Category Archives: De-conversion

Three Years In – Some Thoughts

Last month marked the three year anniversary of this blog.  What started as a platform for “coming out” as a progressive Christian to my largely Evangelical friends and acquaintances, soon became the logbook of my journey out of religion.  It was never my intention to lose my religion, in fact I actively fought against it, but the desire to have my beliefs line up with reality eventually won out in the end.

It’s interesting to look back at my early posts and see the gradual transition from faith to reason.  I started off being an outspoken advocate for the teachings and life of Jesus, social justice, and progressive Christian values.  My frustrations with organized religion and self-reflection can be seen in my post where I lament, “It’s a long, messy road when you start picking through your faith, when you start dissecting everything you’ve been taught and believed.”  This frustration soon lead to my break from the Church.   Not long after, I came out publicly as a non-believer, denounced Christianity and its teachings.  I dabbled briefly in mysticism, but science and reason eventually prevailed.

Since that first year, my blog has focused mostly on science, critical thinking skills, counter-apologetics, and calling out bullshit when I see it.  As an atheist living in the Midwest, I feel a certain responsibility to speak out for other non-believers, letting them see that it’s OK to be an open and outspoken secularist.

One of the blogs that made an impact on me when I was de-converting was Neil Carter’s “Godless in Dixie“.  As a former pastor-turned-atheist living in the Bible Belt, he wrote from a place that I could relate to.  He was also kind enough to answer my emails and provide encouragement.  My hope is that Second Journeys can provide that for someone else.

Now in my third year of writing, I’ve been once again doing some self-reflection.  Perhaps it’s time to make some changes in the focus of my writing and my overall mindset in general?

The catalyst for this thinking came from reading James A. Lindsay’s Everybody is Wrong About God.  The book is a “call to action to address people’s psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God.”  A good summary of the book would be, “The debate about God has long been settled, atheism has won out, so now what?”  Lindsay’s book challenged my thinking on a number of points and made me reconsider my approach to talking about religion.  I want to hash through some of these points here.

Lindsay argues that apologists have been unable to provide any evidence for the existence of God, therefore theism is dead.  As such, atheism should also go away, as it has no purpose of meaning anymore: “By dwelling on atheism, we dwell on the debate, and by dwelling on the debate, we perpetuate its counterpoint, theism, as something debate-worthy instead of something that already lost. […] It’s time to move on, and the path we should follow is to stop pretending that theism deserves serious consideration.”

When Bill Nye debated Ken Ham a couple of years ago, many atheists and scientists were upset at Nye for giving Ham a platform to promote his pseudoscience.  They felt that it only helped validate his position and did little in the way of changing opinions.  I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and to the idea of debating theists in general.  By engaging in debates over topics where there is no longer a debate to be had, are we really accomplishing anything other then giving credence to their views? 

Lindsay points out that debating can have the opposite effect of what is desired – people often becoming even more  entrenched in their views when faced with contradicting information.  Unfortunately, facts and evidence don’t carry the weight that they should with many people.  In religion, devout believers have mastered a myriad of tricks and techniques to avoid critical thinking and make their beliefs impossible to falsify.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of apologetics, the so-called  “defense of the Christian faith”.  I’ve talked about apologetics failures before, but Lindsay boils the typical apologetic arguments down to this simple observation, “All these people are saying is that they lack an explanation for these admittedly complex and mysterious phenomena and don’t like the resulting feeling of psychological discomfort enough to pretend they have one in a myth called ‘God'”.

Lindsay observes that at this point in history, apologetics has become a very redundant and foolish endeavor.  Using Sam Harris’s metaphor of religion providing comfort to people the same way that believing there is a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s back yard might provide comfort, “Taking this metaphor at face value, if religion is believing that there’s a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s yard, theology is arguing over the brand of the refrigerator.”

So what does this mean for atheists and those like myself?  For one, it means being very selective about who we choose to have debates  (discussions) with regarding theism (or creationism, climate change, etc.).  While some people may be in a place where they are open to hearing new information and are genuinely curious, most have no intentions of changing their pre-determined stance.  This can be tricky to do, especially if you’re someone like me, who enjoys a good debate.  Lindsay points out that, “Because nonbelievers are branded with this unfortunate word (atheist), they are suddenly expected to defend a lack of belief, a burden that isn’t there’s and yet they routinely accept for themselves. […] Part of the nature of this trap is that it enables religious people to misunderstand atheism as a thing like a religion, which they reliably do.”  

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make efforts to correct false information and dispel myths when we encounter them.  It simply means not getting drawn into the futile debates, or “lose ourselves in the weeds” as Lindsay says.  Don’t give validity to empirically false ideas by engaging in debates with people unable to handle critique or process contradicting information; i.e. people who suffer from cognitive dissonance.  Be honest. Be direct. Be unapologetic.  State the facts, sight your sources, and move on.  If someone counters, demand evidence and be open and willing to listen if they provide any.  This is not an attempt to shut down discussions in any sort of forceful way, but rather to “facilitate productive conversations that move us forward.”

Equally important, however, is being able to also admit when you don’t have a solid answer.  There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” and it’s certainly preferable to false certainty.  As Lindsay states, “Honest doubt and frank ignorance are vastly superior to pretending to know or believing for the sake of believing, so far as intellectual virtues go”.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge and understand that peoples’ beliefs in God come from somewhere. “‘God’ means something when people say it, and that something is related to their attempts to meet psychological and social needs.  These needs manifest primarily in three ways: attributional, for a sense of control, and regarding sociality.  When people talk about their ‘God’, they are talking about how they make sense of ideas that allow them to meet or ignore these needs, and they are telling is that they do not really know how to meet them.”   People of faith are not stupid, delusional, or mentally ill – they simply have wrong information about the world we live in.  Wrong information can be corrected.  With this in mind, it is important to not simply tear down false ideas, but to also build up correct ones.

Above, Lindsay points out three main needs that religion provides for people, and we need to be prepared to help meet those needs post-theism.  If we are going to debunk supernatural claims about the world, we need to be providing natural explanations (attributional).  We need to help people understand that the world can be a scary place, but you are ultimately in charge of your life (control).  Alternatives when it comes to the social benefits that church once offered also need to be met (sociality).  There’s no denying that churches often do community really well.  Non-believers are lacking in this department and we need to be better at providing social interactions for people looking to get out of religion.

So what does all this mean for myself and for Second Journeys?  Honestly, I’m not quite sure!  Just as my personal journey out of faith (and this blog) evolved over time, I’m sure it will continue to evolve over time, just in a different direction.

It will likely mean spending less time on counter-apologetics, both on this blog, on social media, and in person.  Theists aren’t coming up with new arguments for the existence of God, just repackaging and rehashing the same old ones anyways.  I plan on continuing my “Mythbusters” series and calling out correct false information and stereotypes.  I will also continue to promote critical thinking skills and provide tools and resources.  A helpful addition may be giving people a glimpse of life on the other side of religion, providing resources, and maybe working on some sort of on-line community for people.  This will be as much for my benefit as anyone else.

I think Lindsay is right that it is time for us to move forward into a “post-theist” society, similar to what Scandinavian countries have done.  “The next rational step is to stop treating the idea of ‘theism’ seriously at all.  The war of ideas is over.  The goal is not to create an atheist society so much as to create one that has left the idea of ‘God’ behind in its superstitious past.”  It’s time to move past the atheism/theism debate and start constructing new, healthier, evidence-based world views and trying to solve real world problems.  This doesn’t mean shying away from using the term “atheist”, but simply acknowledging that you don’t believe in a god and moving on to more important matters.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mythbusters: De-conversion (Pt 2)

This is going to be an extension of a previous post I wrote addressing some of the common misunderstandings and stereotypes people have about those who leave religion.  The first post was more personal in nature, but this one is going to be a bit more universal and is going to address some of the common reactions one gets from Christians when they de-convert.

This post came about because a good friend of mine “came out” as an atheist on Facebook.  Some people were supportive, but like most people here in the Midwest, a good percentage his friends and acquaintances are Christian.  Their reactions to his decision were as predictable and infuriating as one can expect, and that is what we will be discussing here

Before we get into it, I want to talk about a common theme one sees with Christians* when faced with an alternate view point.  It’s what is known as the false-consensus effect: a cognitive bias whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do). This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist; a “false consensus”.

Captain Cassidy gets even more specific with this bias and how it relates to Christianity and their beliefs regarding atheists.  She likes to call it “The Law of Conservation of Worship” – for every action and belief Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets must also have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief.  Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.

We’ll see this theme of false-consensus popping up throughout these common myths, so I thought we’d get it out of way before we got started.  So let’s get into some of the common things one hears when they come out as an atheist:

“This is just a phase /you’ll be back”

I’ve heard parents use this same phrase when their kids come out to them as gay.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction caused by cognitive dissonance sent into overload.  It’s simple denial – some people just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that other people can leave the religion they hold in such high regard.  Regardless of what denomination you belong to, when you go to church you are lead to believe that Christianity is the “One True Religion” and God/Jesus are supposed to be your #1 priority.  To see someone not only walk away from that, but denounce it as false comes as a big blow to some.  Rather then accept it, they would rather just hope that it isn’t really true.

Let’s clear things up a bit.  No one becomes an atheist overnight.  It is not a decision one takes lightly and is typically the cumulative result of months, if not years, of careful and deliberate research and thought.  It is not “just a phase” and I’ve never met anyone who has gone through the de-conversion process only to go back to religion.  Once you find out that religion is demonstrably false, there is little chance you are going to decide one day that it is “true” and go back to it.  Those of us who have broken rank from Christianity know too much about its history and where it came from, how fallible the Bible really is, and how useless and counter-productive Christianity’s culture and practices are.  Why would we go back to that?

“It’s religion you have a problem with, not God”

This one plays out in a number of ways.  People either assume that you have been personally hurt by the Church or have become fed up with the negative and harmful behavior of some Christians.

While Christianity’s homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, willful ignorance, and constant struggle for political power is certainly what drives many down the path towards reason, it is not what makes someone an atheist.  Similar to a point I’ve brought up before, it’s not that an atheist has a problem with God – it’s that they don’t believe in God.  Period.  

This is a good example of false consensus – Christians naturally assume that everyone believes in God in some way, so if someone claims to be an atheist, then organized religion must be what they really don’t believe in because they couldn’t possibly not believe in God.  Right?  Wrong.

It is possible to not believe in any god/deity/higher power and tens of millions all over the world do just that.  In the same way that children grow out of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, millions of people have grown out of believing in god(s).  I know that comparing God to the Tooth Fairy may be offensive to some, but you need to understand that atheists don’t see any difference – to them, they are both mythological beings that exist only in peoples’ minds.

“Satan is trying to deceive you”

It’s still surprising to me how often I see this one come up.  People who use this line of reasoning fail to understand that atheists don’t believe in any supernatural deities.  This includes God, Satan, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Thor, etc.  Arguing that one mythological being is trying to sway us from believing in another mythological being is illogical and ineffective to say the least.

I can already hear people saying, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled…”  Stop.  Just stop.  We’ve all seen The Usual Suspects.  It doesn’t help your case.  Quoting a fictional movie to make a case for you fictional deities isn’t a good tactic.

“The Bible says…”

For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate authority and their first, if not only, source of “truth”.  When faced with conflict it seems all to natural for them to turn to it for help.  When faced with the cognitive dissonance of one leaving their ranks, it’s natural for them to start quoting Bible verses as if they have some magical powers.

I saw a meme once that said, “The road to atheism is littered with Bibles read cover to cover”.  An appropriate statement.  For most atheists, the road out of religion starts with a thorough reading of the Bible, and what we discover is that it is an entirely man-made book, filled with all the prejudices, biases, and ignorance one would expect from a text written by an ancient people.  If someone has come to the conclusion that there is no god, it’s a safe bet that belief in the accuracy and authority of the Bible went away a long time again.  Therefore, quoting scripture is of no significance to us.  You might as well be quoting the Koran or Lord of the Rings; it really makes no difference.

To quote Neil Carter from the article I linked above: “When talking with Christian friends online, I often find that they can’t help citing a Bible verse as their proof–text in order to reinforce a point they are making, as if that is supposed to mean something to me.  For non-believers with backgrounds like mine, not only does the citation not prove anything but virtually any passage you select will be so familiar to us that we are weary of hearing it cited for the ten-thousandth time, probably arguing the exact same point, perhaps even in exactly the same way as every time before.  It’s become like a bad joke among ex-Christians how slavishly it seems people are imitating one another without showing the slightest self-awareness of how badly they’re doing it.”

“You have faith too”

This one usually presents itself something like this, “You need faith to believe in science the same as you do God.”  This is a very common argument among theists, more specifically theists who have no idea how science works.  I addressed this argument once before, but it’s worth repeating here.  Having “faith” in science is not the same as having faith in the religious sense.  This is example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – they have evidence-based trust.  

This is another example of a false consensus.  Those who hold to their religious claims on faith naturally assume that everyone’s worldviews are shaped this way.  But that is not the case with atheists and skeptics – our world view is shaped by empirically evidence, logic and reason, not simply believing in something because we want it to be true.

Another way that I see this argument worded is the accusation that everyone worships something, therefore atheists must also worship something.  Again – false consensus.  No, not everyone worships something.  I know this is commonly taught in Christian culture, I heard it said more times then I could remember, but it’s simply not true.  The definition of worship (as a verb) is: “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites.”  You can’t show reverence and adoration for something you don’t believe in.

“Don’t you worry about the afterlife?”

No.  No we don’t.  Because there is no evidence that there is an afterlife.  As far as we know, this life is the only one we get.  Once we die, that’s it.  I realize that the belief in an afterlife is common to all religions, and even with some people who aren’t religious, but that doesn’t make it any more true.

This one comes up both subtly-and not so subtly- in the form of threats of hell.  It’s exactly why the myth of hell was invented – to keep people in line and keep them from straying from the pack.  It’s inevitable that when someone leaves religion there’s going to be that one (or many) friend or relative that is going to let them know in no uncertain terms that they are headed for hell.  Threatening someone with a mythological place for not believing in a mythological god is not only ineffective, but only affirms the fear-based and controlling nature of religion that were likely instrumental in our departure.

A more reasonable question that some propose is if it makes us sad to know that this life is all there is.  Sure it does.  We all want to spend as much time as we can enjoying this life and spending time with the ones we love.  Which is exactly why we spend our time worrying about this life instead of worrying about the next.  Ricky Gervais was presented with this same question in an interview and I thought his response was spot on:

“There’s this strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for, it’s the opposite – we don’t have anything to die for.  We have everything to live for.”

I would love to be wrong about this.  I would love to die someday and wake up again in some other dimension or existence.  That would be a pleasant surprise.  But I’m going to hedge my bets on what we thus far know to be true about death, rather than what we wish to be true.


There’s a common myth that atheism is just another option in the game of “Choose Your Own Religion”, but it’s not – we’ve opted out of the game all together.  We don’t play by the same rules as theists.  Yet, many can’t seem to grasp this fact, desperately insisting that we really do believe in God/the supernatural/faith on some level.  This is their way of trying to rationalize their own belief system to themselves.  By claiming that we also have faith or believe in the afterlife, it makes it appear that atheists have simply made a lateral move from one belief system to another, when in reality we’ve jettisoned the whole construct.  As Captain Cassidy puts it:

“What they’re really trying to do is make their own beliefs sound a little less wacky and foolish – and more believable and relatable. There are several reasons why they do it – sometimes they just want to make themselves feel less wacky and foolish despite believing some wacky and foolish things, or they want to signal and affirm their membership in their group…

When Christians misrepresent our lives, experiences, and worldview in order to make us sound more like themselves, that’s a desperate attempt to create a common ground where (they hope) Christianity’s claims might start sounding a little bit more plausible.  

They think that tearing down our worldview will make us forget that they aren’t actually offering any evidence that their claims are true. They’re not giving us any good reason to believe in their god’s existence. They’re just trying to make us think that we’re already just as irrational and silly as they are, only in different ways, in the wild hopes that we will think it wouldn’t be quite so weird to consider their claims.”

That last paragraph really addresses why theists try to paint atheism the way they do.  In lieu of actual evidence for their truth-claims they resort to Straw-Man arguments in an attempt to deem atheism no better then their own faith system.  Hopefully I’ve pointed out the major differences between the stereotypes some Christians have regarding atheists and how to counter them.  Thanks for reading.

*NOTE:  While writing this, the lead singer of the Christian rock band, Order of Elijah, came out as an atheist.  The response was much like what I’ve described here – while many were supportive, others had plenty to say about it.  Captain Cassidy wrote a rebuttal to the criticisms that are going around that is well worth the read.  

*I mention Christians here because of how it pertains to the discussed subject, but false consensus can be found among any large group of people that share a common identity, whether it’s religious, political, national, or otherwise. 

 

 

De-Conversion Stepping Stones

I often get asked what it was that led to my de-conversion from Christianity.  Those that do ask, are often looking for a quick and simple answer and, depending on who is asking, are disappointed when I can’t give them one.  Based on my own experience, and the experiences  of others I’ve talked to, leaving religion is not a quick, easy decision, nor is it a smooth transition by any stretch of the imagination.

To give a visual – if you were to plot out my de-conversion on a line graph, it would not look like this:

Nor would it look like this:

Rather, a typical de-conversion looks something like this:

Laid out over a period of a couple of years, my de-conversion was filled with starts and stops, times of reconsideration, profound moments of clarity,  leaps forward and steps backwards.  All of it laid out a path of steady descent from faith to reason.

There were, however, certain resources that I came across, which if charted on a graph, would show the most progress downward in the quickest amounts of time.  These “moments of clarity” had the most effect on the de-construction of my previous belief system and also provided a new bases for thinking critically.  I decided to list of few of these here.

The Bible

Andrew Seidel was right when he said, “The road to atheism is littered with Bibles that have been read cover to cover.”

The first “crack” in my religious faith came after reading the Bible from cover to cover; the whole thing, every word.  I gave myself  a year to do it as I didn’t want to merely skim over things.  I downloaded an app that laid out what verses to be reading each day.  Many people have done this, but what may have made for a different experience was that I read the Bible in chronological order based on the events that happened.  Multiple places in the Bible record the same events in different books, namely the history of Israel and the Gospels.  By reading the account in chronological order, you were reading about the same event back-to-back.

Reading the Bible in this manner brought me to two stark realizations.  First, the Bible contradicts itself – a lot!  While some discrepancies may be minor, like the numbers of arms-bearing men in Judah and Israel (2 Samuel 24:9 vs 1 Chronicles 21:5) or the number of Syrian charioteers slain by David (2 Samuel 10:18 vs 1 Chronicles 19:18), many of them were more significant.  A reading of the Gospel accounts, for examples, shows major discrepancies in the events surrounding Jesus’s death and Resurrection.  None of the four Gospel accounts tell the same story!

There isn’t just discrepancies in the stories, but also the overall message as well.  For example, are we saved by faith (Eph 2:8-9) or works (James 2:24)?  Does God tempt people (James 1:13 vs Gen 22:1)?  Or, can anyone who calls on the name of the Lord be saved (Matt 7:21 vs Acts 2:21)?

I came to find out that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of contradictions in the Bible.  As someone who had been taught his whole life that the Bible was the “inerrant, Word of God” these contradictions were confusing to the say the least.  Apologists are aware of these contradictions and some have gone to great lengths to “smooth over” these obvious errors.  Some of their explanations are plausible while others are down right ridiculous.  But, should a “perfect” book inspired by God Himself really require so much explanation?

The second thing that struck me, as a lover of science, was how completely inaccurate the Bible is concerning matters of science.  Like the fact that there is no watery “firmament” that the stars are set into and from which rain comes (Gen 1), insects don’t have four legs and neither do birds(Lev 11:20-23), hares and coneys do not “chew their cud” (Lev 11:5-6), the mustard plant its not a tree nor does it get very big(Matt 13:31-32), zombies aren’t real (Matt 27:52-53), people can’t be cured of disease from entering a pool that has been stirred up by an angel (John 5:4), seeds don’t bring forth fruit after they have died (John 12:24), and the Earth does move (Heb 1:10), just to name a few.  The authors of the Bible also seemed to have no idea how diseases, natural disasters, the rain cycle, or eclipses worked.  This can easily be explained if we acknowledge that the Bible was written by pre-science men who were simply recording what was common knowledge at the time.  But if God, the creator of nature, truly inspired the writing, shouldn’t it have been more accurate in terms of how nature worked?

All of these questions lead me to look into the Bible, it’s history, and the history of Christianity more closely.

A New History of Early Christianity

Charles Freeman’s A New History of Early Christianity is a lot like Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story – you get to hear the stories behind the stories.  In this case, the most commonly known stories about the Bible and early Christianity.

Freeman takes a look at the numerous texts that were well know in the early church (such as the First Letter of Clement), yet never made it into the Bible.  Despite going to a Christian university, this was the first time learning that the Gospels that did make it into the Bible (there were many others) were not written by Jesus’s disciples, as most think, but written decades later by Greek scholars who based their stories entirely on oral traditions that had been passed down.

The Church often romanticizes the “early church” as being the standard that all modern churches should strive for.  However, Freeman shows that there was never a single movement called “Christianity,” but the early Christian communities had immense difficulty in achieving consensus and unity.
“Freeman shows that there was a host of competing Christianities, many of which had as much claim to authenticity as those that eventually dominated. Looking with fresh eyes at the historical record, Freeman explores the ambiguities and contradictions that underlay Christian theology and the unavoidable compromises enforced in the name of doctrine.” (From Google Books)
The proceedings of the Council of Nicea and Constantine’s role were talked about in length in the book.  Known for being the “birthplace” of the modern Bible, I was led to believe that a great amount of effort was put into making sure only the most reliable and “truthful” books were chosen to canonized.  The historical records paint a very different picture, however.  The determination of what books were considered sacred was largely about politics, not theology.   There were power struggles, threats of violence and banishment, bribery, extortion, blackmail, etc.
Even after the Council of Nicea, there was little consensus regarding Christian doctrine, or even the Bible.  To help “unify” the early Christian church, drastic measures were taken.  “Freeman shows how freedom of thought was curtailed by the development of the concept of faith. The imposition of ‘correct belief’, religious uniformity, and an institutional framework that enforced orthodoxy were both consolidating and stifling.”  To put it simply, people were either imprisoned, banished, or killed for what were considered “heresies” by the state-led Church.  Much of the theology now considered “orthodox” by modern churches stems from these violent and oppressive times.
My faith at the time was shaken considerably after reading this book.  The history of Christianity had played out like any other corrupt, power-hungry, political movement.  This stood in stark contrast to the much rosier picture that is painted by the modern Church.

Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World is walk though the  history behind the most recognizable books of the Bible.  John Shelby Spong relates in the intro that this book came about after realizing that the majority of church-goers, while maybe familiar with what is in the Bible, know nothing about the history of the Bible itself.  Spong explains that the information given in the book is nearly universally taught in all major universities and mainline seminaries, but for whatever reason, never makes it to the average pew-sitter.  Some examples:

  • The Torah was not written by Moses, but written centuries after his death and is a compilation of at least four separate accounts.
  • Most of the Psalms were not written by David.
  • Jesus’s disciples, who were illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants could not have written the Greek Gospels, which were written many decades after the events of Jesus’s life and were based on oral traditions.
  • Paul’s letters are the first accounts of Jesus we have, and there are many discrepancies between his account and the Gospels.
  • Many of Paul’s letters are believed to be forgeries.
  • We do not have any of the original manuscripts from the Bible.  All that exists are copies of copies, most of them dating to centuries after they were originally written.

My take-away from this book was simple: far from being a “divinely-inspired” and inerrant text, the Bible is 100% the product of human invention, with all the personal biases, inaccuracies, and prejudices that come with it.  As such, it can in no way be “authoritative”, nor does it need to be given any more honor then any other sacred text.

A Case for God

Karen Armstong’s A Case for God gives readers the history of religion, from the Paleolithic age to the present.  She details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality that it called by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao.

Armstrong explains how religions originally came about, how they grew alongside early civilizations and societies, and how they came to be incorporated into statehoods as a means of unifying the populous and also controlling them.

One of the central themes of the book, is the difference between logo and mythosLogos is science or reason, something that helps us to function practically and effectively in the world, and it must therefore be closely in tune and reflect accurately the realities of the world around us.  In contrast, mythos was about the discourse, stories about the more difficult aspects of our humanity, about for which there were no easy answers.  She argues that religion was never supposed to provide answers that lie within the competence of human reason; that, she says, is the role of logos.  The task of religion is “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations.”

Armstrong is keen to point out that theism is a very narrow, limited understanding of who/what “God” is.  She claims that the fundamental reality, later called God, Brahman, nirvana or Tao, transcends human concepts and thoughts, and can only be known through devoted religious practice.  In other words, Armstrong’s “God” that she is “making a case for” is more akin to Tillich’s “The Ground of All Being” than the Judeo-Christian god.

What this book demonstrated to me was that all gods – and the religions that surround them – are the product of human invention.  No one religion is “right” or better than any other.  They are all human constructs that have evolved over time to match individual and societal needs.

Why We Believe in God(s)

The pieces are in place; we can now look to science for a comprehensive understanding of why human minds produce and accept religious ideas and why humans will alter their behavior, die for, and kill for these ideas. (p. 28)

It’s been my experience that when believers are unable to provide a rational, evidence-based reason for believing in God, they will inevitably resort to using personal experiences, claiming that they “can feel God’s presence”, or that they have “felt the Holy Spirit”, or some other emotional testimony.

As J. Anderson Thomson explains in Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith, there’s a perfectly natural, scientific explanation for all this.  Where A Case for God explains how people started religions, Why We Believe in God(s) explains why people developed, nurtured, and spread religious beliefs and practices.

This book is a small, easy to read text that goes into the neurosciences behind beliefs.  Simply put – religion is byproduct of human adaptations designed for other purpose, just as reading and writing are.  To quote the book, “We do not have reading and writing modules in the brain.  What we have is vision, a spoken language, symbolic thought, and fine motor movement of our hands, along with various other adaptations originally designed for other purposes.  All of these adaptations came together when humans created writing and reading…”  The same goes for religion – there is no “God shaped hole” that needs to be filled in humans, but adaptations that made for the belief in god(s) possible.

Some of these adaptations include the Mind-Body Split, Theory-of-Mind Mechanisms, Hyperactive Agency Detection, Intuitive Reasoning, Moral Evolution, Ritual, and a number of other well-studied and observed phenomenon that together give a natural explanation for people’s prevailing beliefs in the supernatural.

One of my favorite parts of the book was chapter 9, where Thomson relates the experiments done in the 80’s using what was known as the “God Helmet”.  Test subjects were places in a completely dark, silent room, wearing a helmet that magnetically stimulated the temporal lobes.  The subjects reporting having intense religious experiences and feeling the presence of “another”.

The book should only take the average person 2-3 hours to read, but if you’re not a reader, you can watch a presentation on the subject matter here.

Theramin Trees

This YouTube channel describes itself as having “a special interest in combating systems of undue influence – the prime example being religion.”  These videos are very well done and speak to a great degree about psychology and how it plays into religious indoctrination.  There are also videos that discuss the difficulties of de-converting from religion and dealing with criticism once you become a non-believer.  One of his best videos tells the story of his own de-conversion.  Other “must-watch” videos are Bending Truth, Religion-The Bad Parent, Seeing Things, Telling Stories and Respecting Beliefs

Derren Brown

Derren Brown is an English mentalist and illusionist who, ironically, makes no claims to possess any super-natural powers and is known for exposing the methods of those who do make such claims, such as faith healers and mediums.  He makes clear in his performances that all of his apparent abilities are achieved through a variety of psychological and sociological means, such as hypnosis, suggestion, cold reading, misdirection, and showmanship.  In a nutshell, Brown exposes just how easy it is to manipulate and trick people – and how easy it can be to be tricked.  In one of his more memorable shows he exposes faith healers who fleece congregants with simply parlor tricks.  In another he tricks people into believing he is something he is not, including being a “man of God”.  The episode that had the most impact of me, however, was one titled Fear and Faith.  The first part of the episode deals with the placebo effect and how powerful belief can be.  In the second part he demonstrates how group-think works and how the mere idea of a supernatural presence can affect the way people behave.

He then does an experiment involving a women who is told that for a TV show, she is going to be secretly filmed with hidden cameras.  Actors are going to intervene with her daily life in order to teach her things that she can take and use in a positive way.  She is then to record a diary of these encounters and the meaning she drew from them.  The catch is – there was no hidden cameras or actors.  She took ordinary, every day experiences and gave them significance because of her belief that it was part of a TV show.  This experiment perfectly demonstrates how people can believe that prayers work or that a god is “working in their lives” – they are simply trying to make sense and find meaning in randomness.

The last experiment involves a women who is an atheist and a scientist.  She was brought to a quite church and has a conversation with Brown.  They talk about past experiences, her father, and the idea of something “bigger than ourselves”.  Hand gestures and “triggers” where also part of the experiment.  After 15 minutes, Brown walks out and leaves her alone in the church.  Within minutes she has a profound “religious experience” that leaves her in tears and visibly shaken.  After the experiment, Brown explains how he was able to manipulate her into having this experiences.

If an atheist can be led to believe that they had a “religious experience” after only 15 minutes of manipulation, how much easier is it to persuade believers who go to church regularly?


I’m sure critics could look at any of the above examples and find fault in them somehow.  But as I’ve said numerous times – it wasn’t any one thing that led me to de-convert from Christianity; it was many things that all compiled together.  This post lists just a few of the more notable ones.  There were also dozens of books, countless blog posts, and many interviews and speeches watched online.*

Hopefully this list can provide resources for any who are going down the path of de-conversion, either from religion all together, or to a more mythos-like spirituality.  Thanks for reading.

 

*Some other resources that were profound in my de-conversion journey:

  • With or Without God – Gretta Vosper
  • A New Christianity for a New World – John Shelby Spong
  • How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
  • Jesus, Interrupted – Bart Ehrman
  • Why Evolution is True – Jerry A. Cohen
  • The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan
  • Stages of Faith – James Fowler
  • The Rise and Fall of the Bible – Timothy Beal
  • Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God – Frank Schaeffer
  • Pagan Christianity – Frank Viola
  • Godless in Dixie blog – Neil Carter
  • Year Without God blog – Ryan Bell

 

 

Take Aways: Losing My Religion

(Because of my love for books and the profound insight I gain from them, I thought I would share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book)

For those of us who have gone through (or are going through) the deconversion process, hearing other people’s stories is a means of finding peace and solidarity with others who have walked the path before.  I’ve read numerous such stories, and have always enjoyed hearing about others experiences and what life on the other side of religion looks like.  The latest such story I’ve read comes from William Lobdell and his book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America – and Found Unexpected Peace.

The book tells the story of Lobdell’s religious conversion into Evangelicalism, his life as a Christian, and the eventual loss of faith.  As the title suggests, Lobdell lost his faith over the years of reporting as a journalist on religion in America.  What started off as simple column for the Los Angeles Times, reporting “feel-good” stories about the good that local churches were doing, turned into a “roller-coaster of inspiration, confusion, doubt, and soul searching as his reporting and experience slowly chipped away at his faith.”

What sets apart Lobdell’s books from others is how well it is written.  Being a veteran reporter and journalist, Lobdell has a knack for telling a captivating story that hits you emotionally while not being sensationalized.  His turning point away from faith came when he began to report on the dark under-belly of religion that quickly came to light in the public eye in the ’00’s, most notably the Catholic sex-scandals and “Prosperity Gospel” megachurches.  All of this led up to him writing a personal essay in 2007 about his loss of faith that ended up becoming an international sensation.

When reading other people’s deconversion, I’m always struck by just how similar the process is, regardless of the individual’s backgrounds.  One of the most common experiences is the persons’ deep desire to hold on to their faith.  Yet, as much as they try, faith inevitably looses out to reason.  As Lobdell explains:

Spiritual suicide infers that people make a conscious decision to abandon their faith.  Yet it isn’t simply a matter of will.  Many people want desperately to believe, but just can’t.  They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can’t will it back into existence.  If an autopsy could be done on the spiritual life, the cause of death wouldn’t be murder or suicide.  It would be natural causes – the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason. 

While reporting on the corruption that took place in the Church, Lobdell was struck by the disconnect between what these “men of God” claimed and what their actions demonstrated:

It started to bother me greatly that God’s institutions – ones He was supposed to be guiding – were often more corrupt than their secular counterparts.  If these churches were infused and guided by the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t if follow that they would function in a morally superior fashion than a corporation of government entity?  In general, I was finding that this wasn’t the case.  I started to see that religious institutions were more susceptible to corruption than their secular counterparts because of their reliance on God, and not human checks and balances, for governance.  The answers to prayer or God’s desires… are prone to human interpretation that can be easily twisted for selfish and sinful needs.

His point illustrates precisely why I’m always suspicious of those people demanding their “religious freedoms”, or of Libertarian Christians who want the government less involved in their lives – Christians have a long tract record of doing the most immoral things when left to their own devises.  Far from making them more righteous then non-believers, Christians often represent the worst that humanity has to offer.  Later in the book, Lobdell addresses some of the criticism he received after his personal essay came out:

My piece did receive criticism, the most consistent being that I had witnessed the sinfulness of man and mistakenly mixed that up with a perfect God.  I understand the argument but I don’t buy it.  If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average, to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society.  Statistically they aren’t. […] It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists.

At the beginning of Lobdell’s agonizing journey away from God, he found that everything eventually boils down to two sides:

Do I side with what I wish to be true?  Or do I go with what I know to be true?

I think that Lobdell speaks for all de-converts with that sentiment.  In the end it simply becomes a matter of how much we are willing to lie to ourselves and put on blinders to retain our faith that often doesn’t seem worth it.  Lobdell eventually walked away from religion, and found that not only did he not need God, but was far better of without him.

Deconversion De-constructed

 

I’ve had a few people ask me for a more thorough explanation for why I deconverted from organized religion and no longer believe in God.  I touched on it a bit in my “coming out” post that I wrote earlier this year.  I also talked about the reasons why I didn’t lose my faith in a previous post.

I’ve been hesitant to write about this for a couple of reasons.  For one, it felt like an overwhelming task.  It’s difficult to take two years worth of research and condense it into a tidy, concise, and relativity short post.  Second, by attempting to simplify my reasons and possibly not provide sufficient information, it leaves the door wide open for unwanted criticism.

However, I’ve decided it was time that I attempt explain things a little better, as some people seem genuinely curious.  For the sake of simplifying things, I’ve decided to leave out all the issues I have with Christianity itself and instead focus on why I don’t believe the truth-claims made by Christianity.  I devote a good amount of words to what I dislike about Christianity, particularly Evangelicalism, but those are not the reasons that I lost my faith.  I had most of these same complaints even when I was a Christian.  I could have just as easily found a different church or denomination and been writing from a progressive christian standpoint. (In fact, that was my original intention when I started this blog)

But, the more I learned, the more I studied history, science, psychology, and critical thinking, the more my faith fell apart.  Like peeling an onion, the layers kept getting stripped away, one by one.  I tried to fight against the tide- I really did.  I didn’t want to become an atheist, but I had to follow the evidence where it took me.  If I was to be honest with myself, if I was to be critically and scientifically minded, I had to let the facts speak for themselves.

So, strap in folks – this is going to be a long, bumpy ride.  Here is a “Cliff Notes” version of  the reasons that I deconverted from Christianity:

The Bible

The foundation of the Christian faith is the Bible.  Everything Christians believe and live by is somehow tied to this one book.  It is held up as the literal “Word of God” and many consider it to be without error.  As such, it is considered authoritative and binding to all functions of the Church, both institutionally and privately.

Ironically, it was reading and studying the Bible in earnest that led to my deconversion*.   The process went something like this:

I took a year to read the Bible from cover-to-cover.  I read it in chronological order, and as such, was sometimes reading the same story, from different sources.  What I found was shocking – far from being inerrant, the Bible is littered with contradictions, errors, and discrepancies.  It also become pretty apparent that the authors of the Bible were a product of their time – pre-science, Bronze Age, primitive times, steeped in supernaturalism and mythology .  Left scratching my head, I decided to look into the history of the Bible itself, as a book.

The Council of Nicea was intended to bring some sort of unity to Christianity, and with it, determine which of the hundreds of sacred texts in circulation at the time would be canonized.  History books revealed that the decisions as to what books would be canonized had more to do with politics than with religion.   There are countless stories of corruption, bribery, and violence that made up proceedings at the Council of Nicea.  And even after the Council, it would be another two centuries before a unified version of the Bible began to take shape.

Within Christian circles, you will often hear people arguing about which translation of the Bible are most accurate in regard to the “original Greek and Hebrew”.  The problem is that there is no original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  In fact, there are no original copies of any of the books of the Bible.  What we have is copies of copies of copies.  We have no idea that the original authors said.  Some would like to believe that those copying the texts would take great pains to make sure the copies were exact, however, that is far from true.  There are thousands of copies of ancient Bible texts in existence, but there are virtually no two that are the same; there are tens of thousands of discrepancies between them all.  While most of the errors are small grammatical ones, many are huge, with whole sections being added and/or taken away.  It was not uncommon for scholars to add their own insight into a text when copying it, and this went on for centuries. 

Looking into the individual books themselves, I found many glaring problems that I never heard talked about in Church.

Like the fact that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but was written centuries after Moses died, is comprised of at least four separate texts, and is largely folklore, mythology, and propaganda – not literal history (more on this later).

Also, the fact that the Gospels were not written by Jesus’s disciples, and are not eye-witness accounts.  Rather, they were written decades after Jesus had died by anonymous, Greek-speaking scholars, who never knew Jesus personally and wrote based on the oral traditions that had been passed down.  This speaks volumes as to the credibility (or lack thereof) of the stories, especially when you consider the many discrepancies between the accounts.

There was also the problem of Paul, who though credited as being the one most responsible for spreading the word about Jesus, never know Jesus personally, never had access to any of the Gospels (they were written after his ministry), and doesn’t seem to know anything about Jesus’s ministry on earth.  There is no mention of the virgin birth, nothing of Jesus’s miracles, none of Jesus’s teachings, nothing about the Easter story, and nothing about Jesus being God in any of Paul’s writings.  There is also a great deal of debate as to the authenticity of the books credited to Paul.  Some, including Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus, are believed by many scholars to be forgeries, and 2 Thessalonians is widely accepted as being a psuedepigrapha.

Going back to the Old Testament, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have discovered that most of the stories told regarding Israel’s history are nothing more then folklore and mythology.  There was no captivity in Egypt, no Ten Plagues, no Exodus, no wandering in the desert for 40 years, no Battle of Jericho, no Kingdom of Solomon, etc.  There is simply no corroborating scientific or historical evidence outside of the Bible to support any of these events as being historical.

The same holds true in the case of Jesus and his life.  There is no non-Biblical sources from the first-century that corroborate any of the extraordinary claims (virgin birth, miracles, divinity, resurrection, etc)  made of Jesus.  In fact, there is no mention of Jesus at all, in any of the manuscripts from that period.         

After this thorough investigation into the Bible, I came away with this conclusion – The Bible is a wonderful and inspiring work of literature that gives us a look into the culture and history of the Jewish people and the earliest Christians.  Yet, it is purely the work of human hands and is not the “Word of God”, nor is it divinely inspired, and it is certainly not inerrant.  As such, it can not be, nor should be, authoritative in any way. 

The Man-Made God

I want to offer up a quick story by Carl Sagan, called “The Dragon in My Garage”, as an introduction to this section:

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, and see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heat-less.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heat-less fire; and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, and assertions immune to disproof are worthless in determining veridicality, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerges, you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative– merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

This story perfectly illustrates my thoughts on the subject of God – there is currently no empirical evidence to support the existence of a theistic God**, in fact the evidence is strongly against it, but if new information ever were to emerge, I would be prepared to examine it and go from there.  

Whenever a claim is made, the burden of proof is always on the one making the claim.  And as Carl Sagan would say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

When I’m talking about evidence, I’m talking about what can be tested, replicated, and independently verified using the scientific method.  (It is important to note that good arguments are not evidence, nor are personal experiences, or unanswered questions.)  Modern science has looked outward, and has measured the size of the universe, determined how fast it is expanding, has detected and measured previously unknown substances like dark matter and dark energy, and has determined with reasonable certainly how everything came into existence.  Science has also looked inward, breaking things down the subatomic level, and studying the quantum physics that make the whole system work.  In all that research, scientists have never found any evidence of a divine being, entity, or gods, either in the present nor the past.

So where did this idea of a divine being come from?

Cognitive science science shows that humans are biologically designed towards a pre-disposition of trying to make sense of what we don’t understand.  Ancient humans were surrounded by an aw-inspiring, yet scary and dangerous world.  They did not have the luxury of science to explain things like thunder storms, earthquakes, or diseases.  In an attempt to explain these natural occurrences, they turned to the supernatural, and gods were born.  The earliest gods came from various forms of animism, or giving a spiritual essence to plants, animals, and inanimate objects.

As societies grew and more people were living in communities, these early beliefs were co-opted by the governing powers as a way of unifying and controlling the masses, hence; the earliest forms of religion were born.  Religion is a natural phenomenon, and has evolved and been reshaped by cultures throughout the centuries. Polytheism, pantheism, monotheism, panentheism, deism, and many other philosophies sprang up as people tried to understand the world around them.

When one reads about early Judaism in the Old Testament and compares it to the prevailing religions of the time and those that came before, it’s easy to see that Judaism and  monotheism were simply another rung on the evolutionary ladder of religion.  The same can be found when one looks at the history of Christianity.

All of this lead me to conclude that all religions, including Judaism and Christianity, are man-made.  So too, are the god(s) that they believe in and worship.  

Head Games

The next question I needed to address was this – If god(s) are a human construct, why do people claim to have had experiences with God?  How do you explain conversion experiences and other similar religious experiences?

To find the answers I turned to psychology and neuroscience.  I learned that all humans have a “hard-wired” tendency to believe in the supernatural.  This phenomenon is also described in psychology as part of our childhood development of maturity, the one James Fowler labeled the Intuitive-Projective in his Stages of Faith.   This is why children will often have imaginary friends and why a large percentage of the population believes in UFOs and angels.  I also explains why so many people, especially those taught at a young age, believe in god(s).

I learned about such things as Theory of Mind,  Agent Detection, Apophenia, and Rituals, and how these provide a perfectly natural explanation to people’s religious or spiritual experiences.  The latest research has shown that religious ideas are simply the extraordinary use of everyday cognition.  And like music or reading & writing, are the product of cognitive mechanics designed for other purposes.  This leads me to believe that peoples’ religious experiences are the product of our minds natural tendencies, and not divine intervention.

I then focused on the concepts of willful blindnessconfirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and cognitive dissonance to understand why people would hold on to their beliefs despite contradictory evidence.  To avoid these pitfalls, the single most important skill I have found is that of critical thinking.  “No one always acts purely objectively and rationally.  We connive for selfish interests.  It is ‘only human’ to wish to validate our prior knowledge, to vindicate our prior decisions, or to sustain our earlier beliefs.”  Because of these pre-disposed prejudices, one must apply critical thinking skills to every subject, including the subject of god(s).  The scientific method is crucial to this, as is the understanding of logical fallacies.  I found that having learned the common logical fallacies and how they were used, it became easy to spot them in any debate in which tangible evidence could not be provided.  This includes nearly every argument that has been made by apologists concerning God/The Bible.

That’s about the long and short of it.  There’s a lot more that I could have gone into – the contradictions of God’s character throughout the Bible, the myth of Jesus’s divinity, heaven & hell, the Devil, etc.  This post is already a bit wordy for me, however, so I just focused on the main points.  I’m sure for some, I’ve invited as many questions as I’ve answered***.  Perhaps in future posts I’ll explore some of my points in greater detail.  I’m sure some will take issue with a lot of what I have to say – and that’s fine.  As I’ve said many times on this blog, this is my journey and my experience based on what I’ve come to know and understand.  I’m not looking to “evangelize” or convert anyone.  But, I know there might be some out there who are having doubts about their faith, and hopefully this discussion can be helpful.

* – I’m not alone in this; a good majority of former believers would also sight the Bible as the main thing that lead to their deconversion. 

** – I emphasize the term “theistic” here, as it refers to God as a conscious supernatural being (a God who listens to and answers prayers, cares about humanity, intervenes on its behalf, etc).  This is different than what some traditions and philosophies would regard as the “God of essence” (“The Ground of All Being”, non-anthropomorphic, abstract, spiritual, etc.)

***- I didn’t add a lot of links to the information I presented, as is usually habit for me, for a couple of reasons.  First, much of the information I have received has come from books, not online sources.  Second, it would have taken considerable time to try and find links for everything.  I can assure you that the facts presented are not merely my own conjuring or opinion, but were gathered from reliable, well-accepted, academic sources, There are a number of authors and works I can recommen to those of you looking for more information.

 

Mythbusters: De-Conversion

 

The reasons to leave the church are innumerable and reasons to leave can’t be narrowed down to a list. We can’t be narrowed down to an easily explained list with easily fixable problems.

This quote comes from the article that I featured in my last post.  For most who leave religion, it is by no means an overnight decision, but one that can take years and immeasurable amounts of questioning, research, and investigation.  I could write a book detailing all the reasons for my own de-conversion, but I though it might be easier to debunk some of the common myths I hear from believers who seem to have trouble understanding why someone would throw in the towel on the whole God/religion thing.  These pertain to my own experience, and should not be seen as universal for all de-converts, but I know that most would likely resonate with these.

“You must be angry at God”

No.  It’s not that I’m angry at God – it’s that I don’t believe in the kind of God that one can be angry at.  In order to have an emotion towards something, that something needs to exist in a real, tangible way.  I don’t believe in a personified god, therefore I have no emotions one way or another.

“You must have been hurt by the Church”

This one comes up almost every time I post something critical about the Church/Christianity.  To be clear – yes, I’ve been hurt by people in the church in the past, but that’s not why I left.  I think anyone who is actively involved in any sort of organization, whether it’s church, school, a job, sports team, friends, or family, is at some point going to be hurt by someone in some way.  That’s just part of being human and most are mature enough to understand that.  Actually, at the time I quit going to church, I was in good standing there and had not been directly hurt bean hurt either by an individual or the church as a whole.

“Don’t let the actions of a few bad Christians drive you away”

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I devote a good amount of words to Christians Gone Wild.  There’s not a week that goes by that self-proclaiming Christians aren’t making headlines involving sex-scandals, hypocrisy, bigotry, ignorance, lust for power, and all around fuckery.  The thing is, I was against these types of toxic Christians back when I was a Christian, and was pretty vocal about it too.  While the constant exposure of the dark underbelly of religion didn’t drive me away from it, it certainly solidified for me the fact that the Christian believe system does not make people any more moral or upright than any other religion or ethos.

“You just want to sin and not feel guilty about it”

Umm… no.  This would be too ridiculous to even mention if it wasn’t for the fact that it comes up frequently.  First off, let’s be clear- when Christians talk about “wanting to sin” they are almost always talking about sex.  The Church is obsessed with sex and trying to control what people do in the bedroom.  Christians often assume that those who don’t follow their archaic, oppressive rules must be having weekly orgies.  Well, let me set the record straight – I’ve been in a totally monogamous relationship with the same amazing women, my wife, for eight years now.  No, we are not going to start seeing other people.  No, we are not going to start swinging.  We are both very happy with monogamy and feel that it is what’s best for our relationship.

If anything, I have become a decidedly more moral person since leaving religion.  I no longer embrace the fierce tribalism that permeates all low religions, especially Evangelicalism.  I no longer judge people based on who’s in/out, saved/unsaved, gay/straight, Christian/other.  I now embrace humanism, a system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.  Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of all human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. (definition from Wikipedia)

“You were never a True Christian”

Well, I’m not sure what defines a True Christian these days, but this sort of statement is incredibly condescending, self-righteous, and disrespectful.  My faith and church life meant a great deal to me.  I was actively involved in activities both in and out of the church – Praise Team, Outreach Team, Lifegroup Leader, etc.   I read the Bible daily and studied it diligently.  My book shelves still hold dozens of volumes on theology, apologetics, Church history, and prayer books. In fact, it was my devotion to seeking “The Truth” that ultimately lead me out of Christianity.  I would probably still be a Christian if I had just remained a nominal believer, content to show up to church a couple times a month, trust everything the pastor said,  walk the party line, and never seriously question what I believed.

Every year there are thousands of people who , despite having done everything right in regards to their religion, will still walk away from it.  It happens to young and old, leaders and lay people alike.  As science continues to provide the answers that the Church once claimed, as infighting continues amongst denominations, and as the dark side of institutionalized Christianity is further brought into the light, it’s inevitable that Christianity will continue to loose people, influence, and respect in this country.  More and more people are finding out that the claims so often made by religion simply aren’t true.  And no amount of rationalizing is going to change that.

 

Church Leaders – Stop Trying to Explain Why People Leave the Church

Last month, I addressed the issue of still-active Christians trying to explain why people are leaving the church, and how completely off base they usually are.  In that post I used a rather extreme example of just how out of touch and self-righteous these articles can be.  But regardless of which article you look at, it’s rare that any of them really understand what’s at the heart of the mass exodus from organized religion.  And, honestly, I don’t think it’s something that can be boiled down into a neat, 1500 word article.  Whole books have been written on the topic (such as Phil Zuckerman’s Faith No More), but still only addressed a handful of the major issues influencing the rise of “nones” and “dones”.

I was planning on talking about the issue further, but this week ran into this excellent article by Holly Baer on Christian’s assumptions about why people are leaving the Church and their faith.  The article pretty well speaks for itself, so please read it, but I wanted to comment and expand on a few of her points.

Please, for the love of God, stop assuming you know why the Nones or Dones leave the church better than they do. Stop assuming it has something to do with the superficial. Stop assuming these leavers have never delved into scripture.

Yes.  If you are still actively involved in a church or if you still consider yourself a Christian, you have no business trying to explain why people are leaving.  Unless you’ve spend a considerable time engaging non-believers and ex-Christians, you can do nothing more than make presumptions and guesses.  You’re speaking out of your element.

I don’t think people who try to reconvert former Christians are evil, far from it. I understand that their attempts to save me are truly kind; they believe in eternity and want me to join them in the happy half of forever. However this completely ignores the non-believers choices, and the evangelist assumes that we haven’t thought our unbelief out. We’re often treated like we’re wandering aimlessly and just need redirecting to the cross.

I have a big problem with evangelizing in general.  It assumes that one particular brand of religion is right, and all other religions, faiths, or personal creeds are wrong.  Therefore, if you don’t subscribe to that particular brand, then you are wrong, and probably in danger of hell.  Evangelizing efforts are often judgmental, hostile, and ignore personal boundaries.  This goes doubly so for those of use who have already been in the ranks and left.  Many of us who grew up in church our whole lives, went to Catechism, got a Christian education, studied theology in college, were die-hard “Jesus Freaks”, read Dallas Willard,  and generally have a far greater knowledge of the Bible, Jesus, and church history then the average pew-sitter.

As the old saying goes – “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”

We know what the Bible says.  We know what it’s like to have a “personal relationship with Jesus”.  We know the company line and all the sales pitches, we’ve probably used them ourselves.  As Holly puts it –

I saw the cross, I saw what it stood for, I saw the religion and the relationship, and I still rejected it.

And people will continue to reject it as long as the church fails to address the corruption, ugly theology, tribalism, and hunger for political power that grips the modern Church today.  By making up superficial reasons why people are leaving, Church advocates can continue to go on like everything is fine, like nothing needs to be addressed, and continue to point the finger at those leaving, claiming they are the problem.

If you’re in church leadership or have an interest in why people continue to leave the Church,  please read Holly’s article.  Then read it again.  Then go and spend some time talking to “dones” and find out what’s really going on.  I’d be happy to talk to anyone who cares to listen.  As long as we can do it over beer.

… And I Feel Fine

This is a quick follow up to my last couple of posts.  I wanted to make it clear that even though the process of de-converting is a difficult one, it is absolutely worth it.  The grass really is greener on this side of the fence.  As I’ve mentioned before, discarding organized religion is like taking a heavy pack off your back that you’re been carrying for years – you just feel so much lighter.  You also find that without the heavy burdens that religion places on you, you discover talents and abilities you never knew that you had.  The Church has mastered the art of making people feel worthless, making them feel weak and in need of “salvation”.  What you find when you leave all that behind is that you are just fine the way you are.

 

Pastor turned atheist Jerry DeWitt had this to say in his book Hope After Faith:

My coping mechanisms were brand new, too.  In the past, I dealt with fear, anxiety, depression, and rejection through faith with internal dialogue that said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  But as a nonbeliever, I realized that all of those times I believed that it was Christ who strengthened me, it was actually me who strengthened me.  Now that I knew that i could rely on myself as a source of strength, my internal dialogue shifted to, “I can do all things through the strength that I posses.”  As an atheist, doing all things doesn’t mean doing everything – it means doing the most that I am capable of, which allows me to clearly identify with myself as the flawed human being that I am.  With faith, I expected to be super-human, to put on a happy face all the time.  Without faith, I’m allowed to be human.  If that means spending the weekend in the bed wallowing in sadness or self pity, that’s okay.  My post-faith mindset allowed me to not only embrace my humanity but reality as well.  I realized that I could work with reality instead of supernaturally trying to change reality.  A reality-based worldview does not mean surrendering to hopelessness – in fact it’s exactly the opposite.  Indeed, I came to realize towards the end of the horrible summer of 2012 that hope actually flourishes as my expectations about my life became steadily more realistic.  Freed from unrealistic expectations, hope became more like a foundational stone in my conscience versus a fluffy, floaty cloud.  I hoped for things that truly matter, like the health of my family and friends or simply for the sun to rise the next morning, and when those things happened I was fulfilled.  Faith, by contrast, had locked me into impossibly high hopes – like divine intervention into my everyday life – a sort of anxiety-ridden hope that a gambler has starting a roulette table.  It’s hope against impossible odds.

A while ago I talked about how every person who has doubts should spend a year without God, as Ryan Bell did, to see if their faith was really something worth holding on to.  One person’s comment to this was simply, “I couldn’t go a day without God!”

I know this person isn’t alone in this thought process.  Like many, he’s become dependent on an institution that keeps it’s members subservient by focusing on their inadequacies.  He’s bought into this lie that he can’t do anything on his own because he’s “sinful”, “weak”, and “broken”.  What he doesn’t realize is that he can go a day without God.  Not only that, but he might find that his life would actually improve once he stopped depending on the supernatural to fulfill his expectations.  As Neil Carter so eloquently put it, he might find that he doesn’t need a magical feather to fly, he possessed the capability all along.

Sometimes you can make something happen just by convincing yourself that it will happen.  That’s what’s happening when people recite the verse that says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  Jesus is their magic feather.  Without it, they might not have the courage to tackle the obstacles in their way.  They are plenty capable of dealing with their struggles on their own, they just don’t know it. They feel they need Jesus to do something for them which in reality they can do for themselves.  In the end, they will make it through their challenges by the strength which comes from millions of years of ingrained survival instinct and the progressive power of natural selection.  

Like Carter and DeWitt, every de-convert I’ve ever talked to or read about has expressed the same thought – we’re just fine without God.  That’s been my experience as well.  Life is hard, no doubt.  But you can get through it by relying on your own strengths and experiences and by leaning on those closest to you.  In reality, that’s what gets everyone through life.  Some just don’t know it yet.

A Different Shade of God

Since my last post dealt largely with what I don’t believe, I though in this one I’d talk a little bit about what I do believe.  Although, I want to be careful in using that word “believe”.  The definition of believe is to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something.  I think when speaking about that which is unknown, and perhaps unknowable, it’s ignorant and even dangerous to speak in such absolutes.  For myself, I rather like to think in terms of things that I am open to or that I have an idea about, rather then in what I belief.  So, I thought I’d share of few of the ideas and concepts that I am open to and hope to explore more.  (This post is going to be all over the place, with quotes, random thoughts and ideas, and no real conclusion.  Not my finest work, but bear with me.) 

A fellow unbeliever who went through a similar de-conversion as me had this to say about how her ideas of God changed once you stripped away all the religious dogmas:

The concept of God got far larger, kinder, vaster, more loving, less male, more inclusive, less exclusive, less separated, more innate, less “out there,” more “in here,” less human-hating, and more human-integrating. So that even the word “God” no longer fit, being far too limiting for All That Is.

This has been my experience as well- once you tear down the Golden Calf of our ideas and dogmas concerning God, you’re free to explore more vast, open, and positive ideas about the what lies beyond nature.  You are free to ponder ideas from other religions, philosophies, ideas, and integrate the good into your understanding, while leaving the rest.  You can come up with your own metaphors and expressions of the divine based on your own understandings, and your own human experience, as opposed to accepting some pre-packaged  religious ethos that demands total devotion to a rigid ideology.

Freedom is the gift whereby you most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. – C.S. Lewis

At this point I feel the same way about God(s) as I do about life on another planet.  We currently have no scientific evidence that life exists beyond earth, but with there being 20,000 planets in out solar system alone that contain the right conditions for hosting life, there is a very strong possibility that we are not alone in the galaxy.  In fact, NASA believes that we will discover extraterrestrial life within the next 20 years.   I’m very open and excited by the idea of life on other planets, and am hopeful that someday we can find proof of extraterrestrial life.  But until then, I’m not going to run around proclaiming, “We are not alone!”  It’s the same with God(s) – there’s no proof that he/she/it exists, at least in he finite, Judeo-Christian version- therefore I’m not going to devote my life to any one specific concept of God, but I’m open to the possibility of something bigger existing.

You may laugh, but I think George Lucas was on to something in regards to The Force in Star Wars.  The Force is described as an energy field created by all living things, that surrounds and penetrates living beings and binds the galaxies together.  This idea that all living things are connected isn’t just the stuff of great science-fiction.  Genetics has proven that all living things are related, and that we all came from common ancestors.   As much as some want to believe that humans were created set apart and different then the rest of creation, we now know that this is simply not true.  Human DNA is 99% identical to a chimpanzee’s, 95% identical to a monkey’s, about 79% identical to a mouse, 36% identical to fruit flies, and 15% identical to mustard grass!  Could this interconnection, this “Force”, be metaphorically called God?  Could, as Francis Collins suggest, DNA truly be the “Language of God”?

My idea of God is that of an infinite growing that discourages definitions but not knowledge. I believe in an intellectual experience that intensifies our perceptions and distances us from an egocentric and predatory life, from ignorance and from the limits of personal satisfaction. The greater our knowledge, the greater God becomes. Even the Bible, this marvelous book written by extraordinary visionaries, is small and reductive with respect to the greatness of God. – Toni Morrison

I’ve always been interested in mystics.  Their way of seeing the divine, of using spiritual disciplines to “tap-in” to that which is beyond ourselves, of seeking truths that are beyond normal intellect.  The enlightened writings of mystics and their emphasis on common truths and seeking the greater good of humanity and creation are much more attractive to me then the tribalistic and dualistic thinking found in most religions.

Meditation and other spiritual practices are often seen as hippy-dippy, New Age practices, and are often labeled as “dangerous” by fear-mongering Christians.  Yet, meditation has been shown in studies to be  associated with improvement in a variety of psychological areas, including stress, anxiety, addiction, depression, eating disorders and cognitive function, among others.  There’s also research to suggest that meditation can reduce blood pressure, pain response, stress hormone levels and even cellular health.

Apart from the physicals benefits to meditation, it along with other spiritual disciplines (silence and solitude, fasting, pilgrimages) are a way of transcending the everyday mundaneness of life, of experiencing something else “out there”, of tapping into some spiritual vein or tuning in to a certain otherworldly frequency.  However you want to look at it, I do think there is something bigger out there.  Could whatever that vein or frequency is or where it comes from  be “god”?  Or, is meditation simply of way of opening up the doors of our inner consciousness, of exploring parts of ourselves that have been pushed back by the hum-drum of everyday life? 

I think there’s a reality beneath what we can see with our eye and experience with our senses. There’s ultimately something mysterious and unmaterialist about the world. Something large and awe-inspiring and eternal and unknowable. I’m not particularly mystical myself, but I have a lot of respect for the notion of the mystic experience. It’s important to me to know that this is a possible dimension in the world. – Jonathan Franzen

I know these ideas may seem very vague and confusing to those who follow traditional religion, but the paradox is exactly the point.  When speaking about the spiritual realm, it’s better to speak in uncertain terms.  It’s better for one’s understanding to be fluid.  I think that our “understanding of the Mystery”, as Rohr puts it, should continue to change and be shaped by what what we learn and observe throughout our lives.

We need to revise our understanding of ultimate reality so it conforms to everything else we know.  We understand our experience of God as an experience of belonging — not just to a family, or a nation, or even a galaxy, but to everything: the experience of ultimate belonging.  The experience of God intimately and extensively connects us to everything — all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible.  In a word, God is the experience of possibility. – Galen Guengerich

 

My Year Without God

(PREFACE – This post is going to offend some people.  There’s no way to be honest about this subject without rubbing people the wrong way.  Kindly remember that this isn’t about you – this is my journey and my story.  A college professor I had once said, “There is a difference between an offense given and an offense taken.”  I’m not trying to offend anyone.  For those close to me who consider yourselves Christians; my own views and beliefs don’t change how I feel about you and hopefully you will feel the same in return.  To those who read this and are offended; that’s your own insecurity talking and maybe you should explore that a little more.  In any case – keep your toxic bullshit to yourself.  Most of this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly.  To say I’ve been hinting at it would be an understatement.)

Awhile ago I wrote about Ryan Bell and his Year Without God.  This coming Easter will mark the one-year anniversary of my own Year Without God.  I wasn’t as intentional as Bell was, but our journeys are similar.  My faith started to unravel a couple years ago.  I held on as long as I could, hoping that my prayers would be answered and that I could make sense of everything.  Those prayers were never answered and things only got worse.  So, last Easter, I quietly left the Church.  I quit praying, quit reading the Bible for inspiration, and started trying to figure out if any of it was worth holding on to.  Like Bell, I began reading the “sacred texts” of atheists – Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Krauss, etc.  I also read books from leading scientists, scholars, historians, humanists, and mystics, as well as exploring other religions and philosophies.   Now a year in, I thought it would be good to make a confession of sorts, to come clean about a few things.

One of the first things that really started to grate on my nerves when I was a part of a church was it’s tribalistic nature and it’s upholding and defending of marker beliefs.  A marker belief is a way to differentiate one group from another.  It’s a quick, easy way to tell who is in the group and who is out of it.  Evangelicalism is obsessed  with their marker beliefs, theologies, and dogmas.  These distinguish who is a TRUE CHRISTIAN and who is not.

So, after a couple of years of unpacking everything I had ever known about faith/God/the Bible/Christianity, and looking at it under a microscope, I have found nearly all the major tenents of modern Christianity to be either unprovable or simply untrue.  And, because of Evangelicalism’s (and most Christian faith’s) exclusivity and demand for conformity to these tenents,  I no longer see any reason to label myself a Christian and belong to their ranks.  Here are a few examples of how I’ve head this phrase, and how it applies to me:

I don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative word of God.

I don’t believe in The Fall, Original Sin, or the need for salvation.

I fully believe in evolution and the scientific method.  I don’t believe in Creationism or Intelligent Design. 

I don’t believe that Jesus was God.  I don’t believe in his bodily resurrection.  I don’t believe he died for the sacrificial atonement of my sins.

I don’t believe in the “End Times”, the Rapture, or the second-coming of Jesus.

I don’t believe in hell.

I don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian version of God presented in the Bible.

It seems I tick all the boxes that most assuredly make me not a TRUE CHRISTIAN.  The above statements are just a few of the things that I can find no credible scientific, historical, or scholarly evidence to support, at least not in the literal and/or historic sense.  So, when it comes to Christianity – I’m done.

Many are probably thinking, “Maybe there isn’t any scientific evidence for these things, but you just need to accept them on faith!”

Let me just say a quick word about faith and why that word is like nails on a chalkboard for me.  When I started having serious doubts about my beliefs and went to others in the church about them, I would get one of two answers.  Either it was an answer that was steeped in apologetics,  based on presuppositions, and never contained any actual evidence.  Or, I was told that I just needed to “have faith!”  Here’s the deal with faith and how it’s used in Christian language:  faith is a fucking cop-out, it’s a defeat – an admission that the truth claims that one holds are unknowable through evidence and reason.  It is only undemonstrable assertions that require suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith.

Most of the truth claims made by Christians require an enormous amount of faith to swallow unquestioningly.  Some obviously have that level of comfort in not questioning, but I don’t. And I have enough conviction and self-respect to not sit in the pews week after week and pretend that I do.

I’ve come across a few enlightened people who have assured me that I can still be a Christian, even if I don’t believe in the above statements.  I appreciate the sentiment, and the effort to be inclusive, but the label “Christian” is of no value to me.  It beares no real meaning or purpose in my everyday life, and is usually more of a burden then anything else.  Calling yourself a Christian means you are expected to act and think like a TRUE CHRISTIAN, and I’m done playing that game.

So where does that leave me?

I’m not really sure.  Right now I’m in this weird no-man’s land between religion and atheism.  If you reference the Dawkin’s Scale, I’m somewhere around a 5:

I don’t believe in theism (the belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it, and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures) or in any sort of divine deity.  But, I’m open to the idea of something bigger than what we can understand in the natural world, which could could metaphorically be described as “God” – love, beauty, justice, an energy, a force, “the ground of all being”, etc.

Or, one could say that I am an atheist in the historical sense of the word.  While atheism has been around for thousands of years,  the current definition of atheism – the rejection of the belief in deities- is a relatively modern idea.  For much of recorded time atheists were those who rejected the culturally predominate view of God, and that would certainly apply to me.

If forced to wear a label right now, it would probably be closest to a freethinking humanist.  A freethinker is one who arrives at their beliefs through the use of reason, science, logic, and empiricism rather than by relying on dogma, tradition, and authorities.  Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

Soren Kerkegaard believed the old creeds and doctrines of the modern church have become idols, and were flawed and inadequate ways of seeing God.  Just as the true nature of a person can never fully be put into words, whatever it is that “God” may be – he/she/it’s essence is beyond our human ability to comprehend and understand, and certainly beyond our ability to properly define.

Like Ms. Anthony, I’ve become incredibly untrusting of any person, institution, or religion that claims to have a monopoly on God, knows his will, and can therefore judge everyone else according to it.  This is the epitome of human arrogance, and has lead to more wars and human suffering then could ever be measured.

This past year has been one of the most stressful years of my life.  It’s been a year filled with anger, confusion, a sense of loss, loneliness, questions and paradoxes.  But, I’ve come a long way.  I don’t know how much further this rabbit-hole goes, all I know is that I’m committed to seeing it through.  At one point I wrote on here that I was done de-constructing and wanted to move forward.  Well, I found a few more boxes on the shelf that needed to be gone through and torn apart.  I also found that putting things together is much harder then I had anticipated.

But, there’s an incredible sense of freedom that come from cleaning out all that clutter and getting rid of burdens that have held you down for so many years.  I feel like I’ve taken a heavy pack off of my back and can now run unencumbered for the first time.

If you would have told me five years ago that I would give up my faith, I would have vehemently denied it.  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God!” and all that pious bullshit.  Yet, here I am – a non-believer, at least in the American evangelical sense of the term.  If this journey has taught me one thing, it is to never be too certain of your place in life.

Circumstances change.  Beliefs change.  I’ve changed.

Here’s to the future, and to the shedding of old scales.