Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'm Coming Out

I’m not sure which my parents would be more upset about – that I voted for Barack Obama or that I am now an atheist. The struggle to come to terms with my beliefs was a long, difficult process that took me through the depths of depression and back. I didn’t want to be an atheist. I wanted God to be real. I want church. I miss church. But I have to truthful to myself and to those around me. I can’t live a lie. I have come to terms, though critical thinking and intellectual honesty, what I know is true: There is no God.

Growing up, I was very active in a Southern Baptist church from grade school though college. I became well versed in Southern Baptist theology and served in music, Vacation Bible School, domestic and international mission trips, and youth leadership in my church. I truly believed in God with all my heart, with all my mind, and with all my soul.

I always thought that Christians became atheists because they were mad a God. Surely it is an act of rebellion against giving God total control of their life. The complete opposite happened to me.

I drifted away from the faith for several years, but then I discovered several progressive Christian writers such as Shane Claiborne and Donald Miller, and I felt a renewed zeal to study the Bible and pursue my personal relationship with God. It's funny that this pursuit of God led to my atheism.

Several years ago I traveled to Japan and China and visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and it occurred to me that these people that I was meeting and getting to know have morals and ethics often as great as or greater than most Christians I know. I read Confucius Lives Next Door by T.R. Reid and pondered how can so many Asians have such high moral standards, lower crime rates, stronger communities and families, all without Jesus? Around this same time, over the span of several years, I began to learn more about the world around me. When I was little, God was bigger than I could imagine and there was no truth, no morality outside God. One day I came across this thought exercise: “If God told you to kill someone, would you do it?” Of course the answer would be that God would never ask me to do that. “But if he did tell you, that it was for the greater good, part of his plan?” I would have to answer no. My morals would never allow me to take another life. I’m a firm believer in non-violence and pacifism. At this moment, I was almost shocked to realize what this means: my values go beyond God – go deeper than God. It is as if God got a little smaller, or the universe as I know it got a little larger.

As I studied the Bible more, the more issues with theology I discovered. Perhaps the greatest issue I had was with salvation, or simply “who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.” If salvation is though faith in Jesus alone, then it is unjust to condemn those who have never heard the Gospel, and equally unfair if these people get a “free pass” while those who, to varying degrees, have heard the Gospel are judged. The more and more I learned about the world, the more I disagreed with the exclusivity of faith in Christ. Somebody who earnestly says a prayer accepting Jesus, then goes about life as usual, is more deserving of heaven than a Buddhist monk who dedicates his entire life to feeding the poor and clothing the needy, and caring for the sick? After all, Matthew 25 pretty plainly states that those who do “unto the least of these” are rewarded with heaven and those who selfishly do not are condemned. How do you reconcile “faith alone” with this teaching? How does simply saying a prayer supersede this? Maybe just praying the “Sinner’s prayer” and repenting of sins is not enough.

Jesus teaches that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” America is the richest nation on earth, run by greed and a desire to horde wealth. The average American household makes over $50,000.00 a year while much of the world lives on two dollars a day. In fact, Americans spend more on trash bags in a year than most people in third world countries spend on all their purchases. Churches are no different, building hundred-thousand dollar basketball gyms and installing thirty-thousand dollar multi-media systems. A hundred and thirty five million people are expected to die by 2020 due to lack of clean drinking water. Basic sanitation could be provided for most of these people for around ten billion dollars. It sounds like a lot until you consider that Americans will spend nearly 450 billion on Christmas presents this year alone. If what Jesus said about the rich was true, then virtually no American, or even any church in America, deserves to enter the Kingdom of God. In a just world, America deserves to be punished.

I thought that perhaps I am a Universalist – that there are many paths in life and all people will be reconciled to God eventually. But if this is true, then why is there a need to believe in God anyway? What’s the difference, as long as I seek to live out the message of Matthew 25 and seek to “love my neighbor as myself?”

Still, I tried fervently to seek God in spite of growing doubts. I wanted to believe that he existed. I prayed that he would show me the way. I prayed until I cried, begging that he would restore my faith. I read more Christian books and studied the Bible. Eventually I accepted what my heart and mind was telling me – there is not God. It’s not that I didn’t believe in Jesus’ teaching, but that his divinity and the existence of a God seemed increasingly unlikely in light of what I was learning about the world around me. I never stopped believing in the Bible in the sense that it is the greatest source of moral truth in my life. Jesus’ teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25 form the basis of my ethics. I will always follow my conscience and seek peace, justice, equality for all people through love.

I guess some Christians will say it is okay – people take many paths and all people will be reconciled to God eventually. Some will say that I’ll eventually “come back around.” Some will say that I was never a Christian to begin with. My faith was completely real to me. I was certain that God heard and answered my prayers. I felt his supernatural presence in still quiet moments of worship. But now I realize that it was just a creation of my own mind. I want to be honest with myself and use reason and logic, not blind faith, to explore the world. Life as a human being is very precious, and it is something to be cherished. I want to spend my life creating “heaven” on earth for the “least of these.” I hope Christians will truly follow the teachings of Jesus work with me to do just that.


Lily said...

The first 4 paragraphs sound so much like me, I actually wondered if I wrote this.

Welcome to truth. I look forward to reading more.

charmy Canuck said...

I feel sad for you that you turned from God. I want to know more about God and the faith so I am going to school. I don't see how you can denounce the bible or call it a fairy tale considering that there are events and people that can be traced back and found to have live very real lives and very real events. I guess you've been blinded but someday I hope you will see the mistake and come back. CS Lewis did ;)

James said...

Lily, thanks for your comment. You blog on your time at Weaton has been inspirational.

Charmy, I won't get into a debate about the historical accuracy of the Bible. That's been done many times before. I will say, however, that even as an atheist the Bible is still very important to me. The message of Jesus and his worldview is very inspiring to somebody seeking social justice and peace for the world.

Anonymous said...


This was an interesting and disturbing posts in many ways. I am also someone that has wrestled with various philosophical and moral issues but I have come to different conclusions. I don't know if any of my thoughts here will give you pause to reconsider yours but I pray that they will.

First, I'd like to consider your argument about your moral superiority to God given the scenario that He asked you to kill someone for the greater good. It is problematic that you can consider any moral framework as superior since from your standpoint no transcendent being exists so there can be no moral absolutes by which you can evaluate God's hypothetical question. Looking at pacifism in and of itself as an absolute moral framework without a transcendent power would be an invitation to violence upon violence. Often times the lack of force is more the cause of death and destruction than the use of it. History is filled with examples where individuals or communities or nations failed to act in a timely manor and because of this massive carnage followed. Consider this, if you had a wife or child who was suddenly threatened by a man with a gun would you choose pacifism and lose their life or would you choose violence and save their lfie given the option. You could argue that your sacrifice would lead to an ultimate greater good. Let us assume that to be true, then you have just done what you accuse God of doing. You have allowed the murder of a family member for the greater good. In creating this question and His answer, you also place God in a position that He cannot live up to your standards. Since pacifism is for you the highest moral standard that you have set, that no one can violate, not even God, you have in made yourself a god.

Second, atheism as an absolute is somewhat problematic since you make an absolute claim which assumes you can possess all knowledge in the universe and thereby know based upon your omniscience that no transcendent being exists. Since there is no God, then it would appear there would be no omniscience so you cannot possess all knowledge in the universe so would it be possible to make such a statement? I can see how we could dance around with this argument a bit but it does present a problem for you. How can you know something absolutely since there are none.

Third, your observation regarding common morality found amongst people groups would tend to lean more toward an argument for a transcendent morality which exists independently of human beings. How then could we find such a familiar morality amongst disparate peoples. Also, in terms of those who are seemingly stronger or weaker adherents to a faith, you would find that faith followers of all varieties vary in the degree to which they follow the tenants of their faith and it appears that you ignore the vast commitment to helping those in need by a very long list of Christian people and organizations. Some eastern religions strangely enough exist off of the poor in the sense that some of their adherents take vows of poverty and then accept alms from those who are struggling to survive themselves. You might try to argue that a shared common morality is merely the outcropping of rational thought that seeks to preserve self but all behavior is arguably this and atheistically speaking, one rational cannot be any more morally superior than another.

There is much to be said about your statement that America deserves to be punishment. No, in a world without God, no one deserves to be punished. In an atheistic world, there is only a personal or social construct that may perhaps be loosely agreed upon which is not absolute or transcendent and purely a matter of choice. You cannot claim that America deserves to be punished. In a world with God you can say that, but without God, you can only say I think that America should be punished because it does not live up to my standards which are arbitrary. So, you want to punish people, create suffering because they are living according to their beliefs and not yours which you have elevated to a higher status based on your own personal conclusions which can be no more morally superior than any other.

Also, if a religious organization spends money on gyms or other items, that does not mean that those purchases cause world hunger or prevent an end to suffering. How much do you have that you don't need but you choose to have simply because it satifies your personal desires without benefiting anyone else. How many meals do you eat that provide you with more calories and more food than you need to survive? How much money do you spend on entertainment which you do not need but instead could be used to help minimize suffering? But, going back to your bigger point, "America deserves to be punished", I could argue at many, many levels that we already are being punished but that is another discussion that only makes since if there is a transcendent morality.

As a side note on world poverty, vast sums of money are injected into African nations as well as other poor regions of the world and arguably most of it never funnels down to the people who need it most. It is intercepted by those who hold power and who terrorize the weak. Greed and corruption are not the invention of the U.S. They are a common human condition which is often times even more evident in more impoverished areas than it is in the wealthy U.S.

Finally, for now, in an atheistic world, life is not precious, it is arbitrary, random, irrelevant and without meaning except as a creation of our own mind. It is much more dangerous that most other faiths. And I find it interesting that you find Jesus a good moral teacher who is worthy of following even though he got himself and millions of others killed.


Mikayla Starstuff said...

You are very eloquent. I can relate to your story in that it is a lot like mine. Congratulations for having the courage to face reality. There is no God. And life is still worth living.

Mogg said...

Hi, I found your introduction on Unreasonable Faith and thought I'd have a look, seeing as you have so recently "come out". Congratulations (although it's perhaps not the right word!) for having the courage to be so honest. Your story sounds very much like mine, although I don't quite call myself an atheist - perhaps freethinker or agnostic is a better choice. I left the semi-cultish church I had attended for 15 years in August last year.

Incidentally, I have found that life has become considerably less dreary and more filled with wonder and joy since I made the break. I certainly have no problems with purpose, relevance, or the preciousness of my life - quite the opposite, for various reasons much too long to write here. And I've never understood why the randomness of my existence is supposed to be depressing. I'm here, I'm alive, I'm in a wondrous world. If random chance got me and the universe here, that's pretty awesome, really.