I’ve recently been reading a wonderful blog, Sailing to Byzantium, a passionate, honest account of one person’s journey from religion into searching, into skepticism, and finally (in just the last week or two) into atheism. The author, Kullervo, was born and raised Mormon, but after a long struggle, has decided – and not lightly – to walk away from the church of his past and ultimately out of religion altogether, and he’s been chronicling his steps in that journey.
This is the real thing, folks. If you ever want to know how people end up becoming atheists, it’s all here – the initial faith, the highs of perfect religious certainty mixed with the low moments of doubt and fear, the slow spread of the cracks of skepticism, the burning desire to believe in the face of growing feelings of disconnection (but even more powerful, the need to know and not just to hope), the search for belonging and the exploration of different belief systems, the gradual but inevitable drift away from faith, the dark moments of anger and terror, the desperation, the breathtaking look over the edge, the step… and then, past what seemed like the point of no return, a universe of bright light, clear air, and the peace of acceptance and the joy of life seen as if everything was made anew.
It’s an unforgettable, classic story, one that never becomes any less moving no matter how many times we read it. The author’s quiet and resolute honesty shines through every line, particularly in his interaction with the numerous Christian commenters who ceaselessly badger him with all the old arguments we’ve heard so many times before. In my opinion, anyone who could read about Kullervo’s journey and still insist that atheists make that momentous decision for selfish or dishonest reasons is beyond hope.
In Kullervo’s interaction with his commenters, we can learn a lot about the mindset he’s leaving behind. I’d like to focus on one particular comment I noted on this post, a comment from one of his more intransigent guests who didn’t realize his target had already gone far enough not to be susceptible to the use of religion as a bludgeon:
The only way to have a relationship with Jesus is to:
2. Put your faith in him.
…Of course, in order to repent, you need to be convinced of how sinful you are, and that you aren’t a good person, and that you deserve to go to hell.
We’re all wicked, and deserving of hell. If that offends you, you can stick with the god you’ve made up, but it won’t be Christianity, and it won’t have anything to do with the Bible.
Kullervo needed no assistance to deflect this argument, which is a blatant attempt to frighten its listeners into obedience with a discredited doctrine as savage as it is implausible, and which is unworthy of any rational or compassionate person. Religion has thrived for too long by cowing people into submission with threats utterly unsupported by evidence. Every courageous and honest person who breaks the shackles of superstitious fear and calls these empty threats what they are is to be commended.
But in one way, Kullervo’s commenter was correct. The Bible plainly does teach that human beings are all wicked, that Hell does exist, and that we all deserve to go there and will go there barring faith in Jesus. To which I say, so much the worse for the Bible. No morally good deity, no being worthy of our worship, would or could create such a place, and no religion that teaches such an evil and savage doctrine deserves to be believed. Threats such as this are the sign of a wicked creed.
In light of this, it is ironic that atheism is so often accused of being a bleak and frightening worldview lacking consolation or comfort. What could be more frightening than the ever-present threat of a fiery pit of eternal torture yawning beneath the believer who puts even one foot wrong? What could be more bleak or misery-inducing than the thought that the majority of humanity will ultimately end up condemned to this terrible place?
In contrast to this faith of suffering and despair, atheism is a positive balm. Atheism blows out the fires of Hell, replacing them with a humanistic morality that is both compassionate and attainable. Even better, atheism wipes away the terrible claim that you personally are a wicked, filthy sinner who deserves such a fate, leaving in its place the ennobling knowledge that you are a human being, capable of good and evil in equal measure, whose destiny is in your own hands.
The Bible has a singularly apt teaching:
“They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.”
I wholeheartedly agree with this lesson, which is why I would turn it back on the faith that coined it. Christianity is very much like the advertising agencies who simultaneously invent a problem and offer to sell us the solution. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve had enough of the snake-oil salesmen who threaten damnation with one hand and hold out salvation – for a price – in the other. It’s far more uplifting to realize that we need no physician because we were never sick in the first place. The next time someone tells you that you deserve Hell, treat this claim to the scorn it deserves. Instead, my advice to all seekers is this: leave these clumsy and foolish threats behind, strike out on your own, and you will discover something far more beautiful and wonderful.