A cold and broken alleluia
Is everyone able to have faith? Are there some people who, try as they might, cannot believe in the supernatural, and finally give up? The answer is ‘yes’, and for an example, here is my own story.
Over a delightful dinner some months ago, a friend asked me; “So you used to be a minister?”
Yes, briefly, a long time ago.
She had been reading my blog. “But now you’re like,” she paused, “almost like an atheist? How did that happen?”
Not ‘almost’ an atheist; I don’t believe in God. I can’t remember exactly what I told her, though.
It now seems amazing to me that I really believed in God. But there is a state of mind in which one is trying to believe. To that end I studied history and bible at a good college in Tennessee, with a psychology minor.
It now seems to me that many people enter the ministry as part of an effort to bolster their faith. It may partially explain why such a high percentage of aspiring ministers end up selling insurance. (Other reasons include the well-known tendency of the Christian army to shoot their own wounded).
In college, I studied hard, and struggled with doubts. Eventually I filled a pastoral internship, and then filled in temporarily for an empty pulpit. When I married MrsDoF (adopting her infant son) the church quickly terminated my employment. Effective on the date of the wedding, my services would no longer be required.
In itself, their action didn’t undermine my faith. I was well aware that not all Christians put the same weight on grace or compassion; it had no bearing on the truth or falsity of God.
I could have looked for another pulpit, or gone into divinity school, but I didn’t. Instead I attended another church, volunteered to be on committees, taught Sunday school, preached the occasional sermon, and helped out where I could. I worked various jobs.
Doubt and denial
It could be that somewhere inside, I knew that I could only be a minister by an unrelenting self-deception. I kept this realization off the table. But my lifelong fascination with science began to pull up questions I’d been avoiding.
The Earth, I knew, was billions of years old. I had dug up dinosaur fossils myself, and studied stratigraphy. Yet many of my fellow Christians insisted our world was 6,000 years old. This, I knew to be false, but it could be reconciled as metaphor. On that and many other things I told myself; the Bible is a book of moral and spiritual, not scientific truth. About that time, I moved to Illinois and began attending a less fundamentalist church.
It worked for a few years. The bigger problem occurred when I began to read about cosmology. I’d understood the scale of the universe in very general terms, but when I really started trying to get a clear idea of the proportion of our world to the universe around it… something broke. And that something was the notion that our world, and specifically one species within it, our species, was monumentally special in all of creation, that God had ONE son, who came to this planet to redeem…
Wait. Redeem what? Most of the people I know are really quite decent. Nineteen out of twenty of them would chase you down the street to hand you a dollar they’d seen you drop. This is the ‘utterly depraved’ human nature I’d heard so much about? Yes, people are somewhat self-centered, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Enlightened self-interest calls for a better world, after all.
But the Bible itself was problematic. Having spent endless hours studying it, researching it in external sources, learning its history, and even translating some of the New Testament from the original Greek, I knew the pretzel logic that was required to say; “No contradiction.”
The world is full of religions; I was practiced at disbelieving all of them except one. I fought the sense that Christianity resembled the others.
Dishonesty and realization
Trying harder, I dragged my suffering family through the agony of helping a new church congregation get started. This was whistling in the dark. If I could have been honest with myself, I would have saved them a lot of heartache.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish”, says Proverbs. But I just couldn’t see it. This was not a painless realization. I’d pray, and nothing came back. Not ‘occasionally’, but for years at a time. It’s basic psychology that unreinforced behavior eventually undergoes extinction. I would sing but it was, in the words of the songwriter Jeff Buckley; “a cold and broken alleluia”.
Back at our regular church, I helped out with cleanup days, and led a sermon-response group. I was on the Peace And Justice committee, which sought to promote what I still believe. (You want peace? Work for justice.)
About this time, I developed a chronic muscle condition that meant I was frequently exhausted. My energy level became unpredictable. Occasionally, I missed church. I mean, I really did miss church, because I was very fond of the people there. But rest became (and remains) something I can’t pass up when it’s available. And finally, I realized months had gone by without attending. Sunday really had become a day of rest.
“Agnosticism”. For me, it was the semi-acceptable label for my doubts. I didn’t want to cut off the hand that clung to faith. My two youngest sons were more honest, both with themselves and with me. They were atheists.
Like my friend at dinner, I tasted the word, “atheist” carefully, weighing its implications. At length I realized that unlike the position of faith, I actually felt quite comfortable with the notion that there was no God. The universe made better sense on its own.
Ironically it was C.S. Lewis who provided the key I needed. In his book Screwtape Letters the elder demon suggests his nephew direct his ‘patient’ to a status of “Christianity and”. In other words, Christianity not for its own sake, but because it is a means to something else.
“You see the little rift?,” asks Screwtape; “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.”
The key turns, and the lock falls open. I should not believe Christianity because of its promise to ‘redeem’ me, or really for any other reason but if it were true. And it wasn’t true.
Christianity was a large collection of claims which, taken one at a time, just didn’t hold up. Every single one turned out to be the product of some logical fallacy applied through a lens of wishful thinking, to carefully selected scriptures and anecdotes. It was true only as long as I made it true. If I stopped, it went away, unlike things that are true, like physics, or mathematics or biology.
I clammed up entirely on religious issues for a couple years. I certainly didn’t want to undermine anyone else’s faith; what difference did it make? Other than increasing the amount of pain in the world. But slowly I realized that in our society people who do not believe in God are subject to a number of rather ugly stereotypes. In short, we’re evil.
About this time I also became aware of the campaign to demonize gays; to make them responsible for many of the evils of our society. None of the gay people I knew fit the stereotypes, though. Many of them had to hide their true selves in order to live peaceful lives – a cruel outcome resulting from a supposed religion of love.
What if they all ‘came out’ at once? If every perfectly normal, decent gay person just walked down the street holding hands with their partners and just started living openly? It would be a revolution. Straight people would see them in a new light, and bigotry falls dead at the feet of familiarity. The same would apply if atheists spoke up, “came out of the closet”.
“OK, atheists are evil, but not this guy, or that guy. I know them and they’re atheists and they’re OK. So not all atheists are evil. Wait – what about that other guy? I always thought he was a pretty good fellow and just found out he doesn’t believe in God. Maybe that whole thing about atheists being evil is just a prejudice, unfounded in fact.”
But for that to happen, atheists have to speak up. So I am speaking up.
What lies ahead
There is a moral and ethical discussion to be had. Yes, an atheist might come to a different conclusion about sex or abortion or war: this is not a lack of morals but the result of starting from different assumptions. No real exchange is possible as long as the atheist stays hidden in the closet.
There is a national discussion to be had. A desire to make our country live up to the secular nature of its constitution is not lack of patriotism; exactly the opposite. Nor does it mean that atheists should want to interfere with individual religious freedom, for the constitution guarantees that very thing. It does mean that tax funding of religion must stop, for that too is a logical consequence of the guarantee.
There is a spiritual discussion to be had. Atheism is not a theory about the soul; it is only a lack of belief in god. But one might believe that a human ‘soul’ exists, without believing that it outlives the brain. This is all the more reason to handle with care and compassion the one life we have. No afterlife will balance the scales: we are responsible now. This is not a test.
I know some of my Christian friends are rather vexed by the revelation that I no longer believe in God. This is easy to understand: they’re naturally compassionate friends and they don’t want to see me suffering for all eternity. I have no way of relieving their anxiety, because it is based on what I believe to be a phantom.
So that’s what happened, friend. If faith is a gift, I never received it. If it is a state of mind, I never reached it. If it is a question, I believe the answer is technically sense-free. It would be hard to say I didn’t give Christianity a fair shot.
Long habit prompts me to end a sermon or a parable with an altar call, so here it is. If you’re a Christian, and you’re comfortable in your faith, that’s fine – please try not to let the stereotype of ‘atheist’ get between you and the atheists around you. Above all, give the US Constitution another read without trying to read religion into it, because it is a secular document.
If you’re not comfortable in your faith, ask yourself; are you doing anyone any favors by faking it? There’s nobody you need to confess to, no ‘church of atheism’ asking for your donations, but at least try to be honest with yourself. As Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Imagine a combination of honesty and tolerance. It is a sturdy foundation of a better world for everyone.