The first letter I sent to my friends a couple of years ago in order to “come out” about my atheism prompted a slew of questions which took me some time to think through, but what follows is my (somewhat lengthy) response to their questions.
My doubts probably began early in my faith with the occasional “reality check” moments while reading the Bible. I was always bothered by things like 900 year old guys in Genesis, or Noah putting two or more of every living thing in the world on one wooden boat in order to survive a flood which covered, apparently, “the entire world.” I also found it difficult to envision a million or more people passing through a dried divide in the middle of a large sea, then living on water from a rock and miraculously materialized bread every day for forty years in a barren wilderness. Things like that always made my unreality meter light up. And then there’s random stuff like Elijah outrunning Ahab’s horses in a half marathon or the sun standing still in the sky for an entire day that just shoot up red flags for me.
Along these lines, I think what always troubled me the most was how common miracles were in the early church, particularly when compared with the number I’ve seen in my lifetime (zero). It stands to reason that, if the same Spirit is at work in us which was at work in them, we should see some of that stuff happening around us as well. For all Jesus’ talk about being blessed if you believe even without “seeing,” the earliest believers apparently go to “see” an awful lot. According to the Bible, Paul didn’t just establish churches with persuasive words or interpersonally insightful wisdom–he performed miracles. And people who had just met him would believe his message because of that, or so the story goes.
Yet today I am told to believe without seeing any such demonstrations of the power of God. For a while I considered going and joining the Pentecostals so I could have some of that but it all looked like a load of crap once I really looked into what they’ve got going on. Plus it always bugged me that, while they had healings and tongues going on all over the place, across the street at the Baptist church they had neither. The only real difference between the two groups seems to be that one expects those things to happen and the other doesn’t. They have different “faiths,” so to speak, and their experience seems to conform to their expectations. This reinforces my suspicion that, especially when it comes to matters of faith, you see what you want to see.
Prayer has been another royal disappointment in my experience. In all honesty I see no correlation whatsoever between what gets prayed for and what actually happens. Perhaps prayer does carry its own intrinsic benefit in that hoping for something to happen sometimes makes it happen. For example, the body often seems to be able to heal itself, even from big things like cancer, and a positive outlook about being healed seems to help make that happen in some cases. Also, when you voice a concern to a group of people it increases the chances that someone will respond to the request and do something about the need. But I really don’t see much difference, in the end, between what gets prayed for and what doesn’t, apart from the explainable.
Over time, my interest in psychology has also slowly chipped away at my belief in the supernatural. The more I learn about the interaction between brain chemistry and human behavior, the more I find little reason to believe in an immaterial soul or spirit–a ghost in the machine. An injury to one small part of the brain will change a personality forever. A surplus or deficit of one neurotransmitter or another will likewise have a significantly altering effect. In you deprive the brain of oxygen, your field of vision narrows into a tunnel of white light, you hallucinate, and then you die. All activity which we call “the soul” ceases to show up from that moment on. The Bible promises that something will happen afterwards which will re-animate the dead body, with the no-longer-existent soul showing up again as well. But we won’t see this until after we die. Until then, we just have to take that on faith. I’d like to. I’d like to believe death isn’t the end. But I just don’t see convincing evidence that it’s not. And that thing in me which I’ve always been told is a soul seems to be nothing more than the effects of a living brain and body, doing its thing according to nature. We are self-conscious, highly evolved animals. I still don’t see anything which convinces me we are something more.
Which brings up the subject of evolution. I don’t know where each of you falls on the spectrum of creationism versus evolution, but I’ve been convinced of both micro- and macro-evolution since I was a little kid. I’ve always thought it just makes sense. It fits with all the other indicators in the world that tell us it’s been around for a really really long time. I look around me and I see deep canyons with little rivers in the bottom of them, slowly carrying away sediment, century by century, cutting ever deeper at a snail’s pace. The depth to which the canyon has already sunk tells me it’s really old. I remember noticing as a small kid how South America and Africa looked like puzzle pieces that used to be together. I remember learning how there’s a rift down the middle of the ocean where the earth’s crust is slowly expanding, just a little each year, pushing them farther and farther apart. These continents clearly didn’t get the way they are in a matter of a few short years, or even merely thousands of years. Besides all this, I can look up and see how light is already reaching us from stars which are millions of light years away, telling me the universe itself must be really really old. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of this interpretation of the world around me.
But then I go to church, and well-educated people insist there that all of this is wrong. They pull out their Bibles and demonstrate how the genealogies and such in Genesis prove that the world can only be a few thousand years old, and that we most certainly did not evolve from other species. Now you may happen to be one of those (still very much in the minority among evangelicals) who accept evolution as fact, along with the age of the earth, and all of that. But what you believe about evolution is not my point. My point is that I see faith taking otherwise intelligent, clear-thinking people and closing their minds off to a vast set of disciplines which have yielded a tremendous number of insights into why things are the way they are. This bothers me. This recurring phenomenon has left a nagging voice in the back of my head for a really long time, suggesting to me that there is something fundamental about the faith in which I was raised which cuts against the grain of rational, empirical thought. That faith says, “Never mind what you see! Look over here and let me frame for you what you’re supposed to see.”
Maybe it tells you that you’re supposed to experience speaking in tongues, or supernatural miracles; lo and behold, you do (or don’t, if it tells you you’re not supposed to experience them). Maybe it tells you that you will hear from God during the sermon; lo and behold, you did–you’re just sure of it. Or maybe it tells you that, once a person genuinely puts his/her faith in Christ, that faith will never ultimately leave him/her because God will be faithful to his own and keep them in his grip; then if anyone who previously professed faith in Christ recants, you are forced to conclude that, regardless of the evident sincerity of his/her previous experience, he or she must not have ever really believed. Time and again, I find faith curtailing objectivity, forcing experience (or our interpretation of it) into a predetermined mold. It doesn’t feel right to me–I can feel it in my gut.
Let me pause and admit that there are groups which buck this trend. I’ll even admit that our generation has seen the envelope pushed like none before, so that some Christian music occasionally sounds as good as non-Christian music (albeit with a delay of a few years in the style updating department). But I suspect the impetus for this has come from our changing culture, not from within the faith itself. Just a suspicion, and I have nothing to back it up. But I still say the recent better music has been an exception that proves the rule.
Christian fiction usually sucks too, doesn’t it? Truthfully, I lean heavily on my wife’s literary perceptiveness here, but I’ve heard it from several people at this point. It’s hard to find good Christian writing that doesn’t force characters and plots into moralistic or predictable grooves. Way too much Christian fiction is little more than a series of preachy messages sandwiched in between a lot of thin formulaic storyline. I’ll grant that many secular writers are also prone to cranking out substandard stuff in order to maintain their livelihood. But I think the corniness factor goes up considerably when you switch to Christian fiction.
An excellent example of this would be Francine Rivers, who began as a romance novelist but switched to Christian fiction after becoming a believer. [My wife] reports that one book in particular, Redeeming Love, began as an interesting and well-written book in its earliest editions. But over time, she kept revising and editing it to fit her new target audience, and now the final version is much more toned-down and sedate, dramatically speaking.
Why is this? Why are books and songs by Christians (don’t even get me started on movies) more limited in their complexity and in their literary and dramatic expression? I could try to analyze it but I might still not get it figured out. What I do know, however, is that there is something about religion (I’ll substitute that word for faith, if it helps) which chokes, stultifies, and stifles so much expression of our humanity. Whether or not our scientific curiosity, our artistic expressiveness, or even our sexuality, there’s something about religion which hinders us–holds us back. It so often goes against what I feel is natural.
Of course, that is perfectly consistent with the biblical notion of the Spirit warring against the flesh. But I guess I’m beginning to wonder if the flesh is as bad as we’re supposed to think it is. Over time I’ve grown suspicious that “the flesh” sometimes denotes things which are merely natural to our species. We are told that many things are wrong, so we resist them. For some of those things, there may even be good reasons for avoiding them. I’m not so naive as to think that we should do everything we have an impulse to do. But that’s where our reason comes in handy–a useful evolutionary advantage over other animals.
But urges are still there. Sometimes I would even call them needs. I am told I must not think this way because it violates God’s design. That begs the question of what our “design” is in the first place, and whether or not we have a design per se. One could just as easily argue that we are “wired” by evolution for the exact opposite of whatever we are told is God’s design. At any rate, the tension between what I am and what I “should be” has been another lingering indicator in the back of my mind for quite some time.
And this tension extends beyond the simplistic “works of the flesh” versus “fruit of the Spirit” dichotomy. Despite my valiant attempts to read them differently, I believe both Paul and Jesus reinforce an intrinsic dualism when they speak of temporal things versus “eternal things,” and I find this kind of division in life self-defeating and ultimately untenable. After the little time I have found for writing what I’ve already written just now, I would do a terrible job of demonstrating, verse by verse, how apparent this duality seems to me. But I am convinced it runs through the whole Bible, and especially the New Testament. Perhaps this dualism is the very thing which made the Christian message successful among the people to whom it first appealed. When you’re among the have-nots, you really love for someone to come along and tell you that’s a good thing because you’re gonna be rewarded in the end.
Paul’s view of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 illustrates one aspect of the dualism I’m talking about. He advises people not to marry, not because they merely lived in turbulent times (as I was told to rationalize this passage), but because marriage distracts you from the things of God (see 1 Cor. 7:32-34). What a terrible thing to say! That flies in the face of everything I was encouraged to believe about the unity of all of life, and the sacredness of everyday things. I’ve always been among those who worked really hard to present a gospel without such bifurcations of life, but it finally dawned on me that I’m fighting the New Testament itself.
The gospel call is a call to die. It’s a call to intentionally resist the life of the self, even to the point of de-prioritizing your own psychological or physiological well being. Many have labored hard to spin it differently, or else to tell the truth, as Dickinson said, but “tell it slant.” I salute their efforts. I just think it’s a losing battle. Following Jesus means following him to the cross. Self-sacrifice is ultimately the ideal. But in my experience, “going to the cross” doesn’t lead to new life on the other side. In my experience, what you sacrifice often really dies and it doesn’t come back. Sacrificing things like your hopes and dreams and aspirations “for the sake of the kingdom” just leads to things like depression and disillusionment. Maybe I’m sounding transparently autobiographical here, but I know I’m not the only one who has found this to be true. Just check out the memoirs of Mother Teresa some time. Nobody did a better job of giving up self than her; but she was miserable for most of her life, and lived with an overwhelming sense of the absence of God from her life.
In the end that’s probably what did it for me. All these things finally added up, along with a series of experiences in which I “laid down my life” in various ways only to find that no ostensible “life” came out of it. I was told following Jesus would bring “life to the full.” I wasn’t so foolish as to define that in terms of shallow things like financial or social success, or the absence of difficulty or pain. I was wide open. What I found was a gospel which, I believe, didn’t deliver what it said it would. It didn’t really save me from anything. And I didn’t find the peace or joy or contentment which I was told would be found in God. I tried, really I did. It just failed the reality check for me. I trust that your experience has been different, or else we would not be standing on opposite sides of a great divide right now. But this is my shot at explaining how I got here.
To put it in a sentence, I think nature and life tell one story, and the Bible tells a different one. I think the first story is more convincing.