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From the Outside

During the spring and summer of 2011, Christianity crumbled for me as a credible worldview, and I became an atheist. Looking back, this was brewing for a few years, though I didn’t know it. I had experienced some disillusionment at the poor showing of the institutional church in the world–co-opted as defender of the mainstream, protecting itself over the most vulnerable (pedophilia scandal), unrecognizable Christian views, sniping and arguing in my own Episcopal Church. I found myself losing faith in prayer and miracles. And most important, where before I saw science and Christianity as fully compatible, I started thinking maybe they aren’t.

I had always thought atheism silly or insubstantial, and my early questioning remained within the faith. But I did take the plunge in the spring of 2011 to read my first explicitly atheist book, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. This was an eye-opener, even if you think he can be arrogant or overreach. This is when I first saw atheism as well-thought-out and represented by strong thinkers over centuries. I guess my biggest initial shift was realizing that claiming God as the ultimate explanation for what exists raises at least as many questions as it answers. Lacking that keystone concept, other drawbacks started showing themselves. From within the faith we assume God made the world, and we try to explain why it’s this way. But if it’s possible he didn’t, then you have to ask, would the Christian God create this world, this way? Christian thinkers have had to backtrack quite a bit to keep up with scientific revelation. And here are some of the areas of tension as I see them.

If you don’t know about physics, you would tend to posit God as needing to work in the world at every place, every moment for everything to work. That’s harder once you see physics operating as the infrastructure for everything. If you don’t have modern neuroscience, it’s easy to postulate a disembodied and uncreated all-powerful intelligence, and disembodied souls that survive physical death. This is less plausible once you know that brains embody real intelligence and will, and decision-making, and we know of nothing else intelligent that’s not a brain or made by one.

While evolution is amazing, it is also full of waste. It is slow and circuitous. It makes and retains errors. It leaves vestigial structures in place. It uses the same structures repeatedly for different functions in impressive ways, but not the solutions of a Great Designer working on each challenge from scratch. And then there’s billions of years of innocent animal suffering on the way to making humans, the purported goal of creation. And along with that, calamitous, unpredictable natural evil. Neither the method nor the misery add up to a divine origin, in my view.

And an evolutionary way of creating undermines or maybe even negates the Christian concept of sin springing simply from willfulness, and with that go concepts like the fall and original sin. I think it also drastically alters how one would view whether, and if so how, we need salvation. Our evolution honed awareness and expectations, intentionality and skill, on the stone of survival needs in such a way that sin is part and parcel of who we are. We are struggling animals, not fallen perfection, and this makes better sense of human failing than Christianity. Just as important, if God created us that way he is at least a partner, if not a perpetrator, of the evil we bring on each other.

These together change everything about how such a being would choose to fix that. I don’t see how it would be the incarnation and atonement Christianity asserts. Considering the God we’re taught to believe in, I have a hard time with the various theories of the atonement even without evolution. Does the devil have a valid claim on us that has to be paid off or evaded? Is God insulted by human sin and has to have proper recompense? Does God require adequate punishment for sin in the aggregate and accept that price from his innocent Son’s death? How do we reconcile that requirement with the God who teaches ultimate forgiveness? And don’t we recoil from this concept of substitutionary justice in any other setting? Because how does an innocent’s death pay for our sins or address the problem of evil? And how would it defeat death for the rest of us? I don’t see how these or the other theories give a plausible or admirable account of this problem. And they make even less sense if we came to be how we are through an evolution that God shepherded and therefore bears direct responsibility for.

Another key area for me is the state of religion. So many, so different (yet not), each with its own fervency, internal experiences that seem to validate authenticity, miracles. Adherents of each are sure theirs is the real one, and meanwhile nearly all of us simply stick to the religion we were taught as children. Even (or especially?) within Christianity, there has been schism with bloody warfare and brutal persecution of those we deem wrong or heretic. All of this makes the idea of one true religion seem remote. And then there are various kinds of religious harm, such as misinformation to prevent condom use in HIV prevention, protecting the church over pedophilia victims, supporting slavery and apartheid, fomenting anti-Semitism, torture, witch hunts, terrorizing children.

The anchoring function of scripture has taken a major hit for me. I learned the deep and unsolvable problems with even knowing what scripture says. We don’t know authors, dates, or sources, in most cases. We don’t have originals or even copies close to the originals. For the gospels, virtually no two copies are alike, with many of the differences substantive, often betraying tampering to promote theological agendas. The Old Testament, of course, is filled with atrocities, arbitrariness, harsh punishment, God-endorsed slavery and child sacrifice and victimization of women, contradictions, unfulfilled prophecies, and inaccuracies. But Christians allowed for this because of what’s in the New Testament. But the New Testament narrative contains important historical errors in placing Jesus’ birth. There is no good historical support for Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection. And the New Testament has its own contradictions and implausibilities. The Gospels were written after the fall of Jerusalem that devastated the church, yet the later the Gospel, the more detailed and embellished the stories. And the early epistles, especially Paul’s–written much earlier than the gospels, by a known author and contemporary of the founding of the church–don’t support, or even mention, events of Jesus’ life or teaching, and they do not claim an empty tomb or physical resurrection on earth.

I have also come to see Jesus’ teachings as wrongly harsh, at times extreme, at times disjointed or indecipherable, sometimes self-contradictory, sometimes plain wrong: he preached that the final victory of the Kingdom was just around the corner, and that did not happen. Surprisingly often he was impatient, even demeaning, as a teacher. Weirdly, he intentionally obscures lessons for some, and he thanks God the Father for doing the same–but the explanation for why is itself obscure. And as much as we revere the ethical core, the teachings have left believers in confusion, and sometimes at each others’ throats, in many important areas. Developing a systematic ethic from Jesus’ teaching that is at once workable and also distinct from other ethical teachers has proven difficult.

But there is a bigger problem for me. We are taught how merciful Jesus is, but when you read the Gospels straight through without the conditioning of a lifetime in the faith, a different picture predominates. My dog, Lillianne, is difficult, annoying, and sometimes downright weird, but she is never not a dog. Us, too. We never do anything that doesn’t spring from the wide range of human potential developed through a complex interplay of nature and nurture. We have built-in limits which can be worsened (and improved) depending on what we’re taught and given to work with, and can even turn horrifying through damaging experiences. True, sometimes damage and misdirection come from our own choices, but these take root in that same human fashion: no matter what, still all human, all understandable, all the time, no exceptions–at least so it should be to a loving creator who set us on this path. But Jesus’ pronouncements don’t reflect this. They read black and white only, coercive, and condemning at least as often as forgiving. They betray an understanding of human nature in which evil is an occupying force–and an invited one, at that–more than something built in that we struggle with. And his solution for evil is more like ridding the world of sinful trash than healing brokenness that is part of God’s handiwork. I do not in any way think that a real God Incarnate would speak to us or about us this way, or threaten and condemn us to eternal punishment this way.

So then we try to fix this with theology (and schism), to attenuate and harmonize the unfathomable, and jettison the intolerable. We have filled libraries re-explaining, and in the end remaking God’s teaching according to our own way of thinking instead of the other way around. But what evidence supports the divine reality of these views any more than the original?

I look for God’s divine stamp in all the places it should be, but don’t find it. I don’t think a True God, creating Truly, sending True Divine Help, would have done all this–created this way, caused such suffering, come to help in this way, taught us this way, permitted this much confusion and conflict and bloodshed, or such doubt and perplexity, affecting even the most committed. I can no longer believe that the universe is created or run by the loving God I was raised to worship.