From Taoist to Infidel (2001)

Richard Carrier

My experiences with religion as a child were all good. My mother was a church secretary at a First Methodist Church only a block from our home, and I attended Sunday School fairly regularly, but my parents rarely insisted that I attend any sermons. The religion sold at this local business was a very liberal brand of Christianity. It was more like a preschool and social club, and that made it an excellent asset to the community, and a place of fond memories for me. Amidst arts and crafts, lunches, running and climbing about, and basic learning, the alphabet and numbers and whatnot, Sunday School had its story time. Bible stories were always on the menu, intermingled with other popular fables and parables, and it was never even suggested there was any difference. The Good Book was always treated as a collection of handy tales used as springboards for teaching moral lessons, not as a history book. Indeed, I was never once told that unbelievers go to hell or that I had to "believe on Christ" to be saved or anything like that. All good people went to heaven, so you'd better be good. That was it. Jesus in this version of Christianity was little more than a moral teacher. Being the Son of God made him an authority on the subject but had no other importance. Perhaps it was no accident that everyone who attended this church was very kind and jovial and all around just good folk.

During my first few grades, whenever I had free time in school (and wasn't running and climbing about) I read for myself only the New Testament (red letter edition, of course--I think any child loves books with different colors in them). But the moment I got home my nose was in much bigger and better books: all manner of encyclopedias, my favorite reading material. The Bible was boring and not very informative, and hardly intelligible to a child, but it was the only book anyone ever gave me that would fit in my pocket. Yet I never had the feeling that I was doing anything religious, or what I was reading was special in any way, apart from the fact that everyone seemed happy or impressed to see me reading it, which I never understood since these same people thought I was weird for reading encyclopedias, which I knew, even at that age, were more educational. As I grew older, my social life expanded, and my spare time at school was spent completing homework, leaving no time for idle reading, and my appetite for knowledge grew to deeper levels of sophistication.

The New Testament had given me no useful information about the meaning of life or the nature of the universe. Later I learned that people extracted from it such things, but they only did so by importing ideas and concepts that aren't in the book itself, and so just reading it alone I found it to be shallow and unsatisfying. Its message was obsessed with strange moral rules that no one around me ever followed. Instead of turning the other cheek, people called for more cops and longer prison terms. Far from giving thieves their cloaks, people kept baseball bats by their beds and hung signs that said Beware of Dog. While the very Son of God Himself defended a whore from moral condemnation, whores were routinely morally condemned, most ardently by the Devout.

Then there was all this talk about the worm that never dies and morbid metaphors about washing with blood, and so forth, that weren't very relevant to the world I saw and wanted to understand. Littered everywhere was exultation about the Good News, but God forbid should any passage ever clearly explain just which news that was supposed to be. At one moment it seemed to be the moral message, which I already observed was nonsensical, at another it was about a horrible End Times that hardly sounded good. No one around me thought a Nuclear War was good news, yet it sounded like the very same thing. At yet another moment it had something to do with Jesus dying for something called sin, even though it was never explained how he could die for it when I was always taught to seek forgiveness from the person I'd wronged. At yet another time it was the fact that there was an afterlife "so don't despair," which even as a child I found to be rather childish. And so on. It was confused, illogical, often unintelligible, but always irrelevant to the social and political reality in which I lived. Where was any explanation and defense of democratic values? Where was gender equality? What was wisdom? What was virtue? How come all my encyclopedias were full of the beautiful, wonderful things of the universe, yet not a single peep about them from the Son of God Himself? One would think he of all people would have had a kick ass science education, having the most powerful and knowledgeable father in the universe and all. I wanted to know what the fundamental nature of the universe was, what the fundamentals of a moral life really were, how to achieve happiness in this life. The Bible didn't help. Better moral wisdom came from mortal word of mouth around me, and far more knowledge from other books, and from school, where I majored in science and took and mastered every science course offered. So with the other childish things I put away as I approached my teen years, the Good Book was among them.

And so I became a seeker. Rather stereotypically, I entered teenage hungry for truth, for something that made sense of it all, for direction. The universe just didn't seem right. Hypocrisy was everywhere, problems abounded, along with contradictory opinions about how to solve them, and the most basic facts about the world were, or so I thought, unexplained by scientists, who were clearly those who were best able to get the answers. And yet the one book everyone said had all the answers was shallow, frequently confused or uninformative, unnecessarily verbose and obscure, and contradicted the society I found myself in. Worse, it read like a preachy fable: no logical arguments, no demonstrations of evidence, just assertions, and vague ones at that. It had nothing to say about democracy or science or technology, the three things that most defined my world. How useless. So I lived a life of the mind, and thought and studied, always anchored by a stable home life and friendships. Logic alone led me to what I would later discover was an ambiguous form of agnostic deism.

Then a miracle happened. At least, it was what believers would call a miracle. In a bookstore hunting for a dictionary for school, I had a feeling that told me to turn. I did, and the first thing I saw was a Jane English translation of the Tao Te Ching. I took it up, and, like Augustine, turned to a page at random and read. What it said was so simple, so true, so elegantly and concisely put, and so wise, I knew this was the answer. I bought the book and read it all through, and from that day I declared my faith in Taoism, my first real religion. In contrast, Christianity was never a religion for me--it was simply a fixture in my cultural atmosphere, and I never affirmed any faith in its principles. But I had faith in Taoism. I was a True Believer. And I am glad that, unlike most people, I made an informed choice, at an age when I had the capacity to choose sensibly. Religion was never imposed on me and no one in my family ever assumed I had to be Christian, and consequently I can say my one chosen religion was born neither of peer pressure nor indoctrination. I studied Taoism avidly, at one point I had eight different English translations of the Tao Te Ching and a few of the Chuang Tzu, and my Taoism became full and sophisticated: I was a Philosophical Taoist, a Chinese tradition that held to an adherence to the texts and the wisdom alone and scorned the surrounding superstitions and religious cult that grew around it as being against the very message of Taoism. In time I also discovered how Taoism was a response to Confucianism, and the relationship the two religious philosophies had, and in the course of things I acquired some acquaintance with Buddhism as well.

My life was transformed. I acquired a sense of discipline and focus I never had before, an attraction to quiet, simple living, and a strong yet humble moral sense of things. All finally made sense, and I was happier than I ever imagined possible. In my holy text I had a toolbox for dealing easily and sensibly with every problem, from sexual angst to metaphysical doubt, from political debate to material danger. There was a verse in the Tao Te Ching for everything, and it was written beautifully and simply, often appealing, for evidence of its truths, to the one truly universal Bible: the world itself, as well as the undeniable evidence within the reader's own soul. It had a train of thought, an implied logical argument. In time I created my own version of the Tao Te Ching, selecting my favorite translations of every line from among the many I knew, and carried this with me as the one devotional item we were allowed in boot camp. I read it nightly.

The proof that this was the one true religion was manifold, and seemingly irrefutable. Apart from the "clearly" supernatural miracle of my discovering the faith, and the "self-evident" perfection of its sacred text, following its tenets I was led to peace of mind and a balanced life, to friendships and goodness. With it, all harm was defeated or of no consequence, and every benefit came easily and naturally. I learned to have fewer expectations, to care more about others and to worry less about what I didn't yet know. Things were of little importance next to contentment itself, and the good life was a life of friends and the mind, not of luxury or power. Above all, it told me the simple truth: that my humanity was a good and natural thing. From sex to humor, all had an accepted place, without being forced into unnatural modes of thought or behavior. Sin was the artificial deviation from the harmony of nature, and if you would simply stop meddling with things you would be free of sin. It explained everything, even the existence and nature of the universe, in a way that made perfect and beautiful sense. And it cultivated a tolerant mind like I had never seen Christianity do. The Chinese had known this for over two thousand years. I still cherish the memory of seeing a picture of three holy men travelling a road together, all laughing with each other. One was a Buddhist, another a Taoist, and the third a Confucian. This image is in fact a regular motif in China. There, the three religions, despite being so doctrinally and intellectually at odds, get along peacefully, even happily, a friendship that is celebrated in such artwork everywhere. What better proof is there of the goodness and truth of a creed that it inspires such jovial tolerance? Instead of holy wars, condemnations and combative debates, these religions interact in dialogues, and each accepts the other as possibly different facets of the same coin. They live comfortably with doubt and uncertainty, even thriving on it. They condemn no one to an eternal hell, and require no belief.

I was a happy Taoist for many years. Burned out on schooling I chose to live a simple life, contented at gardening or ditch-digging for a living, doing everything from installing electrical fixtures to waiting tables.  But eventually I signed up for a life in the Coast Guard, studying electronics and sonar and living at sea, until I yearned again for an education and thus embarked on a long career as a student of science and ancient history. During all this, in cultivating the mental life that Taoism taught, I had powerful mystical visions, which only confirmed further that I was on the right track. These ranged from the simple to the fantastic. The simplest and most common was that clarity of an almost drug-like wonder, perceiving everything striking the senses as one, unified whole. It is hard to describe this. Normally, your attention is focussed, on something you are looking at or listening to, or in a semi-dream-state of reverie, but with a meditative sense of attention this focus and dreaminess vanishes and you are immersed in a total, holistic sense of the real. It is both magnificent and calming. It humbles you, and brings you to the realization of how beautiful simply living is, and how trivial all your worries and difficulties are. Profound insights about the world would strike me whenever in such a state, leading far more readily and powerfully to an understaning of myself and the world than studying or reasoning ever did.

The most fantastic experience I had was like that times ten. It happened at sea, well past midnight on the flight deck of a cutter, in international waters two hundred miles from the nearest land. I had not slept for over 36 hours, thanks to a common misfortune of overlapping duty schedules and emergency rescue operations. For hours we had been practicing helicopter landing and refuelling drills and at long last the chopper was away and everything was calm. The ship was rocking slowly in a gentle, dark sea, and I was alone beneath the starriest of skies that most people have never seen. I fell so deeply into the clear, total immersion in the real that I left my body and my soul expanded to the size of the universe, so that I could at one thought perceive, almost 'feel', everything that existed in perfect and total clarity. It was like undergoing a Vulcan Mind Meld with God. Naturally, words cannot do justice to something like this. It cannot really be described, only experienced, or hinted at. What did I see? A beautiful, vast, harmonious and wonderful universe all at peace with the Tao. There was plenty of life scattered like tiny seeds everywhere, but no supernatural beings, no gods or demons or souls floating about, no heaven or hell. Just a perfect, complete universe, with no need for anything more. The experience was absolutely real to me. There was nothing about it that would suggest it was a dream or a mere flight of imagination. And it was magnificent.

But I had never stopped my private readings in the sciences, and it did not take long for me to realize that everything I had experienced through Taoism had a natural explanation. At the same time, the more I studied my religious text the more I came to disagree with certain parts of it. Since the One True Religion could not be faulty even in part, this brought me to realize that Taoism was not sacred or divine, but just an outpouring of very admirable and ingenious, but ultimately fallible human wisdom. That did not diminish its merit, but it did lead me to think outside the box. More and more I found I agreed with Confucians against the Taoists, but still sided with the Taoists against the Confucians on other issues, and in the dance of thesis and antithesis I came to my own synthesis, which can now be described as a science-based secular humanism rooted in a metaphysical naturalism. More and more I found brilliant wisdom in Western philosophers like Epicurus or Seneca, or Ayer or Hume, and so my worldview became more ecclectic and for that reason more perfect: by drawing the best from many points of view, I was purging myself of the faults of relying on only one.

Inevitably, I had to confront the Christian question. There was a point in sonar school when I was regularly pestered by a Christian bothered by my Taoism, even more than my agnosticism (it didn't matter to a Taoist whether a god existed--an answer to his question "Do you believe in God?" that frustrated the hell out of him). Eventually he argued that you have to read the whole Bible before you can make an informed decision about it. He recommended the NIV Student Bible, which I purchased, and still have. I set down to read it all through, every word, front to back, Old Testament and New (I have since read the entire New Testament in the original Greek). I figured now, with my greater understanding and maturity, I might receive more from it than I did as a child. Instead, I was able to see far worse things in it than I ever did before. I saw a terrible, sinful God by the standards of the simple, kind wisdom of Taoism--a jealous, violent, short-tempered, vengeful being whose behavior is nonsensical and overly meddlesome and unenlightening. Later I was to find that the vast majority of Christians never actually read the Bible, and have no idea what is really in there, and the hypocrisy of them telling me I had to read the whole thing before I could make an informed choice is still palpable.

In all I can say that the Old Testament disgusted me, while the New Testament disappointed me. In general, no divinely inspired text would be so long and rambling and hard to understand--wise men speak clearly, brilliantly, their ability at communication is measured by their success at making themselves readily understood. The Bible spans over a thousand pages of tiny, multi-columned text, and yet says nowhere near as much, certainly nothing as well, as the Tao Te Ching does in a mere eighty-one stanzas. The Bible is full of the superfluous--extensive geneologies of no relevance to the meaning of life or the nature of the universe, long excurses on barbaric rituals of bloodletting and taboo that have nothing to do with being a good person or advancing society toward greater happiness, lengthy diatribes against long-dead nations and constant harping on a coming doom and gloom. I asked myself: would any wise, compassionate being even allow this book to be attributed to him, much less be its author? Certainly not. How could Lao Tzu, a mere mortal, who never claimed any superior powers or status, write better, more thoroughly, more concisely, about so much more, than the Inspired Prophets of God?

It was not only this that struck me. What was most pungent was the immorality of the Bible. Though called a wise father, there is not a single example in the Old Testament of God sitting down and kindly teaching anyone, and when asked by Job, the best of men, to explain why He went out of His way to hurt a good man by every possible means, including killing his loved ones, this "wise father" spews arrogant rhetorical questions, ultimately implying nothing more than "might makes right" as his only excuse. I revulsed in horror at this demonic monster portrayed here. He was worthy of universal condemnation, not worship. He who thinks he can do whatever he wants because he can is as loathesome and untrustworthy as any psychopath. It was bad enough that this God's idea of the "best" in man is a willingness to murder one's own child on demand. It is inconceivable that any kind being would ever test Abraham's loyalty that way. To the contrary, from any compassionate being's point of view, Abraham failed this test: he was willing to kill for faith, setting morality aside for a god. A decent being would reward instead the man who responded to such a request with "Go to hell! Only a demon would ask such a thing, and no compassionate man would do it!" But the Bible's message is exactly the opposite. How frightening. It was no surprise, then, to find that this same cruel God orders people to be stoned to death for picking up sticks on Saturday (Numbers 15:32-36), and commands that those who follow other religions be genocidally slaughtered (Deuteronomy 13:6-16).  Indeed, genocide (Deuteronomy 2:31-34, 7:1-2, 20:10-15, and Joshua, e.g. 10:33) and fascism (Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Leviticus 20:13, 24:13-16, Numbers 15:32-6) were the very law and standard practice of God, right next to the Ten Commandments. Instead of condemning slavery, God condones it (Leviticus 25:44, cf. Deuteronomy 5:13-14, 21:10-13).  And so on.  Nothing could be more repugnant.

I could go on at length about the many horrible passages that praise the immoral, the cruel, as the height of righteous goodness. It does no good to try in desperation to make excuses for it. A good and wise man's message would not need excuses. It follows that the Bible was written neither by the wise nor the good. And the New Testament was only marginally better, though it too had its inexcusable features, from commands to hate (Luke 14:26) to arrogantly sexist teachings about women (1 Timothy 2:12), from Jesus saying he "came not to bring peace, but the sword," setting even families against each other (Matthew 10:34-36), to making blasphemy the worst possible crime, even worse than murder or child molesting (Matthew 12:31-32). It, too, supported slavery rather than condemning it (Luke 12:47, 1 Timothy 6:1-2). Worse, its entire message is not "be good and go to heaven," itself a naive and childish concern (the good are good because they care, not because they want a reward), but "believe or be damned" (Mark 16:16, Matthew 10:33), a fundamentally wicked doctrine. The good judge others by their character, not their beliefs, and punish deeds, not thoughts, and punish only to teach, not to torture. But none of this moral truth is in the Bible, and the New Testament had none of the humanistic wisdom of the Tao Te Ching which spoke to all ages, but instead drones on about subjection to kings and acceptance of slavery, while having no knowledge of the needs of a democratic society, of the benefits of science, or the proper uses of technology. It even promotes superstition instead of science, with all its talk about demonic possession and faith healing and speaking in tongues, and assertions that believers will be immune to poison (Mark 16:17-18). It is plagued with a general obscurity and ambiguity, and illogicality, which I had already noted as a child, and though I did understand more and saw it as less confused than I once had, the improvement was minimal and not encouraging. It still taught a morality that is unlivable, and above all contained not a hint of humor or a mature acceptance of sexuality or anything distinctly and naturally human at all.

When I finished the last page, though alone in my room I declared aloud: "Yep, I'm an atheist." It was the question I had sought to answer by reading this book revered by 85% of the American public as the paragon of religious truth. I had never before been so acquainted with how hundreds of millions of people could be so embarrassingly wrong. This revelation led me on a quest to find out more about this matter. It seemed inconceivable that I was the only one who noticed what a total baloney cock-up the Bible was, the only one who could see that all the evidence, and the simple process of well-thought logic, led to the conclusion that there was no god, or certainly none around here. But my search in bookstores for anything about atheism came up with nothing. No one I knew had even given the matter any real thought. As far as I could tell, I was alone. That was annoying, but as the lone Taoist in a sea of nominal apathetic Christians it was nothing new. Eventually I stumbled across two old books in a used book store, Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Corliss Lamont's The Philosophy of Humanism, each of which gave me an excellent introduction to the thoughts of like-minded men. In time, a booth at a street-fair introduced me with much excitement to American Atheists, which later, through disappointment with their attitude, I traded for the more human and sensible Freedom From Religion Foundation. And though I had been "on the internet" since the mid-eighties, with the rise of national online communities through services like Prodigy and Compuserve I found several atheists to share notes with, and encountered for the first time ardent and avid Christian missionaries and arguers. This was largely new to me--apart, of course, for the perpetual seasonal barrage of Jehova's Witnesses and Mormons who had been knocking at our doors no doubt since my conception. But they were rarely willing to debate, excusing themselves faster than if I were a leper the moment I raised an intellectual question. They were especially confused when hearing I was a devout Taoist, and so already had a religion and didn't need another, thankyouverymuch.

In time two things happened. On the one hand, my studies led me to a more Western humanist philosophy. Though I never abandoned the best of my Eastern intellectual heritage, I fell in love with knowledge and science and logic and the quest and fight for truth. Yet, though I no longer call myself a Taoist, I have not lost any of the joy, wonder, and happiness of life. I retain the lessons that always brought peace and tranquility and simplicity, and my life remains just as spiritual as it had been. I live joyfully in a free society with a loving wife and good friends, with no real problems to speak of. And in this lucky position, having struggled my way from poverty to a doctoral fellowship at an Ivy League university, I took action. With compassion for the welfare and enlightenment of the human race, I devote much of my free time to defeating lies, correcting errors, and informing the unknowing. For which I am condemned regularly. Perhaps some day such behavior will instead be an object of emulation and praise, though I don't see Christianity doing anything to make that so.

On the other hand, I became ever more acquainted with the horrible history of Christianity and the sorts of things Christians have done and are still doing around even this country in less liberal places like my First Methodist neighborhood, from trying to pass blasphemy laws to murdering doctors, from throwing eggs at atheists to killing their cats, from trying to dumb-down science education to acting holier-than-thou in pushing their skewed moral agenda against government and private industry alike. For the first time, rather than being merely constantly pestered, I was being called names, and having hellfire wished upon me. It was a rude awakening. I knew of the eccentricities of Christian Fundamentalism from my high school days, but it was more humorous then than anything: from Jack Chick tracts informing the world, with melodramatically absurd story lines, that role playing games were a form of ritual Satanic worship, to my friend putting his I Love Jesus girlfriend in tears because she was certain he was going to hell for believing that there might be life on other planets. But I was generally spared the nasty effects of such nonsense, which was always a fringe minority in my town.

Not so elsewhere. When I heard the horror stories, saw the machinations on Capitol Hill, read the news, I found it was not so funny as I thought it was. So great is the threat of this superstition against individuals, against society, against knowledge, against general human happiness, that it would be immoral not to fight it. It did no good that most nominal Christians disavow all this behavior, for I discovered all too quickly that hardly any of them had the moral fiber to stand up to it, few make much effort to defend in public their apparently kinder, gentler message of tolerance and love against the Righteous Hoarde, and fewer still would call me ally. Why would they? Jesus himself tells everyone I am damned, and if the most informed, wise and compassionate being in the universe condemns me utterly, deeming me worthy of unquenchable fire and immortal worms, far be it for any mortal to have a kinder opinion of me. Worse, the liberal Christians have no text. In any Bible debate, the liberal interpreter always loses, for he must admit he is putting human interpretation, indeed bold-faced speculation, before the Divine Word of God. And without the Bible to stand on a Christian can be condemned as an unbeliever in disguise. Since being thought an atheist is worse than being thought a prostitute, not many believers are likely to raise their head against Fundamentalism. It was then that I realized, because of this threat and because of my own experience in not being able to find like-minded people to share thoughts with, I had to state my case and publish as much as I could to help others like me and to defeat the nonsense and lies that I saw being spread everywhere, and to answer the constant barrage of redundant questions I had faced ever since I allowed the Christian public to know I'm an atheist. And so began my online presence, eventually landing here as a member of the Internet Infidels.