For several years I have been an atheist in disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Okay, not a wolf, but certainly not a sheep. I still hang out with the flock but in my heart I am flockless. Those close to me know this already; others nearby could probably have worked it out if they had opened their eyes during grace to see me nibbling the peas. (Not that that’s an indicator by any standard, but hey.)
All my life I’ve had Christianity soaking through my pores. I was a passionate, truth-seeking follower of Jesus throughout my teens and twenties. If you try to write off my de-conversion by suggesting I was never a true Christian to start with I will hit you in the face and then insist you turn the other cheek. To leave my faith was, for me, a really big deal.
So what happened? I didn’t rebel, I didn’t backslide, I didn’t indulge in so many naughty pursuits that God couldn’t keep up with all the fun.
What happened was that I chased God down, cornered him, and realised he wasn’t who I thought he was.
A number of years ago our church got a new pastor, a slick haired guy who swooped through the congregation with a brand of old-school hype that I disagreed with. “The music service is the shop front window so it has to be perfect,” he said, instructing the singers to make it look like they were feeling more worshipful on stage.
To me it reeked of pre-packaged glitz and glam. I began to realise that the Christian culture was not necessarily the same thing as Christianity. I found myself resisting the culture that told me I should behave like this and speak like that, none of which seemed to have anything to do with the core values I associated with following Jesus. And who was Jesus, anyway? Was he an ethereal spirit? A historical man? Jesus, Name above All Names, what did that mean? Phrases of faith rolled from the tongues of worshippers so easily, those casual ‘Hallelujah’s and ‘Praise God’s. They seemed not to be words of any substance; they were fillers, religious ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’. Did we take for granted the words of our religion so much that they had lost their meaning? God this, Jesus that, holy, holy, holy … words, words, words. I decided I could make no more assumptions. I wanted to worship God, not Christianity.
Unpacking my bags
That was the start of a determined effort to unpack my faith. I needed to rediscover the core components that truly mattered. I had always been a fierce detective of my own theology. I was an uncompromising reader of books, a fervent prayer of prayers, a jaw-clenching seeker of the truth – no matter how much it hurt. As I put my faith under the microscope it dawned on me, slowly and with rising dread over several years, that too few of the core components were holding together. Finally there came a critical point at which I crossed the great divide from belief into unbelief. To remain true to myself I could no longer believe in God. I remember the moment very clearly. It was mind blowing.
What crumbled irrevocably for me? Disillusionment with church was not a big factor in my de-conversion. I was always quite happy to be grumpy with church and still have a faith. That’s how most Christians I know operate. (Show me a Christian who’s not grumpy with church and I’ll show you the Easter Bunny.) We’re happy to admit that the other people who inhabit the church are not as perfect as us, and that everyone else does it wrong compared to how we’d do it, ha ha, grumble grumble … but it’s very rarely a strike against God. Nor was it for me. My experience with the ‘disaster pastor’ never put my faith in God at direct risk; it was a significant catalyst for launching my thinking to the next stage.
That next stage was long and turbulent but I can probably tidy up some of my thoughts into a few main issues: the integrity of the bible; the doctrine of hell; evolution; and the subjective nature of personal experience. None of these issues are game breakers in their own right, but collectively they add up to a picture of God that, for me, no longer seems concrete enough to believe in. I will try to provide a brief snapshot of how each issue affects my perception of God.
How good is the Good Word?
The Bible, that wonderful, frustrating conundrum of inspiration and confusion. I need to establish up front that, in any conversation about belief, I am officially uninterested in any sentence that begins with, ‘yeah, but the Bible says …’
If I’m going to unpack my faith with any degree of honesty and integrity I need to take a step away from the Bible. I need to evaluate it from the outside before I can accept it from the inside. We are so used to building our faith on a foundation of bible verses that it feels counter-intuitive or even heretical to question the Bible itself. I think it’s just good sense to do a stock take of the bible’s authenticity. Not many people I know would accept quotes from the Book of Mormon without seriously questioning the validity of the source material, so why should our approach to the Bible be any different?
This is a principle that I will do my best to stick to: treat Christianity with the same objectivity as I would any other religion or philosophy. No more double standards that assume from the outset that Christianity is Right and everything else is Wrong. I’m not setting out to confirm my assumptions, I’m throwing my assumptions out the window altogether.
So I’m taking a step away from the good book and trying to view it objectively, if that is even possible. What is it? Where did it come from? How reliable is it? Can we trust it? That question, ‘can we trust the Bible?’ requires some unpacking. I might trust the Bible as a piece of literature but not as a reliable history. I might trust it as a collection of ancient texts but not as a sacred letter from the Divine Hand of God.
I think my first step is to decide what kind of book we are talking about. Growing up, I assumed the biblical narratives were reliable as a collection of historical documents. My assumption was that the Bible presents the definitive account of ancient humanity, and that ancient humanity pretty much began with the Israelites. Seems kind of obvious now that this needs to be challenged. Long before the Bible was written the Chinese were chopping suey and Aborigines were chopping kangaroos. Different cultures throughout the world had their own creation stories and ways of interpreting the universe long before the Torah was written. Already I have to question my assumptions about the Bible’s timeline of the origins of humanity. I have to realise that it is not a history book. The Bible is a snapshot of a small group of people in one little corner of the world who wrote down some stuff that applied to them. They were not the official spokespeople for humanity.
That’s no problem, but once I begin digging through history – real history, as opposed to the biblical version – the landscape grows somewhat dark and confusing. Rather than the early Israelites being divinely mandated fathers of the Lord’s nation they seem more like scattered little bands of desert ruffians. The well defined God of the Old Testament that I grew up with is nowhere to be seen and in his place is a pantheon of Canaanite deities: Yaweh turns out to be just one of many gods, a small timer, a local war god. I keep bumping into theories which assume as their starting point that Yaweh and El (or Elohim) were separate deities who merged into one as the early religion evolved and competed with other local religions.
The overall impression I am left with is that the Old Testament is a very human document. Rather than being a chronicle of the One True God’s intervention in human affairs, it is a record by people who backfilled their history with divine significance. It’s more about people trying to pin down their god than the other way around. The Old Testament seems to be a messy account of a primitive religion, an account that was tidied up after the fact.
What sort of God does this leave me with? I am left with myth, poetry, allegory and stories from which to pluck whatever sense of the divine that I can find. I am left with a divine Something, hinted at, but not revealed in concrete. I would have to trust that lurking amongst the text lie nuggets of truth about this mysterious god. Perhaps this god was known by the biblical men and women, perhaps this god was not known at all. I can read, absorb and apply these passages toward a vague spirituality, but that is all. It’s not the end of my faith, but it does perturb me.
About now someone might leap from their chair to exclaim, “Aha! That’s where Jesus comes in! He shows us who God really is!”
I like Jesus. I like that he’s so difficult, a force to be reckoned with. I like the way he lived out the commandment to love your neighbour. My take on Jesus is that he was reacting against aspects of the established religion of his time. His message was a very Jewish one. The radical part of it was that he widened the canvas to include non Jews. I think his message was probably quite important and relevant to his contemporaries. Jesus was an out-of-the-square thinker who had much to say about what true religion was and much to say about living life in the present. Top marks.
Does it matter to my reading of Jesus that the God of the Old Testament appears to be a human contrivance? To skip straight to the end, I have cornered myself into a humanistic reading of the New Testament. I see Jesus as a seeker of God, a brilliant mover and shaker who cared about stuff that mattered. He doesn’t need to have been miraculous or divine for this. Many people like to lean on C.S. Lewis’s assertion that Jesus was either the son of God or a mad man. I think Lewis commits the fallacy of offering a blunt either/or scenario, two extremes where in fact there are other valid options. I’m quite happy in the middle thanks, where Jesus was a good guy with no divinity but a whole lot of great press.
Burn, baby, burn
At least a year before I abandoned my faith altogether I began to move away from belief in the afterlife. It was Hell that did it. I just can’t believe in Hell as the guaranteed bad ending for all non-Christians. Not because I don’t like it – hell, no one likes it! – but because it doesn’t make any sense to me.
God loves everyone, right? He wants everyone to be saved, right? And there is nowhere anyone – anyone – can go to escape his love, right? So let’s say 25 year old Billy dies in a car crash without making a decision to accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. According to common street level theology, Billy has gone to Hell. Boo.
Has God therefore stopped loving Billy? Whether your answer is yes or no, there are huge problems. Billy has landed in an eternity – an eternity! – of suffering because he failed to subscribe to a point of doctrine. Twenty five years has cost him his eternity and you think God still loves him? Really? Is that how you’d treat your kids?
Entire evangelism courses are built upon this scenario. A friend or relative dies and our theology requires us to assume they are somewhere awful, toasting. And we block it from our minds.
But what if our interpretation and our assumptions about hell are wrong? Is it so inconceivable? All you have to do is read a bit of church history to realise how tenuous is the foundation of so many of our other doctrines. I’d wager that hell is one of the more misinterpreted ones. Quite a few writers have articulated this in recent times.
If God exists and Heaven exists and Hell exists, then even though I have un-ticked the John 3:16 box, I find it hard to imagine that I’ll end up as a kebab. “Sorry bud, I know I gave you a brain and you used that brain for reasoning, but I didn’t mean for you to use it to get the wrong answer. Off you go.” Sizzle.
Speaking of the afterlife, I also have some questions about how there can be free will in heaven. If God grants you free will, what’s to stop more sin creeping in? Is God going to flick some kind of magical switch that allows you to keep your free will but removes your propensity for sin? If so, why would he wait for the afterlife to do that, at the expense of all those other suckers who have had to go to hell? And if you’re happily living it up in heaven (or the new earth, depending on your theology) while your loved ones have gone to hell, won’t you be sad? How will the afterlife be a glorious place if you’re carrying that grief? Or will God do a neat memory wipe trick? What are the implications of that?
As you can see my assumptions about the afterlife have been challenged. Again, not a problem. But my traditional view of God is radically changing.
My final resting place on this issue (snigger!) is that even if God exists, there is no afterlife. I think there is room for a reverent view of death that should be based in the natural world. If it takes the metaphor of religion to explain it then fine, but I don’t believe in a literal afterlife in which anyone will be conscious. Everything dies so that something else may live. Without death there could be no new life. The dinosaurs choked on an asteroid that cleared the way for the mammals. Exploding stars seed the universe with the chemical building blocks of life. My ancestors died so that I may live. It’s the Circle of Life, Simba!
Evolution is, to my surprise, totally bloody interesting. I grew up thinking it was the scientific anti-Christ, a demeaning conceit propagated by God-hating heathens. My catch cry was ‘I’m a creation, not an accident!’ But evolution – specifically natural selection – is not about random accidents at all. In fact, it’s surprisingly logical to the point of being predictable. It’s also creative and inspiring (and entirely compatible with the concept of a creator, if you want to go there.)
For years I was hung up on the accusation that evolution is ‘just a theory’. This favourite creationist war cry either misunderstands or ignores the way the word ‘theory’ is used in scientific literature. Sure, there’s a theory of evolution but there’s also a theory of plate tectonics and a theory of relativity and a theory of quantum mechanics … How many theories would you like to doubt? A scientific theory says, ‘if X is true, then we should see Y under Z conditions.’ Based on that observation, the theory gets tested and adjusted according to the evidence. The conclusion comes after the evidence, not the other way around.
It was only when I started to read a wider range of books that I realised how overwhelming the evidence is for evolution. There’s fricken heaps of it! That evolution happened is established beyond doubt. (It’s the mechanics of it, the how, that is up for discussion.) I’ve also learned that the study of evolution is not an isolated outpost of study; it’s a dynamic field of work that has a direct impact across most other disciplines. It’s naive to think you can discredit evolution while accepting all the bits of life that you like. With all of its implications and applications, evolution is simply too big to be stuffed irrelevantly into a corner. You might as well switch on your computer to blog about how electricity is only a theory.
But where is the problem? Many, many Christians can read the word evolution without red horns invading their peripheral vision. The problem for me is that evolution raises some gnarly questions about the nature of God. Perhaps I take this further than other Christians who accept evolution, but if I am to continue to believe in God then by necessity my traditional picture of Him must radically change. Evolution thrills me, the idea that nature has progressively and creatively moved from simplicity to complexity over billions of years. In this context I can conceive of a sort of cosmic, creative force, but not some kind of chatty deity. God begins to lose relevance for me as a personality that I could have any kind of relationship with. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t try to connect with this divine creative energy, and I can see how it might feel good to head towards a form of cosmic mystical theism. The bottom line is I’m not so sure that this God is knowable. ‘God’ is in danger of becoming a word that could be interchanged with ‘the universe’ or ‘the creative force’. It’s all starting to get suspiciously Star Wars. Maybe George Lucas was right!
I’m heading towards a place where I don’t have to use the label ‘God’ to marvel at the great story of the universe. I can still experience a sense of awe, reverence, inspiration, even purpose and meaning. In the end all I am talking about is what to name the deliciously mysterious, unknown component of the universe. Is there any point in calling it ‘God’ if there is no relationship?
Let’s get personal
Pulling all of these issues together, I now find myself with the view that the primary language of religion is metaphor. It is valuable and instructional but not necessarily literal. What does this mean for my personal experience as a Christian? I have whooped and shivered and cried and prayed and revelled in the power of the Holy Spirit. I have seen the hand of God orchestrate events in my life and in the lives of people around me. How to explain all this if God does not exist or if God is not who I think He is? Does my experience still count? Can it be explained any other way?
Mormons, psychics … and Christians!
A Mormon believer told me about a vision he’d had. It was astounding. I might have converted to Mormonism if I hadn’t written off his testimony as utter crap. Then there was the lady at work who told me about her visit to a psychic. Oh my God, how did the psychic know that stuff? I wrote that off too. Mormons are pleasant but deluded and mediums are fraudsters – well meaning or otherwise – who use basic psychological manipulations and techniques. Aren’t they?
I think these people genuinely believe that what they experienced was true. That doesn’t make their experience objectively true. Or verifiable. My suspicion is that most people retrospectively embellish their memories to align their experience with their beliefs. It’s not an intentional thing, it’s a human thing.
I once personally witnessed a paraplegic get prayed out of his wheelchair. True story. They prayed and he walked. That’s how I reported it for years and it’s probably how others who were there reported it. It’s a good story. The actual fact is I have no proof at all that he was a paraplegic, he was just a fifty-something guy in a wheelchair for who knows what reason. He didn’t ‘get up’ either. He was helped, very shakily, and he hobbled slowly for a distance of a few metres away from, and back to, his wheelchair with a person supporting him on each arm. There was much applause and praising of God in the room – a miracle! Hardly.
Christianity places a lot of emphasis on the power of personal testimony but I’ve learned that sceptical unbelievers have very little respect for anecdotes. Why should they? I myself spent most of my faith reinterpreting and writing off the legitimacy of other people’s experiences wherever they didn’t fit with my theology. What makes my own experience more valid than that of others? Can I be so arrogant as to suggest that my Christian experience is objectively true, but that non Christians reinterpret their experience through the bias of their beliefs? I smell a double standard.
Regrettably, I can explain away my own very powerful spiritual experiences as products of coincidence, psychology and emotional willpower. We read into events whatever we want to read. When the supporting pillars of my faith had collapsed all I had left was my experience. After a white knuckled attempt to be as objective as possible I have to concede that my personal experience is not proof enough for the existence of God. Hey, it was a great ride, but memory and emotion are unreliable measures of the truth. Damn.
None of these problems are insurmountable. Other believers have accommodated them without losing their faith. Why not me? Sometimes I wish I could park all my questions, grit my teeth and continue to believe because it feels nice. Maybe I have swung too hard away from faith as a reaction against a few issues. Perhaps over time I will edge back towards a middle ground. I can’t say. At the moment it feels unlikely.
No one can explain the head screwing notions of what was there before the Big Bang or how the universe burst into being. I could stick “God” at the start of the process. That God would be kind of cool, kind of cosmic, but answers no questions. As it is, I get just as much of a kick out of it all being a scientific mystery.
The world seems to function fine without God and the bummer is I don’t even have my own experience to rely on for proof. I have to be honest with myself. To continue believing in God would not be an act of faith but an act of stubbornness.
So where does this leave me? After reformulating my theory of God to make sense within what is observable and provable, I find that I have travelled all the way through liberalism and for the past few years, without any brakes, have been skidding into the strange new world of atheism. The view is quite different here.
Okay you bastard, now what?
I’ve noticed that Christians who become atheists often describe the world as seeming so much bigger. That’s certainly how I’ve felt, like a goldfish discovering there’s an ocean. I’m very happy, happier than I’ve been in a long time. This surprises me as much as it surprised me that I lost my faith in the first place.
It seems counter-intuitive at first; God is gone and I have no afterlife so I should be miserable, but I’m not. I feel more in tune with the world, more in wonder at the universe and humbled to be part of nature. I feel a kinship with animals that is entirely new to me. We are travellers together on this amazing journey through the cycle of life. When I die my atoms will return to the earth. I am not superior to the planet, I am part of it. I feel privileged to have this time being alive.
The thought of having no afterlife bothers me less and less. I don’t recall being too upset about the absence of my status before I was born and I don’t imagine it should be much different after I die. I cherish each day in a way that I never did when I assumed I’d eventually land in a cushy afterlife. I relish sunsets and surf and new experiences with a sharpened awareness. When marvelling at my children, instead of my attention and gratitude being directed towards God, I have more space to focus on my children themselves. My appreciation for the time we have in this life has been amplified.
My attention to history, to the story of humanity, has been sharpened. Being human is a positive thing. I no longer view us as intrinsically debased or sinful. I feel a great sense of pride in the planet, in life itself. There’s no fig leaf of shame here.
I don’t suffer a theological crisis at every major disaster. Why God, why?! Bad shit happens and it sucks, just ask our Christchurch friends. The earth has been bumping its grooves for four billion years and we inevitably get caught up in it. Things go wrong, illness strikes. I used to spend a lot of energy hoping God might, just might, might, pleeeease, swing through with a miracle. I used to pray and hope and pray and hope. With my new perspective I’m no less empathetic, no less hopeful, but I’m more realistic and quite frankly it’s a relief to be off that emotional roller coaster.
The noise in my head is gone. I spent a weekend tramping in the Waitakere ranges, a glorious coastal wilderness. Perfect weather and amazing scenery. About halfway through the first day I realised that I had my thoughts all to myself: no chatterbox prayer clanging incessantly between my ears, no pressure to commune with God. In my saintly life I would have been constantly praying, thanking God for the scenery, trying to connect with Him, chatter chatter chatter. I was in the habit of constant, constant monologue. I was straining to know God. You never would have heard me say it was a bad thing, quite the contrary, but in retrospect I realise how exhausting it was.
I’m not claiming a monopoly on these feelings, as though you have to be born again as an atheist to fully appreciate life. No. I mention all this to demonstrate that life without God can still be imbued with meaning. I don’t feel devoid of purpose. I am not devoid of morals. I have not turned into a raging drunken adulterous hedonist.
A life spent in faith continues to define me in many ways. I remain a very Christian-friendly non believer. “The most Christ-filled atheist I know,” as my Mum once put it. I like that. In support of my wife and family I continue to participate in the life of our church – and enjoy it, too. I value my church community and I harbour no bitter agenda against my heritage.
A written status report such as this might give the impression that I’ve locked myself in to a particular viewpoint but I will always be a work in progress, always looking over my shoulder to make sure that God is still not there. In the meantime, having popped out of the Christian bubble, I feel a whole lot more alive, a whole lot more responsible and a whole lot more human. It’s a new world out here, partly terrifying and mostly exciting. There’s a lot of work to do to reorient myself and it’s going to be a fascinating journey. I say bring it on.
Marcel Currin May 2011.