(This post originally appeared in Ex-Communications on January 2, 2015. It remains one of my favorite posts–and hopefully you’ll see why by the end.)
I learned about Ryan Bell a while ago. He’s that Seventh-Day Adventist pastor who decided to try acting like an atheist for one year to see how religion felt after he’d seen life through non-religious eyes. Though many folks thought Ryan Bell’s Year Without God was a stunt, I had several friends who knew him–one or two quite well–and who vouched for his sincerity. He blogged about his experiences here at Patheos and often popped up in religious news and folks’ social media pages. His journey out of religion began with a question–a game-changing question that I’ll share with you today.
Anybody who’s deconverted already knows what happened when Ryan Bell said he was interested in living a year without religion. Nowhere, oh nowhere, can someone see the “love of Christ” quite as well as when that person steps outside the tribe’s carefully-outlined path. Those “loving” flocks turn on a dime when they feel challenged. The reaction from these ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and God of Love has been predictably enraged and filled with misunderstandings about his journey and personal attacks against his integrity, honesty, and moral goodness, peppered with “loving” threats and viciously mean-spirited slurs.
But that year’s journey is what he felt he had to do, even though yes, it cost him his livelihood and a lot of friendships and gained him the enmity of a lot of his former brethren.
Mr. Bell began his journey with one question.
It seems like there’s almost always one question that sparked all of our journeys away from religion. It varies sometimes, but this was the one that sparked his:
What difference does God make?
It’s a staggering question. Unthinkable, even, to many Christians. It took me many years to ask it. Of it Mr. Bell writes,
About a year ago a friend and Episcopal priest, told me her atheist friend asked her this question. She found it harder to answer than she expected. He had batted away her first few attempts and she was now running it by me. We didn’t end up discussing it for very long but the question has stayed with me. Recently I decided I would find out, by living for a year without God.
What this atheist friend sounds like he was asking was how to know if Christianity is false.
Don’t make any mistake at all: this one’s a game changer and nothing less.
Once it’s asked, once we start to consider that our religion might be making erroneous claims or that it might not be true after all, every lame little “miracle” starts looking an awful lot like a nice coincidence–or an exaggeration, or even a lie or an outright attempt to defraud overly-trusting, uncritical, and unwary believers. Every one of the thousands of Bible contradictions suddenly slide en masse into context as the totally understandable results of a non-divine, human-created document written and edited (and rewritten, and re-edited) over many centuries by hundreds of anonymous authors who had wildly disparate agendas. The religion’s unfulfilled promises, error-ridden scientific and historical claims, beyond-grotesquely disproportionate threats and punishments, and failed predictions start looking like overt attempts to control and manipulate people, if not like outright propaganda and jingoism.
The behavior of every single (more) hypocritical (than normal) Christian begins to make perfect sense as the natural consequences of a religion that isn’t actually fueled and sparked by a living god who informs his followers’ behavior and makes them better people even indirectly. The religious overreach and overt politicization we see happening around us with more and more desperate stridency as time passes begins to look startlingly like the result of a religion that is growing frantic and panicking about its loss of earthly dominance.
When Rosa Rubicondior asked on his blog how someone can objectively know and demonstrate that Satan had not actually written the Bible, a number of Christians showed up to try to answer that question, but none of them actually sound like they understood what he was asking, much less were able to accomplish the task. It looks like they all just got stung over the idea of their idolized holy book being anything but divine to one extent or another.
I can easily see how Christians might have trouble with questions like his. The whole religion is, after all, built around avoiding questions that go to the heart of its dogma–questions that ask, with the perplexed determination of a tenacious child, “Yes, yes, but how do you know this is true?”
So when Neil Carter asked how believers would ever actually know if their god had forsaken them, he was asking a question very similar to what Ryan Bell and Rosa Rubicondior asked. If every single thing that happens to a Christian only confirms the idea of a god being present in their lives, then there’s no way to know if it’s true that a god is present there. A Christian might think that their particular god matters in every single way possible and makes an impact on every aspect of life, but it’s worth noting that believers in every god and every religion think the exact same thing about their own god and religion–which means then that there’s no real way to figure out which god is doing any of it–or indeed if any god is doing anything at all. There’s just no way to make the statement false; there’s no way to construct a condition under which, if that condition were met, a Christian could know that no god was involved at all in this world.
Ryan Bell realized that the question “What difference does God make?” really asks those hearing it to construct conditions under which the Christian god makes no difference at all.
“God makes a total/big/huge/amazing difference” isn’t an answer. All it means is that the believer finds this belief to be personally important. But this answer does not actually mean that the belief is true or that a given god is real and doing tangible things anywhere.
And like he realized, I myself came to realize that the world–and really, the universe–looks exactly and precisely like I’d expect it to work if no gods were fooling around with it at all. I saw that people can be good and non-Christian and they can be horrible and Christian; being Christian was no guarantee of someone’s goodness, any more than being non-Christian was a guarantee of badness. The religion itself has nothing to do with whether someone’s basically decent or not. A liar will, after conversion, still lie; a cheater will still cheat. And likewise, a good person will still be a good person after deconversion. All those claims of supposedly-miraculous 180-degree turnarounds rarely end up sustained or stable; any real changes in a Christian come with the same effort and discipline that would be needed by someone outside the religion.
The religion itself is purely superfluous.
The most devastating thing I can offer regarding the question of what difference the Christian god makes is that if I’ve in fact been “abandoned” or punished by some deity or other, then I’m having trouble seeing exactly how. If my life has what Christians sometimes call a “god-shaped hole” in it, then I am totally failing to see or feel that hole or even to discern its shape or size.
On one level, life’s about the same since I deconverted. I have runs of good luck and bad luck; I exult and I struggle; I love and I storm; I soar and I endure; I create and I destroy; I do what I can to help those who need it and I gratefully accept help when I need it myself. Like most ex-Christians (and most Christians, to be honest), I haven’t changed that much at heart.
On a second level, though, my life is a lot better now that I’ve deconverted. I’ve learned how to set boundaries and make sure I meet my own needs rather than hoping a capricious godling will maybe possibly perhaps meet them for me, or depending on others to hold up their end of the social contract my religion taught its followers to uphold (which is an error even Christians learn not to make eventually). I’ve swerved away from more conspiracy theories and disastrous financial schemes than I can count because I’ve learned a lot more about how to assess claims. I’ve certainly had much better personal relationships, both romantic and platonic. I’ve had a lot more fun and haven’t had a 10% Bullshit Tax taken off the top of my income.
On still another level, life makes sense to me now in a way it just didn’t make sense when I was Christian. When something bad happens to me, I can ask if there was anything I did to cause it–rather than agonizing over what I must have done to deserve a god’s punishment (and unlike loving parents in the real world, this god never seemed to want to speak clearly about what I’d done!). I don’t have to read entire libraries’ worth of books to figure out why prayers seem ineffective, why so many evil things seem to happen, why this or that Bible myth doesn’t say what it very plainly and clearly says, or why the world sure seems like it’s billions of years old. I don’t have to bash my brains out figuring out what an ancient deity thinks I should do with my life.
I have heard a wide range of ad hoc excuses from Christians who clearly struggle to account for why my life has improved so dramatically. My favorite so far is the frequent assertion, without evidence of course, that demons are trying to fool me into complacency–by making scientific and rational explanations for the world sound more compelling than those offered by religion, I suppose, and by removing both toxic Christians and maladaptive Christian programming from my life, an assertion which only makes me wonder why demons are considered evil.
The truth is that the vast majority of ex-Christians–not all, but a goodly number–see a big improvement in their lives after deconversion, and almost all of us are much happier, at much more peace, and having much better relationships and circumstances than we did while believers. And for the ones who don’t immediately come out of deconversion happier, they now have the tools at hand to fix the problems they’re having–tools that work much better than magical thinking.
If there’s any negative fallout at all from a deconversion, it comes almost entirely from the punitive, grasping hands of Christians themselves, who–in the total absence of any really compelling reason to believe in any of the religion’s nonsensical claims–will happily use emotional manipulation and even force and extortion to try to get ex-Christians back into compliance with the religion.
And the funny thing is that our emotional state and happiness isn’t actually the reason we deconverted; most of us deconverted because we realized that the religion’s claims weren’t true–including the claim that its god makes any kind of difference in anybody’s life.
I’ve demonstrated over twenty-plus years of post-Christian life that I don’t need a threat of eternal torture hanging over my head to be a decent person. I’ve never done a single illicit drug in my entire life; I’ve gotten exactly one speeding ticket; I’ve never deliberately injured another person or damaged property in anger; I’ve tried to conduct myself as honorably and kindly as possible in relationships of all kinds, to improve myself in terms of understanding other people and fix errors in my own understanding and education, and to extend my hand to those who need a hand up. Hell, I’ve never even stolen anything in my whole life. I’m far from perfect–oh, very far!–but let’s face it: 99% of Christians only wish they were as licky-clean as I am. I’m a complete square. And I act like a decent person even without threats of the divine wrath of the Christian god forcing me to do so, just like many Hindus, pagans, Buddhists, atheists, and more do. As Penn Jillette has famously said,
The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.
Just like non-Christians do all over the world, I manage just fine without Christianity. I actually had to unlearn some awful personal habits and traits, some of which still plague me to this day, that my Christian upbringing instilled in me–like thinking I had some kind of right to give or withdraw permission to others to handle their private business, or feeling like any time I did anything for myself I was being “selfish.” But back when I first deconverted, I was terribly worried about what this change might mean for me. I was afraid I’d become a hellion or a wildling; I was afraid I’d lose all sense of morality or start mistreating people or something. I’d never met anybody who’d deconverted, so I didn’t know what to expect.
I certainly did not expect what actually happened: not a whole heck of a lot. I went through the same existential crisis of meaning that so many ex-Christians do, but overall, life looked pretty much the same.
The best thing I can possibly say about Christianity, then, is that it is completely superfluous. And I think that’s why people are disengaging from the religion and not coming back. Once someone starts disengaging from the religion–pulling back from prayer, tithing, church attendance, and the like–that person’s very likely going to find out that it didn’t actually add much to or change anything about their everyday lives.
The much-feared punishment just doesn’t happen; the bolt from the blue never appears. The “god-shaped hole” never materializes. And chances are, life only gets better after leaving religion behind.