This is a guest post by Lewis Vaughn, a former child preacher and author of the recently published memoir Star Map: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Meaning. In it he tells how as a boy he fell deeply into dogma and blind faith but as a young man climbed out of the abyss to find solid ground in science and reasonable doubt. But his deconversion is only half the tale. After leaving the faith, he set out to discover whether without God there could be such a thing as moral truth and meaning in life. After a long and anguished search, he unexpectedly found both.
Star Map is about my ten-year odyssey through the upside down world of Christian fundamentalism. I try not only to tell the strange, half-mad tale of my religious conversion and deconversion, but also to document my bruising confrontation with the philosophical and theological implications of my religious (and irreligious) beliefs. My faith shattered because my religious beliefs self-destructed. When I took them at face value and accepted them without question, they undermined themselves, their inconsistencies cracking my faith like an egg. Then science and reason punched holes in the pieces that were left.
This is how I described to a friend the pivotal moment of doubt:
“When the Holy Spirit spoke,” I said, “I was always sure it was the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit told me something, I was always certain it was true. But when I was most certain, when I was most sure, the Holy Spirit spoke—and the Holy Spirit spoke falsely. It looks like I had been speaking to myself all along. Anything I took on faith before is—”
“Unknown. I now know nothing.”
“Are you telling me you’re a damn agnostic?”
“I don’t know what I am.”
Simon stared at me for a long time, and when he spoke, he spoke softly. I was surprised not to be getting the full Billy Sunday treatment.
“Do you think you’re the only Christian who has ever felt this way?”
I wasn’t about to tell him I felt hopeless and alone, like the last person left on a dying planet. “No,” I said, “I think every devotee of every religion of faith is in the same boat with me. I don’t see how they can know anything based on their inner experience.”
This crushing revelation came after years of my trying to abandon the concerns of this world and focus every thought and action on the other world, the spiritual realm that bred a disregard for anything human, natural, and real. The two worlds pulled at me so hard I thought I might split in two. Much later I would identify other-worldliness as a critical flaw in nearly every religion.
This is how I viewed my cosmic tug-of-war:
Inside me began another battle in the war of the two worlds: the spiritual, or heavenly, world, and the earthly world. I had been trying to give myself over to the world where every coin in life is spent for the sake of the spiritual or the heavenly, where faith and scripture hold sway and earthly concerns wane. In this ethereal other world, the first commandment is believe, the second is obey, and the last resort is evidence and reason. In that sphere I was supposed to have the faith of Abraham, the biblical hero who believed God had commanded him to sacrifice his firstborn son and who raised the knife to do what human morality forbade. Abraham’s hand was stayed at the last moment because he proved that he would murder the human race if God asked him to. Most Christians saw this story as a vindication of Abraham’s faith. That’s what I wanted to believe too. But I couldn’t help viewing it sometimes as evidence that faith and obedience can lead a good man to commit horrific acts.Some of me was still in this world, the sphere of the finite and earthly and secular. The prime commandments here are live, think, and feel. In this sphere, Abraham is a moral monster willing to drown common decency in the blood of his own child. Here Abraham is ready to do the unthinkable without thinking. Why? Because a voice from a burning bush commanded him?
Bewildered and traumatized by the loss of my God and my pious absolutes, I wondered what all godless seekers must wonder at one time or another: If there is no God, is there any such thing as right or wrong? If God is dead, is everything permitted? Without religion, is earthly life bereft of all meaning?
Trying to answer these jagged questions dropped me into intellectual and spiritual agony but also pulled me slowly down a path to enlightenment. I turned to the only truth-detector I had left—reason:
I had already lost faith in faith, and I decided that, contrary to the true believer’s creed, reason was a wiser bet. After all, it was through reason that I had uncovered the failures of faith, the fallibility of the church, and the phoniness of my miracles. On these issues, faith had gone dark, and I had gone dark with it.
I figured reason could not be the bugaboo that believers made it out to be. First, they used reason themselves every day in all sorts of ways. Second, from their perspective, reason was a gift from God, just as the senses of smell and touch were. Did they presume that God gave them this light and forbade them to shine it on the world?
Ultimately I found there really were objective moral truths and objective sources of meaning—and God had nothing to do with it. I was driven to this conclusion not by dogma or scripture but by philosophical reflection on the goods and evils of the real world. In an odd, painful way, I had come round to secular views on morality and meaning that philosophers and other thinkers had articulated hundreds of years before and after Christ. Now, at age sixty-six and after authoring or coauthoring almost twenty books on philosophy, ethics, and religion, I still think those views are essentially correct—except that now they are, I hope, more solidly backed by science and reason.
Most deeply committed believers don’t respond to critiques of their religion from external sources like philosophers and biblical scholars. What is more likely to turn their heads is internal critiques, those that arise from the contradictions and conflicts in their own beliefs. When religious beliefs themselves lead to rational doubt, a grain of honest skepticism is born, and that can lead to personal transformation. This is why religions work so hard to douse even the smallest flames of doubt. But for people who aren’t afraid to think critically, doubt is the way to wisdom.
Atheism isn’t a religion,
it’s a personal relationship with reality.
— seen on the internet