Why I Am No Longer a Christian (2003)
Ruminations on a spiritual journey out of and into the material world
I have found it a rare occurrence to come across a Christian evangelist (living in the United States, evangelists are almost always Christian) who does not have serious misunderstandings of my beliefs and the reasons for them. Typically, they approach me thinking that if only I would read the Bible with an open mind, or be open to God, or experience God the way they have, I would certainly understand. Or, when they hear that I’m a former Christian, they typically conclude that I must not have been a real Christian, that I was not taught the true understanding of God, or that there must have been some sort of tragedy to make me angry at God. Or perhaps I am just an evil person and I have chosen to serve evil. Or they believe that no one can really be an atheist, that deep down I must know God exists, and rather than actually not believing that God exists I must be actively rejecting God and all He stands for. But in doing so, they fail to address me. They are not talking to me, but to their misunderstanding of me. So my hope is that this essay will give Christians, and theists in general, a better understanding of how at least one former theist came to be a former theist.
This is also for anyone who has had, or especially for anyone who is currently going through, a deconversion process, to have a story of someone else who has gone through it. Having gone through it myself, I know it can be an emotionally and psychologically painful process, but I can say that, for me at least, the rewards of my journey have been more than worth it.
My Life as a Christian
I suppose you can call this my “extimony,” a term which I should explain for those who may be unfamiliar with the brand of evangelical Christianity in which I was involved. Among the evangelical crowd, having a “born-again” experience of admitting to God that you are a sinner, asking for his forgiveness which he offers through the sacrificial death of Jesus, and inviting God into your life to “create you anew” is crucial: if you have not had such an experience, if you have not so invited Jesus into your heart, you have not truly been “saved,” i.e., you are not a real Christian. As the label “evangelical” implies, evangelical Christians also take evangelism very seriously (as in the “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew instructing Jesus’s followers to go to all the world and preach the gospel). To evangelize involves “witnessing” to others, i.e., telling them the gospel message, the story (as they understand and interpret it, anyway) of God, Jesus, Heaven and Hell, salvation, etc. One’s “testimony,” i.e., one’s own personal story of one’s born-again experience and subsequent relationship with Jesus and of what God has done in one’s life, features prominently in witnessing. Thus, as one who used to give my testimony when witnessing to others about how I became a Christian, I call the story of how I became an ex-Christian “my extimony.”
So, by “no longer a Christian,” I mean specifically no longer a born-again, Bible-believing, evangelical, Protestant Christian. But if you are a Catholic, Anglican, Mormon, or some other form of Christian–or even a Muslim, Hindu, or whatever else–before you conclude too quickly that I was just involved in the wrong religion and that your own “One True Religion” ™ is safe from my critique, think carefully about how some of my general critiques of evangelical Christianity may likely apply to your religion, e.g., the question of the existence of a theistic god in the first place. Also think about how some of my specific critiques of evangelical Christianity can be easily modified to apply to your religious views, e.g., problems with interpreting and defending your “Holy Book(s)” and your interpretations of them.
And before I relate how I became an ex-Christian, I should say how I became a Christian in the first place. In brief, I grew up with it. My parents took me to church, and I believed and accepted what I was taught. But, really, it wasn’t so simple as that. My born-again experience occurred when I was eight years old. I can still recall the conversation I had with my mother when she laid out the Gospel for me. The story made sense to me, I accepted it, and, as the next step was explained to me, I invited Jesus into my heart and pledged to serve him with my life, to follow his lead. Even now I recall the special feeling I had then, a feeling of everything falling into place and making sense, a feeling of inner strength and happiness and enthusiasm, a feeling of belonging, of having a place, of knowing who and why I was. It was a feeling, as was explained to me, of the presence of God. I felt God in me.
Sure, I was just eight years old, and I was accepting what my mother was telling me. But I really did accept it for myself. Just accepting whatever my parents (or anyone) said just on their say-so was not the way I typically operated. For as long as I remember, I’ve always wanted, and looked for, reasons for a claim, an expectation, a command. I’ve always been one to think about the whys behind the way things are. It should have been expected that I would eventually study philosophy in college and graduate school.
Also, though I was just eight and the emotions I felt at the time were quite immature relative to what adolescents and adults experience, what I felt was a big deal for me at that age. After all, when you feel the presence of God, that’s a pretty big feeling at any age. I experienced it to the depth and extent my limited emotional capabilities allowed. In fact, the experience itself significantly enhanced and shaped my emotional capabilities. Before my born-again experience, I was without an overarching theme for my life, a general understanding that could encompass my life and experiences and make sense of it as a whole. I was just living. But Christianity gave me a reason for it all, a way to understand it all, not just something specific in life but the whole thing.
To some extent, I later sort of regretted having become a Christian so young, at least in one respect. As a teenager, I was very impressed by the powerful testimonies of adults who found God at a later age, after having experienced the misery and depths of a sinful, selfish life of rebellion against God and then having been redeemed from those depths by a loving God who recreated them into his joyful children to lead powerful, meaningful, fulfilled lives in service to him. I guess I had a touch of “testimony envy,” finding myself wishing a bit that I had that sort of deeply-moving testimony that so obviously demonstrated God’s love and power to those who did not yet know him. But I was even more grateful that God had spared me from having to experience those sorts of depths before he redeemed me.
And I did have what I believed to be powerful evidence of God’s working in my life. Not having to have gone through such negative experiences was one. As I was taught, we as Christians should live our lives such that others could see the power of Christ in us. Having, as a Christian, been able to avoid those miserable depths should be evidence to others that there was another way available to them, that life can be better, it can have meaning and purpose and fulfillment.
Another among many convincers for me was what happened as a result of my father getting transferred when I was thirteen. Junior high school is not a good age to be uprooted from one location and planted somewhere else where the friendships and cliques had already been established, especially for an introverted person who already felt out of step with his peers in the first place. Added to that, I was a Southern boy from Georgia moving to a rather preppy and exclusive part of Connecticut. Further, I had been all set to transfer to a private Christian school the next year. I could not understand what God was doing.
But when we got where we were going, I began to understand. It took a while to realize it, but things were working out for me much better than I was fearing they might. The church we left, the one I had known my whole life, was decent enough for me, but there were not a lot of kids my age and I did not really fit in with them, and they were not all that serious about their faith. Our new church, however, had a lot of kids my age, and in fact many more around my age than any other age. Those of us around my age were sort of a “pig in a python” growing up in that church. Also, I fit in well with the group, at least by my standards of “fitting in.” And, plenty of them were serious about their faith. It was definitely a time of spiritual growth for me. Along with them, I went through the ups and downs of adolescence as well as of Christian faith, continuing to learn more about my faith and growing as a Christian, seeking what God wanted for my life. At times I felt distant from God, but he always brought me back to himself. Looking back on it, going to a public school that had high academic standards, and going there with a good group of Christian friends who were serious about their faith and who could help me as I also helped them navigate the dangers and temptations of “the world” helped me grow in ways that I didn’t think would have been possible in a more sheltered environment. It seemed obvious to me that God was working in my life, and that he knew what he was doing with me, that he could be trusted to lead me.
Then came the time to pick a college. Here was another opportunity to have to rely on God to lead me in the way he wanted me to go. I prayed long and hard, on my own as well as with friends and mentors, for God to help me make the right decisions. Ultimately, I decided that God was leading me to go to a secular university at which there was at least one group of serious Christian students strong in their faith. I also decided to study engineering. I had done well in all my high school subjects, and had at least to some extent enjoyed most of them, but there was no single subject or area that strongly interested me. Thus, a couple of engineer uncles said “you’re good in math and science, so study engineering: that’s where the jobs and money are.” Also, I reasoned, an engineering degree would enable me to be a “tentmaker missionary” (a reference to the apostle Paul who is supposed to have been able to pay his way, at least in part, by being a tentmaker [Acts 18:3]), using my easily employable skills as a way to go to other countries where people needed to hear the gospel (there is a Tentmakers organization, but I was not involved with that particular group; “tentmaker” is also used as a general metaphor for this kind of missionary effort). My father had an uncle who had recently retired from his job as a professor at Vanderbilt University, and he recommended the school. It had a good engineering program, along with a variety of other strong fields in case either I had misread God’s leading or he had other study plans in addition, and it had a number of organizations for Christian students, such as the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) group of which I became an integral part.
So in college, I continued to get even more serious about my religion. I read the typical Josh McDowell and C.S. Lewis type books so common in evangelical circles, and took what they said to heart and head. I also read Bible commentaries and serious books about spiritual matters by a variety of evangelical Christian authors. In the IVCF group, I led Bible studies, helped organize and run community service projects, and in general revolved my social life primarily around the group. I was also involved in other nonreligious activities such as the campus radio station, both out of interest in the groups’ focus and also for the purpose of evangelizing, by deeds as well as by words (just living a meaningful, fulfilled Christian life was supposed to reveal to others the Truth that was within me). Back at home during breaks from school, my growing “spiritual wisdom” was noted by, among others, the assistant pastor of our church, who taught the adult Sunday-school Bible study for those who were serious about their faith. He asked me to fill in for him while he was away on vacation. So here I was, a college student, teaching the Word of God to adults who were serious about their faith, my own parents and the parents of many of my friends among them.
The summer after my sophomore year, I took a Christian Counselor Training seminar at a place called His Mansion in New Hampshire, where some friends of my parents had moved to become involved in the program offered there. And quite a program it was. Talk about evidence of God working in people’s lives! His Mansion was (and as far as I know still is) a self-sustaining Christian farm/commune with two missions. One was to minister to troubled teenagers and young adults, people whose lives had been shattered by drugs or alcohol, or by physical or sexual or emotional abuse. The other was to train Christian counselors who could help such people, or help troubled people in general, either as counselors at His Mansion or in professional or lay ministry in other contexts. I saw people whose lives had been totally messed up, who had been suicidal, criminal, mean and hateful, but who had been redeemed, renewed, and turned around by the power of God. These people were brought into the community at His Mansion and cared for and ministered to. They were also given responsibilities in helping to run the commune, and expected to contribute in order to benefit: if you don’t work, you don’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But they were also taught how to contribute, and they were assisted if they had problems, either physical or technical problems with being able or knowing how to do the work, or emotional or psychological problems with accepting and acting on their responsibilities. By their actions, the counselors modeled God’s love for these previously unloved people. And, with few exceptions, they flourished in that environment. Most became Christians or returned to Christianity; and even for those who did not commit their lives to Jesus, few if any left with bad feelings toward Christians or Christianity (at least, not toward these Christians and this type of Christianity, though some still had issues with previous religious abuse in other contexts). With few exceptions, their lives improved, often remarkably. With few exceptions, they still had issues to deal with and much further to go when they left that environment, and not everyone kept their lives together after leaving, but the results were still remarkable. I was in awe of the power of God clearly and undeniably on display there.
In addition, I was fascinated by the psychology and philosophy I learned at His Mansion. When I returned to college, I found I had lost interest in engineering. Actually, my interest had really been in general science, and as I started taking some of the “applied” engineering courses as a sophomore, what I was studying couldn’t compete with my other interests. Now I was facing a junior year of primarily engineering courses, when my interests were clearly elsewhere. So I took a semester off to pray and figure out what God wanted me to do, but the answer seemed pretty clearly to study philosophy when I went back. That was confirmed for me when I attended an IVCF conference during Christmas break, shortly before I was to return to school, at which I focused on the more philosophically-oriented seminars available. I made sure I got as many InterVarsity Press books on philosophical subjects as I could, so that I would be spiritually and intellectually prepared to deal with whatever secular philosophy professors tried to throw at me. I especially loved the works of Francis Shaeffer, which took me to intellectual heights and depths and breadths I didn’t know existed. I felt sure that this is what God was leading me to do. I realized the dangers of being taken “captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” as Paul warns in Colossians. Yet I also believed with all my heart that all truth is God’s truth, and that if I studied carefully and prayerfully, if I was as honest as possible with any questions I found and with where the evidence for answers took me, that I would find God at the end and be drawn closer to Him. I was excited by what I was beginning to seriously study, and I was excited to learn more.
And learn more I did. The first book I read in my first philosophy class (Introduction to Ethics) was John Stuart Mill’s Utillitarianism. As we began the book, the professor gave an introductory lecture to familiarize us with the themes. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which says that good and right acts are those which lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. I left that lecture thinking that Mill seemed to be saying something along the lines of “if it feels good, do it.” If that’s the sort of thing these vain philosophies of Godless thinkers said, then I would have no problem navigating these waters. The next couple of lectures and discussions and the time I spent reading the book, however, filled out many more details and nuances, and with a better understanding of Mill I had to admit that I had initially misjudged him. I had a lot more respect for his views. I still did not agree that his Utilitarianism was correct, at least not completely, but it at least made sense. It struck me as a very admirable approximation of “The Truth” for someone who did not know Jesus who was that “Truth.” We went on to read the likes of Kant and Plato. For Plato, we read his dialog Euthyphro, in which he examines the question of whether goodness is good because God says it is good, or whether God says it is good because it is good. The dialog points to the latter as the conclusion: God says goodness is good because it is good. In my Christian mind, I took this to be an affirmation of the reality of goodness, which, I believed, was essentially related to God, and thus was just more proof of the reality and the goodness of God. I read more of Plato in other classes, and he in particular struck me as a very profound thinker, one who seemed to have gotten as close to “The Truth” as one could on one’s own, i.e., without actually having The Truth living inside you and guiding you, as I believed I and all truly born-again Christians had. I also had to admit that what I was reading in these classes was, on an intellectual level, deeper and more profound as well as more rigorous and thorough in their arguing than C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. But I still believed that Lewis’s and Schaeffer’s writings were more true, because more biblical and Christian. I was learning so many fascinating ideas. But I was still able to accommodate them all within my evangelical outlook and framework.
The Next Chapter
I say all this to emphasize that I was serious about, and satisfied with, my Christianity. Often when Christians hear that I am an ex-Christian, they assume that I must not have been a real Christian, or at least not a serious one. I understand what they mean. When I was a Christian, I thought that anyone who was a real Christian and who had experienced the life-changing power of God and His Holy Word as I had could not possibly reject it so much as to become an atheist; “backslidden” Christians, perhaps, who had been tempted by the sinful things of the world, but how could one who has experienced God as I had come to deny that He even exists? I also fully believed with absolute certainty that my belief in God would continue throughout my life. Based on what I thought I had gone through together with God, I did not see how it would be possible to forget or deny him.
I recall a Bible study I was in during high school in which the youth pastor who led the group said, as a warning to us to remain steadfast in the faith, that on average about ten percent of Christians end up leaving the faith. If this held for our group of a couple dozen or so there that night, he warned, odds were that two or three of us would reject Christianity later in life. I can still clearly remember my reaction of looking around the room wondering who might be candidates for falling away, absolutely certain that I was definitely not one. In fact, I thought to myself, it just did not seem possible that anyone who was really a Christian could give it up. So, I concluded, those who leave the faith must never have been real Christians to begin with.
If I really wasn’t a real Christian (whatever your definition of a “real” Christian may happen to be), I was certainly completely convinced that I was. I genuinely believed that I was born again and that God’s Holy Spirit lived in me, that I had a personal relationship with Jesus my Creator. I also say all this to emphasize that I was not unhappy or disappointed with my Christian experience. Many Christians also tend to assume that I must have been in “spiritually-dead” and unfulfilling churches, or that I must have been harmed by false Christians, thus I’m mad at God, or at least at my inaccurate notion of God, because of my experiences with false Christians who harmed me by not showing me the real God. But that was not the case. As I write this and think about my experiences as a Christian, it brings back a lot of fond memories. Nor were there any tragedies that made me mad at God. Nor was it moral rebellion. Rather, it was all in my head. By that I mean that it was intellectual problems I found, and to which I could not find answers, at least not within Christianity or even theism.
I was not seeking anything beyond what I already had, other than seeking more of what I had. But in the course of that seeking, I found things I did not expect to find. Ironically, this all ensued from my desire to know and understand God as much and as well as I possibly could. I intently followed the commandment to love God with all my mind as well as with all my heart, strength, and soul (from Mark 12:30). And, being as interested in intellectual endeavors such as philosophy, logic, scientific thought, and such–as I was in college–I thought that my gift was in that area, and thus my Christian duty was to serve God with that gift and love him with all my mind. As I have already noted, I fully believed that all truth is God’s truth, and that I could be unafraid to ask any question and investigate wherever the answers led. As long as I went about it carefully and prayerfully, I thought, God would guide me, and as I knew truth better, I would know God better. But I was completely surprised by the results of my journey.
Before I relate how my Christian worldview started to unravel, I should say something about how the incident which started my questioning could have been so significant. The incident, as you will soon read, was really a rather minor one. It was the sort of thing I had experienced many times before, without seeing any problem in it, and in fact had taken to be affirmations of my faith. And previously, if the following questions had occurred to me as a result of such an experience, the standard answers would have easily cleared it up for me. But I think that my training in philosophy and logic had something to do with being able to see and evaluate things from different angles. I had been concerned about the Bible’s warning not to be taken in by the vain philosophies of the world, and I had been on a careful and prayerful lookout for ideas that might seem right to men but that would lead astray from the Truth. I did not realize until much later that in addition to learning about new ideas, I was learning new ways to evaluate ideas, and that it was this latter point that would prove to be subversive to my religious beliefs, or, as I view it now, would allow me to progress beyond those beliefs. So it was not the incident itself that started the unraveling, or even any ideas that I had learned. It was the way I was able to view and understand the incident.
My Christian worldview started to unravel at the end of my junior year (my “second” junior year; I had taken a semester off and switched programs, so I was a year behind schedule), when I went (for my third trip) to a weeklong retreat at an InterVarsity camp with the other leaders of our group to plan for the next year’s activities. I prayed long and hard for God to guide me, and the whole group, in our planning. I was convinced that God was telling me that he wanted us to do X next year. I don’t remember now just what “X” was, but I had something in mind. When we got together, and prayed for God’s guidance for the group, we were all excited about the planning, and certain that God was with us and would direct us in his path. After all, serving God and following his path was, we believed, the most important thing in our lives. And we had seen God do some pretty amazing things in unifying us in one direction to serve him before. We had experienced him working in our group before, and we had faith, we had an expectation, that he would do so again.
I told the group what I believed God wanted us to do. But another member of our group said that she was convinced that God wanted us to do Y. Again, I don’t remember exactly what “Y” was, other than that it also sounded like a reasonable Christian thing to do. But I do remember that we couldn’t do both X and Y at the same time: they were both laudable goals, but they were going in different directions. There was, thus, some tension in the group. By “tension” I don’t mean that there was animosity toward each other or stirrings of a fight over what we should do. Rather, there was a combination of high hopes and uncertainty of how those high hopes would be met. So we all talked and deliberated and discussed and prayed, and eventually we decided to do Z, and we all believed that God wanted us to do Z and that he had led us as a group to that decision. The tension and uncertainty vanished, and we were all relieved and excited about doing Z next year. So we all prayed and thanked and praised God, and we were all completely and unquestioningly convinced that we had just experienced God working in our group. We left the meeting on quite a spiritual high.
Now, I was already quite aware that many people think God says many conflicting things, but I had always still assumed that God was saying something to someone, and that there was a way to find out what “God’s will” is. God’s will may be difficult to determine, but I was certain both that he had a plan and that there was a way for us to figure it out. But for some reason it hit me later that day that this same situation, minus the praying and God talk, occurred at the campus radio station, with which, as I mentioned earlier, I was also involved. At the radio station, we had a parallel experience of having one person say we should do A the next year, another said we should do B, and there was tension, we discussed and deliberated, and did not pray, and came up with the same type of result: we all agreed that it would be wonderful to do C, and, the tension resolved, we all happily went our merry ways, excited about our plans for the future.
It hit me that, minus the prayer and god-talk, the experiences were really the same. I had truly and (until later that day, anyway) unquestioningly believed that I had experienced God at that IVCF meeting. But perhaps I had just experienced the same excitement that I had experienced with the radio station. No, the IVCF experience was much deeper, much more profound. But perhaps I had made it seem to myself to be much more exciting and more significant by thinking that God was there working in the group. Was that extra excitement and significance was due to my belief that God was working in that situation? If so, I could not use that extra depth and profundity I felt in the IVCF case to prove that God was at work there, since that depth might have its source in that very belief I was using it to prove. Or, perhaps the resolution of the tension was much more exciting and meaningful to me because IVCF and its mission were much more important to me than the radio station. Perhaps those for whom the radio station was the focus of their extracurricular activities and social lives had experienced at that meeting the depth of meaning for them that I had experienced at the IVCF meeting.
Previously, I could think of no way other than appealing to God to explain something like what happened in our IVCF meeting. But now I could think of another possible explanation, and it was plausible enough that I could not dismiss it without further examination. That other explanation forced me to begin to wonder not only how to determine what God was saying, but even whether God was necessarily saying anything, and how we could know if he was. I had to be able to answer those questions in order to settle the question of which interpretation of my experiences was more accurate.
It was very obvious that many, in fact most, people had to be mistaken about what “God’s will” is since there were so many incompatible views. I realized that as sure as I had been in the past of God working in my life, other people were just as sure that God, or other gods, was/were working in their lives, but in ways that contradicted what I thought God was telling me. It was very obvious that many people had conflicting and contradictory views about God’s will about what God wanted and about how God was working in their lives, or even about who God was (or who the gods were). And I realized that their conflicting certainties were just as certain to them as my certainties were to me; further, there was no objective, reliable way to determine who was right. If mine were the only form of the only religion that really changed lives, my own testimony would give me something to go on, it would add weight to my understanding of my experiences. But that clearly was not the case: I could not deny that others had been changed, and often changed radically, by their beliefs in their different versions of the Christian God or even other religions and gods. I had met such people, I lived in dorms with them, I had gotten to know them, and I could not deny what their religions had done in their lives. I could, as I had before, appeal to the Bible, but since so many different Christians have such different interpretations and understandings of the Bible, that just extended the problem. The Bible is supposed to be the guidebook and touchstone of the faith, the objective standard of God’s Truth, the standard by which understandings and interpretations of God’s will are to be measured. Yet it suffered from the same problems of having to understand and interpret it as does God’s alleged will. Christians of different types interpreted the Bible in conflicting ways, each group just as sure that their interpretation is the right one. Besides, other people viewed, and were inspired and changed by other sets of scriptures that did nothing for me, while my set of scriptures did nothing for them. My certainties, I reluctantly had to admit, were not necessarily all that certain.
Obviously, at least most people have to be mistaken about what God says or wants, regardless of how sincere or certain they are. I was now able to allow myself to admit that it was possible for everyone to be mistaken about what God says or wants. Further, I realized that not only did I not know of any way to be sure of what God wanted. I could not even be sure whether God wanted anything at all. I still believed God existed, and I suspected that he probably did want something, but I suddenly lost confidence that we could reliably figure out what it was, and even had to admit the possibility that perhaps he did not want anything at all. I had to begin to be a bit suspicious of claims that there is a separate spirit of God in God’s believers. I had believed, without any doubt, that I felt God in me, and that I was in communion with him and he was communicating with me. But, I had to admit, it seems that in matters of theology, morality, politics, whatever, God always invariably agrees with his followers–even when his followers disagree with each other on so many things and with such vehemence. It makes a lot of sense to conclude that religious believers must take their own notions of what an ideal human should be and call it “God.” Since they cannot possibly all be right, I think that even theists would have to agree that most believers in various gods and various versions thereof are “worshipping” their own subjective ideals rather than a real external god. It’s not far from there to the conclusion that they all do. But it still took me a long time, nearly two years, to get all the way to that conclusion.
When I asked others how to tell what God was trying to say in answer to a prayer, or even whether he was saying anything at all, all they could say was “pray about it and God will answer you.” In other words, rely on subjective feelings that I had, which, I realized, I had no real way of distinguishing between my own subjectivity and the “spirit of God” which I had been certain was in me. To say that this spirit was not there before and is now, therefore it must be something from outside me, is no more valid than to say that because the set of teeth now in my mouth are not the set of teeth I had as a toddler, therefore the teeth are from some outside source. Perhaps one’s own “spirit” is capable of growth and change, of newness, of increasing depth and complexity and “abundance” to degrees one would never have thought possible before. I had, I realized, seen people’s lives changed by a variety of religious beliefs and by no religious beliefs at all. It is obvious that a belief does not have to be true to change a person, for a person to use it to live an “abundant” life. It need only be believed. But that meant that I could not use my own testimony, my own understanding of my experiences, my own subjective certainty, to verify the accuracy of that very understanding which was coming into question. How, then, could I be sure that my beliefs were true, that my interpretations of my experiences were accurate, that what I had been absolutely certain was God’s Spirit in me really was from God, or from anything beyond me? Perhaps what I was calling “God” and my experiences of God were actually my own maturing and growing, my own increasing capacity for experiencing emotional and psychological depth.
I could not deny the experiences I had (and still have). But I was beginning to see a different way of understanding them. Perhaps this “new life” in me that was changing me is my life, “new” in the sense that it is constantly growing and changing and renewing itself, sometimes in sudden great and unexpected spurts, most often at a slower more-measured pace often hardly noticeable day by day but accumulating over the months and years to amazing new capacities. Again, if mine were the only form of the only religion that really changed lives, I’d have something to go on. But it was not. If the author of whatever set of “scriptures” that may actually exist would, in a publicly verifiable manner, state which set of alleged scriptures really were his and which interpretation of those scriptures were accurate, we’d all have something to go on. But he has not. By the answers they gave me, it was obvious to me that my friends were not allowing themselves to fully face the real issues I was bringing up. One friend did seem to grasp what I was really asking, but all he could offer in response was to admit that he did not have an answer.
I went home that summer and did some thinking about it, but mainly I tried to avoid the issue. Yet I could not avoid it entirely. I could not “just believe” and shut up. I wanted to know, not just believe. I was very serious about wanting to know the truth. When I was a Christian, I believed without a doubt that Christianity is true. But I also thought that if somehow Christianity were not true, if somehow, contrary to anything I though was actually possible, I had been mistaken, I would want to know. Even if the truth were something horrible, I wanted to know what was true. At this point in my journey, I did not yet believe that Christianity, or at least some form of it, was not true, but my belief in my ability to know was shaken. I remember having conversations with a few friends about that, and, when pushed on the issue, most tended to admit that if Christianity is false, they did not want to know. But I did, and, still believing (though a bit tentatively now) that all truth is God’s truth, and that I was supposed to love God with all my mind as well as my heart and soul and strength and whatever else it was that I was supposed to love him with, I felt a Christian obligation to investigate these questions I had about Christianity. Still, even though I was allowing myself to admit that I was coming across an increasing amount of incriminating evidence, it took a long time, nearly two years from my first spark of doubt, to finally admit to myself that there is no evidence of any real theistic God as described in the Bible, at least not one that exists outside the minds of its believers.
It did not help that when I returned to school in the fall, the pastor of the church I attended, a well respected man of God who, we thought, knew the will of God if anyone did, preached a sermon one Sunday just after he had returned from a long vacation, in which he outlined all the wonderful things God told him that he was going to do with the church and what he wanted the church to do. It was a wonderfully impressive vision. And we all praised God. Then the next week, he got up in front of the church and apologized for jumping the gun by not talking with the church elders before giving that sermon. It seems that God had been telling different things to these church elders, also impressive and important things, but going in a different direction.
Later that fall, at that same church, a man got up in front of the congregation one Sunday to praise and give thanks to God for what God had done in his life the previous week. He had been in a very serious car accident, in which the car was totaled, and which looked to witnesses like there was no way he should have even survived it. But he walked away with no more than a few scratches and bruises. And he fell apart in front of the church in inexpressible joy and gratitude that God had miraculously saved him from a should-have-been-fatal car accident. He was so full of joy and thanksgiving that he could not speak and could barely continue to stand. And a whole church of several hundred born-again Bible believing Christians who believed with certainty and beyond a shadow of any possible doubt in God and Jesus and eternal salvation all joined with this man who believed likewise and praised God and thanked God that this man did not yet have to be experiencing perfect bliss.
Before my doubts started, I would have been one of the happy praisers. But now, this situation just did not compute. It did not make sense to me that someone who was just denied a certain chance to enter eternal bliss, and had to postpone his trip “home to heaven,” would be so overwhelmed with gratitude about it. It reminded me of many similar events which I had previously taken as absolutely incontrovertible evidence of God working in lives by miraculously saving them from deaths from accidents and illnesses. I thought about how Christians immediately start praying for God to heal a Christian friend who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and how they praise and thank God if the friend is healed. I had to wonder whether, regardless of what these Christians believe in their heart of hearts, do they really fully believe, deep down in their mind of minds, that eternal bliss follows death?
Imagine being a minor league baseball player who is called up to the majors. Would you want to decline the call? Would you call the Big Guy in the front office and beg and plead for him to let you stay with your minor league team a little longer? Would you enlist the help of your teammates to convince the Big Guy to let you stay? Of course not, because, no matter how much fun you may be having playing minor league baseball, no matter how well the team is doing at the time, your goal is to get to the major leagues as soon as you can and to stay there as long as you can. Far more likely, you would be doing all you can to convince the Big Guy to call you up as soon as possible. That is how a Christian who really believes there is a “major league” beyond this one should react on receiving the news of a “promotion.” But the first thing most Christians do when diagnosed with cancer or some other such disease is to call a bunch of Christian friends and ask their friends to pray that God will cure them.
Yes, there are Christians who face death with grace and dignity. But there are also non-Christians who do. And there are Christians who react the way this man and the whole church did. From my observations, I have noticed that the older one is, the easier it is to face impending death; and this is the case regardless of one’s religion, or lack thereof. Also, I have noticed that Christians as well as non-Christians, when faced with impending death, tend to go through the same stages of denial, anger, depression, and acceptance (if they have that much time). I began to wonder what real (not just perceived or believed) difference even an absolutely certain and seemingly unquestionable belief really made. I know that I believed with certainty that my knowledge and experience of God (or at least what I then interpreted as and believed to be such) really did make a difference in one’s life. By this point, however, reality had forced me to be less certain.
But how could it have all been just misinterpretations? I mean, I really saw and felt God work in my life. Then again, thinking more carefully about it, could I really say that God helped me find my keys, do well on a test, help me make a wise choice about which college to go to, help me make some friends, let me make at least some small difference in the lives of a few of the homeless people at the shelter I volunteered at? Why did God answer those prayers of mine when he ignored the prayers of Christian parents whose children were suffering from chemotherapy treatments as they were dying of leukemia? And if he did, how could I justify worshipping a God whose priorities were that screwed up? Wasn’t it horribly self-centered of me to thank God for taking time from his busy schedule to help me find my keys when he could have been saving a child from being raped and murdered? Maybe I found my keys because I looked for them. Maybe I did well on my test because I studied. Maybe I spent a lot of time comparing colleges, maybe I spent a lot of time getting to know other people, maybe my own small efforts to help a homeless family make it through a rough stretch while they looked for a new job and a new affordable place to live, maybe that was enough on its own. Would any of it have happened if I had done nothing but prayed? Would it have happened had I looked, studied, helped, and not prayed? I had always been taught that it was sinful pride to take credit for the good that God was doing through me. But which is really more arrogant: to take credit for that which I am able to accomplish on my own, or to conclude that The God Of The Universe took such a special interest in me that he helped me find my keys while he ignored a whole city inundated by a flood? It seemed to make more sense to conclude that what I thought of as God’s involvement was just my own involvement.
But what about my initial conversion experience? Hadn’t I felt a power unlike anything I had felt before? And hadn’t I really felt powerful, deeply moving experiences since? Perhaps I was misunderstanding things, but how could I deny these experiences? I knew they were real. I could not deny that. So how could I make sense of those experiences without appealing to God working in my life? God had to be working in my life. God had to have been the one who changed, and continued to change, me. How could I be wrong about that?
To examine that question, I’ll start by drawing an analogy of a conversion experience. I have read very many books and heard very many ideas on many subjects in philosophy, history, social sciences, and sciences. I can learn at least something from just about any of them. Many of them do not make much sense to me, and I think they are wrong or misguided. But many books I have read have resonated with me, they have taught me new ways to look at things, ways which make sense to me and seem to make sense of the subjects they discuss. When I learn these new ways of seeing things, something sort of clicks in my mind, and lots of previously scattered thoughts, experiences, and pieces of information come together in a way they never had before. It can be a very profound and moving feeling when that happens.
I can recall, for one example, a sociology/history book I read many years ago which posited a recurring cycle in history. When I read it, the thesis and its explication resonated with me. I began to look at history and at current events from the perspective of this thesis, and I was able to find many things which fit the thesis quite well. Other things took more examining and thought, but could be seen or interpreted in ways which seemed to fit this thesis. It was, at least to my mind, a very elegant thesis which made sense, and it seemed fitting to me for it to be true. It would just sort of really be neat for it to be true. I kind of wanted it to be true. This was especially the case since, if these recurring cycles kept cycling, one could see a general outline (thought of course not in any sense in specific details) of what the future could be like. How neat would that be?! But, of course, there is also evidence against the thesis, and not all details can really reasonably be made to fit it. But it still affects the way I think, and, though I think it has its limitations, I think that there is at least something to it.
This resonating experience is not at all uncommon. And it is not at all always right. Many many theories have been proposed to explain various things and events, and these theories seem to have everything going for them and to fit all the known facts, and they appear to be very elegant theories, and it would be just so neat and cool if they were true. But, on further investigation, they often end up being falsified by further tests, experiments, or evidence, or other and better theories are developed. So, the experience one has when one learns a new way of viewing things and things seem to fall into place and make sense is no guarantee that the thesis itself is correct.
But suppose that after I had read this book, I started going to two or three weekly meetings to gather with others who read it and with whom it had resonated and who believed and accepted its thesis. Suppose that at these meetings we would read and discuss passages from the book, and we would look at history and current events to find things to confirm the thesis. Now, in a group like that, you are bound to find someone to come up with a creative enough interpretation of anything to find a way to fit any event or fact into this perspective. And if the rest of the group was ready and willing to believe that everything can be viewed, and viewed truthfully, from this perspective, and that this perspective was in fact the only way to view things truthfully, then we would all accept those interpretations. Suppose that, since the book and its thesis so strongly resonated with us, and since we were able to fit so many things into the thesis, we concluded that the book must be completely right, and it must be the only way to view things truthfully. Suppose also that because of the consequences of this thesis being true, i.e., that we thought that we would be able to have a general understanding of how things would unfold in the future, we really wanted for the thesis to be true. Wouldn’t it then be likely that whenever we found any “apparent” discrepancies in the book, or any “apparent” facts that “seemed” to run counter to the thesis, we had believe that we were misinterpreting them, and we had perform whatever mental gymnastics necessary to save the thesis?
I’m sure you can tell where I am going with this, so let’s go ahead and go there. Let’s look at a typical born-again religious experience. You grow up in a society in which the Bible is generally respected but generally not read. Or, perhaps you grow up in a family in which the Bible is revered and read often. Or at least you know that some other society takes this stuff seriously. In any case, you have a background of hearing that this book is supposed to be the word of God, and that there is a god who could have such a word in the first place, and that this god is good and the source of goodness, etc., etc. Then along comes an evangelizer or two. These evangelists could be strangers, but more likely they are friends or relatives, people you know, people you like and respect and trust, people you have no reason to think are trying to deceive you.
They present to you a prepackaged gospel message with a few relevant scriptures taken from various places and put together to tell a coherent story of God, sin, separation from God, a sacrifice, redemption, salvation, etc. Now, you know you have done bad things. You have heard that God is supposed to be perfect. So, you agree, since you are not perfect, you are unworthy of being in this God’s presence, etc., etc. It makes sense. It resonates with you. It puts things in a perspective you had not thought of before, it organizes a variety of previously unconnected facts and events in a seemingly coherent way. You are moved by your experience. And the evangelizers tell you that what you feel is God working in you. Now, you know you had an experience. And this experience was due to hearing what these people were telling you. And these people say they expected that you would have such an experience, and they told you that the experience is from God. So, you learn from them to interpret the experience as being an experience of God.
You also hear from them that there is a hell, and that in your present state, hell is your destiny. But there is also a heaven, a place of perfect bliss, which could be your destiny if you submit to God. Since the other parts of this thesis, about being a sinner and thus not perfect, about not knowing or being sure of the future, life after death, etc., has all seemed true and has resonated with you, you go along with this, too. If the thesis was right about the other points, it must be right about this, too. So, you fear going to hell, and you desire going to heaven. And you have been told that at this point, hell is your destiny, but if you pray this prayer, your destiny will be changed. So far, the story has made sense, and these are people who are sincere and you do not have any reason to believe that they are trying to deceive you. So you pray the prayer.
You now believe that your destiny has been changed. As a result, you feel a great relief that you are no longer destined for hell, and you are excited about being destined for heaven. You feel great; you feel wonderful; you feel uplifted; you feel as though a huge burden has been lifted from you. And you know with certainty that these feelings, these experiences, did in fact really happen to you. And these people tell you that the feeling is due to God filling you with His Spirit. Since the feeling was real, and since it resulted from what these people told you, and they told you to expect such a feeling, you think you have every reason to believe that they know what they are talking about when they explain the feeling to you. So you accept their interpretation of the experience: it was God working in your life, filling you with His Holy Spirit.
Social psychology, and specifically examinations of socially learned interpretations of private, personal experiences, is a fascinating subject for anyone who has had a born-again religious experience. I know for sure that I had experiences. I know that reading the Bible, praying, fellowshipping with other Christians, etc., all had real effects on me: I was genuinely moved in deep and profound ways. I do not at all doubt that others have had the same types of experiences. What I now doubt is the socially learned interpretations of those experiences. And I started doubting at that IVCF meeting when, at least on the surface, the same sort of thing happened there that had happened at a nonreligious meeting. I was finally able to see that perhaps the part about God being involved was just an interpretation I had learned to impose on certain types of events in certain settings. And I realized that it is possible for such interpretations to be wrong. The same things, minus the learned proclivity to attribute such occurrences to God, had happened in nonreligious settings.
Yes, I thought that the religious experiences were more profound and deeper, but could that extra profundity be a result of an added push the experiences received from the very act of attributing them to God? Could I really be sure that this attribution in a religious setting was accurate? Was I sure that my learned interpretations of my personal religious experiences were really accurate and true? Was I sure of the truth of what I had interpreted as born-again Christianity? This also relates to the questions I had about knowing God’s will and knowing what God was trying to tell me and others. Perhaps what I took to be God speaking to me was just my ideas I came up with in the context of praying and reading the Bible; perhaps I had just learned from others to attribute such ideas in such contexts to God’s trying to speak to me and to let me know His will. If so, this would certainly explain why so many people have such conflicting views on what God says.
As I previously mentioned, I recognized that the problems I was having with Christianity and with knowing God’s will extended to the Bible, since I knew that many people interpreted many parts of the Bible in very different ways. But the Bible seemed to be my last hope for a way to find an objectively reliable guide through my questions. I knew, though, that I had to be rigorous in my examinations, to get to what, if anything, was truly an objectively and verifiably correct understanding of its message from God. I had to be wary of my own subjectivity interfering with my interpretations of its words. Since people with differing interpretations are all certain that their own interpretations are correct, it is definitely the case that one’s own subjective certainty of the correctness of one’s interpretation is not enough. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are other religions with other holy scriptures which claim to be the word of God or the gods. What evidence did I really have that the Bible is accurate in its claim to be the word of God when, for example, the Koran made the same claim, and many people believe its claims? Again, I knew people who claimed to have been changed by Allah, or by the Jehovah’s Witnesses Jesus (a false Jesus, according to the groups I was in); and I could not deny that they had been changed by their beliefs. Obviously, then, people can be changed, and changed for the better, by false beliefs. So, how could I use what I believed to be God’s working in my life to be evidence even that the Bible really is from God, much less that my understanding of it was correct?
So I had to examine the Bible as rigorously and critically and honestly as I could. I had to examine it by the same standards as I examined any other text. I could no longer approach it with deference unlike how I approached anything else. If my approach to the Bible assumed it is the word of God, and if I did not allow myself to examine or question that assumption, then I would blind myself to any contrary evidence. Scholars approach historical documents with an attitude of “doubt until demonstrated reliable, and then rely on it only to the extent it is so demonstrated.” If indeed the Bible was the True Word of God, it should be able to withstand such treatment and its divine origin would be reliably demonstrated, and its superiority to other writings would be evident. And if indeed it is the True Word of God, how could I really know that for sure unless I had tested it and seen it pass the test?
As is the case with most born-again Evangelicals, I believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. I was aware of at least some of the “difficulties” in many passages, such as the differing genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and of the convoluted attempts to answer skeptics who pointed out such difficulties. It’s amazing what a little creative interpretation, combined with appropriate narrowing or expanding or ignoring or adding to context, can do for an inerrantist’s cause. But, as with all interpretations of the Bible, I had to start questioning these: they seemed plausible enough if you were already wedded to the conclusion that the Bible must be inerrant and must have no contradictions. But I began to see that there was no way these interpretations made sense if you did not already believe in the complete validity and reliability of the Bible. I realized that these “answers” to the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible are unconvincing for anyone, even the believers: they were inadequate to convince someone who was not already convinced, and someone who was already convinced was already convinced and thus did not need them.
As I started my reexamination of the Bible, I recalled a question that popped into my mind when preparing to lead a Bible study on part of the Gospel of John. In the first chapter, it includes the story of how Jesus began calling his disciples. According to John, Jesus found Andrew among John the Baptist’s followers. Andrew followed Jesus, and then went to get his brother, Simon. I recalled having thought at this moment “wait, that’s odd, I thought that some other gospel said Jesus met both Andrew and Simon together while they were fishing, and called them to be fishers of men.” I remembered wondering about that, and thinking that I should do a parallel reading of the gospels to see how the stories fit together. I of course assumed that they did fit together. After all, there are editions of the Bible such as the Schofield Reference Bible which list the parallel passages in the other gospels which tell the same story; why in the world would Christian Bible publishers make it so easy to find contradictions if the contradictions really were there? I still thought it would be instructive to read the gospels in parallel, thinking that it would just strengthen my faith and understanding, but I did not think it was anything crucial since of course the different accounts were completely compatible.
But now, I realized that I had to examine that assumption. And looking at the different tellings of this story, I had to admit that the assumption did not hold up. Matthew does indeed contradict John’s account of how Andrew and Simon are called. They also differ in their claims of whether Jesus started preaching and collecting disciples before or after John the Baptist was arrested and put in prison. I found that parallel examinations of different accounts of the same events was a very effective way of dispelling my belief that the Bible is inerrant. Examining the resurrection accounts in the last chapter or two in the four gospels and the first part of Acts along with the few bits Paul mentions yields a long list of incompatible claims. The Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles in the Old Testament retell, and rewrite along the way, many stories. One interesting example of a revision is the story in 2 Samuel 24 when God moved David to take a census, then it turns out that it was sinful for David to have taken a census (even though God does not lead people to sin according to James 1:13), and then God punishes David for this sinful act by killing 70,000 other people. 1 Chronicles 20 retells this story with Satan in the role of inciting David to sin by taking a census, thus revising the earlier version to get God off that hook. However, God still punishes David by killing 70,000 people whose only apparent crime was to have been among those David counted in his somehow sinful census. And there are plenty of other atrocities committed by God or at his command, such as in 1 Samuel 15 when God commands Saul and his army to slaughter all the Amalekites, even the children and infants, and even their animals, because their ancestors had done something to displease God several centuries earlier (though God had said in Deuteronomy 24:16 that children should not be punished for sins of the fathers). And in Numbers 31, God ordered all the Midianites killed except for the young virgin females. Or the Exodus story when the Egyptian Pharaoh was repeatedly ready and willing to let Moses and his people go, until God hardened his heart, and then God punished him for his hardened heart by sending plagues or killing children throughout all of Egypt.
As I discovered on closer review, even the message of salvation and what was required of Christ’s followers is far from clear, though this should be obvious to anyone who thinks about why there are so many different denominations of Christianity with so many conflicting views on how to attain salvation and how to live as a Christian. As an evangelical Protestant, I had always been taught to read James’s statements about “faith without works is dead” in light of Paul’s claims about salvation coming through faith and not of works. But James does not just say that faith without works is dead; he says that we are justified by what we do, by our works, and not by faith alone. Had I been raised in some other group of Christians, such as among many Catholics, I might have been taught to read and interpret Paul in light of James. But starting with the assumption that nothing in the Bible can contradict anything else and therefore any apparent contradiction can be explained away by reading one passage in light of the other does nothing but pretend that one such passage (such as James’s claims on works) does not really mean what it says, it really means what another passage says (such as Paul’s claims on faith). Yet that method can be used to “prove” that the Koran is inerrant, or that War and Peace is inerrant, or that Snoopy Come Home is inerrant. And it does nothing to answer the question of, even if one passage should be read and interpreted in light of another, which passage should be read in terms of which. And it does nothing to change the fact that what James said about faith and works contradicts what Paul said about faith and works.
There are always dodges and attempts to explain away the contradictions and incompatibilities, but they all rely on pretending that one or another part of the Bible says something other than what it really says, or resorting to labeling it a “mystery of faith.” I can listen to people who have an unquestionable assumption that there are no contradictions in the Bible, or I can look at the Bible itself and see the contradictions for myself. Why should I take their word for what the Bible says over what the Bible actually says? I do not want to speculate now on why fundamentalist Christians (including me when I was one) do not allow themselves to see the obvious. Whatever the reasons, the problems in the Bible are obvious, and I cannot take seriously the arguments of anyone who denies that. I know the Bible far too well to think that it does not have any errors, contradictions, or absurdities in it. They might as well be making arguments based on the claim that no birds can fly. I’ve seen birds fly, so I can’t take such arguments seriously. I do want to say, however, that, given all the problems that even fundamentalist Christians themselves admit are at least “difficulties,” the Bible began to make a lot more sense to me when I started looking at it as a product of many different humans with different perspectives on the evolving religious tradition in which they were writing than it does as The Inerrant Word of God. This became even more the case as I was taking a class on “Themes in the Hebrew Bible” which examined the Bible as set of historical documents, and with the same techniques and standards as historians examine any ancient documents. Again, it could only be by applying the same standards to the Bible as to other ancient documents that one could reliably conclude whether it is the True Word of God. But when so examined, it appears far more likely to be of human origins than divine. One would expect God could do much better. If there is a perfect God, the Bible does not measure up to the standards one would expect His Word would achieve.
I also want to make a brief comment on more theologically-liberal interpretations of the Bible. Many Christians admit that the Bible is the work of humans who were expressing their own fallible understandings of God. On this view, the Bible can be said to have been inspired by God in much the same way that a tree can be said to have inspired a poem. That may be true, but if so, it renders the Bible no more necessarily reliable as a guide for life or a guide to God than any other human writer or set of writers, and at least potentially a lot less reliable than the writings of those who have studied much more philosophy, science, history, etc., than did the writers and compilers of the Bible. Besides, it is typically not theologically-liberal Christians who preach at me and insist that I must view the world exactly as they do, so this extimony is not aimed at them.
But even if an evangelical were to give up the claim that the Bible is inerrant, one could still respond to me, as I used to ask when I was evangelizing, why would the apostles have died for what they knew to be a lie? Okay, so the gospel writers might not have written perfectly accurate documents. Still, they were eyewitnesses or knew eyewitnesses, so they must have gotten it at least largely correct. Also, they were martyred for their faith; why wouldn’t they have recanted if they knew it was a lie? Even if their writings are not totally without error, they must have been right in their claim that Jesus was God and did rise again.
There are many problems with this response, however. First, it is hard to take it seriously from someone who is not a Mormon, since the same thing can be said of Joseph Smith and many of his closest disciples who would have known if Smith’s preaching was a sham. Yet they faced persecution and even death without recanting. While in jail, Joseph Smith was attacked by a mob trying to lynch him because of his religious teachings. He could have at any time then or before, when he knew his life was in danger, when the crowd was approaching, whenever, recanted his claims and confessed his sins. But he didn’t. He held fast to the end. If anyone would have known whether he had been lying about the Book of Mormon, it would have been him. The same could be said for Jim Jones, for the Heaven’s Gate cult, and so many other martyrs who would have known the falsity of their claims for which they knew they were about to die. So, if you wonder why the apostles would die for a lie, tell me why any of these others would and you will likely have my answer to your question. Besides, in the case of the apostles, we do not even have eyewitness accounts of their killings, as we do in the case of Joseph Smith and many others. All we have are anonymous traditions, which often conflict with each other (Matthew died in so many ways and in so many places he had more lives than a proverbial cat). So we cannot even be sure they died for their beliefs, as we can with Joseph Smith and many others.
In addition, there are good reasons to conclude that the gospels are not accurate histories written by eyewitnesses in the first place. I have often heard it claimed, and used to believe and claim myself before I investigated the evidence, that there is as much historical evidence for Jesus as there is for George Washington, Napoleon, or Julius Caesar. It should be obvious to anyone with an understanding of how history is done that this is not the case. In Washington’s case, we have original documents in his handwriting and with his signature. Even if you want to claim that they are all forged (and there are very good reasons to conclude that they are genuine), we do not even have forged documents that claim to have been written by Jesus. We do not even have copies of copies of anything written by Jesus, as we do in the case of Caesar. There are no photographs of Washington, but there are paintings of him, paintings for which he actually posed in the presence of a painter. Caesar’s image is engraved on coins on display in museums around the world. The oldest paintings depicting Jesus are from centuries after his death, with his image reflecting the artists’ imaginations. In addition to writings about Washington by his followers and admirers, we have writings about him from his enemies, such as British generals and political leaders, and also writings by disinterested observers reporting the news of their day. For Jesus, all we have are writings by loyal followers already committed to one or another set of beliefs about him.
The historical accuracy of those writings by Jesus’s loyal followers are also suspect for a number of reasons. Tradition claims the gospels of Matthew and John were written by actual disciples, and those of Mark and Luke by associates of actual disciples. But that is what tradition claims. The gospels themselves are not signed; they are anonymous. Further, they are not even written as primary accounts. Paul, for example, in his letters writes about “I went there and we did this,” as you would expect from a firsthand account. The gospels are not written at all like firsthand accounts are written. Then there is the problem of why Matthew, if he was an actual eyewitness, would have used Mark as one of his major sources. Why not just write his own account rather than rewrite (and alter along the way) the account of someone who was not an actual eyewitness? If he needed to jog his memory, why not use Peter’s own account rather than Mark’s account of what Peter told him? That brings up the question of why Mark would have written a gospel based on Peter’s testimony (as tradition, not the Gospel of Mark, claims) when Peter wrote a gospel of his own. And this leads to yet another problem: no contemporary Christians accept Peter’s gospel, or Thomas’s gospel, as legitimate; they are not included in the Christian Bible, even though they were eyewitnesses. On what basis, besides a tradition which developed a century or so after any possible eyewitnesses and associates of eyewitnesses were long gone? Yes, the gospels themselves were written before the traditions around them developed, but even they came fairly late in the game. Only the most theologically conservative of scholars, those who came to the issue with their commitments already made and who, unlike many others like them, were able to maintain their commitments in the face of the evidence to the contrary, believe that even the earliest of the Gospels, that of Mark, was written before the early 70s AD, and the others came a few or several decades later. Matthew and John would have been very old men.
Besides all that, it is highly unlikely that there would be a teacher who, over a three year period, was popular enough to draw tens of thousands of followers and listeners from many nations, whose followers believed he worked many wondrous miracles, and that there would not be a single contemporary first-hand account of any of it. How likely is it that Herod could have killed all the infant boys in a town and not one of his enemies and detractors who carefully chronicled his many crimes, even quite trivial ones, would have even hinted at this one? How likely is it that zombies could have been walking through Jerusalem and no one at the time would have thought it worth writing about? I think it is far more likely that “Matthew” and company made up such stories, or embellished oral traditions that had been developing for decades before being written down, than that such things would have gone completely unremarked on by the historians and chroniclers of the time. The heavy reliance that evangelical apologists place on the two very brief, cryptic, and very likely at least modified if not wholly fabricated references to Jesus by Josephus (who was not born until 37 AD, so he could not even have been an eyewitness) only underscores the complete lack of contemporary accounts.
Note that this is not an argument against the possibility, or even the plausibility, of miracles and then a rejection of the gospels as accurate history on that basis. I’ll grant that if there is a god, such miraculous occurrences are certainly possible, and even likely. But even if there is a god, I do not see how it is possible, and certainly extremely far from likely, that nobody in Jerusalem (a relatively large and literate town, in a time from which we have the writings of several contemporary and near-contemporary chroniclers) would have written about Matthew’s alleged zombies, or at least mentioned that some crazies in town were claiming that they had talked with dead people who had gotten out of their graves. Or mentioned anything else from the later legendary accounts of Jesus. Not even a god could pull off a miracle like that. In other words, if the Bible stories were true, they would not be the only accounts of the events.
If you doubt these conclusions about the origin of the stories of Jesus, you have an enormous weight of New Testament scholarship, written primarily by people who consider themselves Christians, against you. But you do not even need that scholarship: the Bible itself is a sufficient witness against its allegedly divine origin. As I began exploring this scholarship, and to read the Bible with new eyes, it was only with great reluctance that I had to admit that there were serious problems with my previous beliefs about the Bible. I did not want to come to these conclusions. But I had to be honest with the evidence I was finding.
The Questions Get Personal
While I was trying to process all this, I was unexpectedly struck by a big blow. At Christmas break of my senior year, my girlfriend and I were discussing when to get engaged and make our impending marriage official. We and all our family and friends knew that this was inevitable, but it was still a very big step to make it official and to declare to the world that we intended to marry each other and to spend the rest of our lives doing all we could to make our marriage and any resulting family work. It was at this time, when I was contemplating the big step of marriage and how to make a marriage work, that an aunt and uncle, a Christian couple whom I greatly admired and who had what I took to be a model, Christ-centered, reliable marriage, had their marriage blow up in a very messy, nasty divorce. I was completely floored by this. How could this have happened to a couple like them, of all people? I have heard that it is very common for children to have a fear that something bad might happen to their parents. Well, since this aunt and uncle would have become my guardians if my parents were out of the picture, I never had this fear. In fact, it was sometimes almost a hope. I really admired them and their family. I admired their walk with God. And now this happened. It showed me that even if it is the case that it is necessary to have a “Christ-centered” marriage in order to make a marriage work, that this alone was not sufficient: Christ, once put in the center by this couple, did not keep himself there. So in a real sense, it was not up to God to keep the marriage going and good, it was up to the couple: it was their responsibility to keep God there, and God had not given any indication, at least in this example, that he would do much of anything to keep himself there.
But that is only if this really is a necessary condition in the first place. At this point, I was finally able to admit to myself that another aunt and uncle set (actually, my father’s aunt and uncle [this was the uncle who had been a professor at Vanderbilt]), another couple I greatly admired, were not Christians. They had never talked about religious things, and only listened politely when I talked about God, but when I saw the way they lived their lives, when I saw their marriage, and especially when I saw how they faced death when this uncle was dying of cancer, it just did not compute in my Christian mind that they could be anything other than real, born-again, Bible-believing, evangelical Christians. This was not just implicit thinking on my part. I recall explicitly coming to this conclusion when my mother asked whether he was a Christian. Since he was dying, she was concerned about his salvation and wanted to include a gospel message in our family’s Christmas card to him if he was not saved. I responded by saying that he never talked about religion or the place of God in his life, but he certainly lived it such that he could only have been a Christian. I did not think it possible for other than born-again Christians to live as they did. But, I finally allowed myself to admit (and later confirmed in conversation with my aunt), they were not. I could not have asked for a clearer example to demonstrate that Christianity is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a good marriage. I realized that if my girlfriend and I were to have a good marriage, it was ultimately up to us to make sure it worked; we could not rely on God, nor did we need to.
I know that the belief that a couple has put and kept Christ at the center of their marriage does in fact help many marriages (but, as with a placebo, a belief does not have to be true to be effective). Now, however, I found that reality forced me to have to admit that sometimes this does not work, and even further that marriages can work wonderfully well without it. Yes, Christ, or at least a belief in Christ, does in fact help many people. But there was nothing systematic about it. Many people are hurt by Christianity (as I have seen from others now that I’m out of Christianity and have met others who have also deconverted), and many people are helped by other beliefs. My previous belief that there was something unique about Christianity, and specifically my version of it, was further shaken.
It was shaken even more as I reflected more on and learned more about my father’s uncle, the one who had showed me how well a nonreligious person could live and die. Nicholas Hobbs was a psychology professor who accomplished many admirable achievements over the course of his life, including helping to set up the Peace Corps, a fine example of people helping other people without any direct ties to religion. But Nick’s proudest accomplishment was his work with, as he labeled them, troubled and troubling children. He wasn’t much for therapy; he believed that insights in therapy were more likely the result of progress rather than the cause of progress. Real progress comes, he said, from doing stuff in the present and aiming toward the future, looking outside and forward, rather than from introspection looking inward and backward. He believed, and his successful work with troubled and troubling children seemed to give good evidence that, acting and changing habits of action was the more effective way to change the type of person you are. He also believed that, like our physical bodies, our minds/emotions/”spirits” can naturally heal themselves, as long as they have a good environment (“emotional splints”?) to do so. So he also focused on changing the environment that these kids were in by restructuring their social environments (e.g., helping parents become better parents, structuring activities so they were both engaging and educational), teaching them new habits for living in their new environment, habits of action that would also tend to maintain and enhance a positive environment (i.e., learn how to actively shape their environment so they would not be just passive victims), and allowing them to heal themselves in that better-functioning environment, rather than just by medicating them.
The schools and community mental health centers he helped set up with these methods worked very well. Children with emotional problems had their lives significantly improved by these methods. Just like the young adults who were helped at His Mansion. But Nick’s Re-ED (reeducation of emotionally disturbed children) program did not rely on God. Like the people at the campus radio station as compared to my IVCF group, Project Re-ED duplicated the results of His Mansion without involving God. His Mansion provided a caring environment with counselors who held troubled people to high standards and assisted them in meeting those standards, in a prayerful environment. Project Re-ED provided a caring environment with teacher-counselors who held troubled people to high standards and assisted them in meeting those standards, but without appeals to the divine. Many of the teacher-counselors were religious, but many were not, and those who were religious were from a variety of religious backgrounds, and the Re-ED principles did not explicitly include anything religious or related to God beliefs. What could I conclude but that the prayers at His Mansion were superfluous? They may indeed have had a placebo effect on many people involved, but the results were duplicated elsewhere without invoking or involving God. My experience at His Mansion had moved me to the depths of my soul with what I took to be clear and incontrovertible evidence of God’s goodness and God’s work in human lives. But what if it was all humans’ goodness and our involvement in each others’ lives?
All this made me reflect on other professors I had gotten to know, both as teachers and on a more personal level. I could think of many admirable people among them, people whose manner of living and viewing life were well worth emulating. They were passionately interested in their research and teaching, and genuinely cared for their students. And yet I knew that many of these people I admired were not religious at all, and only a few of the religious ones were anything like the sort of Christian I was, and of course I believed one had to be to be a “true” Christian right with God.
In learning effective methods of evangelism, I was taught that a great stumper question for those who bring up all sorts of objections, questions, and rationalizations against the faith was to ask how they could explain how God had changed my life and the lives of so many others. How do you explain what God has done for me, how I have found meaning and purpose and fulfillment in life? I had heard many variations of a story along the lines of an evangelist who found himself out of his scientific or historical league and was having a difficult time answering the questions of a few atheist skeptics (typically portrayed in the stories as young and arrogant). Then an older gentleman politely pardons his intrusion, but goes on to tell his story of being redeemed from a meaningless, shallow, and unfulfilling life of sin (insert a few details of such things as drunkenness and fornication here) by finding Jesus, who reformed him and gave him meaning and purpose and fulfillment. The young skeptics find themselves at a loss to account for his story. But here I was being stumped by the mirror image of that question: how could I, as a Christian, account for this sort of behavior in the lives of non-Christians?
Previously, I had always thought that my abundant life was more abundant than the lives of other people who thought they were satisfied with their false religions. After all, when I attended their churches, the congregations and services just were not as alive as mine, they did not move me like mine did. If they would only visit my church, they would see just how abundant a truly abundant life really is. And when they did visit my church and found it as dead to them as their churches were to me, it was obviously because they were so far from the truth that they could not even recognize it when they saw it. Sure, many other people did seem lost or unsure of their lives or of any purpose in what they were doing, many of these people had, by their own admission, lives that lacked “abundance” and joy. But as I got to know some of these believers in other religions better, and as I got to know people with no religion, and as I allowed myself to admit that Uncle Nick was not religious, I had to admit that there were many people whose lives were at least as abundant to them as mine was to me, people who led joyful, fulfilling lives without my God or without any god at all. Their churches were as alive to them as mine was to me. I realized as I got to know more such people and to know them better that it had been horribly arrogant of me to measure their lives and their meanings, purposes, joys, and abundances by mine.
I found myself having to try to put new wine, and lots of it, into old bottles that were bursting at the seams, no longer able to contain all that needed to be held. The world I was coming to know was getting too big for my religion to encompass. Previously, the answer to the problem of God feeling distant was to spend more time in prayer and reading the Bible. If you feel distant from God, the saying went, guess who moved? Well, this time, it was God who had done the moving, and I did not know how to respond to get him to move back. Reading the Bible was harming my faith more than it was helping. And even prayer was becoming more of a problem than a solution. Previously, spending more time in prayer made me feel closer to God. Now, however, I found myself having to shorten my prayer sessions, lest I do more damage to my faith. The longer I prayed, the more I felt like I was just talking to the ceiling or thinking to myself.
This was a frightening thing for me. Previously, I had based all my meaning and purpose in life on the God I believed in. I thought that without God, life was a depressingly pointless and shallow futility. I was so glad that God had redeemed me, because without Him, I thought, I would probably have committed suicide. Such thoughts of life without God certainly discouraged me from contemplating the possibility that God at best did not care and was not involved in his creation, and perhaps did not even exist, at least not in any way that would make a difference to any of us. And yet, there was the example of Uncle Nick, of many of my professors, of friends in other religions or with no religion at all who lived meaningful, fulfilling, even joyful lives. Obviously, then, living well without God was possible, even if I did not know how to do it. I am sure that the examples these people provided me were a primary key in allowing me the courage to honestly face the questions I found, and to be unafraid of where the answers took me. Without their examples, and in spite of my previously stated desire to know what is true even if the truth is something horrible, I might still be a Christian today, too comfortable in my world and too afraid of anything outside that world to dare venturing beyond it.
Or, perhaps I still would have been willing to venture beyond my comfortable Christian world, but without the resources to do so. I had always been taught, and believed, that born-again Christianity was the only way to truly live “abundantly,” to find joy and meaning and purpose and fulfillment in life. Those who lived that way, such as uncle Nick, I assumed must be Christians. Those who I knew were not Christians but who still lived admirable lives, I thought must be faking it and on the inside they knew they really were miserable. A few counterexamples to what I had always been taught and had believed would not be enough to dislodge firmly held beliefs. This is true for beliefs and conclusions generally: scientists, for example, put aside a few anomalies that do not seem to fit their current understanding of a subject, expecting that probably further examination would show how current theories can account for them, and usually it does. But I was getting to know too many other than born-again Christians, non-Christians of any type, and even non-religious people, who lived good lives and were happy and satisfied, and knowing them well enough to know that they could not all be faking it. And, like scientists facing an increasing number of anomalies, I had to be open to the possibility that my current theory, my current understanding of the world, was inadequate and had to be revised or replaced. Perhaps the IVCF/campus radio station comparison, though it was a relatively minor matter on its own, the sort I had so frequently overlooked or fit into my Christian worldview before, was the anomaly that broke the camel’s back and forced me to consider that my worldview was inadequate to account for the world I was learning increasingly more about.
In that last semester before I graduated, I continued to participate in IVCF activities, but mainly because that was where most of my friends were, and I had made commitments to them and to the group and I felt obligated to fulfill my commitments. But it was kind of weird. I didn’t say much to them about my doubts, but that was mainly because I already knew all the answers (or, rather, nonanswers) that they would give, rather than out of concern that they would consider me a heretic and shun me. And even if they did, I was going to be graduating in a few months and moving on, so that didn’t really bother me. I did talk with a few, but now it was mainly to plant seeds of doubt in them rather than to try to get answers for me. In explaining the situation with my aunt and uncle as compared with my father’s aunt and uncle, I was finally able to come across someone else who allowed himself to face my real questions (one of the IVCF staffers). And again, all I got was an admission that he didn’t have any answers.
My fiancee was the one whose reaction most concerned me. But she allowed herself to face my questions, and admitted that she didn’t have any answers. She knew me well enough to decide that she could trust that if I had questions, I was serious and my questions were legitimate. She decided to stick with me, believing that if God were there and had answers he would answer our questions, and if he weren’t there she would rather not lose me for the sake of a god who does not exist. I’m very glad she felt that way, since she went ahead and married me, and we’re still happily married, now with a wonderful son (and all without the benefit of religion).
The summer after I graduated, and before I was to get married late in the summer, I spent a month on a cross-cultural evangelism program. I had been planning on doing something like this for a while, since before my doubts began, and had thought it would be an important faith builder and way to serve God. By the time I left for the trip, however, my faith had been pretty well shaken. The experience, rather than repairing my religious beliefs, served to further damage them. I was struck by the small world, which they thought not only to be so large but also to be of such cosmic significance, of this international organization. Listening to the preaching, I was in a way embarrassed for them: I still had sympathy for them, and still to some extent considered myself to be one of them (yet with a very different, and still evolving, concept of the God we worshipped), but I also understood how those whose world was much larger would see them. I spent the month with people convinced they were in close communion with God and were offering a better, more abundant life to those to whom they were evangelizing. But, I had to admit to myself, given what I had seen from my uncle Nick and so many others, if I were not already a Christian, their witness would not convince me that they really had the more abundant life they believed they had.
A Way Out
By this point I could no longer consider myself a born-again evangelical Christian. But I could not get rid of the concept of God, and specifically of at least some form of the Christian God. I thought that God probably did not matter in a practical or day-to-day manner, or at least not much, but I could not (yet) deny the existence of a God of some sort. This was mainly because I could not see how something like human minds, or “souls” or whatever, could be a result purely of the material world. To say that it is all nothing but matter in motion would be such a diminishment of life. It would be a denial of the spiritual, emotional, thinking, feeling side of life, which I knew to exist, and to be the most important and significant part of life. I could not deny that existed. I could not possibly take a good look at life, at reality, and pretend that it was all just soulless matter in motion. There had to be more to it than that. There is more to it than that. To deny it would be like saying that no birds can fly; I’ve seen them fly, so the claim that it is all just soulless matter in motion just doesn’t fly. So I settled into a sort of deism, albeit an uncomfortable one since there was still the possibility that I was wrong in rejecting my previous beliefs and there could be dire consequences for such a rejection.
After graduation, marriage, and moving to a new city where I was in graduate school, my wife and I tried a couple of born-again type churches, but we just found the same lack of answers to our increasing questions. So we started going to an Episcopal church, quite theologically liberal, and one which a couple of years earlier I would have considered at best dangerously heretical and probably filled with false Christians. My wife grew up in an Episcopal church before becoming a born-againer in high school, so she was comfortable with the church and its theology. And I was much more comfortable with it than I had become with the evangelical churches, but even the Episcopal church was not able to give what could work for me as a meaningful and reliable definition of the God I still thought must exist in some form but which I could not get any useful handle on.
But then in graduate school (studying philosophy), I read something, intended for a different point to a different audience, which helped answer this problem for me. In one of my classes, I was reading John Searle, who, in the course of making various points about the nature of mind in the context of various philosophical positions on the subject, made an observation that struck me, and made clear to me what should have already been obvious from what I had already learned previously. Like the incident that started my questions, this point that gave me a start on some answers is really a rather minor one, but it was that one extra piece of the puzzle that allowed me to see, at least in general, the picture that the puzzle portrayed. As an analogy to illustrate that mind can be a real emergent property of a brain rather than either just an illusion or epiphenomenon without having to resort to calling it an independently existing separate substance, Searle pointed out that water is just a bunch of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which individually are not wet, cannot be poured, cannot quench thirst, or any number of other things that water can do, yet water, which is not anything but those hydrogen and oxygen atoms, is generally considered to be rather real stuff, so why not the mind?
“Wow,” I thought, connecting it to my personal religious concerns, and to other things I had been studying that semester. In this course and another I was taking, we were studying topics related to philosophy of mind, examining how minds work, how thinking and rationality work. And I was reading lots of medical research on brains and how they work, and what happens when they are damaged. All this augmented the knowledge of brain science I had previously acquired from various sources. I thought about what I knew about psychiatric medicines and how giving someone some drugs to alter the chemical composition of the brain can change one’s personality, patterns of thinking, etc., i.e., it alters the mind. I have heard people on Prozac say that they are a different person when using the drug, and they mean that quite literally. I thought about how damage done to the brain, e.g., in a car accident, can damage the mind. Also, specific damage to a specific part of the brain causes similar damage to the minds of different people with similar injuries. How could anyone think, then, that when the brain is destroyed, the mind lives on somewhere without any ill effects? How could one avoid concluding that minds are products of brains, that the mind is an activity the brain performs?
It may indeed be the case (in fact, it is the case) that no one knows exactly how brains produce minds. But the evidence points beyond any reasonable doubt to the conclusion that minds are products of brains. In other words, it is physical brains which underlie minds. Minds are projects of matter. Now, I’m typically not one to reduce problems or issues to a simple either-or dichotomy, or to reduce complex disagreements to one fundamental issue; if there are two types of people in the world, one type which categorizes everyone into two types and another type which does not, I’m in the latter category. But this point about the relationship between mind and matter is, I think, a primary crux, if not the primary crux, of the disagreement between theists and atheists. Theists believe that mind is and must be fundamental to matter, that matter could not exist without a mind (or, a Mind, i.e., the mind of God) as its ground. Atheists do not think that must be the case; atheists think that matter is fundamental to mind. Typically, theists will react to this with incredulity, asking how matter can possibly exist on its own, or how mind can be fundamentally dependent on matter, how the material universe alone can give rise to mind. But an atheist can ask, with just as much incredulity, how can God think if he does not have a brain? How can God even exist if he is not made out of some sort of matter? If not knowing how is a problem for “materialists,” then “spiritualists” have precisely the same problem: they can no more answer how specifically mind undergirds matter than materialists can say how specifically matter undergirds mind. So it becomes a matter of the evidence: which way does the evidence point? Given all that is known so far about how brains and minds work and interact, and given the lack of any real evidence of minds that exist independently of brains, how can I conclude anything but that matter is fundamental to mind, that without matter, mind could not exist?
There are such things as real emergent properties. Even on the purely physical level, water, for example, is in one sense nothing but a bunch of H2O molecules, but it has properties and capabilities that those molecules do not have. How can such properties just arise out of elements that do not specifically contain these properties? Water is not just the molecules that comprise it; it is also the active interaction of those molecules with each other in a system we perceive as and call “water,” with its properties such as wetness being produced by that system. Atoms actively bond, or fail to bond, with one another in systematic ways, and the resulting molecules do the same with each other. Those interactions are only there potentially in individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but they are activated when those atoms and molecules are in conjunction with one another under certain conditions. That, I think, is where the commonly stated critique of what could be called “materialism” (the objection that “there is more to it than that”) falls short: it fails to recognize that physical things can do stuff, that matter interacts with itself, and it can do this because it has energy as an essential component of itself, it is energy in another form. This includes brains, and their neurons and synapses.
Now, this is where religious believers seem constantly to misunderstand my perspective. As a Christian, I had thought that there must be more to it all than matter in motion. I thought that to deny the reality of the spiritual realm was to ignore the most significant and important part of being human, or even to reject it completely, to pretend it isn’t there. A solely material world? There is obviously more to it than that. But a “materialist” most certainly need not ignore this or pretend it is not there. Call it “spiritual,” call it “consciousness,” call it “subjectivity,” it is something all humans are capable of, and increasingly so as they grow and mature. I do not say “all is physical” in the sense of denying the spiritual/conscious/subjective/whatever, and, in spite of what so many religious believers tend to think, I wonder whether anyone really says that. How could they? Just by thinking the thought one proves that thought exists; by making the effort to expound upon it one proves that one values thought. What I do say is that all this is the product of the physical. The mental, subjectivity, what is commonly labeled as the spiritual realm, in all its wonderfulness and centrality to being human, is part of what the physical is capable of. A mind is not some “thing,” or some sort of separately existing spiritual “nonthing.” “Mind” is not so much a noun as it is a verb. Mind is an activity of a brain. Minding is something brains do. Minds are as real as baseball games, but they are no more separate from brains than baseball games are from the players, coaches, and umpires who play them. And, like the players playing a baseball game, the matter that performs this minding is in turn affected by the performance: the activity of minding results in changes and effects to the matter performing the activity that would not be the case for this matter if it were not minding. Just as baseball games make a difference to those playing them, minds make a difference in and to the material world. This realization is what led me to conclude that there is a lot more to this “matter in motion” stuff than I had previously realized. My spiritual journey had taken me back into the material world, and led me to realize that my “spirit” is a product of that material world, spirit is created out of that world. My spiritual journey, then, was both out of and into the material world. It led me to realize that the “more to it than that” is already all there in the “that.”
This was further confirmed by what I was learning about evolution, both (in brief) in these classes and (extensively) on my own outside of classes. I had not thought about that topic since before I began to have doubts about Christianity, i.e., back when I was a creationist and all I had read about the subject was written by creationists. I started reading about the real science of evolution, and realized how completely off base the creationists are, how very little they understand about evolution, and how very much they distorted evolution. I’m not going to put forth an explanation and defense of evolution here, since there is already plenty on this subject (see for example Talk.Origins) and, as with any science, it takes some studying to get a handle on it. But I will say that, once you have studied the evidence, to claim that the evidence points to creationism and against evolution is as ridiculous as to claim that the Bible has no contradictions, errors, or absurdities. Again, you might as well base your arguments on the claim that no birds can fly. I’ve seen them fly, so I cannot take your arguments seriously. If the truth of Christianity is incompatible with the truth of evolution, then so much the worse for Christianity. The majority of contemporary Christians, however, recognize the reality of evolution and have found ways to accommodate it within their religious beliefs. If evangelical Christians and other creationists would do the same, I and others who recognize the reality of evolution could at least have the option of seriously considering their version of religion; as it is, I can no longer take seriously the religion I so fervently used to believe–even if I wanted to try.
I have found that the Christianity I used to accept and believe can no longer account for, contain, embrace, my experiences and reality and life as I see it. It can consistently account for a wide range of phenomena, but I have found too much that does not fit. It cannot explain how believers in other religions can have the same experiences of abundance. It cannot explain, in itself, how some believers do not experience this sort of abundance. It does not account for how a morally-perfect God would allow innocent infants to suffer horribly from a debilitating disease (at least not without discounting any meaning or point to this life and such occurrences in this life, yet it is supposed to be what provides this life with meaning). Many theists have proposed answers to this “Problem of Evil,” or “Problem of Pain,” the question of why bad things happen to good people, but when pushed, the answers invariably appeal to something along the lines of a “mystery of the faith,” or “God’s ways are not our ways,” or some such response admitting that we cannot fully account for such things, at least not in theistic terms. I used to think that God was so obvious, and that nothing would make any sense without God. But, I found I had to admit, we theists kept having to resort to the mysteries of the faith and noting that God’s ways are not our ways. Did we really have answers, or just the faith (groundless hope?) that there were answers somewhere, even if we cannot understand them or do not have access to them? I used to believe, with all my heart, that Christianity (and my church’s version of it) was the only way to make sense of the world. But, as my mind was beginning to ask, why then are we still stuck with all these “mysteries of the faith”?
I have found that a naturalistic universe in which brains can evolve to produce minds does a much better job of accounting for all this: there is not some cosmic conscious reason (in the sense of a consciously intentional purpose) for such things as the suffering of innocents; rather, stuff just happens, and some of it happens to be harmful to us. No need to try to get a conscious God off the hook for the suffering of innocents. No need to appeal to mystery, for there is nothing mysterious behind the physical world; it’s all the physical world. The Bible is not the inspired word of a perfect God, thus it makes sense that Paul and James disagree on how faith, works and how salvation relates, the writers of Chronicles and Samuel have different takes on what happened, and the writers of the histories were just attempting to justify their barbaric treatment of their neighbors/enemies. Believers in a variety of religions, or in no religion at all, can find meaning and purpose and life-changing experiences, because humans are capable of finding or creating meaning and purpose and of growing and maturing. And physical brains can evolve to produce minds, minds which can experience and care about the world and other minds in it, and care enough to do good and great things to help themselves and others to flourish, and to find meaning, purpose, and a deep satisfaction in doing so. The “more to it than that” was already in the “that.” I found it far easier to account for good in the world without God than to account for bad in the world with God. Thus, I am no longer a Christian, or even a theist: God has become an unnecessary hypothesis.
My increasing understanding of “creation” was leaving increasingly less room for a theistic god who is involved in his creation, until there was no room at all. By now, the world I had gotten to know had grown far too large for my previous religious beliefs to encompass it, either on a personal level or a more general level. Not only did I have, on a personal level, the counterexamples of people finding satisfaction in religions other than mine or without the help of religion at all. More generally, the world itself was too vast for the small show of Christianity, especially in terms of biology and astronomy. From biology, I learned how wondrously amazing the human species is. But I also learned that we are far from uniquely so. Cats, canaries, cockroaches, and cactuses, along with tens of millions of other species past and present, are all just as wondrously amazing. As special as we may seem to ourselves, there is, objectively speaking, nothing all that special about us in comparison to other life forms. Sure, we have our unique qualities, but we are not unique in that: so many other species have so many unique qualities, too. And then from astronomy I learned how unimaginably vast the universe is. Our sun is but one star among a hundred billion in our galaxy, which itself is but one among a hundred billion galaxies dancing with one another in enormous clusters. As the physicist Richard Feynman observed, “It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil–which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.” It’s not about you. It’s not about us. To think that we are a central concern to the universe strikes me as utterly and absurdly hubristic, as well as being just plain absurd.
But still, one may object, why is this wondrous universe here? Without God there can be no ultimate answer to why things are the way they are. Where, for example, did the physical world come from? How did it get here? Why is it the way it is? Ultimately all I can resort to on my view is just to say that “well, that’s just the way things are, it’s just a brute, unexplainable fact, it just is.” Appealing to God is supposed to get around that problem, because God is the ultimate “why” behind everything. And even if it is a mystery to us, even if we do not understand the “why,” at least we have the “why,” whereas in a godless universe we do not even have a mysterious “why.”
But does God really provide an ultimate “why,” or does he just push the problem back one step? Where did God come from? How did he get here? He is self-existing, you say? Well, why couldn’t the physical universe be self-existing? What’s stopping it? Are there standards beyond the physical universe which make a self-existing physical universe impossible? Whence those standards? Why couldn’t the standards be such that they would allow a self-existing physical universe? What’s stopping them? Other metastandards? Well, why couldn’t they. And on and on. If God doesn’t need a “why” behind him, then why would the physical universe need a “why” behind it?
Ultimately, there can be no answer to the question of “why is there something rather than nothing.” To answer that question, you would have to appeal to something. But then the question can be asked of that something. The only other alternative is to have nothing to appeal to. God does not get around this difficulty. If God exists, he is something, and you can ask the same of this something: “Why God?” To say “God exists necessarily” is to appeal to some standard or set of standards according to which God’s existence is necessary, i.e., you are appealing to something beyond God to explain his necessity, and you could ask “why” of those standards. But, the theist responds, God is his own ground of his own necessity. All that response says is that if God exists, he exists necessarily. If he does not exist, however, there is nothing which necessitates his existence. Or, if God can be his own ground of his own necessity, why couldn’t the physical universe exist necessarily and be its own ground for its own necessity? What’s stopping it? Nothing! For something to be necessary, it must appeal to some external standard according to which it is necessary, something else must be necessitating it, otherwise its existence, including the conditions of its existence, is ultimately unconditional and entirely arbitrary.
Another way to put this is to say that reason alone cannot tell you what exists, in fact reason alone can do nothing. Pure formal logic is only about the structure of arguments, it says nothing about the content. Reason can tell you that if this set of premises is true, then these conclusions must follow. But then you still have to demonstrate the proof of these premises. If you use reason to do so, then those premises become conclusions to another argument based on another set of premises. If those premises are true, then the premises in your initial argument are true. But that is another ‘if,’ another conditional. How do you demonstrate those premises are true? Either you have an endless regress of conditional arguments, or you have to appeal to a brute fact of existence, that something just is, no reason for it. Reason reveals its own limits. Reason can tell you the conclusions you can draw from the evidence, what worldview you can consistently get out of it, what interpretations are consistent and supportable by the evidence you have managed to gather and what interpretations are not consistent with reality, but it cannot ultimately determine what that existence is or say what it should be. Reality is not subject to a worldview; rather, worldviews are subject to reality. Reality determines reason, not vice versa.
Whatever ultimately exists, then, is utterly unconditional, it is entirely arbitrary, there is and can be nothing necessitating or prohibiting its existence, nor anything regulating the character of its existence, i.e., there is no reason for or against it. It just is, a brute, ultimately arbitrary, fact. There is, then, ultimately nothing that would either necessitate or prohibit one form or another of the Christian God’s existence. Nor is there ultimately anything that would either necessitate or prohibit any other god(s), or a self-existing physical universe in which minds could evolve. The question of what ultimately exists, and what its nature is, thus cannot be solved solely through reason or a priori arguments. It is a matter of empirical fact, and can only be answered by appealing to, by examining and studying, whatever it is. If you examine reality and find a God, fine, God exists. If you find a physical universe in which minds can evolve and you find no objective evidence of a God existing anywhere outside of his believers’ minds, fine, you are in a godless universe.
Seeing no reliable objective evidence that a god exists outside of believers’ minds, I had to conclude that there is no good reason to believe that there is an objectively existing god, and that, despite my previous utter certainty that I had a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ the Creator of the Universe, it was all a product of my mind under the influence of parents, preachers, and Sunday school teachers. I had to conclude that “God” is not anything “out there,” objectively existing, but is a mislabeling or misunderstanding of our highest and deepest subjective capacities. I certainly do not claim that the phenomena commonly referred to as “God” do not exist. My claim is that “God” is a serious mislabeling and misunderstanding of them. In a way, then, I still believe in God. I believe in the existence of experiences of what most people call experiences of God. They are deep, profound, powerfully moving experiences. But to call them experiences of God, or the gods, is a socially learned interpretation of these private, subjective experiences. I see and feel the evidence of the reality of these experiences. As evidence that God-beliefs are socially learned interpretations of these experiences, it is obvious that the vast majority of people believe some form of the religion (or one of, or some combination of, the religions) they grew up with. There are conversions to totally different religious traditions, but they are relatively rare, and they go in all directions. Yes, Muslims have become Christians, but Christians have become Muslims, and both have become Buddhists, and Buddhists have become. . . . Most conversions are to another form of the same religion, or, as with most born-again Christians, are a conscious and deliberate personal dedication and serious commitment to the religion one grew up with. But I see no reliable, testable, verifiable evidence of a conscious entity out there which is external to the minds of experiencers and which causes or induces these experiences. I think these experiences can be accounted for without resort to appealing to such an entity, so I see no reason to posit the existence of such an entity.
But how can most people be wrong about this? And how can I have the audacity to claim they are? Well, given that, as I pointed out earlier, most notions of God or the gods must be at least somewhat mistaken, it is not much of a stretch to make the claim that they all are. Besides, anyone who makes any claim at all about who or what God is has this same audacity to claim to know better than all those other people who believe differently. So I’m not really doing anything unusual in making such a claim. In fact, making such a claim is pretty much unavoidable if you are going to talk about God at all.
Often at some point in discussions I have with theists, they see that reason, logic, and evidence are not working for them, so they appeal to faith. They say I am approaching God in the wrong way. God, belief in him, and following him are a matter of faith. Hebrews 11:1 says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The Amplified Bible, which tries to include all the nuances of the original in its translation, puts this as “FAITH is the assurance (the confirmation, the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].” That is how we know God.
This used to sound profound to me. Now it sounds like groundless wish-fulfillment. It does not work, for two reasons. First, faith in this sense can be used to “justify” believe in just about anything at all. It is a notoriously poor guide to truth. There are no correcting mechanisms for errors other than one’s own subjective feelings, which have demonstrated themselves to be far from reliable indicators of objective truth. On the other hand, only some beliefs can be supported sufficiently by evidence and reason; many are ruled out, and false beliefs can be reliably corrected. Using a combination of evidence and reason has shown itself to be far more effective as a means to come to far more reliable conclusions about reality. As the saying goes, “it is said that faith moves mountains, but experience shows that bulldozers are more effective.”
Put a hundred scientists to work on a problem, and yes they may all start out with different hypotheses and discover, interpret, and reinterpret facts in different ways along the way, but they eventually come to a consensus on an answer, and the answer will be one we can effectively use. Scientists from all around the world, regardless of religious beliefs or cultural practices or even previous scientific conclusions were convinced by heliocentrism (Earth revolves around the Sun rather than vice-versa), by plate tectonics (continental plates float around, and this creating mountain chains and volcanoes), by evolution, etc., etc., because of the evidence that they can test and verify themselves. Put a hundred theologians to work on a question by using faith, however, and though they may all start out from the same religious perspective, you will end up with at least a hundred denominations, factions, and even new religions (all with their own denominations and factions), and there will be no objective, reliable way to decide between them.
Yes, what science tells us does keep changing. The weekly New York Times Science section, for example, always reports new discoveries and disputes and challenges and the like. But that is because scientists work at the edge of their knowledge. They do not keep going over the things they have already settled. Yes, science changes, but it changes by improving. What science tells us today is not what it said yesterday because it has more, better, and better understood evidence than it did yesterday. Unlike religious belief, science is self-correcting. Science does not, and probably never will, give us perfect or perfectly reliable knowledge, but it is far more reliable than its competitors. It may not be what we ideally would want, but, as far as I can tell, it’s the best we’ve actually got. Theology, on the other hand, typically tells us what our parents believed, often with some minor variations, occasionally with large variations, with conversions going in all sorts of directions, increasingly less consensus over time, and nothing to go on but subjective interpretations, what “feels” right to a particular believer. With those track records to compare, I’ll go with science’s evidence without certainty over religion’s certainty without evidence.
A second reason for not resorting to faith to believe in God’s existence is that this sense of “faith” does not even make sense. Faith is in something like a person’s character, not in a person’s existence, and even that faith is based on evidence. For example, I have faith in my wife, by which I mean that I believe her to be a trustworthy person whom I can rely on and depend on. I do not have faith that she exists. I know she exists. I also know how she has acted in the past, I know a lot about her character. And on the basis of that knowledge, I believe I can safely rely on her being dependable in the future. In the case of God, you cannot have faith that he exists. His existence would be a matter of knowledge. Faith would come into play only after the knowledge of his existence and character. Faith in God can come only after I have knowledge first that he exists; after that can come faith in his character. And even that would require some sort of objective and publicly verifiable evidence. Subjective experiences which can be interpreted as being experiences of a divine presence in or around or somehow affecting me are too unreliable as evidence of objective reality. Without some means of objectively confirming those interpretations, I have nothing more than any other theist with a subjective experience interpreted according to some variation of some religious tradition.
A defense of faith that I have often heard is that we all have to have faith in some things. Faith of some sort is unavoidable. No one can absolutely prove everything one believes. And even, for example, the simple act of sitting in a chair, since we cannot know for sure that the chair will not break this time, is an act of faith. But that is an example of faith as going just a bit beyond the evidence, taking the evidence a little bit further but in the same direction. The chair has always worked before, it feels structurally sound as I pull it from the table, its legs are all there and still attached, and I see no evidence that it will no longer work as it has. So I conclude from the evidence that the chair will work. If you want to say I have faith in my conclusion from that evidence, fine, I have faith, a faith that takes the evidence a bit further in the direction it points. But faith in the existence of a god is faith that goes against the evidence. If there were evidence of God’s existence, faith in that existence would not be necessary, since we would know he exists. The very fact that faith in God’s existence is necessary to believe that God exists means that this faith is going against the evidence.
About the only thing I can think of that could be construed as evidence that, if taken a bit further in the direction it points, would point to God is the deep and profound subjective experiences typically labeled as being experiences of God. And I know what it is like to feel what is so commonly labeled “the divine,” and to label it as such, to believe it to be experiences of an objective reality beyond me. I know what it is like to believe that I am in communion with God Himself. I know what it is like to believe with all my heart that I am living daily in the presence of God. And I still have such deeply moving experiences now. Yet now my understanding of them is fundamentally different. Given all the different religious interpretations of these experiences, and given the lack of any objective evidence that there is some other conscious entity existing outside of our minds which causes these experiences, I can no longer interpret them as I used to. And that changes the experiences in fundamental ways. Changing my interpretation of those experiences, changing how I understand them, changed the way I experience them. The way I experience life is different. I still have those deep and profound subjective experiences; but to experience them as if they were experiences of God is utterly foreign to me now. Like many former theists I have talked with, my deconversion experience was like waking up from a vivid dream, a dream that felt so real to me while I was experiencing it, but then its dreamlike nature was obvious once I woke up, and I wondered how it felt so real when I was dreaming it. Like such a dream, it still felt somewhat real and compelling as I was still waking up, but the more awake I got, the less real and the more dreamlike it seemed. Now, it is like remembering such a dream in the late afternoon and thinking, “wow, that was a weird dream.”
Building a New World
But what do I do next? Where do I go from here? What do I replace my previous religious beliefs with? Uncle Nick and many others showed me that it is possible to live well without a god. But how?
Before my born-again experience, I was without an overarching theme for my life, a general understanding that could encompass my life and experiences and make sense of it as a whole. Christianity gave me a reason for it all, a way to understand it all, not just something specific in life but the whole thing. As a young child, however, my lack of an overarching worldview was not a great concern. The thought of having an overarching worldview had never occurred to me, so the lack of one did not bother me. But it sure was a powerful feeling to acquire one. As my Christian worldview was crumbling, I was once again without a worldview. This time, though, it was a painful experience. And once again it was a very powerful feeling when the framework for a new worldview came together. Ironically, for those who learned how to interpret their conversion, or commitment, to Christianity as a “born-again” experience, that experience is the best analogy I can think of to convey what I felt when I was born a third time as a “naturalist” (to attempt to give it a label). I was no longer lost in a sea of confusion, unable to make heads or tails of life, the universe, anything. I had a theme, an understanding, a coherent perspective. And it certainly was a powerful, positive feeling.
Like my conversion/commitment to Christianity, though, it was just the framework of a coherent worldview. There were still many details to work out. For me, the two biggest questions were morality and meaning. Without God, what basis is there for either of them?
After my deconversion, I was still moral and I took morality seriously, and I knew atheists who lived admirable lives. So there was obviously something making that possible. But I had always understood morality in terms of God. Was there a secular, a naturalistic, basis for morality? I was finding it much more difficult to come up with an account of morality than when I could just appeal to “God said so.”
Yet, in retrospect, just how good was that account? “God” said so? Or, God’s followers say God said so? As I noted earlier, in matters of morality God seems always invariably to agree with his followers, even when they so vehemently disagree with one another. I have never found a believer who claims to disagree with God on a moral position. They always say God disagrees with others, but not with themselves. Or perhaps that God told me I was wrong on a point previously, but he changed my mind and now we are in agreement. But look at the other guy’s life: he’s all messed up, so God must disagree with him. But the other guy will say no, God agrees with me, and that is why Satan is attacking me and not you: Satan sees that I am doing God’s real work, and doing it effectively, so he is trying to impede me. Or, God is allowing it (as he did with the righteous Job) to develop my Christian character, or to teach me to depend on Him more, or whatever. So, anything can be interpreted as being in accordance with God’s will or blessing. And God can justify anything. Even killing your own children. Abraham was willing to kill his son at God’s command, and, according to James 2:21, he was considered righteous for doing so. In Judges 11, Jephthah was actually allowed to go through with killing his daughter for God. How could, for example, Andrea Yeats really have known it was not God telling her to kill her children? According to the Bible, God did it before, and counted it as righteousness to be willing to do so. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” even if the command is to commit genocide (1 Samuel 15).
What, then is really behind a Christian’s, or any theist’s, morality? What, if anything, is behind God’s morality, for that matter? Does he have reasons for the moral commands he gives us, or are they just groundless, arbitrary whims on his part? If he had reasons, then what are those reasons? To what did he appeal to justify saying that X is good or right and Y is bad or wrong? And, if he had reasons, then why can’t we just bypass God and appeal to the reasons ourselves? If he had no reasons, if X is right or wrong merely because he says so, if his moral rules are just his arbitrary subjective whims, then what makes them any better than our arbitrary subjective whims, besides his superior power to enforce them? Does might make right? If not, what does?
Before you answer that the standards are derived from, or emanate from, or are a part of his character or his being, keep in mind that the same sort of thing can be asked of his character. Could his character, or his being, have been different? If not, what constrains his character, and why couldn’t we just bypass God and appeal to whatever standards he must live up to? If so, if his being could have been any way at all and whatever emanated from it would be “good” and “right” by definition, what makes this any better, or any less arbitrary, a ground for morality than anything else? If you are familiar with Plato’s Euthyphro, you probably recognize that these questions are from that dialog, which, as I mentioned earlier, was one of the first books I read in a philosophy class. When I first read it, I was still very much a Christian, and one who believed that God and goodness are in some way fundamentally related. I was so wedded to that view that I did not really get the full significance of Plato’s argument. But now I was able to see it in a very different light.
The way I see it, morality must be independent of God and his commands and character, or it is just a case of might makes right. Either there are real standards for a real morality which even God must meet, or God’s rules become the real, objective, absolute morality only because he’s the biggest, baddest mutha on the block and thus he can enforce his morality the way he wants to. I agree that morality is independent of our unconstrained choice: I cannot arbitrarily choose for raping my neighbors’ wives to be good. But I also have to conclude that morality, if it is real, must also be independent of God’s choice, for the same reasons. Or, do you think that God could make raping my neighbors’ wives a good thing? If not, why not, what constrains him and his character? If so, then how are his arbitrary and unconstrained moral choices any better than mine?
But what, then, underlies morality? Is morality objective or subjective? Typically, evangelical theists argue, and I used to believe, that morality is objective, otherwise it is just based on arbitrary, groundless whims, and I could not argue that, for example, the Nazis were bad and wrong. It would be a matter of opinion, i.e., arbitrary whim. That obviously is not the case. Thus, morality must be objective. And ‘objective,’ according to this view, means ‘absolute,’ true at all times for all beings. This, however, is a false dichotomy. It is pointing out two extremes on a long continuum of possibilities and pretending that the extremes are the only possibilities. Typically, such views also conflate ideas that are separate: ‘real,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘absolute’ are often used interchangeably in explicating this view. But these ideas are quite different. Something can be real without being objective, and something can be objective without being absolute. It is not difficult to show that morality is real. But you cannot then jump immediately to saying that it is therefore objective, and thus also absolute, and thus dependent on God.
Morality, as I understand it, is real, and it does have objective elements in it. ‘Objective,’ however, does not mean ‘absolute.’ The word ‘objective’ in other contexts means something along the lines of “of or having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept, idea, or belief.” But when the term ‘morality’ is tacked onto it, ‘objective’ often switches to mean something along the lines of ‘absolute.’ But by the standard definition of ‘objective,’ a divine command ethicist is actually arguing for a thoroughly subjective notion of ethics: it is dependent on the mind, or the personality, of God, based on his decisions or his character. By the standard definition of ‘objective,’ this makes morality not objective, as it is entirely a mental concept, even if the mind in question is the mind of God. What objective moralists tend to mean by ‘objective’ would be better labeled as ‘absolute,’ i.e., applying to everyone at all times and circumstances. A thoroughly subjective morality backed by an omnipotent god would be absolute, but it would not be objective.
Morality, as I understand it, also has subjective elements in it, and those elements are no less real for being subjective. ‘Subjective’ refers to something having to do with mental concepts, ideas, or beliefs. ‘Subjective’ does not mean arbitrary or groundless or frivolous. Something subjective may be frivolous, but it can also be quite serious. My love for my son is subjective, but it is far from frivolous. ‘Subjective’ also does not mean that it is open to our choice. I could not possibly choose not to love my son. A friend’s betrayal of my trust may not objectively, materially, harm me at all, but I will certainly feel bad, I will experience negative emotions, I will be subjectively hurt. And my ability to trust this friend, and perhaps even to trust others, will be harmed. That harm I experience, though purely subjective, is real, and it is not a matter of choice.
Morality, as I understand it, is also relative, i.e., it is not independent of who the moral agent is, nor of the situation in which the moral agent is acting. An act such as killing someone or rebelling against the government may be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. Killing in self-defense is justifiable. Killing, performing the same act, in other circumstances, may be unjustified, i.e., murder. To appeal to circumstances to justify or condemn an act is to say that the morality of the act is relative to the situation. But, relative to that particular situation, an act may be clearly right or wrong. Its relativity does not diminish the reality of its rightness or wrongness.
Morality, as I understand it, is also not a matter of black and white. Black and white do exist in the moral realm, but they are on a spectrum with a gradation of grays between. An act may indeed be clearly right or wrong, but it may also be a case where the different circumstances involved point in different directions. What, for example, constitutes self-defense? Do I, or someone else, have to be in immediate danger of being killed? Or can, say, a battered wife preemptively kill her husband whom she legitimately fears will kill her later if she does not take the opportunity to kill him first? Can a nation justifiably preemptively attack another nation which it perceives as a threat? What if it is only possible that the attacker might kill me, but I am not sure? How sure do I have to be that killing is the only way to defend my life before I am justified in killing an attacker? Can I kill in self-defense if my life is not in danger and I am only in danger of being raped? How about if I am only in danger of being beaten up? Can I kill to defend my property, if for example a thief does not stop trying to drive off with my car when I point a gun at him and tell him to stop? The reality of black or white cases, cases where the rightness or wrongness of an action is clear, does not mean that there are not also cases where the rightness or wrongness of an action is really, legitimately, unclear and debatable. To pretend that dark gray is black and that light gray is white is to make poor and inaccurate moral judgments in those cases, and it would make your decisions in cases of medium gray completely arbitrary as well as inappropriate.
In other words, I am claiming that morality has both objective and subjective elements, that it is relative, and often unclear, and yet it is real and it is not arbitrary, there are standards for making better or worse moral choices, and, most importantly, that it is not dependent at all on God. To explain how this can be the case, let’s start with a thought experiment:
Whatever the reason for its wrongness, rape is wrong. I think those who argue for a God-dependent morality would agree with me on that. I think they could also agree at least in general to a definition of rape as forcing someone to have sex against one’s will. A typical God-based moralist would claim that rape is wrong because of an absolute unchanging moral standard that is based or dependent somehow on God and not based or dependent on humans. This, however, would mean that its wrongness is independent of what happens to be beneficial or harmful, i.e., good or bad, for humans. I claim that rape is wrong because it causes all sorts of real, actual harm to everyone, including the rapist, while providing no benefit to anyone other than a minor, short term feeling of power or experience of sex for the rapist. Certainly the victim suffers much harm, possibly physical (objective) harm and definitely lots of mental (subjective) harm. And the subjective harm is no less real for being subjective. Other women, who now know that there is a rapist on the loose, suffer because of the fear that it could happen to them. Men suffer, too: the victim’s husband, father, sons, brothers, etc., are all hurt and angered that someone they love and care for has suffered so much. Other men realize that their wives, daughters, etc., are in danger. Even the rapist probably has family members who could be victims of another rapist. The rapist has at least harmed himself in that by acting on such impulses, he becomes, or reveals himself to be, so dangerous. He thus cuts himself off from the society on which he depends for his own well being.
But suppose we were a very different sort of animal. Suppose that if they wanted to have children, women had to be raped, i.e., suppose that for some physiological reason women could not get pregnant if they had sex willingly. Suppose further that women never wanted to have sex initially, but once forced to start they enjoyed it and were glad they were forced to begin. In this, it would be like exercising is for me: I hate to start, but once I get going I enjoy it and I’m glad I did it. Suppose that, because of the awareness that once one is forced to start sex it will soon be enjoyable, that women suffered no fear or other psychological harm worrying about whether they will become a victim. Suppose it did not matter who initiated the sex, they would still find it enjoyable, and that it did not matter to anyone if one’s spouse had sex with someone else. And that only a woman’s husband could cause her to get pregnant, and only when they both wanted her to become pregnant. And there was no such thing as sexually transmitted diseases. Add a supposition that, like exercise, forced sex greatly increased one’s physical well being and made one healthier and happier. And suppose that for some other physiological reason men could not properly perform sexually unless they started by forcing a woman to have sex, i.e., men could not respond to a willing partner. Suppose, in other words, we were a very different sort of animal such that rape actually had a long list of beneficial effects and few or no bad ones.
If all this were the case, wouldn’t rape, i.e., forcing someone to have sex against one’s will, be something good? Kind of like forcing a smoker to quit smoking? If we were this type of animal, whether God created us this way or we evolved this way (this view of morality is independent of whether God exists, and many theists agree on these or similar grounds that morality is independent of God, i.e., that the divine command theory of morality is wrong), would God have to declare that rape is good, perhaps even obligatory, since the benefits are so much greater than the harms? If so, that would mean that morality depends on what happens to be good or bad, beneficial or harmful, for humans, on what promotes or hinders human flourishing, and that we determine the morality of an act based on its cumulative good or bad effects. Or, would God still have to say that rape is bad because it is bad according to an unchanging absolute principle which is independent of humans and what sort of creatures we are? In which case we would have to do things that are ultimately bad for us just because they happen to be in accordance with some absolute standard which is independent of us and which has nothing essential to do with us, a standard which is, from our perspective, entirely arbitrary.
Yes, “good” and “bad” are real. And yes, morality is real. And there are at least some objective elements to morality, there is an at least partially objective basis for moral decisions. There are real standards of behavior, there is at least some agreement to what these standards are, and we recognize these facts. But this does not mean that morality is absolute, unchanging, and dependent on God. It is due to the fact that we are one sort of being and not another. Correspondingly, there are some things that are good for us, that benefit us and contribute to our well being, and other things that harm us. In this, we are like trees. A certain amount of sunlight and rain benefits trees: they can thrive and grow as healthy trees. Too little water, however, or temperatures too cold or too hot, will harm and even kill them. Also like us, there is a rather wide range of amounts of sunlight, rain, and warmth in which trees can thrive, and a very wide and fuzzy border between beneficial and harmful conditions. Further, like us, that range and those borders are different for different trees and in different environments. This means that good and bad consequences are both real (the trees, and we, really are benefited by some things and harmed by others) and relative (what things cause benefit and harm depend on the individuals and the overall situation they are in).
The significant difference between trees and us is that we can think, we are consciously aware of what is going on, and we can also act, we can move around and do things. When we act, our actions have consequences. Since we can think, we are consciously aware of our responsibility for the consequences of our actions. I use ‘responsible’ here in a morally neutral sense, in the sense that a bolt of lightning can be said to be responsible for, i.e., the cause of, a forest fire. Combine thinking and acting, and we can imagine doing different acts and at least roughly approximate the probable results of those acts. This is what allows us to choose to do one thing rather than another. So, in addition to this awareness of responsibility for the consequences of our actions, we are aware of our responsibility for the consequences of how we choose to act. We are not just aware of consequences, we can choose those consequences. This is where responsibility in the moral sense comes in. We can hold ourselves and others morally responsible for our actions.
But where does the morality itself come from? Not from just what naturally is, I’ll grant that. I am not trying to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is,’ i.e., trying to say that because something is a certain way that it therefore should be that way. Rather, morality comes (in part) from what could be. That is, I can imagine taking different actions in a particular situation, and I can, with a more or less reliable degree of accuracy, calculate the probable consequences of those actions. Certain actions will result in beneficial consequences for myself, other individuals, and the society on which we all depend for our well being, i.e., certain actions will be more likely to promote human flourishing. Certain other actions will likely result in harm. But which of those results we try for, i.e., what could be, is up to us. Benefit or harm: it’s our choice. Right actions are those which result in beneficial consequences, wrong acts result in bad consequences.
Or, rather, it would be more accurate to say “better” or “worse” actions than “right” or “wrong” actions. As I pointed out, there is a wide range of consequences that can to varying degrees promote human flourishing, and that range is contingent on the individuals and situations involved. What really does benefit some people in some situations really would cause harm to others in that situation, or even to those some in a different situation. Real standards for real moral decisions, but they are relative to the situations. But that undercuts a significant pillar on which God-based morality stands.
Further, with humans, good or bad consequences can be subjective, too. I can be emotionally harmed as well as physically harmed by another’s actions. And the harm is no less real for being subjective. To say that if morality is subjective then it is arbitrary, groundless, or frivolous is to deny the reality and significance of subjectivity, of the mental or emotional or “spiritual” side of humans. Ironically, though, as I pointed out earlier, theists often fault “materialists” for denying precisely this, yet they do so themselves if they say that a subjective morality, a morality of and dependent on mind, is frivolous. Subjectivity is real, and it is far from frivolous. So, from the reality of morality it does not necessarily follow that morality is objective. It can be subjective (or at least have subjective elements) and still be real. But that undercuts another significant pillar on which God-based morality stands.
Another problem is that “good” is not fully commensurable. In other words, things that are good are not always compatible with one another. What is good for some may at the same time be harmful to others; do you sacrifice the good of some to prevent harm to others, or do you allow harm to others to achieve the good for some? It is good to uphold justice, to mete out rewards and punishments as they are deserved. But it is also good to be merciful, to grant an undeserved reprieve to someone who seems to have learned his lesson and desires to reform. It is good to tell a negative truth to someone if a lack of awareness of that truth would cause harm, but it is bad to hurt someone’s feelings by telling that truth. Moral dilemmas are not about good versus evil. That is not a moral dilemma, that is a dilemma of will, of choosing what you know is right. A moral dilemma is when you have to choose between two competing goods, or when you have to choose between two unavoidable evils, or when it is unclear whether a certain set of consequences is good or bad, or when it is clear that a particular consequence is both good and bad. So, goodness is not unified, either. Nor is “good” always obvious. We cannot accurately predict all the probable consequences of an action or the precise probability of those consequences, and even when we can it is often difficult to judge how good or bad, how beneficial or harmful, those consequences are. Sometimes we do not and cannot with confidence know what is definitively right even if there is a definitive right. Other times we can know with confidence that there is no definitive right. And this undercuts yet another significant pillar on which God-based morality stands.
But what of the ‘oughtness’ of morality, i.e., that which is generally taken to be the essence, or at least a significant part of the essence, of morality? C.S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity) says of this ‘oughtness’ that it is something “urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong. I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. . . .” All right, so it comes, as he admits, from mind. In other words, the ‘oughtness’ of morality, that which is at the essence of morality, is subjective. Even if, as Lewis goes on to claim, that mind is the mind of God. By definition, mind is subjectivity. But does it need to come from the mind of God? Why couldn’t it come from our own minds? After all, if what is “moral” is what promotes human flourishing, then being moral is to function well as a human. It is just a description of how humans function well. Given our evolved abilities to act and to think and to think about acting, it would make perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint for us to have also evolved a capacity to care about all this, that we would want to do the sorts of things that would likely tend to promote our well-being, and the well-being of the other individuals and the society we depend on for our own well-being. Oughtness comes from caring. All the above about beneficial and harmful consequences, about acts promoting or hindering human flourishing, about choices being better or worse, all may be true, but it does not matter if you do not care. But if you care, it matters to you. And the more you care, the more deeply it matters. You feel strongly that you should act in ways to benefit whatever you care about. In other words, you feel you ought to do some things and ought not to do others.
But, one may ask, why should I care in the first place? Well, if ‘should’ is a form of ‘ought,’ and ‘ought’ is dependent on care, then without care, there is no ‘ought’ or ‘should.’ You will in fact be much more likely to live a better, healthier, happier life if you care than if you do not. But that does not matter if you do not care. If you do not care, there really is nothing to force you to care; even if there were a ‘should,’ it could not have an effect on you. ‘Should’ presupposes caring. But this is not a problem just for this nontheistic, naturalistic account of morality. Without caring, not even God, not even the threat of hell, could provide you with an effective ‘should.’ If I do not care whether I wind up in heaven or hell, even those ultimate rewards or punishments will not give me a reason to be moral.
So how do we start to care? Where does caring come from? As far as I can tell, it is a natural capacity, a natural potentiality that is not too difficult to activate. At least, it is not difficult to begin to activate it. To continue to grow that capacity, to cultivate it such that it will effectively serve more productive ends more conducive to the flourishing of life, is another, more difficult matter, a matter of moral training. But the initial leverage appears to be relatively easy to activate. Again, this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as well as from the perspective that God created us: a natural capacity to care about our own well being and the well being of others is a fundamental necessity for intelligent social animals to achieve that well being. We care, and so, based on our beliefs about what acts will lead to what consequences, we feel we ought to do some things and not to do other things.
All this, I think, does a much better job of explaining and accounting for the differences people feel in how this oughtness is compelling us to act than does the God-based view of morality. It also does a much better job of explaining the incommensurability of good, and the difficulty and disagreements we often have of determining what really would be good in a certain situation. In addition, it can account for being able to say that some moral choices and standards really are better than others: some really do tend to result in more real benefit and less real harm than others. Further, we really can be mistaken in our calculations of what actions will lead to benefit or harm, and in what consequences would actually be beneficial or harmful in the first place. I do have real grounds, objective and subjective, for saying that the Nazis got a few things wrong in their moral calculations. And all this without appealing to any gods.
But why, then, would we ever be immoral? If morality is doing that which promotes our well-being, why would we go against it? To answer that, I’ll start by saying that I think there is something to the Christian doctrine of original sin. It does point to something real about us, though its account of that something is, I believe, off the mark. We are born ignorant. We enter the world ignorant of causes and effects, and unaware of the reality of others’ subjectivity. We arrive viewing the world from a narrow, short-sighted, self-centered perspective, not caring or even thinking to care about others. We must learn what acts lead to what consequences, and which consequences are beneficial or harmful. We must learn that our own well being is dependent on the well being of others and of the society we live in. Further, since benefit and harm are to some extent relative to individuals and situations, what constitutes better or worse choices can vary in changing circumstances. So intending to do good by doing what used to be beneficial may result in harm. Thus we must learn to adjust our behavior to fit changing circumstances. And we must also learn to care for others and their well being. We are born with a capacity to learn to care for others, but that capacity must be activated. To the extent that we actualize our potential to view the world from a broad perspective, to take a long view, to take others’ well being into account, and to care for others enough to want to take their well being into account, to that extent we activate our capacity for morality. To the extent that this development is thwarted or bent, we are immoral. This depends in large part on the training we receive when young, and then on the actual results of our actions as we try to make our way through life.
It also depends on the type of person we want to be. Since you can make reasonably good estimations of the probable consequences of your actions, and since some of those consequences include the effects on your own character and how your character develops and grows, you can to a large extent choose the kind of person you want to be, then put yourself in situations in which you can act in ways to become that kind of person. An athlete will train not just for sports in general or even just for a particular sport, but also for a particular narrow ability in that sport. Athletes put themselves in situations where they have to exercise the general and specific skills they will need for games, to become better players. With enough practice, the skills become habits and performing them is second nature. Likewise, you can train yourself morally, in both general and very specific ways, by placing yourself in situations in which you can practice acting in certain ways (or, correspondingly, keeping yourself out of situations in which you would likely act in harmful ways). With practice, acting in those ways becomes habit. In other words, though much of your moral character depends on how others trained you and treated you when you were young, your moral character also depends on how you train yourself. Thus you are not a passive beneficiary or victim of the circumstances which created the you that you are; you are also an active creator of those circumstances. And even to the extent you are not responsible for the situation you find yourself in, you are, as an active agent, responsible for what you make of the situation you find yourself in. You are responsible for you, and you cannot avoid that responsibility. You are, then, responsible for your condition of “original sin.” The human condition is essentially and inescapably a moral condition.
And this morality is not either objective or subjective. Even less is it either absolute and universal or merely groundless preferences and arbitrary choices. If a rape victim is not physically harmed, then the only harm is psychological, i.e., subjective. But that does not mean the harm is any less real than if it were physical, i.e., objective. And the fact that it is subjective certainly does not mean that it is a matter of arbitrary choice: the victim does not choose to be traumatized by the experience. The fact that harshly punishing one criminal would be much more effective than showing leniency in reforming that person does not mean that such harshness would not ruin, either by hardening or crushing, another criminal who would have reformed much more easily if shown mercy. And the fact that the same standard does not work the same in different cases does not negate the fact that one standard really does work better than the alternatives in some of those cases. Values do not have to be objective in order to be real; subjective values are also real. Values do not have to be absolute to be real; relative values are also real.
It may sound contradictory to say that morality is both objective and subjective, that it has both objective and subjective elements in it. But, if you think about it, this should be expected. We are, after all, both objects and subjects: we are bodies (objects) which house minds (subjects). So naturally some values are objective while some are subjective. Nourishing food is objectively valuable to me. Friendship is subjectively valuable to me, and its subjectivity does not make it any less real or valuable. Honesty is valuable in a number of ways, because being able to trust one another’s statements allows us to act far more efficiently and effectively in our social environment (in some situations, dishonesty may give one a short-term advantage, but a reputation for being dishonest harms one in the long run; moral maturity is the ability to distinguish and pursue long-term general benefits over short-term narrow benefits). My valuing such things is a conscious awareness that they are valuable, and thus is subjective. My values could be wrong, or misguided: I could value something that is not in fact valuable to me, or I could fail to recognize that something else really is valuable to me. Again, real standards for real judgments about subjective values. So, again, from the reality of morality it does not follow that morality is objective, nor that it is universal, nor that it is absolute.
Morality does not, nor does it need to, derive its authority from a lawgiver. In fact, the situation is precisely the opposite: moral laws, moral rules and precepts, derive their authority from the real and inescapable moral condition we find ourselves in. Actions and consequences are better or worse, they are more or less beneficial or harmful to our flourishing. Our sense of morality is merely a recognition of this reality and seriously caring about it. This recognition, this sense of morality, being a product of our minds, is subjective. The moral rules and precepts we come up with are our attempts to achieve the beneficial results and avoid the harmful ones, they are our hypotheses about the ways to live good human lives, how to flourish as humans. These moral rules and precepts, again being products of our minds, are subjective. But this subjective awareness is an accurate recognition of our real condition, and our subjectively determined rules and precepts are subject to real judgments based on the real results that follow from putting them into practice. Our moral rules are not judged by some absolute standard of law given to us by a god. Rather, they (including any alleged standard given to us by any alleged deity) are judged by reality, the real world in which we (including any alleged deity) live and act.
One possible objection to all this is to ask, this may be all well and good, maybe we can have morality without God, but, so what? Without someone (i.e., God) to be accountable to, how can anyone be trusted? If there is no heaven to reward or hell to punish, then why not go out and rape and pillage the world? Why not lie, cheat, steal, and kill whenever you can get away with it?
I have to wonder about anyone who would ask such a question. I have to wonder if I can trust anyone who thinks like this. Is it revealing your own character? Is this really what you would do if you could get away with it? Is the only reason you are good because you fear the punishment that would result from being bad? Is your own capacity for morality so underdeveloped or warped that you cannot even imagine someone doing what is good simply because it is good? Can you not even imagine caring? If this is how you feel, then you are why we need police and prisons, and the rest of us need to figure out better ways to help you and others like you develop or reform your thwarted moral capacities.
Another more serious objection is to ask: So what? So morality can be real without God and without being absolute and eternal. But what does it matter if we are not eternal? What difference does it make if we die and that’s that? What if there is no heaven, regardless of whether there is no hell? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we die and then nothing else matters?
For one thing, it is almost never the case that tomorrow we die. Almost always, if we eat and drink to excess, tomorrow we live, and we live with extra weight and a hangover. There is only one day (out of an average approaching 30,000 days) in each person’s life for which it is true that tomorrow we die. And we almost never know which day that is. On most days, we can count on the probability of having months, years, even decades to live with the consequences of what we do today. So I’ll turn the question back on the theist: so nothing we do will ever matter to the universe at the end of time. So what? We are not the universe at the end of time. We are us, here and now, and for some number of years from now, and our children and at least some other people we care about for even longer. And what we do now does matter to us now, and for the amount of time we have left, and it does matter to other people who matter to us. What we do now can make an enormous difference for us over the rest of those however many years. To claim otherwise, to say that it makes no difference whether I am a merry prince or a miserable pauper (or a miserable prince or a merry pauper), is to deny any significance to this life. Do you think that this life matters? Does it not matter to you? It matters to me, and that is enough for me.
But, still, you may ask, what’s the point? If we’re all just gonna die anyway and that’s the end, why bother at all? What meaning is there to any of this? How, in the absence of God, can life have any meaning? What is the point of our existence?
This is the other big question I had to face to rebuild a world after my Christian worldview collapsed. Does life in a godless universe have any meaning? Can this life matter to me? From the example of Uncle Nick and others, I knew people can live meaningful, fulfilling, happy lives without God. But how?
It had been so easy to answer this question by appealing to God: God provides the meaning, like he provides morality. Yet on closer examination, this too fell short, and did not really deliver what it promised. I found two problems with the God answer. First, did this life ever really mean all that much to me when I was a Christian focused on the next life? Or did all its meaning derive from that alleged next life? Is this world, and living here, just a way station on the journey to the real world that really matters? Is there nothing in this life that really matters except for whether you accept Jesus as your savior? What life does Christianity really provide meaning for? This one that we know we are living here in this world, or a possible next life we hope some day to be living in an alleged other world? Another problem is that meaning, like a sense of obligation in morality, is subjective. Meaning is radically subjective: it is not something that can be shared. Even if my life means something to God, it does not necessarily follow that it means anything to me. That would only be the case if I care about what matters to God.
There are two senses of meaning: meaning for and meaning to. For a tree, a lack of rain means it will suffer, and with a long enough drought it will die. That does not, and cannot, mean anything to a tree, because it has no ability even to be aware of that fact, much less to care about it. “Meaning for,” then, as I am using it here, is an objective sense of the term. “Meaning to” is meaning in a subjective sense, an experienced meaning, a meaning we are aware of, that we can feel, it is a personal meaning. The source of “meaning for” is external, such as cause and effect in the physical world, stuff in motion bumping into other stuff resulting in a set of consequences. God, then, would be another source of “meaning for”: God’s meaning for our lives, what our lives mean to God, would be something externally given to us. His plan for our lives would mean that this and that are the case and this and that are not. But “meaning to” is the meaning that matters to us, that we care about. It is our meaning. And care is the source of that meaning, our caring is that meaning. If I care about my own life, what happens in my life matters to me, it means something to me as well as for me. And if I care about others, then what happens to them matters to me. To an extent, meaning is just a natural consequence of being aware, of having subjectivity, of recognizing the reality of “meaning for,” of realizing the fact that, for example, eating moldy bread means we will get sick. Meaning, to some degree, just comes to us merely because we are aware. But that is only the beginning. There are many levels and depths of meaning, and to get beyond that basic level we must do something to cultivate meaning, we must actively create meaning, meaning to us.
Meaning, and a meaningful, fulfilling life, is, I have found, something we are capable of, something we can create, and we can create it in a number of ways. But that is no guarantee that any of us will succeed. We may never learn how, we may never succeed in achieving fulfillment. Perhaps we try in ways that are not compatible with our characters or capabilities, such as accomplishing goals that are out of our reach or that are shallow and unfulfilling even if attained. Perhaps circumstances beyond our control thwart our efforts which would otherwise have succeeded. Many people have not succeeded in finding, or creating, a meaningful, fulfilling life. But obviously many people have succeeded, and obviously they have succeeded in many different ways, including different religious ways and ways not involving religion. But from the fact that some people have found meaning and fulfillment in one or another version of God, and even if those people are unable to find meaning and fulfillment in any other way, it does not follow either that everyone else can do the same, or that no one else can find meaning and fulfillment any other way. You are not the measure of all things, you and your experiences and your understanding of those experiences are not the standard by which all meaning is measured. Merely because you found meaning in your version of Jesus, or Allah, or Zeus or whomever/whatever, and you were not able to find meaning any other way, it does not follow that this holds for everyone else or even anyone else. Just a few examples of people who have found meaning and fulfillment in other ways demonstrates that one does not necessarily have to follow your path to find meaning.
Likewise, just a few examples are enough to demonstrate that one does not need to be, nor even believe oneself to be, a significant character in a grand, cosmic role to lead a meaningful, fulfilling life. If you do need that, if you say that this life in all its mundane everydayness is not enough, perhaps you have not learned enough or grown enough to find satisfying abundance in the everyday and mundane. It is not that the abundance comes from the mundane, but that you can create it out of yourself in the mundane. You do not need to look beyond yourself. If you need to look beyond yourself, then probably the mundane is and never will be enough. You will probably need, or at least need to believe in, a grand cosmic scheme and a role for yourself in it. If this is the way you feel, perhaps you need to ask yourself what you think it is that your life is missing such that you feel you need a god to fill it.
I have found from the examples of others, and I am finding from my own experience, that, with a little help from ones friends, one can create satisfying meaning and fulfillment from oneself, and it can be done in a variety of ways. Many people have found meaning in various forms of Christianity, or Islam or Buddhism or nonreligious sources. So a fulfilling life is achievable, and it can be achieved in a variety of ways. On the other hand, it is obvious that many people have failed to find meaning in one or another of the various forms of Christianity, or Islam or Buddhism or nonreligious means. Many have failed to find meaning from any source they have tried. I agree with theists who stress the impossibility of finding deep and satisfying meaning solely by achieving a high status in one’s career or making a lot of money or having a lot of sex or some other external, usually competitive or comparative, standard of that sort. But the problem may be one of trying to get meaning out of religion or a fancy car or whatever, rather than bringing meaning to it. Meaning is not given to us from anything, we give meaning to it. Meaning is not created for us; we create meaning for ourselves. I have found that, for me anyway, internal and cooperative standards provide a very rich soil for growing a meaningful and fulfilling life. It is in building caring relationships with myself and with others that this meaning comes.
I once found a source of meaning in a relationship with God, or at least in what I thought was a relationship with God. Then I realized that “God” was a label I had been taught to place on certain subjective experiences, a misunderstanding of those experiences. I realized that “God” was not really “out there” existing objectively and independently of my, or anyone else’s, thoughts about him. But the meaning, the fulfillment I experienced, when I experienced it, was real. I felt kind of like Dumbo the flying elephant when he discovered that the magic feather which he thought made him capable of flying really was not magic, and he had really been flying on his own. On the other hand, that analogy does not quite work, because Dumbo just held the feather, he did not flap it around or do anything with the feather to actually help him fly. My belief in God, on the other hand, was not just something that I passively held to make me believe I could create meaning by doing something else, rather that belief was precisely what I used to create meaning and fulfillment for myself. So I could not just keep “flapping my ears” as Dumbo did. I was “using the feather,” so I still had to find a way, or ways, to replace the belief I had been using to create meaning.
The fact that we have the capacity, the potential, for creating meaning and achieving fulfillment in life, does not guarantee that we will get there. Actually, there is no “there” in the sense of a final destination or finished product anyway. It is not a case of either experiencing “abundance” of some sort or not; abundance admits of degrees. Wherever you are, there is always more growth possible. I am not, and would not claim to be, a sage or a guru who has “arrived.” I’ve just found ways to be satisfied by my journey. Nor would I claim that I am always feeling happy at all times and delighted at all that happens. Far from it. But I’m not really talking about feeling happy all the time, or even trying to do so. What I mean by finding meaning and fulfillment is that even in the down times, I still feel that it is worth it. I would not claim to be where Anne Frank was when, in the midst of the madness of World War II and the Holocaust, she was able to say that “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” but I think I can at least understand how one could find even a life like hers to be worthwhile (even if I might not be able to do it myself). Nor would I claim to be a sage or a guru who can teach anyone else how to achieve any of this; I think that this is something each of us has to learn on our own.
I can say that I have found that I am capable of happiness, joy, and abundance right here in this life, regardless of whether or not there is a god. In terms of having a meaningful life, the existence of God has become, for me, an irrelevant question. His actual existence, were I to discover it, probably would result in me making changes in myself and my actions, it might well make a difference in how I go about pursuing meaning and fulfillment, but it would not make a difference as to whether I could do so, nor in the source of that meaning and fulfillment. By my differentiation of ‘meaning for’ and ‘meaning to,’ God’s existence would provide more meaning for me, but it could not provide more meaning to me; only I can do that for myself. My life’s meaning and abundance, any fulfillment I achieve in it, is derived from life itself, from the life I am living. It is sufficient for itself. Our existence is its own point. If it turns out that this is all there is, then it is more than worth the effort.
As a born-again Christian, I believed that I had arrived, that I was “there,” that there was no “beyond” where I was. Continued growth, certainly yes, the spiritual growth of becoming increasingly Christlike. But that growth was just to be more of the same; there was no being born-again again. Now, I see that there is a “beyond” all that, and as far as I can see there is and will always be further “beyonds.” But there being no ultimate destination given to us from outside for us to finally achieve does not mean that the journey is pointless. Rather it is the journey itself that is the point. Life is its own meaning. Again, what I thought of as the “there must be more to it than that” when I looked at this life was, I eventually realized, already in the “that,” at least potentially, anyway. And it is up to each of us to actualize that potential for ourselves.
As a Christian, I felt that I had an abundant life. But life is even more abundant for me now. From my present perspective, the abundance I felt I had as a Christian seems rather shallow and could not match what I have achieved now. It would be easy for me to say that this is a result of me “moving beyond” Christianity, just as I’ve heard so many evangelists say that their current abundance as Christians is so much deeper and more fulfilling than anything they experienced before committing their lives to Christ. They found greater fulfillment after they became Christians. I, and other former Christians I know, found greater fulfillment after dropping Christianity. So I don’t think that picking up or dropping Christianity necessarily has much to do with living a fulfilling life. But the one thing we have in common is that we are all older, so I suspect it has more to do with age and maturity than with picking up or dropping Christianity.
Yet, I think there are ways in which giving up Christianity, moving beyond Christianity, has helped me to find more and deeper meaning and satisfaction in life than I could as a Christian. As a Christian, I wondered how people without God could really appreciate life and the world and all its beauty, and I doubted that they could do so to the extent I as a Christian could. Without a relationship with the Creator, how could one really appreciate creation? But, much to my surprise, I have found life, the universe, everything to be much more wondrous and beautiful without God. When I was a Christian, I considered this world to be just a sign of the next world, the really real world. The beauty of this world was merely a reflection of some other world. The beauty I experienced in this world was derivative. Now, however, I see that this is the real world, this is the source of all the beauty, as well as all the misery, the joy and the sorrow, the fulfillment and the frustration. It is not derivative. It is all here. That allows me to appreciate this world in ways I could not as a Christian.
In addition to this, there is also the recognition that I am no longer merely the passive recipient of meaning given to me by God. I am actively creating it. I am responsible for it. If I am to find meaning and fulfillment in life, it is up to me to do it. And I can do it. I’m not always successful, and I have, and always will have, more to learn, but I am increasingly successful the more I work at it. And it is me working at it and accomplishing it. That realization in itself is profoundly fulfilling. And it is a fulfillment I do not think is possible for one who understands meaning to be something passively received from the outside, granted from a god or some other source. At least, it is not one I ever experienced when I depended on God to be the source of meaning and fulfillment in my life. Life is its own meaning. The journey is the destination.
Looking back at some of this last section, from one angle it looks to me like a series of shallow, trite platitudes, and I’m embarrassed to have written it. We’ve all heard it all before: “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” all that sort of thing. But from another angle, I, at least, am able to see what, to me anyway, is quite profound. Perhaps the fact that I can find that sort of tripe to be profound says something negative about me. Or, maybe there is a point to the claim that abundance, fulfillment, a deeply satisfying joy, can be found right here in the mundaneness of everyday life. Maybe the point is to learn how to see life from that angle.