Please don’t ever tell an atheist, or a Christian who disagrees with you, or Muslim, or a Hindu, or anyone, that he or she is inwardly miserable. I grew up thinking that everyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian lived an empty, meaningless life, but when I ventured into the world, and when I left fundamentalist Christianity myself, I found that this was simply not true. People are just people. They answer life’s big questions in a variety of ways, often through one of any number of religions, and they live their lives out the best they can, seeking to create meaning and purpose for themselves. And so I have to ask, can’t we get past pointing fingers or claiming to be able to read others’ thoughts and instead focus on joining arms to make a better word for ourselves and children?
I was taught that every human has a hole in his or her heart that only Jesus can fill. My parents told me that everyone who wasn’t a Christian – a true Christian, that is – leads a miserable, unfulfilled life. The only thing that could make a person happy, I learned, was Jesus. I looked forward to ministering to those who didn’t understand the gospel message. How hard could it be to convert people, I wondered, when they led miserable, unfulfilled lives and I could offer them happiness and fulfillment?
And then I went to a state college and started socializing with people who were not “true” Christians for the first time in my life.
I soon found that whether wishy-washy evangelical, episcopalian, Wiccan, or agnostic, these people appeared to be happy. They had friends, loving families, plans for their lives, goals and hopes and dreams. Where was the despair I had thought I would find? Where was the hopelessness and hedonism? One young man I had befriended – one of the most caring, loving, and happy people I had ever met – suddenly announced, much to my consternation, that he was gay. What was I to make of this?
I soon found I had two different options. I could conclude that those who weren’t “true” Christians were inwardly miserable but hid it really well and lied about what they felt, or I could conclude that those who weren’t “true” Christians could actually be just as happy as fulfilled as “true” Christians could be. But somehow I could not think of my new friends as liars. They all seemed perfectly sincere.
Over the years I have found that there is no distinction between Christians and non-Christians in measures of financial success or personal fulfillment. There is no difference in terms of health or happiness. I realized that if everyone who was not a “true” Christian was inwardly miserable, we should see a huge difference between Christian and non-Christian nations in terms of happiness levels and crime rates, but we don’t.
And so I concluded that humans don’t actually have a hole in their hearts that only Jesus can fill. At this point I became a universalist. After all, how could I believe that so many good, genuine, and sincere people were going to be tortured eternally in hell just because they didn’t have the correct beliefs about the supernatural world? And so I came to believe that everyone would be saved, except perhaps murderers and rapists.
Some years after this I left religion altogether. And you know what? I don’t feel any less fulfilled. In fact, I actually feel more happy and content now that I don’t have to maintain any sort of double think, now that the questions that plagued me for so long are resolved. I didn’t lose my sense of joy, happiness, or wonder at the world when I left Christianity. I don’t feel like there is anything empty inside of me, or a hole in my heart. In fact, I don’t sense a longing for God of any sort.
To me, religion now appears as a way that people try to answer big questions in life, questions like: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What happens after we die? Religion both answers these questions and provides people with a way to feel that they have control over things they can’t control. Prayer, for example, allows someone in a hopeless situation to feel that he or she is actually doing something. I can understand why religion is attractive. I also think that this is why there are so many different religions: religion developed differently in different societies as each sought to find answers to life’s big questions and obtain some feeling of control over the uncontrollable. Christianity is just one of many. So while I don’t believe that people have a “Jesus shaped whole” that only Christians can fill, I do believe that people have a predisposition toward wanting to find answers to big questions that simply don’t have answers and toward wanting to control the uncontrollable. I would argue that it is because of these predispositions that the vast, vast majority of the people in this world are religious.
It’s just that personally I’m okay with answering those big questions with “I don’t know.” I’m okay with not knowing where we came from (besides what answers science can give us), I’m okay with admitting that there is no “reason” we are here, and I’m okay with simply not existing after I die. From Christianity to Hinduism, from Islam to Judaism, humans have developed so many different answers to these questions over the years. I just don’t feel the need to make up answers. I also don’t feel the need to imagine I have control over things I simply don’t have control over. These things don’t scare me. And they don’t rob me of love, and joy, and purpose either.