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Posts tagged ‘Christianity’

Christians and Pagans and Atheists and Einstein

There is a great song by Dar Williams called Christians and Pagans. If you’ve never heard it, have a listen:

Back in 2009, when I was reeling from the shock of loosing my life-long faith, scrambling to reconstruct some semblance of a worldview, and aching over the huge gash that had been torn in the safe, warm, loving fabric of my family relationships, this song was my catharsis.

And my hope.

I would sit and listen to it on repeat, fighting tears, aching inside for the all of the parents and children, brothers and sisters, cousins and grandparents and friends throughout human history who, for whatever reasons, have found themselves on opposite sides of a dividing line.

Having one’s heart strings stretched across the brick and mortar and barbed wire and chasms we’ve constructed between various ideological camps – it hurts.

When I lost my Christian faith, I didn’t stop loving my Christian family. And they didn’t stop loving me. And while I understand the reasoning and experiences that have led them to their conclusions, I have had other experiences that have led me to mine. Ones that can be explained in words, but not fully transmitted.

How can I expect my parents to follow the winding trail my mind and heart have travelled since I left home? And how can I begin to understand the lives they lived before I was born, and even after, inside their own minds and hearts, that have forged and strengthened their own convictions about life?

I can’t. We are all stuck inside our own heads, and there is only so much that can be shared through words.

And that leaves us in this awful tug ‘o’ war between love and pain.

I hope that someday it will be like it is in the song – that my family and I will be able to gather around the table, hold hands, celebrate the beauty of life, and choose to respect each other as equally intelligent, good, legitimate people, accepting each other’s differences and seeming crazy-ness in spite of our mutual inability to comprehend, understanding that we are all just trying to “[make] sense of history and [draw] warmth out of the cold.”

I guess we are pretty close to that already, maybe even farther along in some respects. And I am so thankful for that – for my parents’ determination to stay in my life and love and support me, to allow me to participate in theirs; for their growing willingness to engage me in conversation on philosophical topics, to ask what I really think, to clarify what they really think. I am thankful for my siblings’ continued support and communication and care.

I know at times it would probably be less painful for all of us to just go do our own things and check in occasionally to discuss the weather and other innocuous topics.

I’m so thankful that’s not my family.

The one thing I am wishing these days is that they could identify with this line from the song that I love so much, the one that goes, “And you find magic from your god and we find magic everywhere.”

There is magic in life. There is beauty and awesomeness and mystery. I experienced it as a Christian. And I experience it now as an naturalist, perhaps even more profoundly. And it is those who live in light of this magic, wherever they find it, that, I think, tend to be the kind of people that other people want to be around and who, little by little, are loving the world to a better place.

Albert Einstein probably said it best:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

I, of course, believe that the most accurate, whole, and satisfying perspective from which to experience this awe is a naturalistic/humanistic one.

But whether you consider yourself a Christian, a pagan, an atheist or anything else in between, I hope you are finding it – that magic, that sense of wonder, that keeps your inner spark alive, that makes life worth living.

If you are not, don’t waste another minute. Life is short. Go get it. And don’t be afraid of boxes and lines. Crossing them might be painful. It might stretch some cords. But love is amazingly elastic. And amazingly strong.

And the wonder is worth the pain.

Truth Is Not My God

I just read a great interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke, Doctor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York State, over at the blog Anything But Theist. Both interviewer and interviewee consider themselves atheist, but, as is always the case with any two individuals, each holds his own unique combination of perspectives when it comes to the details.

The question they were addressing in the interview was the value of truth. As Dr. Fincke asked it, “Just how much should we prioritize truth over other goods?”

I have to admit this question stopped me in my tracks.

Even as a Christian I valued truth above all else. As a child and young adult I equated God and my particular perspective on him with Truth. My God was the most valuable thing. My God WAS truth. Truth was by far above and beyond the most valuable.

When I came to the realization that my religion did not have a corner on truth, in fact diametrically opposed so much of what was objectively and verifiably true about reality, I stripped Truth of its Christian paraphernalia and kept it alone – naked, purer, bigger, grander than any religion – as my God.

It wasn’t until reading the interview just now that I questioned that unconscious choice of value (though in reality, I haven’t practiced it).

While much of the atheist/agnostic literature I have read over the past couple of years has urged free-thinkers to proclaim objective truth to the masses of believers, I have never felt comfortable with that. Ironically, I have experienced the same sort of guilt over my failure as an atheist “evangelist” that I did over my failure as a Christian one.

In my experience, the people of faith that I know and love are living very good, productive, happy lives…in certain ways more so than my agnostic friends. And while I don’t believe that they are living from the most accurate understanding of reality, I have rarely felt the need to challenge their perspectives (except on certain topics related to sexual ethics).

And I guess that is because I am a pragmatist at heart. I ask myself, “What works?” and then I go with that. What actually, in practice, helps create the best possible world? It takes some trial and error, but I think this is the most functional M.O.

Theories about the way things should be and how they should work are great, but if, when you apply them, they don’t, then what is the point?

My friends and family are intelligent people. They have thought about what they believe. And they still believe those things. Just as I can only believe what my life experience has lead me to believe, so it is with them. And their lives have not yet led them to a place in which they can look objectively at Christianity. And there is nothing I can do about it.

And if I am going to promote peace and love between us (which I believe promotes peace and love and health and happiness on a global scale, ultimately), it is not going to be by trying to shove my rationalism down their throats.

So yeah. I guess I’m going to have to remove truth from slot number one on my list of values, and slide it into second place underneath human health and happiness (which is really the way it has been in practice all along).

I’m also going to be done feeling guilty about it.

And I’m also going to thank Dr. Fincke for freeing me up to not feel guilty.

It is very rare and very refreshing to hear an atheist acknowledge that atheism can become a dogmatic system of thought just as much as any religion. As he and Nietzsche, whom he frequently references, point out, no human being, regardless of philosophy or commitment to objectivity, can be completely objective. We are subjective, feeling creatures. We are swayed by our emotions and personal experiences.

As my very wise dad often reminded us kids growing up, “The mind justifies what the heart chooses,” and that works both ways, in every direction.

None of us are free from bias. Ever.

And if that is the case, maybe there IS no such thing as ultimate, objective truth, since we – the only conscious beings in existence able to consider the concept – will never be able, completely, to detect it.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. But maybe we just shouldn’t get too hung up on it either.

And I think that’s what Dr. Fincke, a man infinitely more educated in these matters than I, was saying also. (My apologies if I’m wrong about that, Dr.)

Just FYI – Dr. Fincke blogs regularly over at Cammels With Hammers. I highly recommend you check it out. He has some really great things to say.

In fact, I’m planning on next reading a short guest post there by Eric Steiner entitled, “Do Atheists Worship Truth?”  and I think you should too. From my quick perusal earlier, it promises to be  meaty.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part IV)

7.) NO ANSWER IS BETTER THAN A BAD ANSWER.

It is true that there is SO much we don’t yet (and may never) know about how the world works, how life got started, who Jesus actually was and how the events surrounding his life (assuming he was a real person) actually played out (and for that matter, what actually went down in most of human history). There is so much that we just can’t explain based on what we currently know, especially when it comes to events (whether biological or sociological) that happened in the very distant past.

And that doesn’t sit well with us.

We humans have this beautiful and obsessive need to understand things. (Perhaps engrained in us by evolution, that we may better predict and prepare for future events and thereby promote our survival…?)

And this need has driven us historically, in the absence of clear, observable explanations, to make up explanations. Weather patterns, reproduction, disease, and so many more natural phenomena we observe have been attributed to the intervention of a god or gods. But as time has marched on and human understanding has increased (in large part due to the development and application of the scientific process) more and more of these phenomena have been moved from the supernatural “shelf” to the natural one.

Today we know that the movement of the stars across the sky is the result of planetary orbit and has nothing to do with any sort of drama being played out by divine beings. We know that earthquakes happen because of shifts in tectonic plates caused by temperature differences between the earth’s core and crust and the resultant convection of molten rock, and not because any god is angry with us. We know that babies are made when a sperm fertilizes an egg, and that children often inherit the diseases of their parents as the result of the random sorting of DNA during meiosis and the uniting of randomly selected gametes, and not because of a family curse.

At one time, these phenomena were completely mysterious and the causes anyone’s guess. Today they are not.

Today, there are other questions that stump us. How could the first protein have been made if it takes a protein to make a protein? How could multi-part molecular systems that work so intricately and elegantly have happened accidentally? How come a few rare people recover miraculously and unexpectedly from terminal illnesses? Why do certain equally rare people have visions and insights and skills that are far above and beyond what most of us ever experience?

And the list goes on.

And just as human beings have done in the past when life is mysterious and unexplainable, many of us are tempted to say, “This is evidence of God. There is no way this could happen without the intervention of a supernatural force.”

It’s the whole “God of the gaps” idea. And the problem with it is that the gaps keep shrinking, even disappearing, or at least moving to a more theoretical, distant level.

Educated, thinking Christians (and theists in general) may say that in all of our explaining, we’ve really explained nothing. Genetics may be the mechanism of transmission of traits and disease, gravity and inertia may underlie movements of the stars and planets, etc, but God is behind all of that. He created genetics and the laws of physics and set it all in motion. He may not be individually manipulating in real time the sorting and recombination of chromosomes that create each individual person, but he put the materials and systems in place that would eventually lead to the genetic combinations that would make you and me.

At this point in time, with the now overwhelming body of evidence in support of evolution and an old earth, many Christians have had to apply this same reasoning to the development of life, positing that while evolution may be the mechanism God used, he was the ultimate cause and mastermind – the one who laid the groundwork and wound the clock and knew from the beginning of time how and when bacteria and cuttlefish and giraffes and humans would come to be.

And for the sake of this argument, I can concede that. There could be that kind of God behind it all.

Of course, if that is the kind of God you’re going to believe in, there are significant chunks of the Bible you can’t accept as literal. And other parts you can’t accept at all.

At the end of the day, a “god of the gaps” is pretty much useless. For me, the current absence of scientific answers is not reason enough to believe in a god that brings with him so much baggage and cognitive dissonance. It is possible there may be something “supernatural” (i.e. forces we cannot see or detect) at work in the world, but I’m certain (for reasons addressed in earlier posts) that it’s not the Christian God.

From my point of view, it’s much better to leave the question blank and keep searching for a good answer, than to accept a bad one for the sake of immediate gratification.

And this idea of having no answer brings me to my last point…

8.) GOD AS A “FIRST CAUSE” IS NOT NECESSARY.

If you are a Christian, this idea might be one of the most difficult to wrap your mind around. It was for me.

I’d lived all of my conscious life with the assumption that SOMETHING was behind all of this crazy amazing-ness we call reality. Even if we could figure out how it all happened, no amount of time or scientific observation could ever help us figure out why, and in my mind there HAD to be a why, or, as philosophers and theoretical physicists call it, a “first cause.”

And this assumption is held by Christians and theists of all kinds, and probably most people who have lived. Everything we experience in life has a cause behind it, so we conclude that the universe must also. It makes sense to us on a gut level.

We just feel that there must be a reason for the existence of the universe, especially a universe that is so vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. And for Christians, that reason is God.

But here’s the thing. If God is the reason behind the universe, he must be even more vast and intricate and amazing and incomprehensible. So, if we stick with our thinking, there must be a reason or cause behind him, too, ad infinitum.

At some point, you must accept that something just IS. That he/she/it exists without cause.

And I realized that it makes much more sense to accept the universe as the self-existent Thing than it does to push the problem back one layer onto a concept (God) for which we have no objective evidence and which conflicts with observed reality on so many levels.

Now that I see things this way, I can hardly remember what it was like to think otherwise, kinda like looking at a Rubin vase sort of picture. But I tell you, it was a huge leap for me to make at the time…

…perhaps the hugest of them all. (I will have to dedicate a post in the near future to address this, I think.)

But for now, I need to wrap things up.

CONCLUSION

While I continue to value many of the teachings of Jesus, I am not a Christian in the traditional sense. And never will be one again, most likely.

And I promise you it’s not because I don’t want to be.

Life is freaking hard and painful and unfair and overwhelming. And it was comforting beyond words to believe that all the pain and grief of life was somehow going to be made right one day, was somehow going to be worth it.

To be certain that good would inevitably triumph over evil…

To know that when Mom died, when Dad died, when my sisters and brother died, that they would not be gone…that I would be reunited with them forever in a place of perfect peace and joy…

To trust that abused and starving children would be greeted with love and nurturing and warmth and home when they passed on…

To believe that one day I would have a perfect body that would never get sick, never be in pain, never get old or wear out…

To always have someone to talk to when I was feeling alone and confused…

It made life more tolerable, and less overwhelming, and easier to keep living on certain levels, and it was a loss, I can assure you, to have this life-long foundation dissolve underneath me, along with the free, open, honest and vulnerable relationships I’d always been able to share with my parents up until this point.

There is still a lot of love between us all, but now there is pain, too. Now there is awkwardness. Now there are walls.

I would give anything to have family be the way it was when I was still a Christian. Family was my thing. It was my happy thought; my reason to get up in the morning. It was what I most valued. It still is. And I hope that someday everything will be okay somehow, but I don’t know that it will.

The point is, my life would be a lot easier and a lot happier in a lot of ways if I could believe again.

But the funny thing about belief is that you can’t fake it.

People always talk about Pascal’s wager as if it’s really an option. But I don’t get that at all. If you are just believing perfunctorily, God’s gonna know it. Saying you believe does not make you a believer.

Either you believe or you don’t. And you can’t control whether or not you do.

You can control the information you take into your mind, to a certain degree. And that is what happened to me. I quit controlling what I let in. In my search for truth (which I was initially convinced would lead me back to God and a deeper understanding of him) I opened the doors of my mind wide.

And a flood of new information rushed in.

And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), learning is irreversible. I can’t un-know things that I now know (unless I suffer a traumatic brain injury or we invent the neuralizer Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had so much fun with in Men in Black.)

And these things I have learned in my recent history, that I didn’t know before, are many. While I have given a brief overview of basic, foundational reasons I no longer believe in the Christian God, there are many, many more details and facts logged away in my mind that have lead me to this conclusion…

And it is those same facts that have helped me form the framework of the wonderful and beautiful new things I DO believe.

Someday soon I will share them.

Why I Am Not A Christian (Part II)

5.) THE WAY NATURE WORKS DOES NOT SUGGEST THAT A GOOD, PERFECT, LOVING CREATOR IS BEHIND IT ALL.

One fact that many Christians will offer in support of their beliefs (one that I relied on myself, for many years) is the beauty, majesty, intricacy, and phenomenal complexity of the natural world, and biological life in particular. There is a verse in the book of Romans that is often quoted in conjunction with this idea. It says that God’s, “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20 English Standard Version).

Now, I will concede the first statement. The world IS beautiful, majestic, intricate and MIND-BOGGLINGLY complex. However, it is also cold, harsh, bloody, unfeeling. In the biological world, it is rarely love and kindness and generosity that are rewarded, but rather brute strength and selfishness.

There is so much waste and brutality, and not just incidentally, but intrinsically. So much of what we consider beautiful and inspiring and precious in nature – birth, growth, development, nurturing – would never exist without predation, parasitism, pain, death.

People may suggest that the harshness of nature is a result of the fall, that it wasn’t always the way it is now and someday God will restore it to the way it was meant to be. But if that is the case, the world before the fall must have been an entirely separate reality from this one. If the lion were to “lay down with the lamb” as the Bible says will happen when all is set right again, the lion would starve. Lions are carnivores. Their teeth, their musculo-skeletal systems, their digestive tracts, their biochemistry require them to eat a diet of meat. And that requires the death of other beautiful, sentient beings.

What exists now must be fairly close to what God (if he did indeed create it) intended it to be, as there is no way to extract the death and pain and still have the same beautiful reality. And if it is a revelation of the character of God as the Bible posits, it paints a pretty grim picture.

Greta Christina

I’m telling you, there are some brilliant minds in the world. And the one that happens to reside inside the head of Greta Christina, atheist blogger, speaker, and author of growing renown, is one of them.

My first exposure to Greta was in an article entitled “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God,” which profoundly affected me. I already knew when I read it that I no longer believed in the Heaven-Hell scenario, and while it had been one of the most joyous discoveries of my life that no human being was going to be suffering torment for eternity after all (I had a little, solo crying dance party in my apartment over it) I had also laid awake for a few nights, feeling the weight and fear and incomprehensibility of my own very likely, eventual non-existence, and for the finality with which I would be forced at some point to say goodbye to my parents, my siblings, my loved ones. For a while, it was terrifying.

I think I would have come to terms with it eventually, but her article helped speed the process along.

When I discovered her blog, it was with great delight. Every mental debate I have had regarding Christianity (or personal-interventionist-God-based religions in general), she has addressed there, it seems, and nearly every “Aha” moment I’ve experienced in which things instantly made so much more sense, she has already lived.

I’m not sure I agree 100% with every single one of her thoughts and opinions, but it is nice finding someone who has not only been where you are and come to many of the same conclusions about What-It-All-Means, but also expresses them so thoroughly, so eloquently-yet-plainly, so frankly, and, to boot, very humorously.

Here is an article of hers I read just yesterday, posted on Alternet.org, on why skepticism is not only NOT a bad thing, but necessary in living life to the fullest: Why We Must Always Be Skeptical.

I’m not even going to try to review it, because I will just end up saying exactly what she said, only not as well. It is longish, for an internet article, but you’re just going to have to read it. It is worth it.

I encourage you to check out her blog, too, particularly if you are interested at all in philosophy or religion. The first time I landed there, I was lost for hours wandering through post after amazing post going, “YES!” “Totally!” “Oh my gosh, duh!” Maybe you won’t feel the need to share with the world your inner acquiescence, but I think – at least on some points – you will acquiesce whole-heartedly.

Before you stop over, a little disclaimer: Greta Christina frequently uses some colorful language. If that is offensive to you, be warned. Also, one of the main topics she addresses in conjunction with religion and other social constructions is sexuality, both in general and her own, specifically. She is quite liberal on this topic. If that makes you uncomfortable, this blog might not be your cup of tea.

Waking Up

So, it has been about six months now since I first “came out” to my friends and family. I know it was a big shock for all of them. If you had told me a few years ago that in the not-so-distant future I would not only reject my faith but also identify myself as agnostic (which is really just a euphemism for “soft” atheism) I wouldn’t have believed you for a second. Or maybe I would have.

My journey from faith in the God of the Bible to lack thereof, from my perspective, really has been very gradual; a natural “waking up.” Even at a fairly young age I realized there were a lot of inconsistencies in what I believed – a lot of points at which my faith-based view of the world did not match up with my experience of reality. I guess I simply thought that I had enough reason to believe in spite of it all. As I grew older and gained more knowledge of people and places and life-in-general, those reasons dwindled, and the inconsistencies concurrently became magnified. It was just this past summer that I finally realized it was not only rationally acceptable, but even necessary, to question EVERYTHING – to wipe the slate clean of all my assumptions and begin there, at “ground zero” to seek truth.

I want to be clear here – I never set out to disprove Christianity or to separate myself from the community and culture and people and way of life I grew up in. That community and those people have made up the majority of my whole world for most of my twenty-seven years, and while (like all of humanity) they are imperfect and have their share of problems and pain and foibles, they are also some of the best people I have known, full of love and generosity, who have been the source of untold joy and beauty in my life. I know many people have left the church or lost their faith because of mistreatment or even abuse by pastors, family members, and/or fellow believers, but that is not my story. While I have had a few uncomfortable church experiences and mild conflicts with certain members of my Christian acquaintance, the countless good experiences have by FAR out-weighed them.

No, my journey out of faith was not intentional…it just happened. There were events that catalyzed the process at certain points (particularly in the months leading up to my “official” de-conversion), but for the most part it was a natural progression driven by honest inquiry and the desire to perceive reality as it is – to find truth. And just as my belief in God was based on a huge patchwork of accumulated knowledge and experience, so too is my unbelief. There is not one reason that I no longer believe. There are not even a few reasons. The reasons are almost everything.

While I will likely address a lot of those reasons at one point or another in this blog, its purpose is not solely to provide an explanation or defense of my beliefs. Rather, it is a place for me to “think aloud” as I am re-evaluating almost everything I have held to be true; to vent the frustration, pain and hurt that has come with making this transition; and to share the new joys, insights and delights I am discovering in this new world of free – absoLUTEly free – inquiry.

If you are here, I welcome you – no matter WHAT you believe.