Earlier this week, I wrote a post exploring six reasons that I would advise a new agnostic or apostate against desperately hoping a genuinely good God exists. Here are two more things I earnestly want to say to such people. I write this as an apostate from devout Christianity addressing those on the brink of leaving Christianity, but much of it can apply to those leaving comparable traditions. Though this post’s points are numbered 7 and 8, no familiarity at all with points 1-6 is necessary to understand and (hopefully) profit from what follows. This might as well have been a standalone piece and can be read that way.
7. A crucial reason not to desperately hope that there is a God is quite simply that it can make you a worse, more prejudicial, thinker. It is dangerous to invest ourselves desperately in any disputable propositions because it closes us off to facing all kinds of evidence that they’re wrong. It clouds our abilities to be rationally sensitive, fair, and open-minded.
Now this is not to say that the kind of rationality or objectivity we can achieve is an entirely detached and disinterested one. It is also not to say that there is no value for reason in wanting something to be true. Wanting something to be true can orient our attention and our creativity more effectively so that we can discover the best lines of thought for proving it true and working them out the most vigorously. In this way, our partisanship is not a bad thing. As humans we work with hypotheses that we hold true while testing them. And to really explore how strong a hypothesis is you need to get into its logic, you need to put it on like a pair of glasses and walk around investigating things with it on to see if it makes things clearer or blurrier. Really giving an idea a shot means giving it all the benefit of the doubt that someone earnestly desiring to believe it might give it.
But that’s not all there is to understanding. Really proving an idea means putting it through the fire. It means rigging the whole game against it sometimes and not just for it. It means trying on alternative pairs of glasses and seeing if they make even more sense of things. It means deviously trying to devise ways for the precious idea to fail and be falsified. It means doing your best job to crucify it. See if it can be killed and, if it can be killed, see if it can then be resuscitated and resurrected stronger, or if it just stays dead.
The best thinking does not involve detaching. It involves fully embodying a number of different perspectival angles on something, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It means feeling it as your highest hope at one moment and your greatest fear at another. It means assessing it in its best light and its worst light. Finding what is noblest and most base about it. It means not just turning the thing over in your mind to see it better, but turning yourself over again and again so you can feel it differently again and again.
You have not truly understood the God question when you have only felt it with the longings of a lifelong believer. You have to go over to (what you’ve been misinformed is) the “dark side”. You need to hope against God. You need to hope for the opposite. You need to learn what it’s like to embrace disbelief and test your emotional mettle. You need to approach the world not only in the ways that look for God under every rock and tree but as trying to show that there is no God under any rock or tree and arguing that there shouldn’t be one either.
Only by really giving a chance to feeling oppositely, can you start to assess the relative insights of each perspective on the world. While there were downsides to my having wasted my youth believing in backwards, regressive fictions that arrested my intellectual and emotional development, I am quite grateful that I lived a devoutly Christian life so that I can honestly say that I know what it feels like to fervently believe in God, to desperately seek God, and to despairingly disbelieve and finally to very gladly disbelieve in God. I know what it is like to want to see God everywhere and to want to see God nowhere. I know what it is like to think of God as the moral ultimate and as the ultimate in immorality. I have thought of the value of belief in God, and felt about the prospect of there being a God, from enough angles that I can feel quite at peace that I am on the right track now. I still take on new theistic perspectives when I can come across them (though finding something stimulating from theists is harder and harder to do after all these years and after hearing so many redundancies and endless ad hoc rationalizations).
I recommend to those agnostics or recent apostates who still can’t stop hoping for God that they try taking that scary emotional risk of facing straight on the prospect of a world without God. Try identifying as an atheist. Practice defending atheism like you wanted it to be true and weren’t so reluctant to deal with the creeping suspicion that it is. Don’t just proclaim that life is meaningless if we die and this is all there is. Start working on defending the opposite hypothesis, with the full benefit of the doubt, to see what aspects of life and value start revealing themselves to you which you cannot see for as long as you refuse to think outside Christian assertions about the structure of value and reality.
Try defying your Christian habits of moral judgment and of personal practice. Try reading Nietzsche if you really want to feel the world from a world-affirming, anti-Christian perspective. Absorb yourself with a sympathetic prejudice into feminist, atheist, humanist, transhumanist, gay, transgender, and other writings hostile to much of your Christianity if you want to explore foreign moral worlds than you may be used to. Read great literature known for its moral and psychological complexities. Study history and in the process feel the social realities you take as bedrock to reality relativize and contextualize.
Explore sex more freely. Meditate. Drink. With a clean conscience, explore more fully whatever good things that Christianity excessively feared, demonized, and restricted for you. Study philosophy in depth and start to see how much more rational, open-ended, and thought provoking places it can take you. See what more progress it can actually give you on the questions that your former theology ineptly tried to either address or shut down inquiry about. Learn the rush and liberation possible when you learn to freely inquire and experiment, open to any line of thought and any answer if only it be true. Learn how to find correcting your errors, changing your mind, and undergoing drastic paradigm shifts to be a joyful experience of enlightenment and growth.
Voraciously study science and start to get a feel for the excitement of actually solvable problems and gain some appreciation and admiration for the astounding intellectual accomplishments of those who put their hopes aside and discipline themselves to follow their math and their experiments in all the strange and wonderful directions they lead. Start dealing with questions that have answers–fascinating, counter-intuitive, mind-expanding, wonder-inducing answers that lead to exciting new questions requiring impressive new creativity and imagination. And even where there are not answers, or where they seem long off, get used to the kinds of inquiries which at least make progress and keep getting you closer to at least understanding the contours of questions, if not their answers. The price of all this means learning to loosen your grips on your hopes so that, while not abandoning them altogether, you can learn to vary them up for the sake of truth and discovery.
Finally absorb yourself in the pursuit of justice or the alleviation of suffering. Do charity driven by concern for people instead of proselytization. Start aligning your deepest yearnings and hopes with the cause of liberating oppressed people to thrive, ignorant people to learn, malignant people to reform, and civilization itself to advance through all of this. Live and die emotionally with all the people whose consciences wriggle painfully under the jackboots of tyranny, all the children who live with abusive parents, all the sufferers of PTSD living with a war or a rape everyday of their lives, all the anguished LGBT people struggling to get out of the closets and into their own skins comfortably, all the poor being ground down by the inexorably indifferent and remorseless wheels of global capitalism, all the sick braving the inescapable reality of death.
And in light of all this, see just how relatively insignificant your own petty existential naval gazing about the fact you have to die is when there are so many who you could be directing your intelligence and creativity to helping thrive more successfully. Start to get a sense for just how myopic, petty, and provincial it is to think that the only thing possibly worth concentrating your hopeful energies on could be finding the God of Christianity for the sake of your own cowardly soul. Deprogram that laughable falsehood out of your brain by running different programs and seeing how much bigger a world of value, need, hope, truth, and meaning they show to you.
So in short, why not desperately hope a genuinely good God exists? Because you’ve spent your whole life doing that already and haven’t even begun to try desperately hoping that there isn’t one. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it. It’s not about selfishly being “afraid of good and proper moral restraints” as your naïvely self-serving Christian programming has told you. It’s about setting sail onto dangerous seas as your only hope for finding undiscovered continents of thinking, feeling, and doing.
8. I don’t want you to wind up a forever wannabe Christian hanger-on, or an ashamed, despairing atheist. I don’t want you to wind up the kind of beaten apostate who apologizes profusely for her disbelief and endlessly assures the believers that she wishes with all her heart she could be one of them but her mind just won’t let her.
You deserve so much better. Be proud of your mind’s ruthless honesty that defiantly says a conscientious no to your heart and to the community of people you love when they’re just wrong. You have been culturally conditioned using every exploitative and manipulative technique your religion could think of and get away with in modern times into thinking that your religion is the arbiter of good and evil in the world and that being a good person means gaining approval from its members. Even if you do not fully acknowledge this intellectually anymore, and even if you outright reject it when thinking abstractly, you have to weed this lie out of your heart.
You are a magnificently strong and self-sacrificing camel. You are a revering, obedient, beast of spiritual burden who has put yourself through incredible mental and emotional rigors for the sake of your faith, your God, the good, and, now finally, for the sake of honesty. You have made your “yes” and “no” matters of conscience and risked losing your identity and your community and your entire sense of the world by doing so. You have more intellectual integrity than the vast majority of cradle to grave believers and non-believers will ever know. And don’t for a second doubt that this is a matter of impressive moral integrity too.
You are not a traitor. You are not the betrayer. You are the one true to the true and the good. You are the increasingly honest and courageous and strong one. You are not confused. You are not weak. You are not in need of more faith. You do not doubt too much. You do not need to keep hoping you’re the one who’s wrong. And you certainly do not need to keep idealizing the value of the falsehoods that you racked yourself for years over, trying to believe in and to be true to.
You are standing athwart everything your heart has always thought to be True and Good because in your scrupulously conscientious pursuit of them you have learned how to be truer to the good and discovered that precisely this means toppling your religions’ false idols, repudiating its false teachers, and unshackling yourself from its misconceived, regressive, and outdated false moral constraints.
My fellow apostates and conscientiously deconverting agnostics, if you are anything like me you are a doubter for all the best of reasons and your disbelief is due to your greatest virtues.
Your burgeoning atheism is the fruit of your most profound acts of self-liberation and self-definition against enormous intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual pressure to conform and self-deceive. So stop trying to deny it. Stop trying to “hope” it away. Stop groveling to believers that you really wish you could be one of them. Stop carrying the weight of existence for your former faith. It’s time to stop being the camel and start being a proud and defiant lion. Get off your knees. Unburden yourself. Own your virtues and reassess your alleged vices. Take your hammer and strike the idols, listen to the sounds they make. What kind of resonance do they have? Do they still have a good ring or are they hollow? Smash the hollow ones. And use that same hammer to build new things to replace them.
Start asserting your right to live intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually free of what has bound you unjustifiably. Start reclaiming your right to believe in yourself and affirm yourself as fundamentally good and increasingly perfectible despite your flaws. Stop judging yourself and choosing your actions according to bogus Christian standards. Start truly claiming the right to think for yourself far beyond the bounds the church insists on. Be proud of yourself and your atheism, goddammit.
You’ve earned the right to be a proud atheist.
And even now, before you are willing to own this and willing to identify with me, as an atheist, I’m proud of you. I love you. I feel a special kinship with you that I only feel with those who know what it’s like to tear themselves away from their faith as a matter of principle and to learn, to their astonishment, that faithlessness can be a virtue. I look forward to being fully reunited as your spiritual brother again when this dark night of your soul is over and you’re ready for the new dawn, the high noon, and the whole rest of the new day ahead.