Brian, how we would like to discuss all these things over a coffee with you and your wife! My husband and I left the faith behind after an in depth reflexion, in 2013. We are in our mid-thirties and we have kids as well. They were the first reason for the urge we felt. My father is a pastor and all our friends and family were, at that time, christians. We found much comfort in your enlightening, sometimes silly thoughts. Really, it's like we found a carbon copy of our life. Thank you so much.


    1. That's very cool. My wife pointed out that it looks like your husband and I have the same shirt. If you want, you can send me an email and we'll connect on Facebook.