5/19/2014 | Share this article: View CommentsBy East TN Ex-Chrstian ~
In the Beginning
For over 20 years I never once doubted the existence of the Christian god. I may have doubted specifics of his nature, I may have doubted interpretations of his actions by others, but I never doubted the existence of my chosen deity.
My Christian credentials ran long. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior at the age of 3 or 4 (plus several re-dedications), I went on 4 mission trips in high school, received the highest award possible from AWANA, sang with the praise team, attended Sunday school, and even taught an apologetics class. I was homeschooled from kindergarten to 12th grade and participated in a weekly Christian home school collective. My belief permeated every single facet of my life.
The denominational background I had was more diverse than some experience--ranging from the charismatic Vineyard movement (Assemblies of God/Pentecostal influenced), to the comparatively stodgy Reformed Church of America (no robes or regular liturgy, but we did at least keep the Doxology in the same place every week). Sprinkled into the mix was a Bible church (similar to the Baptist church in theology), and pure-bred Baptist (the theology that most closely matched my views overall).
It was an altogether eclectic mix--the "here and now miracles" of the charismatic churches, the strong declaratives of the Bible and Baptist churches, and the history and tradition of the Reformation.
Outside the church, I found common cause with the culture warriors. I was riveted to the radio during Focus on the Family broadcasts (particularly the quasi-political ones), I devoured newsletters from the Home School Legal Defense Association detailing accounts of how the government was persecuting homeschoolers, I participated in political campaigns for local and national god-fearing GOP leaders.
I remember being sorely disappointed when Bob Dole lost in 1996 (I was 9 years at the time) and crestfallen again when the impeachment against Bill Clinton failed. 9/11 happened and Jerry Falwell blamed the pagans, abortionists, gay, lesbians and the ACLU. I agreed.
I had been expecting God’s judgment on our sinful nation for some time. By age 13 I was listening to right-wing talk radio and during the 2004 election I would listen almost every waking hour of the day. Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, Boortz, Beck, Ingraham. The same talking points from sun-up to sun-down, and I loved every minute of it.
I joined the Air Force ROTC and went to a small Christian college in Indiana. I was immediately confronted with a pacifist professor of the Mennonite tradition who didn't like George W. Bush--I transferred out of their class immediately.
All students were required to sign a statement of faith and submit to the following rules:
- mandatory attendance of chapel services 3x/wk (upon threat of expulsion)
- not to even be "in the presence" of alcohol (the professor that ordered a beer when he took us out to lunch raised my eyebrows)
- no gambling (my best friend from there is now a casino dealer)
- no profane language at any time (most frequently broken by the pre-seminary people I lived with)
- no gluttony (so much for the freshman 15, right?)
- no premarital sex ( though you could be forgiven for this if you voluntarily “disclosed your sin” to campus staff, vowed to remain abstinent and resigned from any sports team or student office you held)
- no being gay (though I know of one gay, one lesbian and one transgender individual from my freshman class)
In a surprisingly liberal move, we were allowed to attend off-campus dances (being cautioned to not taint our witness or the reputation of the college), but of course we still couldn't be in the presence of alcohol.
These rules applied from matriculation to graduation--summers included.
At one point, the college responded to the rumored visit of SoulForce's EqualityRide (a Christian group advocating against anti-gay policies at Christian colleges) by devoting an entire chapel period to instruct us not to talk to them if they showed up and saying that college administrators would call the police to have them removed. Fortunately, they never showed up while I was there.
Bible Belt and a Burnt Offering
After graduation, I moved to the promised land of the Bible Belt. Conservative values reigned supreme, Republican politics dominated and conservative Christianity was part of the price of admission to the social network.
I attended another Bible Church where the messages were familiar and reassuring. The culture warrior quotient was a little lower than other churches, and I was mildly scandalized that a few people in the church drank socially, but they still preached the fundamental principles I grew up with—and I settled in to the routine of worship team and small group fellowship.
It was in one of these small groups that we began to read the entire Bible. (Mind you, I had done this 2 or 3 times already). We made it through Genesis (Young Earth Creationism…check). We made it through Exodus (bizarre and cruel Old Testament Law…no problem). We made it through the “begats.” We made it through Joshua (Put everything that breathes to the sword…okey dokey).
Then came Judges.
Judges 11:29-40 details the story of the Jephthah and his daughter:
29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” 32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. 34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.” 36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” 38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite tradition 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
If I was to take this story at face value, I would have to face the fact that this man killed his daughter because of a vow made to the LORD. Yet that seemed like one of the most insane abrogations of justice and morality that I can imagine. Jephthah makes an irresponsible oath, his daughter dies as a result, and God either approves or does nothing to stop it.
Fortunately, there were others that were similarly concerned. I scoured the internet and came up with the possibility that having his daughter “sacrificed as a burnt offering” really meant that she was “dedicated to the LORD” and not allowed to marry (thus, the mourning of her virginity). Despite the contemptible patriarchy, this option at least seemed more palatable.
I proposed this alternate explanation to several people and was immediately shot down.
“ ‘…and He did to her as he had vowed’, he vowed to offer her as a burnt offering. He shouldn’t have done so, but he couldn’t break his oath to God,” they said.
I wanted to be intelligent in my faith and believe the best about my God. The values I believed that Christian teaching had instilled in me were very much at odds with the values I was finding in the Bible.
This dilemma rekindled my interest in apologetics. I scoured commentaries, I re-read Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell. I found online resources from Christian Apologetics Resource Ministries (CARM). I inhaled the rarefied and seemingly lofty logic of C.S. Lewis. I tried different versions of the Bible. I begged God for discernment and wisdom to understand and validate my faith.
And I read.
And I prayed.
One day, searching for more information on Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ,” I came across a site that reviewed the totality of his book, point-by-point, from a skeptical perspective. Being well-versed in apologetics, I thought it would be interesting to see how quickly this review would fall apart under my scrutiny.
Except it didn’t.
My lengthy interest in apologetics had an Achilles heel. I had never exposed myself to the actual counter-arguments of those who debated apologists. I had fallen for the “straw man” set up by apologists when preaching to the choir. I began to compare the debates of apologists and skeptics side by side.
I watched the debate tactics of William Lane Craig and others on the apologist side. I noticed that, in all their debate skill and talented rhetoric, they never answered the most pertinent questions in a convincing or satisfactory way. Skeptics often asked questions that were answered by religious explanations and justifications. I had always known the definition of circular logic (“The Bible is true because the Bible says the Bible is true”), but I began to wonder—how would this convince someone who did not already believe in the Bible?
This is what ex-minister and former William Lane Craig protégé John Loftus refers to in his book The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. I began to compare the claims of my religion to the claims of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Mormonism and others.
Islam has many prophecies they claim are fulfilled and 72 virgins available to martyrs, Hinduism speaks confidently of the supernatural abilities of its pantheon, some forms of Judaism reject literal interpretations of Old Testament stories of Creation, the Flood, and the Exodus. (All forms of Judaism reject either the fulfillment of Christianity’s “Messianic prophecies” or claim entirely different verses to prophecy their awaited Messiah).
Mormonism takes Christianity and adds golden tablets found in upstate New York, names the location of the Garden of Eden (Jackson County, MO), introduces three levels of heaven, gives God’s home address (the planet Kolob), and provides “temple garmets” derisively called “magic underwear” to be worn under clothing. (This doesn’t even include teachings they now disown, such as polygamy and the idea the dark-skinned people can be turned lighter/whiter if they would just lead better lives).
Of course all of those claims seemed ridiculous to me. I knew that the world was spoken into existence less than 10,000 years ago by Yahweh( who formed humans from dust and a rib bone) and (thanks to a walking, talking snake) these humans ate forbidden fruit of knowledge (which caused all mankind to be sinful, requiring their death and damnation), but through the loving and gracious execution of God’s Perfect Son Jesus on a cross in Bronze Age Palestine that mankind’s sinful nature could be forgiven unless one rejected Jesus in which case they would sadly burn forever in Hell.
How could I be wrong? I had a holy book and millions of people who agreed with me. But how could I get those who didn’t already accept these truths to believe? What could I say to convince them? Even more unsettling, what could I say to convince myself?
I continued to steep myself in the arguments of Christianity and Theism, but each time I found the perfect argument to convince the unbeliever, I sought out the actual responses of the skeptics. Each time, the issue was (at best) reduced to a murky, unprovable point. Generic theistic arguments (Cosmological, Teleological, Ontological) also lacked the specific evidence I desired to find of Christianity, and could be easily applied to any monotheistic religion (perhaps even adapted to polytheism).
My prayer intensified. This had to make sense. There had to be an explanation. There had to be a God and it had to be the Christian one, even if it didn’t make any sense. I tried to pare my beliefs down to a minimalist approach. I asked myself “what are the essentials?” and sought to find evidence to shore up some basic tenants of God’s existence, man’s sin, Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice and an afterlife. Each argument I found presented arguments and ideas, facts and philosophy, and then eventually got to the point where you had to “take it on faith.” I had done that before, and each time I had been disappointed.
I wondered if I was still covered by the celestial fire insurance. I pleaded with God every night to just tell me what was true so I could live it and stop this striving to understand. I begged forgiveness for my doubt and hoped that I would not die in my sleep to wake up in Hell.
In January of 2013 I admitted the truth to myself. I didn’t believe. I wanted to believe, I had no desire to rock the boat, I didn’t want to worry or hurt friends and family, and I didn’t want to lose the social structure I lived in.
I wondered how I could make moral choices if I didn’t have a religion to get them from and how I could find joy and meaning if this was the only life I had. I wondered if I would lose relationships with friends and family. I didn’t know that I knew a single other person who didn’t believe.
I continued to go to the weekly small group meetings (the church we attended disbanded in early 2012), but I lived in fear that someone would notice that I was not singing, not praying, not joining in the devotional conversation. I didn’t feel it was anything I could bring up in the group. I didn’t want the drama or the controversy of the concern. I didn’t want to walk down the entire road of apologetics and counter –apologetics all over again and cause increasing frustration when they failed to convince me. I didn’t want my wife to have to answer for my absence or my disbelief. Fortunately, the group folded a few months later and I avoided that controversy.
The Here and Now
Life has changed in many ways over the past year and half—largely for the better. Though my social network has not been completely rebuilt, I have found other skeptics and more liberal Christians who can appreciate the value of secular government and stand in opposition to heavy-handed attempts to advance Christian privilege in local and state government.
I find great joy in being able to analyze the harms and benefits of my actions and the actions of others—without having to reconcile or cherry pick justifications from the best moral pronouncements of Israelites of 2-3 millennia ago.
I remain fascinated by the history and teachings of religion, but also fascinated by the findings of science (which I no longer have to compare to the Bible before figuring out if I’m allowed to believe it or not).
I no longer view myself is a broken human being worthy of eternal torture for disbelief in a deity. I worry as much about Yahweh’s Hell as I worry about Allah’s Hell or the monkey god Hanuman kicking my butt for writing imperfect sentences (offending his nature as the “perfect grammarian”).
I don’t have to convince myself of the unbelievable in order to be faithful. I can question anything without fear and live comfortably with things yet unknown without claiming I have special knowledge.
While the cynical streak runs strong in me, my optimism is buoyed by evidence that humankind has climbed down from the trees, stood on our two feet and conquered the world in a microcosmic amount of time. While we posses destructive tendencies (and, thanks to nuclear weapons, the ability to wipe ourselves out), I see the world as generally getting better with time. There are problems to deal with, which we may or may not be able to solve, but we’ve come a long ways since Zeus threw lightning bolts from heaven. The ending to the story (unlike the book of Revelation) has not yet been written, and we are not ants in a cosmic experiment that is winding down towards Judgment Day.
Statistics estimate my brain activity will cease in another 50 or 60 years and my body will stop functioning. Whether that day is today or a hundred years away, I know I will never do everything I’d like to do. It would be nice to fall asleep at a ripe old age and awaken in a new body with a chance to do it all over again, but I see no evidence that this is the case. I don’t fear death (though I’m not crazy about dying), and though I feel regret that I won’t be able to continue experiencing life until I’ve had my fill, I’ll side with Mark Twain who said “I’ve been dead for thousands of years before I was born and never suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Though my life is finite, the sun will go out and the universe itself is slowly winding down to heat death, even my cynical side cannot suppress the wonder I get from existing right now. To be alive an experiencing the world with the health, wealth and technology not possible before this fleeting moment of history is humbling and exhilarating. For me, making my own meaning during my time on the planet enhances this experience far more than having a cosmic scorekeeper who I exist to serve. The meaning I find is to maximize happiness for myself and others, to get the most out of every day I have, and to act in accordance with the best moral precepts I can determine, without promise of reward or threat of punishment.
As an agnostic I have the freedom to say “I don’t know,” as an atheist (by some definitions), I freely admit the truth that I currently do not believe in any gods (though I do not claim to have dis-proven any possibility of them existing), as a humanist, I’m awfully partial to my own species and would like maximize their experience on Earth.
As myself, I’m just an average person living in a remarkable time that likes people and wants to live a great life.
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