Confessions of an Evangelical Atheist (2008)
I was born in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri in 1973. I recall my childhood as happy and secure. My early exposure to religion was provided by my father, a gentle man and a Catholic. He took me to church every Sunday, but I received no formal indoctrination in Catholic beliefs. The extent of Catholicism for me was listening to the hymns, studying the stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross, shaking the hands of the parishioners who filled the pews around me ("Peace be with you... and also with you"), the slow steady cadence of the Mass. I never received communion; I was never taught to confess my sins, nor even specifically taught to think of my behavior in terms of sin or of Heaven or Hell. I sometimes wonder if I would have arrived at my current beliefs if this had been my only experience of religion.
My mother had a spiritual revival when I was about 10, and as a result, the role of religion in my life changed dramatically. She began to insist that I go to church with her on Saturday. Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church is an all-morning affair, starting with hymns and prayers and followed by an hour-long sermon, more hymns and prayers, and then another hour of small groups segregated by age called Sabbath school. As any child probably would, I resented being forced to go to church for three hours on Saturday morning. Eventually, I made some friends among the other kids at church and resigned myself to my fate. A few years passed.
When I was about 16 some new members joined the church, including a girl who was my age, several of her older brothers, and their friends. Some of these were recent converts, and they were full of religious zeal. Then I was suddenly full of religious zeal. I do not recall any singular "conversion moment," but the transformation was rapid, occurring over a period of weeks during the summer before my junior year in high school.
What I Believed
It seems appropriate to review the beliefs of the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) Church at the outset. SDAs are fundamentalist Protestants who believe first and foremost that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, literally true in all details. They believe in six-day Creation; in fact, it is central to the Church's tenets in establishing two core beliefs that differentiate SDAs from other Protestants. First, it highlights that the Sabbath was instituted by God at the very foundation of the world, and that it took place on the seventh day of the week. The Sabbath is also mandated in the Ten Commandments, and SDAs believe that Saturday, the seventh day of the week, is God's true and chosen holy day. They keep Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, and during this time faithful members do not work, buy or sell anything, and restrict all other activities to those with spiritual themes. This is why they are "Seventh-Day" Adventists. The second core belief stemming from the creation story relates to the tale of Adam and Eve and the serpent (understood to be Satan). SDAs believe that Satan's first and fundamental lie to humanity was that they could disobey God and still have eternal life:
2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,
3 but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"
4 "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman.
5 "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
SDAs believe that there is no everlasting human soul, but that consciousness is only a temporary gift of God. They believe that, upon death, humans remain unaware of their condition or the passage of time until the second coming of Christ, when God resurrects everyone. Those who are saved are given eternal life with God in Heaven, while those who are not saved are informed of their situation and then killed, perhaps in an inferno but at least suffering God's discontent. They then cease to exist for eternity. So, somewhat uniquely among Christians, SDAs do not believe in an eternal Hell. (Modern notions of Hell were, in any case, derived from the works of Dante Alighieri, a Catholic--enough said).
The SDA Church was founded in 1863 by followers of the Baptist minister William Miller, who had interpreted biblical prophecies to predict the second coming of Jesus in 1844. When Jesus did not come, the prophecies were reinterpreted to name that year as the beginning of a period of judgment by God and his angels of whether professed Christians throughout the ages were worthy of salvation. SDAs believe that the second coming of Jesus is imminent, currently pending the spread of the Gospel to every living person on the planet and the conclusion of the period of "reviewing the books" in Heaven to determine who is saved and who is lost. The term "Adventist" refers to this belief that Christ's second advent is fast approaching. The SDA Church currently has more than 14 million members worldwide.
A central and unique tenet of the SDA Church is the concept of the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan. It is convenient to paraphrase the doctrine in a narrative form:
In the beginning, God created the universe along with the first beings, the angels. Lucifer, the highest of the angels, became proud in his power and beauty and coveted the worship that the other angels were giving to God (Isaiah 14:12-13). He accused God of being unfair and arbitrary in His rules and of unjustly demanding the worship of all created beings. Lucifer, now called Satan ("the adversary"), led one-third of the angels into rebellion against God; they waged war against God and were expelled from Heaven (Revelation 12:7-12).
These fallen angels are now enraged and evil forces in the universe, and continue to claim that God is unjust. Against this backdrop, the Earth was created (in the literal six days recorded by the author of Genesis). Adam and Eve were to be the first of a new race of beings that would be given the free will to choose to follow God or not. God gave them but one rule to follow--"Do not eat of the fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden..." Satan suggested to Eve that God was lying about the deadly consequences of eating the fruit, and that God was unjustly keeping knowledge and power from humanity. Of course, Eve and Adam ate the apple, and in doing so separated themselves from God by their disobedience. They could no longer bear to be in His Holy presence, and were driven from the Garden of Eden. All of humanity would now be born "in sin" or separated from God.
God was heartbroken because He had really loved his newly created beings and had wanted to spend eternity with them. The only way He could achieve this was to sacrifice His Son to save humanity. He couldn't just forgive them because then Satan would say He had been arbitrary and that He only applied His rules when it pleased Him. The wages of sin is death, so the humans had to die (Romans 6:23). However, God's son Jesus was incarnated, lived a flawless life, and accepted a death sentence on our behalf, buying our eternal salvation (John 3:16).
The battle between God and Satan is at the level of every individual. Each person will either accept the sacrifice of God and devote his or her life to the worship and obedience of God, or will reject God and salvation by listening to Satan's lies about God's unfairness or heeding the lure of "worldliness." Many will be distracted by worldliness, and SDAs tend to view most of the entertainments of American pop culture as dangerous distractions from spirituality and devotion to God (1 John 2:15,16).
SDAs have always had a strong health message. They believe that the "clean and unclean" food rules of the Old Testament still apply, and therefore will not eat pork, shellfish, or catfish (among others, Leviticus 11). They also strictly prohibit consumption of alcohol or nicotine, and strongly discourage use of caffeine. The Adventist ideal is strict vegetarianism, and Adventists are in fact a prominent producer of the "fake meat" products on the market.
The SDA Church has a rather antagonistic view of the Catholic Church. In fact, they go so far as to identify it as the Beast in Revelation. They feel that the Catholic Church is the result of the poisoning and corruption of the true Christian faith by Satan; a product of the "paganization" of Christianity when it became the state religion of Rome. The first and foremost corruption is the concept that the Pope and tradition or dogma can supplant the Bible as sources of Truth (sola scriptura!)--most egregiously demonstrated in changing the Sabbath to Sunday, but also in the marriage of pagan symbolism and pagan holidays with Christian concepts (Christmas, Easter), the worship of idols and saints (read demigods) by Catholics, the doctrine of plenary indulgences, the deification of Mary, the concepts of eternal Hell and purgatory, and the mandatory celibacy of Catholic priests. They view these alterations of the Truth as deliberate ploys of Satan to trick Christians into disobeying God and losing their salvation. There is a clear message that any taint of falsehood introduced into Truth imperils the soul of anyone who is deceived by it, whatever his intentions. After all, the Bible says that anyone who tries to change the Gospel is accursed (Galatians 1:6-8). Thus, although SDAs clearly state that salvation is based on faith in Jesus and "mere" acceptance of His sacrifice, holding the exact right beliefs (Truth) is also important. The theory is that a truly saved individual will be continually seeking the Truth and is bound to recognize the Seventh-Day Adventist message as the Truth if he is in tune with the Holy Spirit. If Christians of other denominations hear of but reject the Adventist take on the Truth, they must be listening to Satan's lies and have hardened their hearts to the urging of the Holy Spirit--and thus surely their salvation is endangered.
I suppose I should include the SDA view of "hot button" issues, though they were the least of my concerns. SDAs believe that homosexuality is a sin, as is clearly stated in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-32). SDAs believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin. They believe that remarriage after divorce is a sin, except perhaps when the divorce was caused by infidelity on the part of the other spouse (Mark 10:1-12). In practical terms, however, they will not expel members who divorce for "lesser" reasons and then remarry. They believe that abortion as a means of birth control or gender selection is wrong, but that where the mother's health is endangered, the decision should be individualized. Because SDAs worship on a different day than everyone else and the majority of SDAs will refuse to work on that day, they are historically strong proponents of the separation of church and state--as they expect persecution in the form of laws mandating worship on Sunday or mandating work on Saturday. Therefore, they tend to stand against "legislation of morality," including where it impacts the issue of abortion.
To summarize, these were my religious beliefs:
- The Bible is the inerrant Word of God, literally true in every detail.
(a) accepting Jesus as one's personal Savior,
(b) obeying God's commands and Will for my life, and
(c) adherence to the Truth.
- Seventh-Day Adventists hold the only correct interpretation of scripture and prophecy. Other Christian churches, where their beliefs differ from those of SDAs, are deceived by Satan.
- One must do one's best at all times to spread the SDA Truth to other Christians and to non-Christians--their salvation likely depends on their acceptance of this Truth.
- The second coming of Jesus Christ is absolutely imminent, probably in the next 10 to 20 years.
- Secular entertainment including secular music, television, books, and movies are lures of Satan to distract attention away from spiritual realities and the service of God.
- Part of obeying God's Will for my life includes strict adherence to a healthy diet and exercise; my body is His Temple. In the same way that I should not pollute my mind with worldly nonsense, I should not pollute my body with unhealthful food including sugar, refined flours, carbonated beverages, cocoa, vinegar, baking soda, certain spices, or animal products of any kind.
These are the beliefs of a conservative core of SDAs. The mainstream church members would likely agree with all of these in theory, but may not take #6 and #7 quite as seriously as I did. That they didn't take #7 as seriously as I did can be demonstrated clearly at any SDA potluck meal which, while devoid of meat in any form, will be approximately 65% cheese and 35% chocolate. I, however, took all of these beliefs very seriously indeed.
My Christian Experience
Salvation is a gift from God, offered freely to any human being who will accept it. My religion taught very clearly that salvation cannot be won by good deeds, but only accepted by faith. However, I was never under the impression that salvation was a gift with no strings attached. With salvation, one accepts discipleship, aligning one's life with God's will for that life: "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he which doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). What was that will? In light of the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, in light of Christ crucified, it is clear that God wants only one thing, to save as many of His children as possible. He asks those who have accepted salvation to go out and spread the message so that others might be saved (Matthew 28:18-20). As I started my junior year of high school, I saw the sacred mission of saving the souls of my peers as the only reason for my existence.
I failed miserably. I was unable to talk to anyone about the Truth, or warn them of the peril of their soul. I just couldn't do it. I only had two or three friends at school to begin with, and I wore down their polite attention early. I simply could not approach strangers or even friendly acquaintances with God's message. Part of the problem was my complete rejection of "worldliness" (John 17:14-18). I strongly believed that secular entertainment was offensive to God, and even conversing about a secular song, movie, or television show made me feel polluted. But these were the only topics of interest to my peers (evidence of Satan's devious genius), and my radical viewpoint only served to make me a freak. Rather, it would have made me a freak if I had actually had the courage to broadcast my opinion, which I did not, to my deep shame. I am, by nature, shy, unassuming, and nonconfrontational to a flaw. I could not spread the message that God had given me. I could not perform the only function God demanded of me in this life: to spread His gospel for the salvation of the souls of the people around me. Jesus himself had words for my fate: "Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed, when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38).
I knew that God loved me--in fact, the depth of His Love and His sacrifice for me only made my inability to do His will more painful. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I speak for my Lord? If I were really saved, why did I not wish to shout from the rooftops the message of salvation? Each day I pledged anew my allegiance to God and to spreading His message, and every day I failed, finding myself too timid to engage my peers in the conversation that might save their souls. During Sabbath, I would gather with my religious friends and they would share stories of how they witnessed for Christ among their peers all week. I never had a story to share. Occasionally it occurred to me that God may work through different people in different ways. If it really was not in my character to openly confront my peers, at least I should be an example of God's character to them. However, I failed as completely at being a conduit of God's Love as I had at being a conduit of His Truth. If I were truly saved, I should be demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22,23). Could I look at my life, my attitude towards others, and see love, joy, and peace? I saw doubt, despair, and self-absorption. Self-absorption turns out to be something that I'm very good at (demonstrating my sinful narcissism). I looked hard at my heart, and found that it contained no greater love for those around me than it ever had, except inasmuch as I focused continuously on whether or not their souls had been saved. I should have been transformed by my salvation, but no positive change was apparent. I would try to think of ways to cultivate love in my heart, or at least seem loving. I dedicated my $20 monthly allowance to a children's charity. I went door to door through a nearby neighborhood, introducing myself to strangers to profess my faith to them (this was easier than witnessing to kids that I had to continue to spend time with at school every day). Only one elderly woman asked me to come in, and I continued to visit her for a few months. I would sit and talk to her for an hour or so, but I was never really interested in what she had to say--bound up as it was in secular interests; I was impatiently trying to find my opportunity to tell her the Truth--which I also failed to do!
I strove to demonstrate my devotion to God in other ways, in an effort to somehow compensate for my fundamental failings as a Christian. Compared to the complicated and demanding task of saving souls, it was much easier to burn all my childhood fiction books and secular music, destroy my Nintendo and games with a sledgehammer, avert my gaze from any television left on in my vicinity, and start wearing Quaker dresses to school because a woman should not dress in the garb of a man--including blue jeans (Deuteronomy 22:5, but this is not a mainstream Adventist belief). I fastidiously adhered to the strictest possible dietary regimen, based on the writings of early Adventist Church founders. I fasted regularly (but failed to last an entire week, to my disgrace). I got up each morning at 3 AM to spend the 3 hours before school on my knees in prayer and in contemplation of the Bible. I walked the 5 miles to school to spend the additional time in prayer and to try to plan how I would spread God's message that day. I was always happy to adopt some new austerity to demonstrate my devotion to God. I did not believe in salvation by works, but I was desperate to find some way to please God. The only thing I was ever any good at was finding ways to make myself more uncomfortable for Him. It never made any difference, though. The weight of all the souls not being saved by me far outbalanced every austerity I could concoct. And, as you can well imagine, the austerities only further isolated me from my peers at public high school, making it harder for me to relate to them.
What was I offering my peers anyway? My experience of Christianity filled me daily with despondency; that's hard to sell. But to my mind, my tortured existence made sense in the context of eternity. This lifetime is fleeting--a mere instant compared to the vast expanse of eternal life. Personal happiness in this lifetime is irrelevant in the face of eternity (Matthew 16:23-27). In fact, I believed the pursuit of happiness in this life to be a trap of Satan. It seemed right to me that a Christian should suffer more than rejoice. I have two analogies drawn from the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001:
- First, imagine that you are a firefighter on September 11, 2001. You have to stop the truck some distance from the buildings, and you and the other firefighters are charging towards a burning building! About 100 feet from the entrance, you spy a Starbucks on your left. You think: "You know... a Triple Mocha Latte would be just the thing right now!" You halt your advance, pausing long enough to yell to the firefighter who just overtook you: "I'll join you guys in just a second, I've got to grab a latte first!" While your fellow firefighters are struggling to extricate exhausted, confused, and wounded workers from the burning building, you say to the Starbucks clerk: "Can I have extra whipped cream on that? And add some chocolate shavings." Are you worthy to share the badge of honor given your comrades, who worked tirelessly to save lives, many of them dying in the process, as you perused the selection of artificial sweeteners for your mocha? In the same way, I felt that any time wasted enjoying the pleasures of the world instead of striving to save souls was an insult to the blood spilled by Jesus to save us. You cannot believe that a) your religion has a monopoly on Truth and b) that Truth is necessary for the eternal salvation of the people around you, and fail to conclude that the only moral response is the uncompromising dedication of all of your excess time, energy, and wealth to the spreading of the Truth. Failure to do so makes you not just a bad Christian, but a bad person.
- I had to admit that joy is a fruit of the Spirit, and it could be a potent advertisement for spirituality. If I was too timid to speak, the students around me might at least be drawn to God through me if I radiated serenity and joy brightly enough. But again, how can one be peaceful or joyful in the midst of the battle over souls? Returning to the example of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, consider if you were inside one of them that fateful day. After feeling the plane slam into the building, you flee for your life. You emerge from the building just as it collapses into a smoldering heap. You are saved! But is this the right time to caper about in the streets singing "Missed me! Missed me!"? Certainly not! You will instead look with horror on the burning pile of rubble, and fall to your knees weeping for the thousands of people who were lost. Laughter would be completely inappropriate; a person who would stand before the fresh wreckage of the buildings snickering is either evil or insane! I felt that I was surrounded by a perpetual catastrophe of even greater proportions--people losing not their mortal lives, but their eternal lives, all around me, every day. I honestly felt that I should not allow myself to feel joy. But I at the same time I would try to "radiate" joy to my fellow students. It's a difficult trick.
So my experience as a Christian was filled with failure and despair. I was perpetually aware of God's displeasure with my performance, but completely unable to change it, and convinced that this was the result of some deep flaw in my character. I spent hours in prayer every day, pleading with God to fill me with His Spirit and make me a strong and courageous witness of His Love, begging Him to forgive me for my failures so far. I would hear God's voice in my mind--as my thoughts, but often occurring suddenly and with answers that seemed too profound to have originated in my mind. At times, God would comfort me, remind me that He loved me and encourage me to redouble my efforts to witness for Him. However, more often God's voice was a warning, telling me that I was complacent, proud, selfish, and cowardly. Many times as I walked the halls of my school considering my worthlessness and struggling to hold back tears, I would suddenly hear God's voice chiding me for failing to be an example of the joy of Christianity to my peers! So I would beg forgiveness and rededicate my life to Him again and again, many times a day. At times, when I truly despaired, it would occur to me that perhaps it was Satan's voice rather than God's that I was hearing. Satan must be posing as the voice of God in my mind to discourage me. But wait... maybe I was mistaken. Surely, the weight of my sinfulness could not be underestimated and God was trying His best to warn me! How could I be so presumptuous as to feel that I could determine that this voice was Satan, when it might really be God? I could do nothing but to accept the criticism as reproofs of my Lord, and continue to try my best to serve Him.
This went on for the remainder of my time at public high school. Following graduation, I wished to forego college and join the Weimar Health Institute (basically, a hangout for the cultish ultraconservative branch of the SDA religion), but my parents were not in favor of this, so instead I went to the Seventh-Day Adventist college Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
I must report that moving to a religious college had an extremely dulling effect on my religious fervor, starting almost immediately after my arrival. This is because I lost any sense of urgency about the business of saving souls. After all, every student at the college (and probably 85% of the town members) was already an SDA. And once I was relieved of the burden of saving everyone around me, the intensity of my self-scrutiny began to wane as well, as I no longer had to try to find other ways to please God. I don't think this logical progression was clear to me at the time, and I felt that my "peaceful, easy feeling" had come from finally "accepting" the message of "salvation by faith alone (not by works)"--which is, after all, a central tenet of Seventh-Day Adventism and Protestantism in general. I had always nominally believed in salvation by faith alone, but I expected the works to follow, and it was clear that they had not. At an SDA college, what need is there for works? So one can just relax and accept the salvation by faith part. However, if there is no need for works, then what is the point of faith? This dilemma has persisted since the beginnings of Christianity and appears in the New Testament in James 2:14-26. It is an inescapable paradox, as far as I tell--at least, it was for me then, and I have arrived at no further enlightenment on this puzzle in all the years of considering it since.
Interestingly, years later found me discussing religion with a devout Muslim. As he described to me God's exacting standards for salvation and his personal deep doubt that he would be saved, I knew exactly the feeling that he was describing. If, in my years as a devout Christian, I had perceived as part of God's message the notion that the highest ideal of service to Him was to die while waging physical war in His name, I guarantee you that I would have signed up to be a suicide bomber at the first opportunity. I hungered for a martyr's death and fantasized about it often. I longed to prove my devotion to God, and it seemed that it would be so much easier to please Him with a death in His name, in contrast to my constant failure to please Him in the way I lived my life. Alas, no one obliged me by martyring me. Adventists particularly embrace the specter of a martyr's death, and fully expect a time to come (as part of the end of the world) when the true believers will be called to die for their faith. But not, fortunately, to kill for it.
Unbinding My Mind
The first crack in the foundation of my religious beliefs was struck by science--chemistry, to be precise. I mentioned above that the Adventists have a strong health message, and there were fringe groups of the Church that took dietary restrictions to an extreme, forbidding refined sugar and flour. I had embraced the most stringent of these restrictions. I realized that these restrictions were not on par with scripture in terms of Truth, but I felt the health message was supported by scripture in 1 Corinthians 6:19,20 (though actually this verse appears in the context of fornication). The dietary restrictions I had adopted violently rejected refined sugar, but allowed honey, molasses, and concentrated fruit juices as sweeteners. I would make my own ketchup to avoid "artificial sweeteners" and use honey instead. Of course, while studying chemistry, I learned that there is no difference between refined table sugar and "natural" sugars. This is a minor point, but given the black and white distinctions I had nurtured, it was shocking. It was a first step to questioning all of my beliefs.
The Day I Saw Gray
The next issue I found myself reexamining was much weightier: the question of belief and salvation. The issue arose a few months after I arrived at college, while I was considering becoming a missionary to India. Had I so quickly forgotten my dark and bitter experience as a "missionary" in high school? Perhaps I imagined that it would be different in a foreign land. In any case, I viewed my time at an SDA college as merely a brief respite during which to prepare to take up the spiritual battle again, whether in this country or another. However, the breather gave me some space to more objectively consider my beliefs. The central question: Are only Seventh-Day Adventists saved? I implied in my narrative above that I believed that the answer was categorically "Yes!" However, even at the extreme of my religious fanaticism, I did not feel that, throughout the entire history of the world, only the members of the modern Seventh-Day Adventist Church would be saved, and neither do any other SDAs (as far as I know). For instance, the ancient Jews (before Christ) were God's chosen people and those who were faithful to Him (like Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets) were saved. Clearly Jesus' disciples and the first Christians were saved. Clearly Martin Luther and the other early Protestants were saved--after all, of all of the Christians living at that time, they had been receptive to the Holy Spirit's call to denounce the corruptions that Satan had been instilling into Catholicism. The Protestant reformers did not have the full Truth of the modern SDA Church, but they were faithful to the Truth that God had revealed to them. They were, in essence, the SDAs of their historical time period. However, what about the rest of humanity? For instance, what about those people who had never heard the Truth?
Would the majority of human beings who have lived on this planet really be damned simply because they happened to be born in the "wrong place at the wrong time"? Could a just God (let alone a loving God) condemn a person for not believing the Truth when that person never heard the Truth? This would be no less evil than Hitler when he executed millions of Jews, Poles, and other ethnically impure people simply for being born to the wrong parents or having the wrong hair color and facial features. I found that I could not accept the notion that God could be so arbitrary. God must judge people who are ignorant of His message in some other way.
When I asked more experienced church members these questions, the most common response I received was that "the Holy Spirit speaks to the hearts and minds of all humans, and God knows whether they, in their hearts, have responded to His Spirit." This sounds much better, but I found the logical progression from this answer to be problematic. If the Truth (including the Ten Commandments and acceptance of Jesus as personal savior) is not necessary for salvation, then why try to spread it at all? Why, in fact, does Jesus tell his disciples that He is awaiting the spread of His Truth to all nations before He returns (Matthew 24:14)? In fact, couldn't spreading the Truth endanger souls rather than save them? It's one thing to be saved without the Truth when one is ignorant of the Truth, but what happens if one hears the Truth and rejects it? Surely this could result in damnation! Jesus said as much in Mark 16:15,16: "And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Might a person who would otherwise have been saved in their ignorance instead face damnation because they didn't accept the Truth when a missionary shared it with them? What of those pagans who received the Truth at the tip of the sword?
What about this notion of having a heart that is "receptive to the urgings of the Holy Spirit"? What if, for instance, it turned out that Hinduism was actually the true religion? Would I give a fair hearing to the Hare Krishna missionary at my door? Certainly not! I would not remotely consider that one of the Eastern religions was true, because I was convinced that I already had the Truth! As a devout Christian, secure that I was already in possession of the Truth, I would not feel that I may have imperiled my soul by sending the Hare Krishna away before he could open his mouth to present his case. But if I were wrong, I must certainly hope that Vishnu would recognize my sincere devotion God as I understood Him. Would the Christian God similarly countenance a sincere pagan, if he did not give a fair hearing to the Christian missionary at his door? If yes, then why bother trying to spread Christianity? If no, then why imperil the soul of the pagan by giving him a chance to reject Christianity?
The only benefits of spreading Christianity that made sense to me were arguments for the moral superiority of the Christian faith. If one sees Christianity as the repository of absolute moral Truth, then one has no difficulty condemning practices of cultures that differ from Christianity (and, generally, Western culture). Surely we did the Aztecs a favor by ending their horrific practice of human sacrifice (never mind the more horrific methods of "conversion" practiced by the Conquistadors). In my musings, it seemed reasonable that non-Christians might really be "happier" if liberated from their (Satanically) misguided pagan ways. But this hardly presents itself as an urgent matter to which all the available resources of an individual or church should be dedicated. The more polarized and fundamentalist view of salvation (only modern SDAs are saved) is really the only one that makes any sense in the context of the missionary drive--God is waiting for His missionaries to get out there and save as many people as possible (otherwise they'll all be lost) before He calls "time's up." In rejecting this fundamentalist position, I found that I could no longer answer the question: "What is the importance of right doctrine? Why does it matter what we believe?"
This doubt leads right back home. If full knowledge and acceptance of the Truth is not necessary for the salvation of ignorant pagans, which aspects specifically are necessary for the salvation of Christians? What about all of this "corrupting of the Truth" by Satan? What about all of the burning at the stake of heretics throughout the history of the Church? Is a sincerely misled Christian lost? If I inform a Christian friend that Saturday is the true Sabbath and that they are offending God by switching the day to Sunday, and they don't immediately leave their church and join mine, are they damned? How small (or big) a point of doctrine is grounds for loss of salvation?
Many people will say to me at this juncture, "You can't know the mind of God. Only He in His omniscience can fairly judge humans, and you are being presumptuous to even try to nitpick over who might or might not be lost and for what." But this is precisely my complaint. Eternal life is all that matters. It should be all that matters to us because, in comparison, our mortal lives are so brief as to be essentially nonexistent. (What's 65 divided by infinity? What's 90 divided by infinity?) It apparently is all that matters to God, because "He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). From an SDA point of view, the eternal salvation of each soul is the crux of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. So, on all fronts, there is no issue more important to God or humanity than the eternal salvation of every person. And yet the requirements for salvation are a mystery! I don't know if I find this more comical or tragic! I said earlier that to propose a certain set of beliefs as an absolute requirement for salvation would make God more evil than Hitler (because more people will be lost, and they will be losing eternal life, not "just" up to 90 years of mortal life). But then what can be said about a God who does not even provide His creatures with a whiff of concrete instruction on how to ensure the eternal salvation of their souls? And how, as a Christian, should I interact with those (nonbelievers) around me? What do I tell them? That their chances of salvation are probably better if they agree with my doctrine? Needless to say, this line of reasoning quickly diffused any remaining missionary impulse I had.
My relationship with God continued to decay through college. Religion quickly became a chore with a quota of mandatory worship sessions to attend. Prayer was a much more casual endeavor than it had been, usually initiated when I would be thinking words in my mind and decided to "include God" in the conversation. I was mentally and emotionally tied up with my school work and my involvement in the community of SDA East Indians that lived off campus. Four years of college (one of them spent in India) drifted by. Then I went to medical school.
God's Will and the Power of Prayer
Though religion's role in my life had withered to a shadow of what it had been, I still thought it would be wise to attend an SDA medical school in case I might meet a future husband there. There were mandatory religion classes at medical school as well, but they were generally well conceived and addressed issues that would be encountered any medical professional, whatever their personal belief system might be. One of the central issues we addressed was "Why do bad things happen to good people?" What the question really means is, "Is God responsible for the suffering in this world?"
The pervasive pain and suffering in the world is commonly cited by nonbelievers as the primary reason that they do not believe in God. They often insist that the pain that mars our lives demonstrates that God is either impotent (cannot prevent it) or evil (will not prevent it). Like most Christians I have encountered, I did not believe that God lacked the raw power necessary to eradicate the suffering that plagues our existence. Therefore, I agreed that the presence of pain and suffering in the world indicates that God does at least allow terrible things to happen to His children. To me, the real question was not whether God allowed bad things to happen, but whether He ever prevented them.
The fundamental question is: What is God's degree of involvement in our daily lives? Does He micromanage every aspect of our lives? Does He just intervene at certain key points in history? Or does He abstain from altering our physical reality at all? In any case in which God is seen as acting, He indeed becomes responsible for everything that happens in our lives inasmuch as He either directly causes each event, or He deliberately allows events to occur rather than choosing to alter the outcome. Thus one must indeed address why God might allow bad things to happen, especially to good people.
Central to most persons' faith is the idea that God has a will for their life and is guiding the circumstances of their life. A great many people take comfort in the notion that "everything is in God's hands." It is commonly stated that God will not allow His faithful follower to be burdened with pain too great for that person to bear. No matter how bad things get, Christians draw some comfort from the idea that God is in control of the situation and will step in before things get too awful. A closely related maxim is that "everything happens for a reason"--that reason, presumably, being God's will. There are many Bible verses that suggest that God is in control of all of the particulars of our daily lives: Romans 8:28, Psalms 23, Matthew 6:26-34, and others. In fact, the entire book of Job is solely devoted to the question of why bad things happen to good people. (God's answer in Job is essentially: "Hahaha! Puny mortals, you cannot possibly comprehend my greatness or my wisdom!"). Implicit to the entire discourse is the assumption that God does in fact affect the physical world in which we live. But does He? Is it God's will that human beings suffer?
Christianity's epitome of moral truth is that it is wrong not only to deliberately cause suffering to others, but to fail to alleviate the suffering of anyone we encounter, whether they are friend or foe. Jesus invokes God and His dealings with humanity as the exemplar of this attitude (Luke 6:27-36). Christians envision God as a being of pure good characterized by righteousness, truth, and above all, love. This concept of God is not always easy to reconcile with stories in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. I specifically remember struggling with the chapters of the Bible that depict Israel's conquest of Canaan at God's behest. The text describes God demanding the complete extermination of the indigenous people of that land. God's degree of involvement is clearly presented, so one must address His motivation. The only conclusion I could reach was that there was something so fundamentally evil about the inhabitants of Canaan that God had to destroy them to prevent them from infecting His Israelites with that evil. A very similar reason is given for the Flood:
5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
In both cases, God appears to be responsible for something we now consider to be the ultimate evil: genocide. But because Christians do not believe that God is capable of evil, they are forced to contrive conditions that would extenuate this apparently evil behavior. Similarly, a typical Christian may accept all nature of adversity as being sanctioned or even caused by God, assuming that it must be designed to fulfill some higher purpose.
Many people believe that God manipulates circumstances in the life of every person to guide that person through some handcrafted "master plan" He has for that life. Both good and bad events are seen as divine tools to guide and shape personal development to conform to God's will for that life, with the ultimate goal being the salvation of the soul of the person. This belief hinges on God's omniscience--such that He knows exactly what set of circumstances will result in the best end product. But best for whom? Does God lay out His plan for each life optimized for the maximum benefit of that individual? Or does He follow a more Vulcan "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" strategy, and arrange things so that a maximum number of souls will be saved, even if it virtually guarantees that some will be lost who might have been saved if He had valued their individual case more highly? If He is working optimally for each individual, one might expect that He would indeed refrain from laying "too heavy a burden" on any person, knowing that they would despair and lose faith. But we have no evidence that Christians are less likely than others to be the victims of accidents or violent crime. No evidence supports the hypothesis that God shields Christians. If we envision every detail of our lives as having been hand-drawn by God to save our souls, then how do we explain suicide, particularly among believers? If God, in an effort to draw me closer to Him, has me gang-raped, has me contract HIV, makes my husband leave me, makes my parents die in a car crash, and makes my cat run away all in the same month, and as a result I commit suicide, did God miscalculate my pain tolerance? (Perhaps he thought: "Oops, I guess the cat running away was one burden too many.") If, on the other hand, He is working to maximize saved souls rather than planning my life for my soul specifically, I might have been one He had deemed "expendable" for His greater plan. (Maybe my cat ran to a despairing neighbor who had been praying for companionship just before it arrived at his door, proving to him the existence of God. And maybe later that day one of the gang-rapists felt bad for raping me and repented, giving his heart to Jesus.) God allowed me to be crushed by terrible and painful circumstances so that things would work out right for two other people who might otherwise be lost. I find this Machiavellian God abhorrent.
In contrast to the scenario above, I have never been inclined to believe that everything--or even most events in this world--are God's will. That really should be clear from my early experience of religion, in which I pretty much saw the world as one big field of battle in which Satan is by and large winning. The notion that everything that happens in this world is God's will is incompatible with the concept of human free will--that we can chose to obey or defy God. Only recently have I become aware that the notion of free will is a field of fierce philosophical debate, and even theological debate (e.g., regarding predestination--a concept that I was not exposed to as an SDA). It frankly never occurred to me that human free will was subject to question; I've always seen the central theme of Christianity (or any other religion, or morality in general) as the importance of making the right choices--in the case of Christianity, choosing to serve God. What would be the point of Judgment if humans were not free to choose to follow God or not? How do you define "sin" as anything but the defiance of God's will? Free will is not only a basic assumption, but pivotal one in my reasoning about why bad things happen to good people.
If human beings have free will, they can choose to disobey God; not only their actions, but the consequences of those actions, defy God's will. For instance, I believed that the Columbine tragedy was not God's will; that is, neither the acts of murder nor the deaths that resulted were God's will. I believed neither that the deaths of children happened to fulfill God's will, nor that God chose which particular kids would die. The sinners (the shooters) did that.
I believed that God respects human free will, and that a corollary of that is that He allows us to suffer the consequences of our actions. The consequences include both the direct "guaranteed" results, and the possible results--which He allows to happen according to their natural probability. I did not believe that God tweaks the odds to either shield us or punish us (or our victims) for our actions, but that He allows them to play out according to the laws of nature that He established to provide order to the universe. If Fred plays Russian roulette with one bullet in the six-shooter, his odds of dying are 1:6--God does not fiddle with the odds, and when Fred pulls the trigger, we should not read either outcome as the workings of God's will. (It was not His will that Fred play Russian roulette to begin with.) If Fred smokes, he has 1:5 odds (just the same as any unbeliever) of getting significant emphysema; again, neither the smoking nor the emphysema are God's will. What about earthquakes, breast cancer, and other "unprovoked" tragedies? I saw these as the result of sin as well, going back to Adam and Eve's choice to disobey God. God told them that death would be the result, and I envision all subsequent human suffering as the natural outcome of that choice. God allows all the evil and suffering that resulted from that choice to play out naturally so that every created being, human and angel, would see that disobedience of God does, in fact, bring only pain and death. I did not believe that the original sin or any of the suffering that resulted was God's will. In fact, for God to step in and alter the consequences of our sin would only serve to muddy the picture. For that reason, the fact that this life is characterized by suffering never caused me to doubt God's existence or character. A Christian's hope is not in an earthly reward, after all. We have all of eternity--an eternity free from suffering--to look forward to. The illness, pain, and death that besets our mortal existence as a result of sin should only serve to heighten our anticipation of the next life, when God finally will order everything according to His will.
How did I reconcile my conclusion that God does not interfere with physical reality with biblical depictions of a very hands-on God? There were only two possibilities. Either a) the Bible is not literally correct about God's role in the events it describes, or b) God has fundamentally changed the nature of His interaction with humans over the past five thousand years. Up until this point in my journey, I was still willing to consider "b" plausible. It makes little practical difference to this particular argument. In any case, science, not faith, is the underpinning of modern medicine, and to that field I had dedicated my life.
In my work as a physician, I routinely encounter people who invoke God's will as they try to come to terms with a desperately ill loved one, especially at the moment of death. For those who see God's hand at work altering our physical reality, medical illness is a prime target for His manipulation. I believe that this is because there is still so much about the function of the human body that remains a mystery to physicians and scientists. The degree of our ignorance of any given process is the degree to which we are likely to attribute outcomes of that process to the workings of God. Invoking God within our understanding of the world around us in this way has been called the "God of the gaps" phenomenon.
In the Middle Ages, the majority of ailments were commonly attributed to the workings of either Satan or God. Epidemics like malaria or the Plague were widely perceived as acts of divine judgment. That is not our current understanding. If I spend time in an area where mosquitoes are known to carry malaria and do not take the appropriate precautions (e.g., repellant, netting, and prophylactic medication) and contract malaria, we clearly see that today as a result of my negligence. Few people would insist that the disease was inflicted upon me by God. That is why I did not see lung cancer as a punishment from God, but rather as a natural outcome of sin (smoking). It is a natural (even trivial) progression from that logic to accounting for the contraction of any disease for which the predisposing factors are well understood. Eat egg-salad that has been sitting at room temperature for 36 hours if it pleases you, but do not curse God when you spend the next twelve hours with one of your two ends intimately acquainted with your toilet! Is it any more correct to view diseases for which the predisposing factors are not known as being of divine origin?
We owe our current understanding of the pathophysiology of disease--and our much improved life spans and quality of life--to those scientific pioneers who were not satisfied with the common explanation of disease as the finger of God. If, in fact, God routinely manipulates the incidence, course, or outcomes of human illness, then how have we been able to conduct meaningful research into the (natural) causes and effective treatments of disease? How is the march of medical progress to be viewed if one believes that God uses disease as a tool in His interaction with humanity? Do we offend God by vaccinating our children against polio, tetanus, and the other scourges historically associated with so much debility and death? Christians who reject scientific progress in the field of medicine are very rare in our society--and share the same deplorable outcomes that were common to everyone before the advent of modern medicine. Are the rest of us thwarting God's will by preventing and curing human illness?
As a physician, I do not feel entitled to entertain such a notion. Fortunately, I do not feel inclined to either. If anyone insists, consider the reductio ad absurdum: is God offended when I pluck a splinter out of my skin? Therefore, if my patient's condition is unexpectedly worsening, it is my duty to reexamine the case and try to determine if I have missed something, not to assume that God is at work. If my patient has an exceptionally favorable or unfavorable outcome, it is important to me to discover the natural reasons why, if possible, so that I can learn more about the disease process and treat the next patient better. To conclude that God was responsible for the patient's outcome is absolutely unhelpful, to say the least. (And "completely inappropriate" is closer to the mark, in my mind.)
Throughout my discussion above, I have avoided the question of prayer. The troublesome practical implications of God's interference in physical reality are the same whether prayer is involved or not, but I find that prayer amplifies these problems, and introduces some of its own. I recall this idea literally hitting me like a bolt out of the blue one Sabbath as I sat in church. A church leader was at the microphone, making a request for members of the congregation to join the group of believers--already a hundred strong--who were praying earnestly for God's intervention on behalf of the young child of a church member who was being treated for a typically fatal cancer. I just remember thinking: "Wait... there are one hundred people asking God for a miracle to no avail, and this woman is trying to recruit more prayers?"
I had been hearing this kind of request for years, but now, as if I was hearing it for the first time, the implication stunned me! Was the likelihood of God's intercession a function of the number of people praying for it? I found myself envisioning God as being coerced into acting, doling out His intervention only when some arbitrary quota of prayers has finally been met. Is it possible that God would cure the child for 157 prayers, but not 156?
What, for that matter, are the implications of answered prayer in terms of the will of God? Was the severe illness, likely to result in the death of the child, God's plan to begin with? If not, why didn't He heal the child after the first prayer? Should His reluctance to miraculously heal the child be construed as indicating that He doesn't really want to? Like a weary parent, might He finally be worn down by repeated and numerous demands by His children? Or, is God somehow impotent to intervene until a sufficient number of human prayers (by some even more inscrutable mechanism) enables Him to act? (So we arrive again at the question of whether God is evil or "just" impotent with regards to allowing pain and suffering in this world.)
Science has attempted to investigate this issue with several studies designed to determine if "distant intercessory prayer" can produce any measurable difference in the outcomes of the "targets" of prayer compared to those who are not "targeted." A meta-analysis of 14 such studies found no measurable difference in outcomes. What if the outcomes had been different, demonstrating a measurable benefit of intercessory prayer? Would physicians start prescribing prayer? Would further studies have to be designed to determine the dose-response curve for prayer? Would your physician inform you, after giving you a diagnosis of cancer, that you have a 500-prayer cancer--curable if you can find 500 people to pray for you? Would a new profession of full-time pray-ers be born? Would their hourly rate be dependent on what religion they belonged to, their sex, their race, or their personal habits (how many days a week spent fasting, perhaps)?
I ultimately concluded that God never interferes with our physical reality. He does not defy the laws of physics with miracles. He does not manipulate the circumstances of our existence to fulfill some grand plan. He may indeed have a plan for me--one that would result in my greatest happiness and fulfillment, my greatest contribution to the happiness of others, and my eternal salvation--that He patiently calls me to follow. But He does not bully me into it with tangible whips and goads; the thorns along the path were not traps placed by God, but simply the results of my own mistakes or the mistakes of those around me. Instead of disrupting our physical reality, He works at the level of the mind and heart to help us bring something good out of the catastrophes that beset us, and surely this is miracle enough! This is why He needs us, His children, to be His hands and His voice in the physical world and do good works (read James 2). My line of thought thereafter was: do not ask God to bend the rules of the physical universe to your whim, for God never answers these prayers. Instead, pray for strength, comfort, guidance, and patience, as God always answers these prayers.
Thus God does not inflict calamities upon us. Consider a little child who falls and gets a bloody knee, then immediately runs into his father's arms for comfort. But to whom would the child run if his father had been the one who pushed him down? How can we turn to God for comfort if He is responsible for our suffering? I envisioned God weeping along with us when tragedy struck, as it so often does in this fallen world. I saw Him broken-hearted to see His children suffer, deeply touched by our pain and longing to ease it. I saw Him reaching out to comfort us, telling us: "Just wait a little longer... just a little longer. In my kingdom, everything will be all right; there you will not suffer in this way!" This was the picture of God that made sense to me, God as I wanted Him to be.
I found no objective evidence of God's meddling in our physical reality, I had what I felt were meritorious theological reasons for believing that He does not meddle in our physical reality, and I simply did not want to believe that He meddles in our physical reality because I could not reconcile the practical implications of such behavior with the fundamental characterizations of God as just and loving. But I found my picture of God to be contrary to that of most of the Christians I knew, including the other members of the SDA Church. Consequently, I found that I could no longer attend church. I could not share fellowship with people who worshipped a God that schemes and manipulates our lives and whose power can be bought or bargained for with the right quantity or quality of faith (and if these are lacking, you're out of luck!). I simply could not believe in that God, and the hypocrisy required to sit in the pew, nod my head, and murmur "Amen" among followers of such a God sickened me. I have not once set foot in a church during the decade that has passed since.
And Man Created God in his Own Image...
Clearly, at this point, I faced an even more perplexing dilemma. I could not ignore the fact that I had narrowly defined "my God" based on what I had wanted in a God. I certainly did not suffer any delusions that my God bore any resemblance whatsoever to the God at work in the Old Testament of the Bible--or the New, for that matter. In my efforts to reason out how a "good" God should interact with humanity, I had created a gilded cage for the Creator of the Universe. I had created God in my own image. Now I may be an arrogant fool, but I could not dupe myself into considering a God engineered by my own puny brain to be worthy of worship, even by myself! But upon reflection, I realized that everyone else creates a God in his or her own image.
Christians are instructed that in order to gain salvation, it is important to nurture "a relationship with God." But how do we have a relationship with God when He does not appear or directly speak to us? (Of course, it's not too uncommon for a Christian to say that He does directly speak with him pr her, but He never did deign to murmur into my ear.) There are two ways in which God is supposed to keep up His end of the "conversation": through divine inspiration (through the Holy Spirit) and in the written Word.
I had already had extensive experience with both of these methods for communicating with God. As I described above, I put a lot of energy into talking to God and listening for His voice when I first came to Him in high school. In fact, I sought him with all my heart--every fiber of my being! I've never tried so hard for so long at anything in my life. I pleaded on my knees before Him day and night. I fasted. I prayed. I meditated. I changed everything about myself. I focused on nothing other than hearing His voice and doing His will for more than two years. I can honestly say that I could not have tried any harder than I did.
And what did I hear? The voice of one who disdained my every effort to serve Him. Nothing that I did was ever enough. I was a perpetual failure in the eyes of... whatever it was that answered me. If He said He loved me, it was only in the context of "I love you so much... aren't you grateful for that love? Why are you ashamed to witness about My love to the other kids at school?" If it was God, then He hated me. If it was Satan, then God betrayed me. If devoting every ounce of my mind and heart to seeking God resulted in my hearing only Satan's hiss in my ear every day, then what chance do I have of ever finding God?
That it was really me hating myself all along is obvious now. I still hate myself. Sometimes I am still as self-deprecating as I was in the old days. But at least now I recognize it for what it is. At least now I can say: "Yeah I suck... get over it." At least now I don't torment myself imagining eternal consequences of my character deficiencies. What if I weren't so self-critical by nature? What if my inner voice had told me affirming things that would seem to be appropriate if coming from a loving deity? Might I not still be listening to that voice and considering it to be irrefutable evidence of the existence of God? Is this not the "experience" of God proffered by His many believers? I do not believe that I had ever heard God's voice. If I'm wrong, and He does speak to me, I have no way of distinguishing His voice from my own; any attempt to label a thought as "from God" versus "from me" would be completely arbitrary. (For a dramatic demonstration, watch the movie "Breaking the Waves.") It is impossible to obtain any reliable information about who God is and what He wants by this method.
That leaves the Bible as the only source of information about God available to me. However, the quest to learn who God is and what He wants based on biblical accounts was fraught with exactly the same obstacles that trying to find God from prayer were. A literal reading of the Bible yields depictions of God's character that vary so widely as to encompass polar opposites along every axis. Anyone can find their own version of God in the Bible, a point which is exemplified by the myriad versions of Christianity. Fundamentalist attitudes regarding the Bible have been used to affirm moral stances as diametrically opposed as pacifism and white supremacy. I had studied the Bible with the same intensity with which I had sought God in prayer, and derived identical results. I return to the example of the conquest of Canaan:
Joshua 6:20,21 (regarding Jericho)
20 So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.
21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
1 And the LORD said unto Joshua, Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land:
2 And thou shalt do to Ai and her king as thou didst unto Jericho and her king: only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves: lay thee an ambush for the city behind it.
24 And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword.
25 And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai.
26 For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
27 Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua. 28 And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day.
1 Now it came to pass, when Adonizedec king of Jerusalem had heard how Joshua had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it; as he had done to Jericho and her king, so he had done to Ai and her king; and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel, and were among them;
2 That they feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all the men thereof were mighty. 3 Wherefore Adonizedec king of Jerusalem, sent unto Hoham king of Hebron, and unto Piram king of Jarmuth, and unto Japhia king of Lachish, and unto Debir king of Eglon, saying,
4 Come up unto me, and help me, that we may smite Gibeon: for it hath made peace with Joshua and with the children of Israel.
5 Therefore the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, the king of Eglon, gathered themselves together, and went up, they and all their hosts, and encamped before Gibeon, and made war against it.
6 And the men of Gibeon sent unto Joshua to the camp to Gilgal, saying, Slack not thy hand from thy servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us: for all the kings of the Amorites that dwell in the mountains are gathered together against us.
7 So Joshua ascended from Gilgal, he, and all the people of war with him, and all the mighty men of valour.
8 And the LORD said unto Joshua, Fear them not: for I have delivered them into thine hand; there shall not a man of them stand before thee.
9 Joshua therefore came unto them suddenly, and went up from Gilgal all night.
10 And the LORD discomfited them before Israel, and slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them along the way that goeth up to Bethhoron, and smote them to Azekah, and unto Makkedah.
11 And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Bethhoron, that the LORD cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.
12 Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.
14 And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the LORD fought for Israel.
Here is an excerpt of Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on Joshua 8:
God, the righteous Judge, had sentenced the Canaanites for their wickedness; the Israelites only executed his doom. None of their conduct can be drawn into an example for others. Especial reason no doubt there was for this severity to the king of Ai; it is likely he had been notoriously wicked and vile, and a blasphemer of the God of Israel. (www.biblegateway.com)
But are we entitled to imagine that every man, woman, and child inhabiting of the land of Canaan was possessed of such unspeakable evil as to merit their complete extermination? For the breadth and depth of their evil to justify such a punishment by today's moral standards, such human beings would have to be unique in human history up to and including the present. I doubt we have any historical or archeological evidence to substantiate a supposition as outlandish as that of the existence of an entire civilization of supervillains! In fact, the need to fabricate the idea that the Canaanites were the most uniquely evil group of humans ever to walk the Earth is only the result of an attempt to reconcile the incompatibility of the revealed character of the Old Testament God with our modern moral sensibilities. According to the Bible itself, though, the only evil of which the Canaanites were guilty was their failure to worship Yahweh:
6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
10 And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
11 And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you.
12 If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying,
13 Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known;
14 Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you;
15 Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.
16 And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the LORD thy God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again.
The Bible is absolutely unambiguous about God's opinion of the members of other religions: they all merit death. Yet I've not met a Christian who believes that God's will is that Christians execute as many Hindus and Buddhists as possible. If they are right, though, I clearly cannot draw useful information on God's will for my life from these pages, despite the fact that they are some of the most explicit directives regarding God's will in the Bible. Christians typically insist that somehow God's entire agenda changed with the coming of Jesus, and that He no longer wishes us to hunt down heathens for sport (not that that stopped the Conquistadors or Inquisitors). I find this baffling. Am I to imagine that a God who had existed for eternity and dealt with humans for 4000 years in the manner described in the Old Testament suddenly changed His mind? Did He decide He was going about it the wrong way? Did He learn from His mistakes? What, in any case, am I to make of the Old Testament God? Do I disregard those images of God entirely? The New Testament itself is not of much help in reconciling its strikingly different depiction of God with the one described in the Old Testament. Jesus has this to say:
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus goes on to expound on the "true" application of God's laws, the spirit of which is quite inspiring:
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
21 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
26 Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:
32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
33 Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Jesus' message that God's law should be followed in one's heart rather than merely according "to the letter" is a very commendable one. In verse 38 he is referring to one of various Old Testament verses, such as:
11 And the Israelitish woman's son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed. And they brought him unto Moses: (and his mother's name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan:)
12 And they put him in ward, that the mind of the LORD might be shewed them.
13 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
14 Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.
15 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin.
16 And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.
17 And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.
18 And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
19 And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him;
20 Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
21 And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.
22 Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God.
23 And Moses spake to the children of Israel, that they should bring forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stone him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the LORD commanded Moses.
I quoted the verse at length to demonstrate that these words are represented as God's own words personally spoken to Moses. But then why do they bear revision by Jesus? Why didn't God teach human beings how He wanted them to behave in the first place? Consider the cherished story of the woman taken in sin:
10 And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
The story is a sublime demonstration of Jesus' warmth and wisdom. But my question was: Is it God's will that adulterers be stoned to death, or not? If not, why did He command it in the first place? Again, did God change, or did humanity get it wrong the first time around? In either case, the Old Testament comes off as an unreliable account of God's present character. The entire tone of these verses describing Jesus' attitude to the law suggests that humanity had completely missed the boat for the past four thousand years. But how is that possible if the very verses that Christ challenges were supposed to have been the literal words of God? Was that claim a lie? Can a Christian today be as cavalier with the Word of God as was the Son of God? Do we also get to pick and choose what parts of the Bible God "really meant"? Since God has evidently stopped appearing Himself to set the record straight, this is in fact the best we can do. Paul poetically summarizes the state of affairs:
1 Corinthians 13:8-12
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
This passage (the entire chapter, actually) is beautiful, but only acknowledged my dilemma. I could not know God, either from seeking Him in prayer or from reading His Word. Any conclusions I came to regarding His character were entirely speculative. My assessment of His will and the nature of His dealings with humanity were merely my inventions, originating from the culture in which I was raised and in the beliefs of people I've known and trusted--who in turn have constructed their own understanding of God in an identical manner. No believer to whom I've pointed this out to tries to argue against it, but none of them seem have a problem with it. I do have a problem with it. I cannot bring myself to impute real wisdom or holiness to a construction of my own mind. I simply can't worship a God of my own invention.
The problem is insoluble even when one believes that the entire Bible is the inerrant Word of God, as I had up to this point. This left me in an uncomfortable spot--the God depicted in the Bible was impatient and intolerant at least as often as He was merciful and patient, and He clearly had some expectation of me, if only I knew what that was. Every time I would contemplate the problem, my brain would short out. I would quickly find myself throwing up my arms and thinking that I must just do the best I could to behave like a decent human being (as defined by my culture) and hope that God was as forgiving as some Bible passages made Him out to be (or at least not as vindictive as many more passages made Him out to be!). Needless to say, the realization that I had no idea who God was or what He wanted from me made pretending to be any kind of active Christian completely impracticable.
The Word of God?
I see the Bible as an all-or-nothing proposal. As the Word of God, the Bible purports to be absolute Truth. If one verse of it is shown to be false, then in my mind it can no longer be called the Truth. If one verse is untrue, then any or every other verse might also be untrue, and then the Bible becomes fodder for the same arbitrary speculation that I struggled with in my fruitless attempt to define a role for God that coincided with my own morals and experience of reality.
For Seventh-Day Adventists, a literal understanding of the Genesis account of creation is particularly important. First of all, it establishes the Sabbath as God's holy day from the very foundation of our universe. But even more crucially, the creation of human beings stands as the focal point of the Great Controversy between God and Satan. Humanity's fall from grace, the nature of sin, and God's plan for salvation all hinge on the Garden of Eden story. It would be very difficult to define the origin and nature of sin if humanity emerged, thousands at a time, through a gradual evolutionary process. When were we first human? When were we first sinful? Can animals sin? Did sin evolve alongside Homo sapiens?
Seventh-Day Adventists, and all Christians for that matter, have a serious problem in the fossil record, which unequivocally contradicts the young-Earth creation doctrine that the Earth is no more than twelve-thousand years old. There are only three options: (1) try to find some scientific or supernatural explanation for the discrepancy; (2) reinterpret scripture in a less literal fashion (give up fundamentalism); or (3) ignore the problem. Every Christian chooses one of these "solutions."
Many fundamentalist Christians feel that the fossil record was a fabrication of God or Satan to test humanity's faith. This is the most frightening path to the complete abandonment of reason that I have ever encountered. The message here is that one must disregard one's very perception of physical reality in favor of absolute faith in the Bible. Even at the height of my religiosity, I was not tempted to believe this. A more common response is the attempt to explain the fossil record as a result of Noah's flood. (I recommend exploration of christiananswers.net for review of these arguments.) However, the flood cannot account for the findings of the fossil record. In fact, another group of Christian fundamentalists does the work of refuting this for me; see www.answersincreation.org and www.christiangeology.com for examples. These websites are hosted by "gap theory" creationists who surmise a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3 in which the Earth existed for billions of years. On this view, life was evolving for billions of years until God killed all of those prehistoric creatures (the last mass extinction in the fossil record) and started over with a literal seven-day creation. He kept those forms of the evolved animals that struck His fancy, though each creature was hand created anew--which is why they resemble "prior versions" in the ancient fossil record. There is a vast amount of information at www.christiangeology.com detailing this theory.
Does this represent the best solution fundamentalist Christianity can come up with to reconcile a literal reading of Genesis with the physical evidence we find in the Earth? I find this explanation nearly as artificial as saying that God or Satan directly fabricated the fossil record. And, in any case, it still does not fit the information found in the fossil record. The young-Earth creationists refute the gap theory at christiananswers.net/q-aig/aig-gaptheory-problems.html, concluding with surprising candor:
But whether it be a "gap theory," "progressive creation," or "theistic evolution," the results are the same. These positions may be acceptable in some churches, but the learned in the secular world will, with some justification, mock those who hold them--they see the inconsistencies.
Christians will be derided whatever they believe about Genesis. We can choose to be scoffed at for believing the first book of the Bible as God intended it to be understood, or for believing in a compromise position that undermines the authority of God's Word.
The author of this passage is essentially advocating the third choice--ignore the problem. During my period of religious fervor, this was exactly what I did. As you might guess, the time had now come in my journey when that wasn't good enough. I began to seriously consider the possibility that the Bible was not literally true. My rethinking of the nature of the biblical account of history actually proceeded from my contemplation about why God behaves so differently today than He is depicted as having behaved thousands of years ago--and the creation of humanity is but the ultimate example of his "past behavior." The conquest of Canaan, including the miracle in which the sun stands still for a day while Joshua finishes killing off the Philistines du jour, is another example (it's described in the verses from Joshua 10 above). The Tower of Babel is yet another:
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Was God so threatened by a bronze-age attempt to build a really tall building that He fractured the human race, laying the foundation for millennia of misunderstanding, xenophobia, hatred, and warfare? In that case, He must certainly have been offended when we landed on the Moon, but no new plagues were forthcoming that day. The Old Testament God seems immature and petty--much like the gods so colorfully described in any of the pagan mythologies of the time. But God seems to have grown up a little bit in the New Testament; was this simply a reflection of centuries of refinement of the concepts of morality and divinity?
When one views the Bible as mythology, the conundrum of why God no longer works in the ways described in its pages disappears. It was not God that changed after all, but man. We no longer perceive God's fingerprints in the hurricane, the earthquake, or the infectious disease pandemic, but until very recently we did see such things. The fanciful tales populating the Old Testament emerged from ancient oral traditions originally concocted to explain natural phenomena in a manner consistent with emerging concepts of God--which, most crucially, depict Israel as the chosen people of that God. This is the same manner in which other religions emerged; I perceive nothing inherent in the Old Testament accounts which distinguishes the Judeo-Christian tradition as being any more likely to be true than the Sumerian, Norse, or Greek mythologies. The only meaningful difference is that people still believe the Jewish mythologies, and passionately. This is simply a case of history being written by the victors. Christianity (as traced back through Judaism) is but one of the major religions that has supplanted "pagan" alternatives to perpetuate its mythologies into modern society. Because I was born in a Christian society to Christian parents, I believed the Christian mythology. The situation is identical for a child born of Hindu parents or Muslim parents, raised to believe Hindu mythology or the mythology of Islam, respectively. I, like most other Christians, never had the slightest inclination to believe the fantastical stories of Krishna, nor the accounts of God's revelation to Mohammed. Why should I have felt entitled to believe that the set of mythologies that I had inherited were any more likely to be true than the foreign myths that I had so effortlessly rejected?
Was there any truth to be found in any of the biblical accounts? The more I contemplated it, the more my doubt grew. In any case, I felt the Bible to be a critically unreliable representation of the character of God. Was a real God lurking behind those pages somewhere? Who was He and what did He want of me? What about Jesus? I was reluctant to give up on Jesus. I felt that if there was any chance that the salvation story were true, it would be a terrible tragedy to turn my back on Jesus. However, even the accounts of events surrounding Jesus had a very mythical quality. Accounts of the miracles performed by the first Christians were only slightly less alien to today's world than the Old Testament wonders. I had prayed long and hard for God to work through me, as He had the first Christians, to no avail (I was certain the fault was mine). The SDA Church takes a dim view of speaking in tongues or "miracles" performed by Pentecostal faiths; it takes them to be psychosomatic nonsense at best, or Satanic deception at worst! Was this the nature of the miracles described in the New Testament? Moreover, when typically portrayed Christianity emerges unfalteringly from its Jewish roots. There is no hint that Jesus or His followers rejected the Old Testament as untrue (despite Christ's revisions of His Father's words). So I felt hypocritical in maintaining any belief in Jesus when I increasingly rejected the Old Testament account of God as false. It was the same dilemma I'd been struggling with all along--any attempts to make sense of my faith resulted in my rejecting key parts of dogma, making the entire proposition an exercise in subjectivity. In the end, I simply did not believe that the Bible was literally true about God, but was unable to deceive myself that I knew any better. Thus I severed my last tie to Christianity and drifted off into agnosticism.
I began to address God in my mind as "That which is Unknown and Unknowable." If God existed, He or She or It was a hazy gray expanse of unfathomable nature and intent. Ironically, as I let go of the last vestiges of my faith, I arrived at a rather extraordinary peace. I felt that if God existed as any sort of benevolent force, He or She or It would judge me justly at the end of time. I had spent most of my life searching for God, lead always by a burning desire in my heart to know the Truth of God's existence and will. My mind, presumably created by God (for what is God if not Creator?), had been given the gift of reason, and I had applied that reason with purest intentions to my quest to know God. I felt a peace where that quest had lead me. Or at least I felt that there was no other place that I could possibly be unless and until God chose to physically reveal Itself to me. One cannot choose to believe, no matter what the preachers say. Can you choose to believe that 2+2=5?
Show Me a Sign
I had been drifting in fairly pessimistic agnosticism (about the existence of God) until one day tragedy struck. It could not have been more fantastically scripted. On my first day on call at a new hospital as a brand new critical care fellow, I received news of the admission of a patient with a very familiar name. In fact, the name was nearly identical--off by one letter--to the name of one of my very close childhood friends, a girl who sat in the desk behind me in third grade, and with whom I had shared many slumber parties. I looked at the age of the patient on the report. I thought: "That's weird... this patient is the right age [mine] to be my old friend." The patient had suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm three years earlier that had left her in a persistent vegetative state; she was being admitted for recurrent intracranial bleeding. Cold fear struck me as I awaited the arrival of the patient. Was she my old friend? One glimpse of the body on the gurney being wheeled into the ICU room confirmed my dread, but I probably would not have recognized my friend had I not harbored the suspicion that it was her before I laid eyes on her. Her form was twisted by contractures, her expression was vacant, her hair was shaved institution-style, and she had a deep round cavity on the left side of her head, the result of the removal of a large portion of her skull years ago. The sight of her made me feel nauseous and weak. Meeting her mother's eyes was difficult as well, as I had not seen her since her daughter and I were chasing each other around her house as children, and I knew my face betrayed my horror.
It is hard to overstate the impact that discovering the condition of my friend had on me. We had taken decidedly different paths after elementary school, and I did not consider her a friend or even a friendly acquaintance in high school. In fact, I had heard rumors of my friend wasting her life, dropping out of college, possibly even taking drugs--and none of that had given me much pause, to my continued deep shame. I never suspected that I had still cared one bit about what had become of her. So I was completely blindsided by the terrible grief that overwhelmed me after I saw her broken body and ruined mind! I cried for days and thought of little else for weeks. From then on, I regularly visited my friend at the nursing home she was living in. Her lips would often assume an exaggerated smile when one entered the room (usually followed shortly thereafter by an equally extreme grimace). I felt that if there was any possibility that I was providing any kind of comfort or shade of happiness to my friend or to her mother, who all but lived at her side, I must continue to visit. But it was always heart-wrenching to spend time there.
Predictably, this calamity provoked a reevaluation of my most fundamental beliefs about God, but particularly about miracles. I prayed constantly for a miracle. I said to God: "OK, Lord, now's the time. You know that I've searched for you my entire life, and I need to know that you exist. Show yourself!" Countless times I offered God my life, and I offered God my death. When that didn't work, I made the same offers to Satan--if God would spurn the offer of my heart and soul in exchange for a miracle, maybe His enemy would not be so picky. I was perpetually plagued by a sense that if I just believed in it enough, the miracle would happen--as if it were lurking just beneath the surface of reality, waiting to break through. So I would hold the hand of my friend and pray, stroke her hair and pray, try to stretch the contractions in her fingers, arms, and legs, and pray. I would stare hard in her eyes and with all the force I could muster, command her to get up. I would call her name and tell her to get up and walk, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
At times, I imagined what it would be like if I got my miracle and my friend completely healed. Clearly, a miracle of such biblical proportions would not go unnoticed! The nurses who had been taking care of her for three years would raise a loud cry! Her physicians would hurry to repeat the scans of her brain and see that, miraculously, it had been completely restored! (I had already seen her real brain scans, which had shown that the left half of her brain was essentially absent, while the right half was badly shriveled.) I would try to estimate how many hours it would take for such a story to hit the evening news, then the national news, the international news, and finally Oprah. I envisioned thousands making a pilgrimage to the nursing home as the site of a true miracle, and thousands wishing to touch my friend, who for all intents and purposes had been raised from the dead.
I considered how such a turn of events would strike others who had prayed for their own miracles for far longer than I, but without results. I actually had a cousin, one of identical twins, who fell in the bathtub at the age of three and suffered a severe anoxic brain injury that resulted in a permanent vegetative state; he finally succumbed at the age of 19. I am certain that his mother and father, devout Catholics, pleaded to God daily for a miracle on their son's behalf. How would they have felt if they came to know that I (a near atheist) had prayed for a friend in a similar condition for just a few weeks after finding out about it, and been granted a miracle? I know that those who believe in miracles do not feel that they are granted according to any human sense of "fairness"--in fact, a miracle happens so rarely that it is, by definition, "unfair." But would not a Christian feel betrayed and rejected by God when met with silence in response to his or her prayers, while another person, no more worthy, is answered with a miracle?
Within the next 18 months, my friend died, galvanizing my conviction that there are no miracles. The fact that we have not heard of any documented miracles in today's society ensures that they do not happen in the present. A true (and well-documented) miracle would be a triumph for Christianity (or whatever religion it might happen in) and a crushing blow to atheism. There is no doubt in my mind that a miracle would be national headline news.
I define a miracle as a fortuitous occurrence that defies the laws of physics. A miracle must be impossible. Finding your car keys two minutes after praying for God's help in locating them is not a miracle, even if you looked for an hour before praying. While I was asking God for my miracle, I started to make a small survey of my acquaintances at work, asking them if they had ever experienced a miracle. Most said that they had, and would go on to relate some fortunate event or other in which they discerned God's hand at work. Not one of these events was by any means impossible, and most were not even of particularly low probability. One woman literally stood there and told me: "My aunt was in a terrible accident; she was in the intensive care unit on life support, but she recovered." I wanted to say: "You're kidding me, right?" Instead, I just smiled and nodded.
I have already addressed my beliefs with regard to God's role in human illness; he has no role to play. But it's like getting kicked in the stomach every time that I hear someone attribute a favorable medical outcome to God, as if completely disregarding the decades of (naturalistic and rational) scientific research that went into the development of the treatments that are really responsible for those miraculous outcomes. When the emergency rescue teams came to the site of that accident, they took my friend's aunt to a hospital, not the nearest church. If, as the ambulance rushed the patient into the emergency room on a stretcher, the doctors there had stood idle and told the family, "We're going to let God handle this one. We want you to join us in praying for a Miracle!" those physicians would be immediately fired and probably sued by the family. Modern medicine is founded on science, not faith. Every improvement in treatments and outcomes is the result of meticulous study and experimentation. As I pointed out above, routine "fudging" of outcomes by God would hamstring humanity's efforts to study and find effective treatments for illness. Every time you go to a physician, you are appealing to science, not faith, to help you. Am I being arrogant? I don't think that I am. In fact, I find being a physician humbling. I am regularly humbled by the limitations of current scientific knowledge about the way the human body works, and even more humbled by the much greater limitations in my own knowledge and experience. I am hurt when I reach the limit of modern medicine's ability to heal patients that come to me for help. It pains me to tell patients that we have no good treatments for their sickness; I wish I had the power to Heal, but I don't. So I am the least likely, of all people, to confuse myself with God! Heck, I won't even worship one invented by myself!
The Agnostic Limbo
So I all but rejected God, the Bible, and miracles. All but. Though agnosticism brought me peace, it was also a vaguely unsatisfying state of mind, one which I occupied for about eight years. I stayed there because I felt that agnosticism was the only truly rational response to the question of God, since I could not disprove His existence. But I also couldn't shake the feeling that it was a lame cop-out. Among other things, I resisted atheism because of my feeble (and fading) sense of unease about "abandoning Jesus" and, ironically, lingering doubts about evolution.
By this time I actually wanted to believe in evolution, but was somewhat troubled by the "irreducible complexity" argument. How would a creature with "half an eye" or "half a wing" be competitive enough not only to survive, but to excel under natural selection, slowly perfecting those rudimentary structures over evolutionary time scales? This question seemed difficult to me. However, the more I thought about it, the more I noticed that it appealed to a "god of the gaps" argument. Historically, humans have evoked the hand of God to explain incompletely understood but purely natural phenomena. In other words, God was a substitute for human ignorance. But as the gaps in our understanding of the natural world close one by one, the dominion of God also shrinks. Once upon a time, when people heard thunder, they thought it was the voice of God. (Consider 1 Samuel 7:10: "And as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the LORD thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel.") Now that we have learned about static electricity, we no longer imagine that thunder is God's voice. In every area of scientific research, the gaps in our understanding of the world are constantly shrinking. And with those shrinking gaps, the God of the gaps withers away. Is "The Wastebasket for Things We Do Not Understand" worthy of my worship? I had previously thought of God as the "Unknown and Unknowable," but worshipping such an entity would not be appropriate, and I would not know how to worship it.
Speaking of ignorance, I'm sure that my appalling unfamiliarity with the current state of scientific evidence and understanding of evolution is at the root of any lingering doubts that I may harbor regarding irreducible complexity. I have not remedied that deficiency at the time of writing, but the relevant books are high on my list of books to read! In any case, the near universal acceptance of evolution as a fact (not "just a theory") by the scientific community gives me good reason to believe that it is true. A Bible-thumping fundamentalist may accuse me of having a faith in science that is as blind as his faith in the Bible, but that's false. In both situations a person has decided to believe in something that he or she has not personally seen or investigated based on the assertions of another who claims to be an authority on the subject. But unlike religious claims, scientific claims are based on tangible evidence available for review by anyone. In fact, the entire meaning of real faith, as exemplified by the citation of faith in Creation in Hebrews 11:1-3, is belief in the absence of relevant evidence. If all scientific knowledge was wiped from the minds of every human being, and all scientific references destroyed, that knowledge could--in fact, certainly would--be rebuilt from scratch over the next millennia. If the same thing happened to our theological inventions, however, they would almost certainly never be reconstructed. Whether or not God exists, modern religions stand on a shaky foundation of oral tradition and mythology. Every religious person concedes this much at least with regard to all other religions than his or her own. As Sam Harris says in The End of Faith (2005), "[M]ost of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday" (p. 24). Science, by contrast, is built of much tougher stuff, and therefore no one should be ashamed to put "faith" in the scientists who all but universally support evolution. Even Francis Collins, a leader in the Human Genome Project and a devout Christian who authored The Language of God, maintains unwavering belief in evolution, having found clear evidence of it in his study of human DNA.
As deeply pessimistic as my agnosticism was, I don't know how much longer I could have remained tethered to it; but at the time there was no end in sight. I was at a mental and spiritual impasse. I felt that rationality demanded agnosticism over the indefensible negative "There is no God." Moreover, I feared the negative social impressions that atheism entailed. In particular, I did not want to be thought of as arrogant--especially by myself! At the same time, however, returning to religion was out of the question--the road that had carried me out was a one-way street. At this point, reflecting on my experience with religion evoked feelings of bitterness, anxiety, and loathing of such force as to make me feel ill, particularly if I tried to entertain the notion that my conclusions were wrong and that fundamentalism might actually be true. To exorcise the demons, I would repeat to myself the mantra, "I'm never going back! I'm never going back!" over and over. But I never allowed myself to take the final step of denouncing God and religion.
In the summer of 2006 I visited my in-laws in Utah. Once Mormons, they had become atheists. My father-in-law lent me the book The End of Faith by Sam Harris. As I read the pages, a fire flared within my heart! I found that I had agreed with almost everything written in that book, a call to reason and the abolition of faith. And just like that, I became an atheist! Choose any conversion platitude that you can think of; they all apply to how I felt--and still feel! I have awakened, gasping from a long, cruel nightmare! I have glimpsed the dawn after an endless dark night! I have emerged from a thick noxious fog into the clear winter air! I am a lamb just shorn of a filthy, matted hide! I feel free and I feel clean! And exhilarated! And truly, deliriously happy! I am born again!
I am as surprised as anyone by this. Who would have thought that embracing atheism could bring such joy? But it really has! Every time I think about it, I literally feel giddy! It is a sustained euphoria, far surpassing the crumbs of solace that I scavenged with great difficulty as a devout Christian. I want to shout it in the streets! I want to tell everyone I know! In fact, I pretty much have told everyone I know, and I want to tell them about it some more! I gladly talk about this with anyone willing to listen to me, and (by now) even with people who are getting tired of hearing about it. Isn't that totally absurd?! My mortified reluctance to share the Christian 'gospel' with friends and strangers was a keen point of self-abuse during the years of my enthrallment to Christianity. That was supposed to be my primary function as a Christian, and something from which I was supposed to be taking pleasure, but it was always something that I hated--which showed me just how miserable and pathetic a Christian I was. The answer is so simple now... Those Christians who do somehow manage to experience joy in their religion (as opposed to torturing themselves mercilessly, as I did) will indeed wish to share their joy with others. But I was right all along! I was a miserably pathetic Christian! I was a miserably pathetic Christian because Christianity made me miserable and pathetic! Atheism gives me true joy--joy which I think perfectly mirrors the joy some devout Christians have felt through the ages, and I want to spread the news!
What I Believe
So what do I believe now?
- There is no God. I cannot prove that God does not exist, but I regard His existence as about as probable as the existence of Santa Claus.
- Humanity is the product of evolution.
- Nothing happens for a reason. There is no mysterious force behind the events of my life, nor behind anyone else's life events. However, it is my privilege and responsibility to learn and grow from whatever twists fate has in store for me.
- There are no miracles. We live in an orderly world governed by the laws of physics. We are continually learning about the natural processes at work in our bodies and in our world through methodical investigation and experimentation. By such empirical investigation, it is possible to improve the lives of every human being. This is the moral purpose of our intellect and reason.
- There is no Heaven. When I die, I will cease to exist. The same is true for everyone else. I must strive to do my part to improve the lives of those within my realm of influence because this is the only life we will live.
- There is no Hell. I never believed in everlasting Hell, even as a fundamentalist. In fact, if I am wrong, I will happily go there; I refuse to worship a God Who would countenance an eternal Hell.
The pursuit of happiness is and should be the primary goal of my life. True happiness requires growth and development of the spirit, mind, and body:
(a) Spirit: The greatest happiness results from serving others. Conversely, focusing on acquiring money, power, and things eventually leads to isolation, self-absorption, dissatisfaction, and finally despair.
(b) Mind: Continuously seek knowledge and wisdom. Try to learn something new every day.
(c) Body: Good health is a priceless blessing. Try to take care of your body: eat right and exercise! Avoid behaviors that have been proven harmful to the body.
As you can see, I view the path to happiness as the difficult one, the moral high road. I recently had a conversation with a preacher who tried to convince me that if he did not believe in Heaven, he would devote his life to lying, stealing, and using everyone he met. Though I am not entitled to brush off his assertion, I strongly doubt that it is true. I can only speak for myself, but if anything, I've found that abandoning any lingering consideration of God and Heaven makes me feel more motivated to be a better person. I no longer feel that I'm trying to earn Heaven or please God. I'm not good because I'm supposed to be good, but because I want to be good.
Does my drive to be a better person make me a saint? I'm as cynical about my true moral worth as I ever was. I like to be the nice guy and I hate conflict. I want people to like me, so I generally behave in a polite and kind manner. Does this make me "a good person"? In fact, it actually causes me ethical problems in my profession as a physician--for instance, when a patient asks for an antibiotic and I feel it is inappropriate. Despite knowing that it's the wrong decision not only for that patient, but for public health, I often cave in because I don't want to disappoint the patient. That's unethical and immature, and I feel bad when I do that because I know that I'm not really putting the patient's interest first.
As I see it, my drive to help and serve others is nothing nobler than my wish to be loved. I think I was "wired" this way; it was no cultivated feature. I think that in general, we are wired to derive happiness from contributing to the happiness of those around us--at least to those in our "in crowd." I think that this drive has its roots in evolution, and I think that that's a good thing--except for the limitation to the in crowd! How fortunate for us that it makes us happy to help each other out! Incidentally, I feel that the drive to acquire power is also evolutionarily derived, as is every aspect of our minds and behavior. The drive for power leads people to behave in selfish and unethical ways--particularly when they are to some degree removed from observing first-hand the negative impact their actions have on others. But I am convinced from 33 years of life experience that personal sacrifice and service to fellow human beings yields happiness unattainable through the pursuit of power. Still, I fall short; outside of my profession, I do next to nothing to improve the lives of people around me. That needs to change. My life stretches before me--a whole life to learn and think and grow, a life to gain wisdom through both painful and joyful circumstances, and a life to dedicate to really helping others on their paths. Now, more than ever before, I feel peace, excitement, and joy when I think about the life before me. I confess that I still lose this perspective easily and get bogged down in my daily troubles and my obstinate self-centeredness. Though I have a long way to go, I'm ready to get to work.
The Roots of Religion
One of the immediate results of my conversion to atheism was a sweeping shift in my perspective on the human condition in all of its aspects: social, political, religious, and historical. I would liken it to what a person living in medieval times might feel if he were brought on board a space shuttle orbiting the Earth. I experienced the same feeling of epiphany: "That changes everything!" The actual shift was from a stance inside of the system to a stance outside of the system. Having rejected Christianity and theism generally, I was viewing human history from a naturalistic point of view for the first time. And my first impression was that for once, everything makes sense!
The question of why human beings invent religion is very complex and, for clear reasons, a field of heated debate. I am a novice in this debate and plan to continue to investigate the question, but my current opinion is as follows. Humanity is unique among animals in our ability to ask how and why things happen. We are also unique (as far as we know) in our understanding of our own mortality. These qualities are the foundation of religion, which has emerged in every group of humans on the planet. Time and time again, in every inhabited region, humans beings have created gods.
Religion apparently began with the worship of ancestor spirits and nature spirits. It sought to explain natural phenomena that were difficult to understand: floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, extreme weather patterns, etc. When faced with dire circumstances that people are powerless to change, it is natural for them to appeal to some higher, unseen power for assistance. Thus a central theme in all of the various religions is that of divine intervention to alter our physical reality, which may be secured at some price (such as faith, deed, or sacrifice--including animal or human sacrifice). Another central theme is life after death. Human beings simply don't want to die--no animal does--but we can think about it ahead of time, and we can convince ourselves that we are special among animals in that some part of ourselves is immune to death. By virtue of the very fact that we can think and imagine reflectively, we feel that some part of ourselves transcends our physical bodies. Finally, as part of our drive to ask "Why?" human beings seek to impute meaning to their lives. Religion is created from the need to answer questions such as "Where did I come from and why am I here?" Each of our religions addresses these functions, each having an origin myth, divine intervention myths, some schema of what the divine wants from humans, and an afterlife myth.
All major religions began with oral traditions, and over time, they evolved along similar lines, fostered by groups of people who had developed a written language and generated foundation documents (the Bible, the Vedas, the I Ching, the Koran, etc). In each case, modern scholarship has demonstrated that these documents emerged through a gradual process of modification of largely oral tradition. Nevertheless, members of the respective faiths have universally held that their foundation documents were directly divinely inspired. That belief has been passed down from generation to generation up to and including the present time. People generally continue to believe particular religious doctrines because they received these traditions from figures of authority in their lives: parents, teachers, and religious leaders--each of whom received their beliefs in an identical manner. The act of changing one's religion is therefore almost always a traumatic event, as it evokes betrayal and defiance of the traditions that had typically been held for generations of one's family and community. The act of disavowing religion and the very existence of God seems downright alien. Atheists, therefore, are commonly branded as arrogant by religious believers. Who am I (the atheist) to reject beliefs that have been held by decent folk in America and Europe for centuries--and that are still held by the vast majority of Americans? Who am I to be so bloody-minded as to deny the very truth of the Bible, unquestioned by millennia of believers as the very Word of God? Am I saying that I'm right and that all of those people are wrong? In a word: Yes.
Faith is a Four Letter Word
Not only do I now stand firmly convinced that there is no God and that all religions are false, but I am willing, even eager, to try to change the minds of those who still believe. Yes, I am an enemy of the faith! To me, faith is a four-letter word.
Many people, including my lifelong atheist husband, have asked why I seek to stamp out religious faith. Doesn't religion serve a useful purpose in society? Might it not influence people to behave better than they would otherwise? Does it not promote some iota of introspection in this superficial and materialistic age? Doesn't it, at the minimum, provide comfort and peace of mind for the believer? I concede that for some believers, and maybe even most of them, religious faith can have these effects. In my case, it did at least promote introspection, even to a fault, but I can't say that I received much comfort from my faith, or that it made me a better person. But even granting that religion might have these effects in spades for every believer, the price of faith is far too great.
There is no need to recount the suffering which religion has inspired throughout human history; the role of religion in promoting hatred, prejudice, and mortal conflict, from ancient times to this very moment, is beyond dispute. Moderates will claim that this represents an abuse of religious faith, but moderates are, by definition, those who have arbitrarily shed those tenets of their religion that clash with the secular moral zeitgeist. In other words, religious moderates have taken a step in my direction. Abuses of religion are as numerous as religiously inspired suffering and include the infamous fleecing of little old ladies by television evangelists. But even these are not the fundamental reason why I stand against faith.
I submit that the age old war between science and faith is the clearest example of the terrible price of faith. This is ironic, since faith resulted from the same drive to answer the questions "Why?" and "How?" that propelled scientific discovery. The conflict arises because faith takes the easy way out. Why does the volcano erupt? God is raining brimstone upon the Earth! Why is everyone dying with Plague? God is offended at the sinfulness of this generation of man! Where did we humans come from? God created us!
The problem did not originate with the creation of myths to answers these questions, but with according those myths a sacred status and thus placing them beyond further enquiry, and teaching one's children to do the same. In essence, the faithful say: "You need look no further! We already know the answer--God's hand is at work!" Worse still, they add: "You are angering God (or falling for Satan's lies) with your efforts to seek alternative explanations for these phenomena!"
With its supernatural explanations of the realities of our existence, religious faith is no better than magic and superstition. The latter have receded while faith remains strong only because magic and superstition are more susceptible to disproof by science. If you insist that making an incantation will produce a desired result, that claim can be easily tested. Religion, by contrast, has two good excuses for God's apparent failure to answer prayer: (1) The person praying may not have sufficient faith to warrant God granting the request or (2) God might (and probably will!) refuse to cooperate with an experiment to test his power. Religion thus excuses itself from rational scientific enquiry.
Nevertheless, science will ultimately win the competition between science and faith. When new evidence contradicts a scientific hypothesis, leading to a revised or completely novel theory that better explains all of the available evidence, science is stronger for the blow, and in fact thrives. Faith, by contrast, is forced to retreat when contradicted by new information (at least when the faithful are forced to finally accept that the new information is true, such as the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun). Thus faith recognizes a mortal enemy in reason. Paul himself ceded that faith and reason cannot mix:
1 Corinthians 1:18-23
18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
1 Corinthians 2:12-14
12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
1 Corinthians 3:18-19
18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.
In the first verse, Paul is quoting Isaiah, and in the last verse, he is quoting Job, both indicating that the pious recognized the conflict between faith and reason even at the time of the writing of those texts. Centuries later, nothing had changed. Martin Luther summed it up exquisitely on several occasions:
Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but--more frequently than not--struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.
~ Martin Luther, Table Talk (1569)
Reason is the Devil's greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil's appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom.... Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism.... She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.
~ Martin Luther, Erlangen Edition v. 16,
People gave ear to an upstart astrologer [Copernicus] who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred scripture [Joshua 10:13] tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.
~ Martin Luther, "Works," Volume 22 (c. 1543)
There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason.... Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed.
~ Martin Luther, quoted by Walter Kaufmann,
The Faith of a Heretic, (Garden City, NY,
Doubleday, 1963), p. 75.
Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God.
~ Martin Luther, Said to be from V, 1312.
I can't articulate the reason for my repudiation of faith any better than that. Faith is the dogma of ignorance. With apologies to Frank Herbert, faith is the Mind Killer.
Because My Imaginary Friend Told Me To...
Another defense of religion against any challenge is the notion that it is the primary basis of morality. I again recall the conversation I had recently with the fundamentalist pastor who tried to convince me that if he did not believe in God (and, specifically, Heaven) that he would make fulfilling every base and selfish desire he could imagine his primary goal in life. I don't buy it, but the implication was certainly not lost on me. This man believes that atheists must, as a group, be selfish and amoral individuals. His opinion is tragically common in American society:
abcnews: Technology & Science
Who's Counting: Distrusting Atheists
April 2, 2006 -- Given the increasing religiosity of American culture, it's perhaps not too surprising that a new study out this month finds that Americans are not fond of atheists and trust them less than they do other groups. The depth of this distrust is a bit astonishing nonetheless.
More than 2,000 randomly selected people were interviewed by researchers from the University of Minnesota.
Asked whether they would disapprove of a child's wish to marry an atheist, 47.6 percent of those interviewed said yes. Asked the same question about Muslims and African-Americans, the yes responses fell to 33.5 percent and 27.2 percent, respectively. The yes responses for Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and conservative Christians were 18.5 percent, 18.5 percent, 11.8 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.
When asked which groups did not share their vision of American society, 39.5 percent of those interviewed mentioned atheists. Asked the same question about Muslims and homosexuals, the figures dropped to a slightly less depressing 26.3 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively. For Hispanics, Jews, Asian-Americans and African-Americans, they fell further to 7.6 percent, 7.4 percent, 7.0 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.
The question of the origin and meaning of morality is obviously vast and hugely complicated. How do we even define morality? Most simply, it is knowing right from wrong. Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Are there absolute moral truths? This is precisely where religion seems to play a key role--it encapsulates the assumption that God is the only entity able and entitled to define absolute moral truth. In this sense, religion provides the same "easy out" for questions of morality as it does for questions of origin, or any other poorly understood natural phenomenon. The believer is entitled to define "good" as "doing God's will" and "bad" as "defying God's will." Obviously, in this context, the mutual exclusivity of the major religions is a very major problem.
Most of my religious experience as a fundamentalist Christian was a struggle to understand what God's will could possibly be. I never deluded myself that I impressed God much by refraining from killing, stealing, and lying; it's not as if I had been performing these heinous acts before my conversion. I rather doubt that many Christians, however fanatical or uneducated, suspect that non-Christian nations are full of rapists and murderers. At least, I certainly hope that they do not think so. (If it really bears demonstrating, refer to the Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems.) But if this is correct, evidently we do not require the Ten Commandments to conclude that murder is wrong. It bears recalling that the same God who is said to have written those commandments in stone also ordered His people to engage in acts of ethnic cleansing. Is this absolute moral truth? If the furthest we are willing to go in our search to define "right" and "wrong" is whether we can be persuaded that it is God's will, there is no end to the evil we will perform. The destruction of the World Trade Center was only an appetizer.
In fact, any religion that (like most contemporary religions) emphasizes the afterlife as more important than this life has the potential to engender deplorable abuses of human rights in this life. This is both inevitable and appropriate in the context of an eternal afterlife. If you believe that heresy may cost your children their eternal salvation, then silencing the heretic by any means necessary, including through execution, is not only morally permissible, but obligatory. Any number of mortal lives pale in comparison to a even single eternal life. This was precisely the kind of moral reasoning behind the Inquisition and the witch hunts. It is another of faith's grave evils. Faith is the Soul Killer.
Modern theologians' drive to characterize the Old Testament Canaanites as carriers of some especially virulent social pathology is only the result of their strained attempt to patch ancient morality on to a modern conception. The majority of God's Old Testament imperatives (other than the Ten Commandments) are discarded by modern Christians (for instance, the stoning of adulterers or of proponents of other faiths). Modern Christianity also struggles (to varying degrees) with the anachronistic morality of the New Testament:
1 Corinthians 14:34,35
34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.
35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
While some fundamentalists accept this as God's will for all people, others argue that the decree was intended only for a specific group of people. My own search led me to conclude that attempting to abstract "absolute moral truth" from the Bible yields no flawless crystalline monolith, but a shifting sand of interpretation and subjective personal preference. Moreover, as previously noted, no words on a page are required to instruct modern people that murder is wrong. Which aspects of modern "morality" bear Christianity's unique fingerprints? By my estimation, primarily matters of sexuality and reproduction--the issues that occupy most of the yardage under the umbrella of "legislating morality." For instance, you don't need a religious figurehead to instruct you that stealing is bad, but you certainly do need one to tell you that condom use is a sin. The Catholic prohibition against contraception is based on "Saint" Augustine's characterization of sexuality as inherently evil--unfortunately a necessary evil, but only when children must be conceived. This rampaging moral dinosaur prevents the enforcement of condom use in the face of an AIDS epidemic which is slaughtering millions. It is the perfect demonstration of the value of religious dogma as a foundation for modern morality--none. Religion is also the defense of today's homophobic bigot... but I digress.
Beyond instructing us not to kill or steal (which we didn't need to be told), or that homosexuality is a sin (which we do need to be told, according to those who believe it), does the prevalence of religious faith have any correlation with objective metrics of "societal health"? This issue has been formally studied by Gregory Paul, who reported his findings in The Journal of Religion and Science. Paul found that there was actually a correlation between degree and prevalence of religious faith and societal dysfunction as measured by teen pregnancy, abortion rates, murders, and teen suicides. The author stresses the fact that the study was not designed to investigate causality, but it does demonstrate that secular societies are not objectively less healthy than religious ones.
The Truth Will Set Me Free
Everything that I have written up to this point has come from my own experience. I wanted to record my thoughts before launching on my expedition into the piles of books sitting on my coffee table. Those books cover morality, philosophy, evolution, modern criticism of the Old and New Testaments and the Koran, and other topics. Ironically, I am studying religion more avidly now than when I was religious! I have finished a few books already. One of the most delightfully shocking was The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty, which makes a very convincing argument (to my admittedly biased mind) for the nonexistence of a historical Jesus. (A hint: Why does Paul make no mention of any of the details of Jesus' sayings or actions as depicted in the Gospels? Why weren't the Gospels written until the end of the first century AD?) At a minimum, I have gained an entirely new appreciation for the complex history of the writings and early Christian Church. It is as if I had seen them in one dimension, a simple, seamless monolith, but now viewed from an oblique angle, revealed to be a three-dimensional patchwork--no longer solid or coherent. As is usually the case, the truth is much more interesting and satisfying than the myth. I also have apologetic books including The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, and The Case for a Creator. I intend to continue my investigation, probably for years to come if not for the rest of my life. Will I ever change my mind? Anything is possible, but as I've been commenting to my friends: If God wants me back, He'd better start putting in some appearances at a bush near me!
Appendix: A Chorus of Voices
I have collected a number of quotes, most listed in Wikipedia under "Religion," that I discovered after writing my testimonial. I was shocked at how many of them mirrored my sentiments, and even my exact words in some cases:
Man is the religious animal. He is the only religious animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion--several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven.
~ Mark Twain
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.
~ Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in physics
Once there was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time is called the Dark Ages.
~ Richard Lederer
Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
All Faith is false, all Faith is true:
Truth is the shattered mirror strewen
In myriad bits; while each believes
his little bit the whole to own.
~ Richard Francis Burton
All religions are ancient monuments to superstition, ignorance, ferocity; and modern religions are only ancient follies.
~ Paul Henri Thiry
Any body of men who believe in hell will persecute whenever they have the power.
~ Joseph M. McCabe
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
~ Susan B. Anthony
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.
~ Albert Einstein
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
~ Galileo Galilei
The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.
~ Isaac Asimov
In the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction religion offers to both is palpable.
~ Sigmund Freud
The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything. Once God (or Satan) is accepted as the first cause of everything which happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance... logic can be happily tossed out the window.
~ Stephen King
Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor --but they have few followers now.
~ Arthur C. Clarke
Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.
~ Butch Hancock
Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.
~ Anonymous; quoted in Dennett, Daniel C.
(2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a
Natural Phenomenon, 1st ed., p. 17,
Religion easily has the best bullshit story of all time. Think about it. Religion has convinced people that there's an invisible man...living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn't want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money.
~ George Carlin
Religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others.
~ Reza Aslan
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
~ Karl Marx
Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses. It is the speed of the masses.
~ Akbar Ahmed
Some of you say religion makes people happy. So does laughing gas.
~ Clarence Darrow
Religion began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.
Religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few.
Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.
~ Napoleon Bonaparte
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.
~ Seneca the Younger
Religion is the most malevolent of all mind viruses.
~ Arthur C. Clarke
So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake... Religion is all bunk.
~ Thomas Edison
The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.
~ Treaty of Tripoli, signed by
President John Adams (1796)
No, I don't know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.
~ George H.W. Bush, as presidential nominee
for the Republican party; August 27, 1987
Religions are the great fairy tales of conscience.
~ George Santayana
The god of the cannibals will be a cannibal, of the crusaders a crusader, and of the merchants a merchant.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man's imagination?
~ Joseph Campbell
Some people just can't understand that they can't understand what they can't understand.
~ Brandon Miller
When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.
~ Umberto Eco
 Masters, K. S., G. I. Spielmans, and J. T. Goodson. "Are There Demonstrable Effects of Distant Intercessory Prayer? A Meta-Analytic Review." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 32(1): 21-26 (August 2006).
 Paul, Gregory S. "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies." Journal of Religion and Society 7: 1-17 (2005).
Copyright ©2008 Amanda Avellone. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Amanda Avellone. All rights reserved.