My journey through religion began with the brutal murder of my son and ended with a deeper understanding of who I am and why religion could never answer any of my questions.
As a child, I attended church because my father drove me there every Sunday in his rusty old Pontiac. But religion didn’t stick, so I moved into adult life without gods or theology. Years later, the death of my only son drove me back to religion looking for answers to questions that changed as I moved deeper into myself:
- Where is Andy? Bliss of Heaven? Fires of Hell? Or the dirt of Earth?
- If God exists, why did he allow Andy to be murdered?
- What kind of a world did I think I was living in?
- Why did it require tragedy to wake me up?
- Who was Andy?
- Who am I?
Religion had answers, of course, but the answers were difficult to believe on faith alone. One morning, sitting in a church with my wife, the mother of our son, the preacher told us to stand and sing “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”
I had sung those words as a boy. But now, in the context of our son’s death, the words rang cold and hollow. The Bible is the evidence that Jesus loves me? Words in a book? Why didn’t Jesus step out of the Bible and into the world before that man killed our son?
My religious friends reminded me that God’s love works in mysterious ways. They were quick to add that I was suffering from sour grapes because God’s will for me and my son had made me angry and bitter. Visiting my son’s body in the morgue was monstrous, not mysterious. The memory of his lifeless body laying on a cold, stainless-steel table is still terrifying. Some things cannot be forgotten.
But I was suffering, and the root of my pain and confusion was the belief that a grand scheme or higher power of some kind should keep bad things from happening to good people. That was, I thought, a foolishly unrealistic belief in how the world really works. I was becoming disenchanted with religion and reality.
What could I do to reconcile religion with reality, to accept my son’s death with something besides anger and hopelessness? Ironically, my first step was to turn to words in books, secular and religious. My second step was to set aside belief and disbelief so I could focus on philosophies and practices grounded in cause-and-effect evidence. Gradually, I moved away from being a cynic who had gone through a fire and been burned, and towards becoming a realist who had gone through a fire and been purged. I was learning to distinguish between knowing and believing while keeping my expectations under close scrutiny.
When I slog through the snow to my truck in the morning and turn the key in the ignition, I know that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the science behind the internal combustion engine is a fact, not a belief. And I know these things in the best way: I can verify them myself, anytime, anywhere and can do so without words, belief or faith.
Gravity keeps me on the ground, water flows downhill, and light travels at a constant velocity so everyone, regardless of where they are standing, sees the same thing. In that sense, it would be fair to conclude that I worship the Cosmos because I can depend on it to behave the same way, time after time.
Repeatability is a cornerstone of knowing.
My religious friends cautioned me to believe by faith, not by reason or sensory knowing. “Faith,” they admonished, “is divine and therefore flawless, whereas reasoning and scientific facts are human and therefore flawed.”
Ironically, their arguments made it more difficult to believe that God exists and easier to believe that God does not exist. Watching them pray made me think they were also victims of sour grapes because they too seemed naive about how the world really works. Sunday after Sunday, they would ask God to heal their hernia, banish their boils, and cancel their cancer. Sunday after Sunday, they would blame themselves for not getting what they had asked God to do the previous Sunday.
“We have all sinned,” they explained, “and come short of the glory of God. We are to blame for the sin and suffering in this world, not God.”
Sunday after Sunday I told myself they should blame themselves—not for sinning, but for kneeling in prayer, begging God for favor and forgiveness, rather than standing up to life’s ups and downs with their own courage and determination.
“Doesn’t the Bible say that God helps those who help themselves?” I asked.
“That’s not in the Scriptures.” argued my religious friends. “The Bible teaches the opposite, that God helps those who cannot help themselves.”
“So God says sit down and wait for his help to arrive? Goethe said be brave and mighty forces will come to your aid. If God exists, he might be one of those mighty forces, but your prayers don’t seem to be getting him fired up on your behalf. Your prayers look more like a kind of insanity in which you keep doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results: something instead of nothing. I see a complete disconnect between religion and reality, between what you ask for and what you get.”
My religious friends told me that God’s Word would heal my disbelief. So I read the Bible, cover to cover, by myself and in study groups, with concordances and different translations.
Despite the history and drama that unfolds on its pages, the Bible pushed me away from belief with one story after another about God against Man and Man against God, Man against Nature and Nature against Man, Nature against God and God against Nature. The Bible, as I saw it, was about God’s wrath and vengeance, not love. Both testaments appeared to be fundamentally, “For God so hated the world he killed it.”
“No,” said my religious friends, “God loves you so much he killed his only son.”
“Somebody killed my only son,” I argued, “and he didn’t do it because he loved me. God loves his son, not you and me. It’s in the Bible: If you’re not clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, Jehovah will toss you into the lake of fire. And that sounds like a disguise to me. Why put on right behavior like a suit of clothes, vicariously and surreptitiously, when we can take possession of our own morality, one responsible decision at a time? Why be born again when there is compelling evidence that the world would be a better, happier place if each of us simply grew up?”
My religious friends stood and walked away, shaking their heads. I never saw or heard from them again. I stopped attending church, and started attending humanist meetings. I stopped confessing the bad things I had done, and started complimenting myself for the good things I had done. I stopped begging God to forgive me, and started living up to my own expectations of what is right and wrong. I stopped asking God for help, and started working to make my dreams come true.
So the Sunday-School lesson that “Jesus loves me this I know…” became religion in a nutshell: belief transformed into knowing with words in a book. Actions make something so, not words. My wife tells me she loves me every day and makes it so by loving me. She’s divine, or at least one of the higher angels. But I don’t have to believe she loves me, because I know it experientially, with my senses, not with my imagination, my wishful thinking or my self-indulgent hopes and dreams.
It’s her smile I see, her touch I feel, her encouragement I hear when I’m struggling with a problem. She washes my clothes, prepares our meals and laughs at my stupid jokes. She crawls under my Chevy to hand me wrenches while I struggle with a bolt on the bell housing. She stands in the freezing rain with an umbrella while I am down in a ditch fixing a broken pipe.
I had walked in the front door of religion to find answers to the tragic death of my son, then walked out the back door because I couldn’t make religion fit reality nor make reality fit religion. So I chose to not derail my nontheistic life trying to follow the theistic “good news” that Jesus loves me. For me, the good news is that God and his vengeance are just words in a book written by people just as angry as the God they created. People who included an apocalyptic punishment for unbelievers in their writings because they were angry with everyone who didn’t embrace the beliefs of the early church. “We played the flute for you but you did not dance. We sang a dirge but you did not mourn.”
Is God fact or fiction? I don’t know, but when somebody claims to have evidence that God does or does not exist, the evidence is only words, not the thing itself, not something I can see and hear and touch. Perhaps God created me to be a vessel of wrath, unable to believe by faith alone. If so, then the game is rigged and I have no other choice but to play the cards I was dealt.
So my search for answers about Andy became a flight into the theistic clouds of heaven, then a descent back to the secular clarity of earth as the sun of reality melted the religious wax on my wings. And how sweet it is to be down here where the rubber meets the road, dealing with the world as it really is, nurturing attitudes and actions that my head can accept with rational certainty and my heart can embrace with emotional enthusiasm.
The Bible is a book about sin and salvation, death and damnation. The god of that book cannot let go of his hatred of people who offend his righteousness and refuse his forgiveness. In his book, death and damnation are eternal.
My book is about life, love and letting go. Life is sacred without god. Love is not easily angered nor mindful of wrongs done. Letting go is leaving Eden. And who wouldn’t want out of Eden? Waking up from the sleep of religion to become a fully conscious human being. Free to become who you want to be, not who some god demands that you be. Like Camelot, Eden ’tis a silly place. So I banished myself. But not before I ate from the Tree.