Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

24 January 2014

Atheist Stories V

I have a lot of atheist friends. And a few of them have asked me to revisit my series Atheist Stories, posts that contained testimonials of conversion stories explaining each person's own relationship with atheism or agnosticism and (of course) faith more generally. For some background, you could visit the first post in the series, but, in brief, a couple of summers ago I became curious about how many atheist friends I had and about their own stories and journeys. I have found these tales nuanced and fulfilling, and because I identify with so much of what my friends shared with me, I have felt part of a larger community of people who have a faith that makes more sense to me than belief in god does. In any case, my hope is that these testimonies are as accessible and as rich to others. My friends will all be referred to by their first names only.

Sue

I grew up in a large family and with one parent who was a geography professor. The playroom wall was covered with maps, the house was filled with art from Inuit and Native American and early Norse cultures, and we used as picture books an old Time-Life series about life in other countries. I loved looking at the pictures of people in Japan, in Kenya, in Australia, in China. My parents' friends and colleagues from the university came from multiple faiths and cultures. From a very young age I was aware that the world was (and had been) full of people and cultures and religions all very different from mine.

As a family, we attended the Church of England on the the corner. Looking back, I think my parents appreciated the community aspect of church-going: that is, the readily available babysitters, the neighborhood teas, the access to assistance in an emergency, the feeling of community. They also loved the music and the excellent choir at that church. One parent was an atheist (although I did not know that until I was adult). The other one believed.

Christianity seemed pretty cool to me, and I thought I believed. I wanted to believe: I liked the music, the ceremonies with cassocks and gold goblets and incense and chanting, the beautiful stained glass windows, the noble suffering of saints. I thought I did. But then I remember being quite small (under ten years old) and sitting in Sunday School forever wondering about the other people not mentioned in the Bible – the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Jews, the Muslims – and why they weren't mentioned in the stories too much, or what happened to them during the deluge, or if Jesus was the Messiah how could we really know because a lot of other people in the world didn't believe the same, or was everyone else going to hell because they weren't Christian? It all seemed so so arbitrary.

My conversion was not sudden. Scales did not fall from my eyes. But it came about in Sunday School as a gradual process of being unable to reconcile two different versions of the world.

Lane

Growing up in small-town Texas, religion was always a part of my life. Not a huge part, mind you, but Sunday mornings were usually spent at church, and a good majority of Wednesday evenings were spent at church, as well. I did get baptized at least once. I was somewhat active with youth groups and choir/band.

It was never explained to me why we were Christians or why we should be; it was just accepted that we were. When I think about it now, it was the general scare tactics and flawed logic that we all know and love: You can't go to heaven if you don't know God. You can't know God unless you go to church. Bad people go to hell; good people go to heaven.

Honestly, I didn't think much about it and just accepted it as all of my friends and family were Christians and that is what we did or how we were supposed to act. It was our very own shade of normal.

Fast forward a handful of years. I'm now a freshman in college. Living away from home for the first time. Meeting new people and trying to become my own person. About a month into my first semester I met a wonderful woman. She was weird like me, and life was great.

I would come to learn over the course of the next 6 months that she was bipolar. She hadn't been diagnosed yet, but that would come shortly. I forget what happened, but she was acting erratically one night and I flipped out and took her to the ER. Nurses and hospital staff were asking me what happened to her arms. She would cut herself for reasons that I didn't understand then, and I still don't now. She got assigned to a hospital room, and I was given permission to stay the night in the room with her.

The next day her mother showed up and everything kind of went to hell. My girlfriend had told some stories about her mother and how fundamentalist she could be. I always took those stories with a grain of salt because who doesn't have less-than-flattering stories about their parents?

I had met her mother and within about 5 minutes or so she made a statement to me that basically boiled down to God put you in her life so you could watch out for her. Why did you let this happen?

That hurt.

That hurt more than words could ever say. There I was, this stupid college freshman who is trying to play at being an adult. As far as I know, I had never even heard the term "bipolar" before that incident. At this point, I'm fairly certain that I shouldn't have been living on my own, much less trying to be responsible for another person.

As much as I would like to say that I had some sort of witty retort, I didn't. I just listened to what her mother had to say and filed it away for dissection later. And dissect it I did.

What little faith I had to begin with was shaken. I could no longer look at this "God" as a loving individual who had a plan for every one. I mean, you look at the love of your life laying in a hospital bed after making a rash decision because her brain isn't wired the same as everyone else's and tell me that it is part of a master plan. You look them in the eyes and see the pain and confusion and uncertainty and tell me that God loves them.

Once I reached that conclusion, it was all downhill from there. I started questioning relying on this "God". God can't do anything for me that I couldn't do for myself. God doesn't do anything for any one because he doesn't exist.

Caleb

It would be an understatement to say that I "grew up in a Christian home". I delved into my faith as deeply as I could from childhood through adulthood. I read all of the church fathers from Anselm and Augustine to the mainstream Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton and even Christian mystics like A.W Tozer. I felt a personal connection with god when I meditated and prayed. I had as much genuine faith as any person can be said to have had. I even spent several summers at worldview camps debating with straw-man atheists and learning to better understand their insidious attacks on my faith.

It was actually the worldview training that sparked my first investigations. It occurred to me that all over the world, in other religions and cultures, there must be similar programs teaching similar young people why their view of the world was correct and how to defend their current beliefs against the incursion of other systems. All over the world there were people just like me, born into different circumstances with different experiences, who were equally as convinced of their particular rightness as I was of mine. Had I been born into different circumstances, at this moment I would be just as convinced of some other point of view as I was of my current one. I would be just as sure and armored as I was now but professing in a completely different position and it would be impossible to know it was the "wrong" one.

This led me to the realization that it is impossible to determine the objective truth of any view when drawn from subjective human experiences. And considering that all human experience is based on subjective sensations, even if objective truth existed it would be indistinguishable from any other set of experiences. And if all beliefs are a function of experience, then it renders free will impossible. And in a universe without free will, choice – and thus punishment or reward for actions – has no meaning. With the the objective truth that is required as the basis for any religious belief unknowable, I came to understand that nihilism is the only possible stance for me.

But I missed the comforting arms of faith, so as an unscientific control study I tried practicing the worship of the Valar from J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe for 30 days. It was very satisfying to know that 14 super powerful beings were looking out for me. I prayed to Tulkas in the mornings to give me strength through the day and praised Aulë when my work was good. At night I asked Varda to watch over me and Estë to give me rest. I felt genuine gratitude to the Valar for my good fortune and happiness. Were it not for the extreme rebellion of my intellect, I would still be one of the faithful. This experiment satisfied me that faith was a strong placebo that produced contentment without any divine effort.

After my experiment I spent the same amount of energy exploring my new atheism as I had in practicing my various religious beliefs. And the more that I read of Hawking and Sagan and Greene and Dawkins the more that I realized that this fit the world that I knew and experienced. It explained the universe that I inhabited, not the one that I wished existed.

What you must remember is that I would rather believe in magic, even now. It is pleasurable to believe in a system provides infinite and eternal rewards for the incredibly low commitments that modern Christianity demands. And yet I found that I could not go back. Because not only does Christianity fail the intellectual test of logic, but it fails the emotional test of magic and wonder.

I think that modern Christians expect too little of their religion. The Bible presents a world of poetry and magic where supernatural beings take human and animal forms to do battle for good and evil. People part seas, call fire from the sky, walk on water, stop the sun and come back from the dead. Donkeys and snakes can talk, pigs are infested with demons, god can live in a golden box carried on poles and some guys try to rape two angels before they destroy a town. Those parts are mainly ignored by modern Christians because they don’t actually fit with our experienced realities. Our universe is much less paranormal and governed by natural processes that can be investigated and explained without magic.

I’m not saying that gravity and natural selection aren’t magical in their own way, but they lack the purely human poetry that the creators of mythologies seek to build. The Bible seems much more likely to have been invented by humans seeking to inject magic into a universe they wished for rather than an explanation of the universe that we actually live in.

I want to believe in a god in the same way that I want to believe in dragons; a world in which they existed would be a better and more fulfilling world. And yet we have as much proof for one as the other.

In case you missed them:
Part I. / Part II. / Part III. / Part IV.