12/12/2014 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Ben Love ~
“Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man?”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
One of my favorite movies of all time is 28 Days Later. It is the story of post-apocalyptic Great Britain following the release of a deadly virus that turns regular humans into a biologically altered form, the afflicted of which are known to the survivors as “the Infected.”
The infected. In preparation for this article, I have been meditating quite a lot on what it means to be infected. Pasted below is the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the verb to infect:
Affect (a person, organism, cell, etc.) with a disease-causing organism.
Related words would therefore include contamination, contagion, corruption, septicity and any other adjective having to do with pollution or impurity. In simple terms, we know we have an infection when another living organism (a virus or a bacterium) invades our living bodies and, by virtue of their presence, makes us ill. The infected body becomes the host at that point, and the infecting agent, though likely miniscule, is the party that holds all the cards. In the past, when people contracted particularly severe infections, they died. It is interesting, then, that for most of recorded history, human beings (who like to think they are the dominant species on this planet) have been at the mercy of lifeforms too small to even be seen with the naked eye.
Then, in 1929, the first form of antibiotic (penicillin) was discovered by Alexander Fleming. Since then, humans have slowly gained control over these toxins as the science of antibiotics has progressed. Now, the formula is quite simple: when something is infecting you (and thus, causing you harm), you kill it. Simple as that.
Infections. Hold that thought, now, while I tell you a story.
In 1999, I was living with three other roommates in a small house outside of Lindenwood University, where we all attended as history students. One of my roommates, Curtis, was a Christian of the reformed, Calvinist persuasion. He and I often had the most interesting dialogues of my college career as we would sit up late at night and discuss theology after the others had gone to bed. I had only been a Christian for three years at this point, and though I felt solid in the basics of Christian doctrine, I was not on par with my friend’s level of theological understanding. Though we were the same age, he was, in many ways, more of the leader while I was, at least in that relationship, more of the follower.
On one particular night in November, Curtis introduced me to a new perspective, a new concept, and a whole new terrible world of implications when he shared with me a term I had never heard before in my three years of hobnobbing with Christians: predestination. (I’m assuming that most of my readers are already familiar with this term, but if you’re not, stop reading this article, go to Wikipedia, and acquaint yourself with predestination—then come back and finish this article.) Having spent most of my time in a more Wesleyan-oriented type of Christianity, this concept of God specifically creating certain humans with the express intent of sending them to Hell for eternity distressed me to no end.
I was not the reasoning intellectual then that I am now. It never occurred to me at that time to research the matter for myself. Instead, in my distress, I approached one of the campus ministers a few days later and told him what was bothering me. He compounded the matter by walking me through what were ostensibly the Bible’s teachings on predestination (I later learned that the passages he showed me are interpreted quite differently by various other camps within Christianity).
When he was done taking me on a trek through the Bible, he said, “Do you understand?”
I did not understand. But I said, “I think so. I’m a Christian because God specifically intended that I, me, Michael Tosto, would be.”
“And my girlfriend is not a Christian because God does not want her to be.”
“Well,” said he, “he wants her to be. But that doesn’t mean he has chosen her to be.”
In what my wife now calls my signature look of mistrust, I held up my hands, furrowed my brow, and said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You’re telling me that God wants her to believe him in him but has also pre-decided that she will not believe in him?”
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Precisely.”
I was still naïve in those days, so to my relatively unpolished mind (I didn’t meet rational thinking until much later), if an official minister showed me something in the Bible, it was as good as gold. He was so convincing with how he elaborated on this passage of scripture and that. He seemed so sure and so knowledgeable. I just took it for granted that this new idea of predestination just had to be the way it was.
Later that night, I sat on the porch steps of my house and thought the matter over (sadly, I was not yet a pipe smoker in those days). I wasn’t really thinking about my girlfriend. Well, I mean, I was, but not just her. I was thinking about all the billions of people throughout history that didn’t ask to be born, that only wanted to live their lives (some for good, others for ill), who were just making their way through life on this planet as best they could, not even knowing that somewhere out in the Cosmos or beyond it or wherever it is that God supposedly dwells, a divine being had created some of them (the fortunate chosen ones) with the express purpose of spending eternity with him and created others (the fucked ones) with the express, predestined purpose of being tormented forever in Hell.
And for the first time since becoming a Christian three years prior, I broke down and wept uncontrollably. In fact, I keened. It was as if the entire weight of the collective sadness and misfortune of all those poor predestined souls fell upon me and I collapsed under it. I didn’t sleep that night. In fact, I didn’t sleep for many nights to come. I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but my view of God’s goodness had taken a major hit. And looking back now, I’m not so sure I was mourning for all those poor suckers who got chosen for Hell as much as I was mourning the fact that I knew, really knew in my heart, that if this really was true, God was nothing like I had been told he was.
This episode in November of 1999 was the first brick to be plucked from the wall of my faith. Again, I didn’t know it at the time (I went on being a committed Christian for seven more years and then a tentative Christian for two more years after that), but the unraveling of threads that eventually led to my atheism began when my friend Curtis dropped that bomb on me.
I have other articles that discuss my journey toward atheism, so I don’t want to just retell that story again. I would, however, like to add some commentary to that story by offering another perspective on how a believing Christian can become an implacable atheist. It has to do with infections…
As my Christian walk wore on, I had to grapple with blatant contradictions and inconsistencies and then accept (ignore them) by faith. …which leads me to this confession: I killed God. I did. Now, you might be wondering why I killed him. We’ll get to that. You might also be wondering how a mere mortal man could have possibly killed an allegedly immortal God. Fair question. I suppose come clarification is needed. You see, since I have come to believe that God does not exist (you can’t actually kill what isn’t there), I have also come to believe that my belief in this God was like an infection of sorts. So, when I say, “I killed God,” what I really mean is that I killed my belief in him. And even that isn’t entirely accurate, because that sounds too past tense. In many ways, killing my belief in God is an ongoing process. Even though I am now a fully convinced atheist in my head, there’s much unlearning that must be done in my heart. After all, you can’t be a genuine, passionate believer for as long as I was and not have some of that residue leftover. But little by little, I am shoveling that shit out…
The main question here, I think, is not the how but the why. Why would a human being go from worshiping, loving, serving, and living for a God to being fully convinced that no such being exists or ever did exist in the first place?
Well, when you have an infection, you have to kill it. That is the only way to get better.
Take, for instance, the psychological effect that encountering the concept of predestination had on me. This concept caused me untold amounts of pain, grief, mental anguish, and intense emotional suffering. I can only describe this as extreme psychological disturbance. Not only that, but because the Christian is obligated to take certain things on faith, I had to reconcile this horrible idea that my mind rejected to the belief that was living in my heart. Not an easy task (and I don’t think I was ever truly successful). Faith, then, and specifically my belief in God in this case, can only be described as a tool of abuse. I had to take this horribly unpleasant, unbalanced, insane, genocidal idea that my God—the one I was worshiping and singing to and calling “good,” the God I was trying so hard to love—could 1) erect a Heaven and a Hell; 2) make the path to Heaven narrow and hard to find, and make the path to Hell wide and obvious, and then 3) decide beforehand that most people are going to end up in Hell. This, I was told, was called “love.” This, I was told, was called “good.” Evidently, I wasn’t supposed to worry about who went to Hell (though, on the other hand, I was supposed to try to save as many as I could—a futile endeavor when God has apparently already made up his mind about who is in and who isn’t anyway), I was just supposed to be glad and thankful that I was part of the lucky, chosen bunch.
I don’t know how the bulk of Christians do it, but I couldn’t go on that way. I couldn’t look in the mirror, knowing that some unseen entity specifically chose me to experience eternal blessing while specifically choosing most others for eternal torment. Trying to go on like this caused me so much internal suffering that I spent much of the next few years in a kind of ongoing cocoon of depression. I couldn’t reconcile this fact: Christians define love as dying for someone who doesn’t deserve it, but none of the Christians I knew would ever have thought about willingly going to Hell if it meant someone else, maybe even a complete stranger, could take his or her place in Heaven. I felt like I was part of something very wrong, something, dare I say, very evil. Yes, evil. Masquerading as something good and loving—but very evil underneath.
And yet, because of the tenacious and self-preserving nature of faith, I couldn’t walk away from my belief simply because there was something about it that caused me deep sorrow. I had to hold on, in spite of that sorrow. I had to go on. I had to coexist with this psychologically damaging element, and accept it. By faith. In fact, even questioning this distressing concept seemed, in some way, to be like questioning God himself. Believers aren’t really supposed to do that. No, I had to take it on faith that my God could somehow stomach creating living beings with the express intent of consigning them to Hell (even though I myself could not stomach this, and God is supposed to be better than me) and yet still be the magnanimously loving guy we are taught to believe he is.
Nor was predestination the only troubling pill that swallowing proved difficult. As my Christian walk wore on, I had to grapple with blatant contradictions and inconsistencies and then accept (ignore them) by faith. I had to come to terms with the idea that nothing a human being could possibly do in this life could ever matter in the eyes of God (since, after all, he only gives a shit about who believes what—what we do is neither here nor there). I had to accept the unpleasant and increasingly detestable idea that I was born displeasing to God, and that only after I had been bathed in the blood of his murdered son could he then look at me and like what he saw. I had to take what was clearly being demonstrated in the scientific realm and then deny it in favor of antiquated, archaic explanations that were looking more and more like myth. I had to make excuses for the God I believed in, contriving explanations for why he answered this or that but denied me something else (especially when, if I was honest with myself, it all seemed rather random).
I could go on, but the bottom line is that, whether I knew it at the time or not, my faith in God was becoming more and more like an infection that was spreading and stealing what would otherwise have been relaxed joy and peace. After all, when one has an infection, one usually shows symptoms. What were mine? Angst. Distress. Heartache. Intense disillusionment. Psychological anguish. Anxiety. Depression. Guilt. Fear. And hypocrisy. Yes, hypocrisy. I was bound by my faith to call God good when I was becoming more and more convinced in my heart that he was anything but.
Eventually, I learned that God was neither good nor bad. He simply isn’t there to begin with. Again, my journey from faith to atheism has been chronicled in other articles, but the overall point I want to make here is that not only was my acceptance of atheism a denial of God, it was, in a sense, like killing God. I had to rid my cosmic self of this infecting agent (and I have to go on doing so with each new day) to truly experience anything close to resembling happiness.
Thank “God” for antibiotics!