Friday, December 20, 2013

The true meaning of Christmas

Finally, a church here in El Paso understands the true Reason for the Season:

Merry Christmas to all!  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

This is not a punishment. God loves you

I was watching ABS-CBN Pinoy Satellite television the other night with Rosemary.  The past two weeks have been wall to wall coverage of the Visayas region in Philippines.  Clean up has finally begun.  Evacuations are still underway in the regions that were hit the worst, and bulldozers are starting to clear the rubble.  The thousands of corpses stiffened and bloating in the streets are finally being removed to mass graves.  The popular variety shows in Philippines are filling their air-time with benefits and fund raisers.  I am proud to say that several doctors here in El Paso recently departed for Philippines, to selflessly volunteer their time and expertise where it is most needed.

Yolanda was one of the most powerful typhoons on record to make landfall.  The Visayas region where the typhoon hit hardest was already weakened from last month’s 7.1 magnitude earthquake.  Yolanda just cleared away what was left over.  Homes were flattened by 200 mph+ winds.  Children were ripped from their mother’s arms by a 30 foot ocean surge.  Some desperate people tried tying themselves to coconut trees to avoid being swept out to sea, only to be found bloated from sea water and tied to a useless tree trunk.  Thousands dead.  Millions displaced.  Rosemary sometimes cannot keep from crying when watching news broadcasts from her island home. 

This past weekend, the first Catholic Mass was held in Tacloban since Yolanda destroyed the city.  The Visayas region of the Philippines is overwhelmingly Catholic, a religion brought to Philippines by their Spanish conquerors.  I do not doubt that these people would look to the Church as their source of strength and courage after a typhoon like Yolanda.  While watching worshippers cramming into what was left of their church, I asked Rosemary if people ever blame God after a tragedy instead of worshipping Him.  I admit, I was being a little flippant with her.

“Oh no.  They would never do that.  They would just not do that.”

My flippancy did not last long.  “Why not?  Don’t they ever question?  Don’t they ever ask?  I mean, I think by now they are justified.  ‘God, you sent an earthquake.  Now you sent a typhoon.  My children have drowned.  I mean, what the hell, God?!’”

One Tacloban Catholic priest, wet and sweaty after hauling bags of rice, was interviewed by a reporter.  Most reporting is in Tagalog, but I happened to catch this one in English.  I wish I could find the clip online but I cannot.  I paraphrase:

Priest: After this destruction, I had to question, ‘God, where are you?”
Reporter: What did you discover after your questioning?
Priest: I found the answer in prayer and faith.  This tragedy is not a punishment from God.  God loves us.

I try so hard to be sympathetic to belief in times of tragedy.  I understand that the people look to the Church as a source of strength when life is at its worst.  I try to see the food and shelter that is actively dispensed by the local Catholic parishes when disaster hits.  But I also know that the Catholic Church as no answers to these questions.  “Prayer” is not an answer to anything.  “Faith” is an admission of defeat. 

I understand that the Catholic Church has no answers to these tragedies beyond those invented by priests desperate to comfort their hurting parishioners.  “This is not a punishment from God,” they say apparently knowing the motivations of the Almighty, “this is a test to bring you closer to God.  Gain strength by reflecting on the suffering of Jesus.”  No Catholic believer ever gets an answer more substantial than this.  The Catholic Church has no answers.  They rely on symbols, rituals and iconography to give meaning to their community of believers.

I try so hard to understand.  But I also understand that the Catholic Church must put effort into keeping their parishioners as helpless, guilty, sinful and ignorant as they possibly can.  They invent the disease, then promote their imaginary cure.  Only the most delusional thanks this all powerful Creature for saving their lives after they have watched others crushed or drowned like caged rats.  Nobody dares blame this all powerful Deity for such death and destruction for fear of torture that never ends.  Nobody dares question their loving Creator for fear of their god, their priest and their community.  But it should be obvious to any of these people, if only they were allowed to think rationally and without fear, that if their god really exists, then He does not give a damn about any one of them.  Any god who allows this kind of death and destruction is not worthy of worship.  Anybody can see this.  Only fear and ignorant superstition can cause those who are shackled and beaten to continue to worship their prison torturer.   

To those who are suffering – you have every right to question, condemn and reject a Deity who claims to love you, yet tortures, destroys and kills you, your family and your friends on a whim.  Nobody prays to this Deity to make the typhoon retreat back to sea.  Nobody prays for the typhoon to miraculously and harmlessly disperse back into the atmosphere before it makes landfall.  Nobody does this because everybody knows that such prayers will do nothing.  Everybody knows that this Deity is powerless to save; He is only there to provide comfort after the destruction is over.  He is thoroughly impotent.  He is worshipped only after disaster has struck.  ‘Peace’ is not living content through the eye of the storm.  ‘Faith’, held at all costs, is not a virtue.  Only the most deluded, fearful and ignorant worships a loving Deity while standing alone among piles of storm strewn rubble and rotting corpses.

I do not like writing articles like this.  It is not tasteful to me.  It is too easy to point at harmful superstition when it is everywhere.  But in the months and years to come, as the Visayas region slowly recovers from these disasters, the shock of destruction will subside, and God will no longer be questioned.  The Catholic Church will again be viewed as a beacon of Faith among a sinful world, and a source of worship among the community.  My tolerance for the Catholic church ebbs and flows with my mood, and I confess that right now I do not have much tolerance left.  Eventually, my temporary hatred of the Catholic Church will subside.  But before I too forget, I want to post my frustration, my anger, my disgust of soul-sucking, parasitic superstition.  I do not write this because I hate the Catholic Church.  Far from it.  I write this because I love the Philippine people.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Facing irrational fears

This article came to me yesterday while hiking alone in the Owens Peak Wilderness.

I have always had an irrational fear of heights.  My friends know of my enthusiasm for hiking in the mountains, and they are always surprised when they discover just how nervous I sometimes get when I am out on the trails.  My fear does not come from some dangerous risk that I should not be taking.  My fear does not come from a rational fear of falling.  I am usually in no danger when the knot of fear grips my stomach.  If I am hiking along a mountain ledge or canyon rim, I make sure that I am far enough from the ledge to be out of danger.  There is no reason to be afraid when I watch my step and keep a safe distance.  But the fear sometimes becomes overwhelming, and there have been times when it became so bad that I would sit, squeeze my eyes closed and refuse to take another step.  I am perched on a ledge that is hundreds or even thousands of feet above the surrounding area.  The vista is spectacular, and the swirling clouds are so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch them.  But even though I keep a safe distance from danger, my brain dwells the fact that I have it within my own power, if I wished, to walk to the edge of the precipice, dive off, and spiral down to the rocky sawteeth below.  I am not afraid of the real danger, I am afraid of the vision of perceived helplessness that I replay in my head.  

I once heard worry defined as imagining the worst possible outcome of some scenario, then obsessing over that worst possible thing happening.  In my case, the worst possible scenario is actively walking to the ledge and jumping.  When I am the upper floor of a hotel, or even looking over a high balcony, the thought enters my head of opening the window, climbing over the railing, and taking a nosedive.  I once walked a few hundred yards over the Golden Gate Bridge but I had to turn back after looking at the water far below.  I obsessed over the thought of cutting through all the suicide barriers and hurtling into the bay.  I am not suicidal.  I have no desire to jump.  There is no rational reason that I would ever purposefully and intentionally overcome all safety barriers placed there for my protection, and jump.  Yet, my stomach knots up with fear.  I am not afraid of a real danger of falling.  I am afraid of an irrational and imagined vision that I place in my head.

I have had this fear since I was a young boy, but over the years it has gotten better.  Constant travel for work has eased my fear of flying.  Air turbulence that used to paralyze me with fear now rarely bothers me.  My refusal to quit hiking in the mountains has also helped.  The fact that I know my fears are irrational allows me to confront the fear before it overwhelms me. 

When I am up in the mountains, I can sometimes see the trail far out in front of me.  While the trail is wide enough that I should feel no danger, all I see ahead of me is a thin hairline sliver that is barley etched into the face of the sheer rock wall, and dangling far over the valley below.  My stomach seizes and my brain wants my feet to stop.  In the perspective of the whole mountain, I am such a tiny speck that I imagine a sudden whirlwind launching me over the edge.  The mountain looks like it could shrug its shoulders and throw me off like a dog shaking off a flea.  But I know such fears are irrational, and there is nothing to fear.  My enjoyment of the hike and the freedom of the wilderness must overcome all irrationality.  I put the image of falling out of my head, sometimes by scolding myself, sometimes by just humming a melody, and I am eventually able to overcome my fears.  I have learned not to let irrationality and fear destroy what I love in life.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Conversions and De-conversions

The story is over.  What I had initially thought would take me 2 or 3 months of continuous writing turned into 19 months of occasional writing and long breaks.  The writing was not the hard part.  It was the motivation to dredge up the sometimes unpleasant memories, and the thoughtful labor involved in organizing all my thoughts towards the goal of discovering exactly why I converted into Christianity, and why I ultimately had to leave it.  But I am finally finished, and I think I have answered those questions to my own satisfaction.  I wrote it for myself, so that I could discover those answers for myself, but I will leave it in this public forum for anybody who wishes to read it.  I will use this page as a sort of ‘Table of Contents’ to allow me to click on individual articles in the story a little more easily.

I was inspired to write my ‘Spiritual Journey’, if I must call it that, after re-reading Kerry Livgren’s similarly themed autobiography, Seeds of Change.  As I wrote in the very first article of my own series, I was impressed with Livgren’s story because he showed how his decision to convert to Christianity and reject his growing musical fame was not a singular event.  Rather, that decision was the result of a lifetime of experiences and personal meditation, sometimes reaching back into his early childhood.  I wanted to do the same thing with my own story.  Some of the thinking I had as an adult was formed out of events that occurred while I was in still in grade school.  As I have often said, the story of my de-conversion is necessarily the story of my life.  Even though Livgren and I came to vastly different conclusions regarding our religious beliefs, I wanted to show that I also did not make a hasty decision to leave Christianity.  For me, it was the result of over 40 years of experiences, education and deep thought.

Am I right?  I think so, but I have been wrong before.  I can defend most of my positions, but I have learned that I must welcome the possibility that I may be shown to be wrong.  I once thought that I could know and understand the absolute and exclusive Truth about the nature of reality through faith and revelation.  But I will no longer make such claims.  I no longer preach the Gospel of absolute Truth and Certainty.  Methodology is more important than certainty.  I am done with Dogmatism.

Livgren concluded his book with a chapter called Soapbox, in which he vented about the sad state of popular music in the 1980’s and early 90’s.  Portions of that chapter can be read HERE.  In a similar vein I also wrote a concluding chapter, in which I vented some frustrations of my own.  I ultimately decided to leave my own Soapbox off, and leave the story where it is. 

If anybody ever decides they want to know why I left Christianity, I will point them here.  If anybody thinks I was rash in my decision, and threw the baby out with the bathwater, I will point them here.  This is my story.  After writing it, I discovered for myself exactly why I converted into Christianity, and I also know exactly why I left it.  This is why:

I introduce my motivations for wanting to write about my ‘Spiritual Journey’.

I introduce my parents and a little of their religious pedigree.

My parents rejected their respective religious traditions, and I saw a lot of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

Mom got swept up in the hippie 'Jesus Movement' and my world became Pentecostal magic and miracles.

As a religious adolescent, I learned to be guilty of what came natural. 

I temporarily drop the religion, but continue as an overgrown adolescent.  My future does not look bright.

Miserable and hopeless, I take the only option that I can see.  I learn again to love Jesus.

I describe in some detail my life as a 'Born Again Christian'.  Here are the beliefs that I held, the sacrifices that I made, the street preaching that I performed, and the bogus apologetics and pseudo-science that I had to accept.  I also describe the constant fears, paradoxes and anxieties that Christian dogma imposed on me.

A mission trip reveals the Christian hypocrisy I was engaged in.  I have to leave my home church.  This part contains clips from an old home movie.

I read one too many Asimov books, and become fascinated by the mysteries of science.

My introduction to astrophysics, the scientific method and skepticism

I meet my future wife.  I describe some of her religious background as a Catholic.

I learn a bit about Catholicism and how that affected my own Protestant beliefs.

I am desperate to be a good husband, so I try to be good the only way I know how - religion.  The results are nearly disastrous.

I start to apply critical reasoning to my religious beliefs while married to a Catholic believer and hosting Bible studies.  It is a precarious balancing act.

I retreat to Christian apologetics to save my crumbling Faith.  The plan backfires.

I finally abandon my Christian faith.  Now what?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Conversions and De-conversions – Religious Experience and Unbelief

It is always a joy when a new baby is born within our circle of family and friends.  It is a joy, but Rosemary and I are also briefly saddened by the fact that these new parents are experiencing a joy that we will, in all likelihood, never experience.  Just last week, Rosemary’s closest friend from the Philippines gave birth to her third baby boy.  As we celebrated the birth with the new parents in the maternity ward, the pious mother continually peppered her conversation with gratitude to the beneficent deity that she believed had blessed her.  Like most women from Philippines, her devotion to the Catholic Church is a strong part of her identity.  She is one of the very few people who was our friend when I was a Christian, and remained a friend after I lost my Faith.  Rosemary and I did not blame her for thanking the god she had faith in for the blessing of three children. 

I do not believe that her children are the result of a special blessing from a deity who pours favor on her.  I also no not believe that Rosemary’s miscarriages are due to special curses from a deity who pours scorn on us.  Both of these attributions are equally groundless and superstitious nonsense.  And I am certain that our friend, in thanking her god for her blessings, was not intending to imply that her god was cursing us.  We were there to celebrate, and such selfish and overly sensitive implications never entered our minds.  But I do know that one of the things that religions do so well is provide an outlet for the expression of overwhelming emotion.  During one of those rare times of pure joy and beauty in life, during one of those brief occasions when fleeting ecstasy lingers long enough to savor, people often feel the need to express themselves with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  They feel the need to thank somebody, even if the source of good fortune is not readily apparent.  It is a shame that the actual people who were involved are often forgotten, but a supremely beneficent deity is always there; ready to accept any and all credit and gratitude.  I profess that it is irrational superstition.  But we human beings are inherently irrational animals.  Critical thought is a skill that does not come naturally; rather it must be learned, developed and actively practiced to be of any value.  Even people who apply a developed skill of critical thought do not use it in a consistent or constant manner.  Humans are irrational and emotional thinkers, because we are humans.  This is just part of who we are.  I do not blame my friend one bit for the gratitude she expressed to her deity.  She is a new mother in the maternity ward, and we were there with her to celebrate mere hours after she gave birth.  I accept her in her belief because she accepts me in my non-belief. 

This celebration with a new mother happened in a hospital room only one week ago.  This long story of my Conversions and De-conversions into and out of several types of religious beliefs is finished.  When I began writing this long series, I knew that the story of my leaving Faith is essentially the story of my life.  Christianity left such a profound imprint on my life as a believer, that I may never be able to completely remove the detritus of religious faith from my personality.  Even as a non-believer, religious belief and expression is something that I have experienced, and those experiences will likely stay with me the rest of my life.  I confess that I am left with no choice but to be respectful of the religious experience of the believer.  Our inherent irrationality implies our inherent religiosity. 

I must be respectful of the religious experience.  But I despise bogus Christian apologetics.  I hate the misrepresentation of science among many religious believers.  I am a physicist, so when I hear Christians that I know repeat some bit of pseudo-science that they read from some Christian propaganda pamphlet, I will do my best to gently and respectfully correct them.  When a workmate tells me that I must believe in a Case for a Creator because of some Lee Strobel video that they saw, I will watch it, and I will point out to that workmate every disgusting lie and scientific misrepresentation in that video. 

I will defend science and attempt to educate the value of critical thinking.  But I never argue against the religious experiences or beliefs of others.  I was never argued out of religious belief.  As this long Conversions and De-Conversions series demonstrates, my rejection of religious faith was due to a long, long process of understanding basic critical thinking skills, then gaining the courage to apply those skills to the underlying assumptions behind my own core religious beliefs.  Nobody could tell me to leave religion.  I had to leave on my own, with my own thoughts and my own rationale.  When my Faith finally began to dissolve in 2007, it corresponded to a publishing phenomenon subsequently called New Atheism.  It was about this time that major best sellers appeared from Dawkins, Harris, et al., which attempted to argue believers out of their religion.  As I was leaving Christianity, I went through a reading frenzy to personally investigate my religious beliefs, but I intentionally avoided anything by these New Atheists who wanted to argue for my rational soul.  I have nothing against any of these authors.  In fact, I have read two of Dawkins’ more scientific books, and loved them.  But upon leaving Christianity, I needed to explore my beliefs on my own terms.  If I was going to leave Christianity, I did not want to get swept up in yet another movement, even a movement of self-purported rationality and evidence-based reasoning.  I still have no desire to follow a movement based on organized non-belief.

In the very first entry in this long Conversions and De-conversions series, I expressed disappointment that so many of the de-conversions stories that I have read seem to follow the same pattern.  The person will describe what a devout believer they were in some detail, then describe what led them out of religion in even greater detail.  At the moment they stopped believing, their story ends with little development on how their non-belief further affected their lives after belief.  Over 18 months after I wrote that first entry, I see that I have unavoidably followed the same lamentable pattern.  I have written over 35 chapters that describe a lifetime of religious escapades, only to end it around the year 2009 with my final realization that there is certainly no god looking out for us.  I end my story there, with only a short anecdote from last week tacked on the end.  I realize now that that there is no spiritual journey to describe without Faith, so there is nothing really left to this story.  I will not describe how much happier or fuller my life is without religion.  I will not explain how my eyes have been opened, and I can now see the physical world as it is with the gift of Rationality.  This may be true of others who have left the Faith, but for me, as mundane as it may sound, life simply continues pretty much as it always has.  There was no epiphany.  There was no moment of rationality where I joyously threw off the shackles of religion and proclaimed that there was no god.  My journey out of religious belief lasted for decades, and although my thoughts and opinions have changed drastically since I left Faith, at the core I think I am still the same person I ever was.  I had a wonderful marriage as a Christian and again as an apostate.  I did things I was proud of before and after belief.  I said stupid things to people and hurt many feelings before and after belief.  I have been courageous, bold, cowardly, obnoxious, loving, resentful, silly, serious, selfish, generous – in fact, I continue to experience the vast range of human emotion whether I have Faith or not.  Nothing much has changed.  But I have always maintained that I stuck with religious belief because I desperately wanted to be happy, content, and be the best person that I could be.  I finally left religion for exactly the same reasons.  Personal honesty compelled it.  My atheism, if I must call it that, was not a conscious decision that I decided to follow.  It is simply the logical road to follow if I was to maintain any personal integrity. 

If anything has changed, it is only this:  the overwhelming, suffocating guilt that religious belief smothered me with is finally gone.  All through my years as a Christian believer, I was convinced that the death of Jesus represented the virtuous action of a righteous Judge who still loved His children enough to die for them.  It was only long after I had left religious belief, and had removed myself enough from the beliefs to gain some outside perspective, that I could see how barbarous that particular ‘virtue’ really is.  There is nothing that can make human sacrifice to be a virtue, and there is no justice in placing sins on the back of a human scapegoat.  In fact, it was only after I had gained significant distance from the Christian religion that I discovered what a truly horrific monster this god, this Jehovah, and by extension, this Jesus, really was.  I missed my Christian beliefs in the first few years after I lost my Faith.  But only after I read the Bible and objectively studied the doctrines of the Christian religion without actually believing in them, did I discover that these were all products of more barbarous times, and that sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity made no sense anymore.  I missed my Christian faith for a while, but today I am glad to discover that the universe is not run by a monster who has hoodwinked His creation into thinking that His atrocities are the result of His moral perfection.  This deity is no better than the Butcher of Baghdad, and His worshippers are dazzled by His cult of personality.  Now that I am a non-believer, I am glad to be rid of Him.

These days, I rarely ever think of the god I once believed in, His holy books or doctrines of belief.  Rosemary and I have made new friends who accept us for who we are, and we have filled our lives with interests and activities that fulfill us.  Life goes on without Him, with the same joys and sorrows, tragedies and triumphs that I have always felt.  Although the label fits, I rarely, if ever, call myself an atheist.  I am not offended by the term; in fact this is how many people I know will describe my beliefs.  That is fine by me, but I find that the term atheist is just not useful in describing anything.  If I am asked to label myself in a religious context, I prefer non-believer or even apostate.  But in the end, I do not really care and I try not to get too hung up on how a person wishes to describe me.  What is more important to me is that people understand why I no longer believe.  This why question is the greatest hurdle for believers to come to grips with.  Many of our religious friends know that I do not share their beliefs.  Not a single one of them, not one, has ever asked me why.  Most Christians who knew me when my Faith collapsed felt free to condemn, but not a single one of them asked me why.  How I wish just one of them would have asked me why I lost my Faith, instead of making assumptions about my secret desire to sin and avoiding ultimate accountability to a deity.  Why is not typically in the religious person’s vocabulary.  Belief is a virtue, methodology is a hinderance.  Just two weekends ago a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door.  I usually tell them I am not interested, but on this morning I patiently listened as she flipped through her Watchtower magazine and told me that God has great things planned for my life.

“I do not believe that.”
“You don’t?  That is so sad.”
“Why should I believe it?  Tell me.  Why?”
She and her assistant replied with stone cold silence.  I wished them a good day.  I was once condemned by a Catholic friend, who has long since abandoned us, of demanding proof for the existence of her god, as if asking for proof were a bad thing.

“You want proof!  How dare you demand proof from God!”
“I do not demand proof.  I would simply like some evidence.”
“Evidence?  Look around you!  Look at the world you live in!  What more evidence do you need?”

The Christians that I know do not know how to deal with the question why.  Unfortunately, in pondering questions about the nature of reality, I believe that methodology is far more important than answers.

I do not know what the future may hold.  Perhaps some day I will be shown to be wrong about my non-belief.  In fact, I welcome that day to come.  One thing that I have learned after leaving religious belief is to not be offended when I am shown to be wrong – wrong about anything.  When that day comes, I will write another entry in this series.  But as of today, 15 July 2013, I do not see any reason to believe in supernatural deities, spirits, demons, angels or any other creatures of supra-normal reality.  If I have no reason to believe, I do not believe.  Do these creatures actually exist?  Does God, Jehovah, Jesus, whatever one wishes to call this Deity, really exist?  I highly doubt it, but even if He did, I have no idea what, if anything, this Deity could possibly want from me.  So I do not worry about it.  Non-belief is effortless.  I do not struggle to have enough Faith to be an Atheist.  When I was a Christian, I constantly prayed to God to ease my doubts, to strengthen my Faith, and maintain my desire to believe.  It was often an uphill battle, and if the vast number of sermons I have heard on the topic is any indication, I believe this struggle to believe is true of most Christians.  But non-belief is truly effortless.  I do not believe in Jehovah, Jesus or any other invisible deity for the exact, same, identical reason that I do not believe in ghosts, mermaids, Sasquatch, or Aswang,  I do not believe in the power of prayer, for the exact, same, identical reason that I do not believe in the power of Reiki, Horoscopes, Palmistry or Spirit Channeling.   

Of course I do not know everything.  There may be a creature out there who possesses the qualities that we humans would typically ascribe to a deity.  This material universe may be a mere shadowy projection of a vaster supernatural reality.  Maybe.  These things may be fun to speculate on, but I still confidently assert that there is no such thing as a supernatural god.  Believers sometimes complain that I am not justified in my positive assertion that there is no god.  But I look at the intersection between belief and knowledge in much the same way that I positively assert that I will drive to work safely tomorrow morning.  I know that I will arrive safely to work tomorrow morning and I know that I will drive through all the congested morning traffic without incident.  And while I know this to be true, I do not hesitate for a moment to contemplate the real and significant possibility that I could be injured or killed while driving to work.  For all practical purposes, I believe and I know that I will drive without incident to work tomorrow morning, even while acknowledging that there is always a risk involved.  This is exactly how I negotiate my life without a god.  For all practical purposes, I believe and I know that there is no god to worry about – but if there is significant risk to be had, somebody had better demonstrate it before I will believe it.  It is really no more complicated than that.

That is where I am today, 15 July 2013.  I have no desire to indulge myself in my former beliefs.  But at the same time, I am surrounded by people who continue to hold to these same beliefs.  These are people I love, including my wife, who have no desire or reason to abandon their beliefs.  I have to remember how these believers still experience their religious beliefs, and what these beliefs mean to them.  Like it or not, I am still the product of a Christian culture and heritage.  I understand that religion has done much harm in the world, but I have to remember but that for the vast bulk of Christians that I know it has given them a profound sense of identity, culture, community, morality and yes, purpose.  I am convinced that the vast majority of people who continue with their religious Faith, do so because they are trying to be good, decent, moral people.  True, I think that all these benefits can be gained without religion, but try telling that to the religious believer.  That would be as effective as telling me to stop eating tamales and menudo because I can gain all the calories I need without eating unhealthy Mexican food.  Forget it!  That is just never going to happen.  We all live with irrationality and emotion in some part of our lives.

I have one more short story to tell before I end this long Conversions and De-conversions series.  Let me go back to last week, celebrating with our friends in the maternity ward.  I must follow that story of birth with a story of death.  Thanks to Rosemary’s Facebook connections, we had two bits of news that morning that we had to deal with.  The first was the birth of a child, and we went to the maternity ward to celebrate.  The second was news that a friend from my old Baptist Church had a heart attack and was in a different floor of the same hospital.  Rosemary and I had to put awkwardness aside and visit.  So we left the maternity ward, then took the elevator to Intensive Care, where we met Pastor Alvarez of La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church with his dying wife.  I had not seen either one since I stopped attending that church, but word had long ago reached them that I had apostatized from the Faith.  But deep down, I loved this man who had officiated at our wedding, and I needed to put our pasts behind and offer what support I could in his time of need.  I looked at his wife D----.  She had just retired from her career as a school teacher only a few weeks before.  Then, for no apparent reason or purpose, she had a severe heart attack.  When Rosemary and I visited, she was under an induced coma and her body temperature was somehow being lowered to relieve the pressure on her swelling brain.  She was ghostly white, and when I held her hand it was icy cold.  Pastor Alvarez had been awake all night, and had been through hell. 

Slow, quiet, exhausted, the first words he said to me were, “Joe, I have not seen you in a long time.”  I ignored it.  I just hugged him.

We learned that there would be a prayer vigil later that day in the hospital courtyard.  Rosemary insisted that we should attend, and I agreed to go.  I was not looking forward to meeting so many people who knew me as an apostate and unbeliever, but I had to put awkwardness aside for the sake of friendship and support.

That afternoon, about thirty believers from La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church met in the hospital courtyard.   I did recognize most, but I did my best to keep as low a profile as possible.  I did not want to be the white elephant in the room.  They were not there for me, and I did not want to interrupt.  At the same time I did not want to participate in their vigil.  Christians claim that that there is nothing much worse than somebody who hypocritically pretends to believe.  I never indulge them.

Everybody stood in a large circle and shared stories and laughs about the woman who was dying just three floors above them.  One of her adopted children was there, and even though he had long since left the house as an adult, he expressed his love and gratitude for the family who had adopted him as a child.  Rosemary shared that D---- was one of the first friends she made when she came to live in the United States.

Eventually the stories ended, and the inevitable appeal to their deity began.  Everybody stood in a circle and held hands while I listened from one of the courtyard benches.  A few comforting Scriptures were read, mostly from the Psalms.  Then one by one, those who felt led took their turn in prayer.  The prayers were identical to those that I had heard countless times in my years as a believer. 

“Lord, we remember all the wonderful things that D---- means to us…”
“Lord, You are the great physician…”
“Lord, we just come before Your throne of grace and we ask You to touch D---- and heal her of her affliction…”
“Lord, we selfishly ask that You guide the hands of the surgeons and physicians that You placed over her care….”

Every one of these people loved D----, and asked their almighty benefactor for a full recovery.  Even Rosemary gave her own tearful prayer in her native Tagalog language.  As faithful and believing as each of these people were, each prayer contained the psychologically conditioned admission of defeat, “…but not my will but Yours be done…”  These believers do not know it, but such pleas for the Deity to perform His own will is just a way of bracing themselves for the inevitable unanswered prayer and subsequent death of the woman they are all praying for.  Asking the Almighty to do something so trivial as to only perform His will is a diversion from accepting the fact that the Almighty is thoroughly incompetent and powerless, if He even exists at all.

D---- lasted two more days in a coma before she died.  I was secretly relieved that she died.  I was afraid that if she did recover from her swollen brain, she would suffer from brain damage for the rest of her life.  I wept with Pastor Alvarez after the death of his wife, but I also pitied him.  He was the one who would have to believe that the Almighty took her life for some unseen purpose and higher plan.  I do not believe in such superstitions.  Like the loss of our children through miscarriages, sometimes things just happen. 

But despite all the superstition and irrationality that I find in religion, I have to remember why these people continue to believe.  We faced polar extremes of emotion that day in the hospital, from the birth of a child to the death of a friend.  And just like with the birth of a child, one of the things that religions do so well is provide an outlet for the expression of overwhelming emotion.  During those all too frequent times of loss and suffering in life, during one of those occasions of prolonged grief, people often feel the need to express themselves with an overwhelming sense of sorrow and regret.  They feel the need to appeal to somebody for help because they know that they are actually powerless to do anything.  It is a shame that the actual people who were involved are often forgotten, but a supremely beneficent deity is there; ready to accept any and all appeals for help that can be made available.  I profess that it is irrational superstition.  But we human beings are inherently irrational animals. 

Humans are irrational and emotional, because we are humans.  This is just part of who we are.  I do not blame my friends one bit for appealing to a deity during a time of sadness.  The real purpose of our visit in the prayer vigil was to remember D---- for the short time left that she would be alive, to share stories about her life and our experiences with her, and to offer each other support during our time of grief.  I accept them in their belief even if they do not accept me in my non-belief.  I accept them because I have been where they are in belief.  I completely understand them.  And I never want to forget. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Conversions and De-conversions - God is Dead

Rosemary and I waited patiently for the obstetrician’s results.  We were both hopeful and excited about our new baby.  The last time we visited, we could see that the little fetus was alive and healthy.  We discussed in anticipation how we would raise, educate and discipline the child.  We even discussed teaching the child our religious beliefs, customs and traditions, but agreed to love and accept our child no matter what religion they chose to follow.  Rosemary did not seem to mind if the child decided to not even follow any religion at all.

I still believed in God, although I had to confess that I knew nothing about Him or what, if anything, He wanted from me.  Even after so much of my Christian Faith had dissolved, I still considered myself a Christian.  I had been a Christian my entire life, and I did not know what else to call myself.  I found nothing objectionable with belief in itself, and I still considered Faith to be a kind of virtue that could not be matched with unbelief.  When I was a Fundamentalist, I used to claim that religion was just a term for man’s feeble attempts of reaching out to God.  But I was not religious.  I let God reach down to me.  After losing so much of my own Faith, I reverted back to a slightly modified version of that same Fundamentalist definition of religion.  The Bible, I now thought, was one record of man’s feeble, but earnest, attempt at reaching out to God and trying to understand Him.  The same could be said for other religions and their Holy books and beliefs.  We were all trying to reach out to God, in our own way.  My study and criticism had given me the more educated view that our religions would always fall short of allowing us to fully understand the mind of God, much less have a relationship with Him. 

The truth was that I missed believing in God.  I wanted to believe.  I missed believing in God because I wanted to believe.  I missed the companionship of people who believed the same things I did.  I missed contemplating about eternal and weighty matters that were bigger than this world.  I missed having even the illusion of aligning myself with a moral plumb line.  I still believed in sin, because I could steel feel the grip of guilt that sin put on my thoughts and actions.

I had been a Christian my whole life, and even after losing Faith I could not shake my Christian convictions overnight.  I wanted to believe, and I clung desperately with my fingernails to the thinnest sliver of ledge was left of Christianity.  I wanted to believe, until a disaster finally pushed me over the edge.

I was 45 years old, Rosemary was 36, and for the first time in our lives, we were thrilled to be bringing a child into the world.  I felt like I had gotten a bit of a late start in life.  After all, I was old enough to start thinking of having grandchildren, and here I was waiting for my first child!  I figured that I may have gotten a late start, waiting to start university at 32, marrying at 40, now having a first child at 45, but I had spent all that extra time in preparation.  I was well educated, earning a large paycheck, had a wonderful marriage, and I felt age and experience had given me a level of maturity that I certainly did not have in my 20s or even 30s.  Rosemary and I felt ready to raise the next generation.  We figured two children would be ideal.  We even had names picked out.  We had figured out a clever way of naming the child after her grandparents and my grandparents, no matter what the child’s gender would have been. 

We could see Rosemary’s womb on the sonogram.  The obstetrician immediately gave us the bad news.

He left the examining room to give Rosemary and me a little time alone together.  It took a silent moment or two for the shock to sink in, but when we realized what had just happened, we collapsed into each other’s arms.  We held each other and wept bitter tears.  I was more stunned than the first time this had happened.  That bloody, painful and frightening miscarriage in our bathroom was bad enough, but we both thought this time would be different.  We thought this time, the baby would survive.  We were just in this examining room a month earlier, and we saw the sonogram on the computer monitor!  The little baby was alive and healthy!  Now, just a few weeks later, and for no apparent reason …

No, the religious person would think.  There is always a reason.  As bad as it seems, there is a reason - even for this.  We cannot know the mind of the Almighty, the religious person would think.  Some lesson or some greater good must come from this tragedy. Maybe the death of the child will somehow alter future events to bring Rosemary and me closer together in love and marriage.  Maybe this child is not the one that the Almighty had ultimately planned for the two of us.  For all we know, some little boy is being born, just this very instant, into a family who does not want him.  Maybe the little boy was somehow saved from the abortion clinic, and was being preserved for us to adopt him.  Who can fathom the mind and providence of the Almighty?

I was once the person who would have struggled to find meaning in tragedy.  I once thought that Hurricane Andrew struck southern Florida in order to allow Christian missionaries to descend on the needy, provide comfort and proclaim the Gospel in the name of Jesus Christ.  There is transcendent meaning and purpose in everything, I had once believed.

I did find comfort soon after the death of our little child.  I was grieving bitterly, but for me it passed surprisingly quickly.  I found my comfort precisely where I am accused I could never find it.  I found comfort in non-belief.  I did not have to struggle to imagine some higher purpose.  I did not have to imagine that the Almighty performed some abortion on our healthy child, just to teach us a lesson, bring us closer together, or to secretly prepare us for an adoptive child.  I did not have to wonder at the mystery of a Deity who would perform some cruelty toward us and toward our tiny child, just for some imagined and unknowable greater good.  I had no Faith to defend, and I did not have to struggle to use a Faith to imagine a reason in my hour of grieving.  No, I just grieved until I was finished grieving.

If there was some higher meaning to all this, it was the discovery that I did not need my old beliefs to find peace in tragedy.  Faith demanded that I struggle to find meaning where there was none.  This struggle vanished after I lost Faith. I discovered that Faith did not give that transcendent meaning that I had been promised.  Faith was a cancerous tumor that promised peace which passeth all understanding, but actually delivered nothing but false hope.  Not only had I lost Faith, but the moment of salvation came when I discovered that I did not need Faith.  Faith is a coping mechanism where one is not needed. 

Is there a god?  Does God love me?  Does He care for me and want the best for me?  Even after so much of my Faith had eroded, I still held out hope that this God was still out there somewhere, and Faith in Him, whoever He was, was still somehow virtuous.  But after a tragedy like this, I could see that questions like these were moot.  I finally understood that if this creature named God, Yahweh, Jesus, the Almighty, actually existed, this creature did not give a rip one way or another about me.  Or Rosemary.  Or anybody else who lived on this earth.  I was not angry at God for the tragedy; I just found that it was pointless to try to turn to Him when I should have needed Him the most.  He had vanished.  He was a phantom, an illusion, a projection of my own hopes and fears.  The religious person struggles to find meaning through Faith, whether it be through traditional religion or personal piety.  But I discovered that through my own lack of Faith, I had killed God.  The deity named Jesus was no different from one of the old Greek deities who could only survive through the prayers and devotion of their pagan worshippers.  The only thing keeping the modern God alive in any form was my faith.  But I had no faith.  I finally understood that God and Faith are pretty much the same thing, and when I kill one the other dies right along with it.

My comfort came in understanding that there is no higher purpose in tragedy, suffering and death.  Rosemary and I are animals.  We live with all other animals on a spinning rock, orbiting an enormous nuclear reactor.  We are at the mercy of our dynamic earth, and the profane laws that she abides by.  I once had to use my religious Faith to find comfort, meaning and purpose in earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes.  If I still had Faith, I would have to use it to find comfort in the death of our little child. 

But no more.  I believed the comforting words of the obstetrician, “there is nobody to blame.  You did all the right things, but sometimes this just – happens.”

And that is all there was to it.  Things just happen.  God never was and never has been.  But even with that, the detritus of God wanted to cling to my life like a parasite.  If I need to kill a parasite then I have to stop feeding it.  God is Dead.  There is relief in those words.  I grieved with Rosemary.  Then I could simply let the pain go.  I was finally free.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Conversions and De-conversions - Unequally Yoked

I had it easy.  Mom had long since left her Pentecostal religion behind her, and for all I knew, was apathetic towards religious belief.  Dad had fully given his life over to the Mormon Church, and only occasionally talked to me about his religious beliefs.  They had both divorced decades earlier, and although there was no animosity, they rarely had need to speak to each other.  I was 42 years old, so my parents had long ago lost any influence over my personal religious beliefs.  Both lived over one hundred miles from us, and Rosemary’s parents lived over 8000 miles from us, so they were not involved with our daily activities.  Rosemary and I had both moved to El Paso to find employment, and had spent only a few years investing in local friendships and commitments.  Despite our activities in both La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church and St Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, we had not formally joined either church as members.  Probably most importantly, Rosemary and I had no children to drag through the confusion I felt after losing my Faith in Jesus.  I have since read countless, heartbreaking stories by former believers who, because of concerns over children, parents, an overbearing church involvement or religious culture, cannot completely make the break from the religion they no longer have Faith in.  The only person I felt accountable to was my wife.  My Baptist church?  Since I was not a member, I simply stopped attending on Sunday mornings.  I figured that I did not owe anybody there an explanation.  Cowardly?  Perhaps.  But since I liked Pastor Alvarez, and did not object to his more tepid form of Baptist preaching, I just did not want to raise trouble where I thought trouble would not be welcome.  My Catholic church?  Since I never said anything to anybody at that church, outside of the rote, ‘peace be with you’, nobody there knew or cared about my personal religious beliefs – or even non-beliefs.  I bet half the people in that church were heretics of one kind or another, but people in that place rarely talked about their beliefs.

Without any societal commitments, my departure from Faith was relatively easy.  Not that it was painless.

Rosemary knew that my beliefs were changing.  She could see the books that I had been reading, and she was troubled by some of the conversations that I was starting with her.  I was honest and open with her throughout the entire transition away from Faith.  I have read some stories of apostate husbands who must break the news to their wives that they no longer believe God exists.  Such stories have always astounded me.  Had I done this to Rosemary, had I hid all my books, inner thoughts and secret doubts from her, then just slammed her with the news from out of the blue, she would not have understood anything.  It definitely would not have ended well.  But since I never hid anything from her, nothing took her by surprise.  We had our share of difficult conversations, but at least I shared everything with her, honestly, and from the beginning.

Rosemary once asked me bluntly if I still believed in God.  Did all that reading and skepticism destroy my Faith?  I said it did.  But, of course I still believed in God!  I was not sure who or what He was, and I was struggling to figure all that out.  But my Faith in God was pretty much gone, and I was still trying to discover what I could have Faith in!  Rosemary was relieved.  I did not have Faith, but I was a ‘Searcher’.  I would eventually find my way.  I did my best to explain that I had come to believe that the Bible, along with other Holy Books of the world, were just man's attempt to find God.  God was out there, and he gave us what we needed, but He was also leaving it up to His faithful to find him with the tools He made available.  Somehow, I also must find my way to God, in my own way, and with my own kind of Faith.

Rosemary then asked me about our marriage.  If I no longer believed in God as I had once understood Him, what about the marriage vows that we had taken in His name?  Did I feel that our marriage was still valid?  Would I ever feel justified in leaving her in this unequally yoked marriage if I felt I did not have to answer to God?  Was marriage no longer a sacrament?  I think this was the most painful question that I had to answer upon leaving Faith.  My own wife was frightened about her unbelieving husband.  I did my best to help her understand that not only did I did make a vow before God during our marriage ceremony, but I made the same vow to her.  I made the vows before her family, my family, all our friends, and even Pastor Alvarez who officiated.  I may no longer hold God to be sacred, but I did hold everybody else high enough to honor them with my marriage vows.  It took her some time to understand, but eventually she did.  A couple of years later, her mother asked me the same thing.  Needless to say, this devout Catholic woman was not too thrilled with a sudden Heathen as a husband for her daughter.  Over time though, and after a concerted avoidance to speak about religion to her, I think I have earned her trust.

I had only shared the mildest of doubts with the believers in my small home Bible study group.  Pastor Dave Shultz, the usual leader of our group, had no warning when I suddenly announced that I would no longer be able to host the Bible study in my home.  I tried to avoid trouble by giving no real reason, other than I was not feeling convicted to host the Bible study any longer.  Pastor Dave, suspecting that I was up to something fishy, told me that he would like to schedule a time where we could discuss my conviction privately. 

I was nervous when the appointed day came.  I had hoped that he would visit, that I would give some lame excuse about not feeling led by the Lord any longer, and that would be the end of it.  But when I tried that lame tactic, Dave’s pastoral discernment told him that I was hiding something.  While our wives spent time making deserts in the kitchen, Dave interrogated me until I confessed.  And confess I did.  I figured that if I was going to make a clean break from my religious beliefs, and if he was going to be insistent enough to get me to confess all my grievances against the god of our beliefs, then I would give it to him with both barrels.  So I let Pastor Dave have it.  The years of pent up doubts.  The frustration with praying to a silent god and resting all our hopes on an indifferent deity.  The realization that the Almighty was thoroughly impotent without the Faith of His followers.  The admission that I could not honestly reconcile what I understood about science, particularly theories of our origins and evolution, with my Biblical understanding of the origins of the universe, our world, and Original Sin.  Finally, the years and years of psychological torture that I endured with the superstition called Eternal Life.  My confessions gushed forth like bitter water from an untapped well.  Pastor Dave tried to answer with simple and unconvincing apologetic responses that I was already both familiar and disgusted with.  There was no reasoning with me.  I was given over to a reprobate mind.

Meanwhile, Kate and Rosemary were preparing deserts in the kitchen.  Rosemary admitted that she was still a believer in God and always would be.  Kate was relieved that the wife remained in the fold, even if the husband had given himself over to a life of apostasy and sin.  Knowing that Rosemary still believed in God, Kate thought that she could confide in her:

“Joe is losing his faith?  Is he still a believer?”
“I don’t know,” said my wife.  “He is searching.”

“His spirit never seemed to stay at rest.  He was always questioning.  Questioning is OK!  God welcomes questions!  But at some point he has to rest on Faith.”

Rosemary was already uneasy with the direction Kate was taking the conversation.  Rosemary was particularly shocked when Kate said,

“We might not be able to let you watch Henry anymore,” referring to her autistic son that we sometimes enjoyed taking out for pizza and miniature golf, “I don’t know that we can trust Joe.”

“Why won’t you trust him?”

“Because we don’t understand him anymore.  We cannot relate to him.  It is going to be very difficult for us to love him.”

Rosemary became very upset at the willingness of her friend to completely dismiss us, based not on my actions, not on my morality, but simply because I had unacceptable and offensive beliefs.  I had offended her simply by not agreeing with her beliefs.  Rosemary was finally coming to understand how conditional our Christian friendships really were.  Rosemary was open and accepting of the beliefs of others, but was always skeptical about accepting Baptists and their beliefs for herself.  She had resisted joining their church.  Kate had assumed that Rosemary held more devotion to her church than to her husband.  Kate had assumed that Rosemary, as a believer, was willing to hate her father and mother, her brother and sister, and even her husband for His sake.  Under the same circumstances, I know that many women would think of ending their unequally yoked marriage.  But even this unbeliever was lucky to have such an understanding and faithful wife.

After Pastor Dave Schultz had the full confession that he had come for, he and Kate left our house.  Rosemary and I never returned to La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.  I figured that my confession of nonbelief to Pastor Dave officially made me out as an apostate to that Church, and I had no desire to return to explain myself.  I saw Kate briefly in the airport some years later, but other than that chance encounter we never again saw them.  Rosemary could not believe that Kate had confessed that they were going to have a hard time loving me, when I was trying to be as honest as I could.  Apparently God welcomed questions and doubts, but at the end of the day I had damn sure better get the right answers.  God cannot tolerate wrong answers from honest questions, and neither can His followers.  

Rosemary and I still talk about how we miss their son Henry.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Conversions and De-converions - Slash and Burn

Penchansky’s Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible was the first book in my new journey.  It was exhilarating.  I was reading things about my Bible that I never could have imagined.  Polytheism?  The Bible has more than one god?  Absolutely – Penchansky just had to show me where to look, and I definitely found that polytheism is in there.  Inconceivable!  I was not convinced by everything Penchansky or anybody else said for the sake of it being counter to anything I had known before.  But I came to understand that there was a possibility that everything I had understood about God, about Jesus, the Bible, everything had another side to the story.  I was discovering that there was so much more that I had never learned from a single pastor or Bible teacher, and that I would never learn unless I ignored all the warnings of ‘worldly wisdom’ from Pastor Skip, went to the library myself and did my own digging.

I was 42 years old, and I was as enthused as any youngster who was on the verge of an exciting intellectual discovery.  I remember the thrill of first reading about and understanding Chaos Theory or Quantum Mechanics some fifteen years before.  There was once a time when I had stayed up late into the night reading and pondering on this newly discovered knowledge that few other people could claim to understand.  It was more than any of my family, friends or anybody I had grown up with had ever known before, and that had made anything that challenged what I thought I knew about the world to be a thrilling intellectual adventure.  It was the thrill of having my mind expanded, my vistas broadened, and learning something that only a privileged few who put forth the effort could know.  I felt that thrill again in early 2006, when everything I thought I knew about my religious beliefs was rattled from the foundation.  I felt the pull of my own ignorance.  The more I learned, the more insignificant I felt.  There was more out there in the world than I could ever hope to absorb.  I simply could not get enough.

I was not a young, angry rebel who was looking for a way to shake off the confines of my religion.  I had no desire to start ‘living a life of sin’, as so many offended Christians would imagine of me.  None of these supposed motivations were anywhere on my radar.  ‘Sinning’ was not my motivation.  I had just turned 42 years old.  It was my first year of marriage to a woman I desperately loved.  I was attending two different churches, keeping close to my Fundamentalist faith, and learning to appreciate Rosemary’s Catholic traditions.  We were hosting weekly Bible studies in our home, and I loved all the people we met from the two churches we attended.  I had no reason to rebel against anything in my life.  But I had to face the fact that Christianity, as I knew it, was not working in my life anymore.   As much as I had tried to deny it, it had not worked in years.   I could no longer naively accept what I was being told from the pulpit, as I once had.  But to cut my skepticism even deeper, I now could no longer naively accept what was even in the Bible itself!  The very Fountainhead of my Faith, the Holy Scriptures, also had to come under my intense scrutiny. 

Penchansky challenged me to try reading the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, not as a historical or theological description of mankind’s Fall into a state of Original Sin, but as mythology no different from any other mythology of antiquity.  Instead of accepting my religion’s official interpretation of this sacred story as the origin of mankind’s eternal and defiant separation from God Almighty and the corruption of the natural order, I tried reading the story only as it stood in the text.  Try imagining Yahweh as only one in a pantheon of deities who created humans for the tending of His garden.  Inside His garden is a magical tree, the fruit of which gives the innocent couple a sense of self-aware morality.  The curses that Yahweh inflicts on his creatures are myths to explain why men must work and toil in life, why women must labor in childbirth and be subservient to men, and why snakes crawl around with no legs.  I had fought for years to somehow interpret the Adam and Eve story in a way that would not violate either my imposed religious dogma of Original Sin, or my scientific understanding of evolution and the origins of Homo Sapiens.  Each attempt at reconciliation was so unsuccessful, that over time I simply resorted to the ‘somehow – someway’ interpretation that they both must be simultaneously true.  Penchansky challenged me to look at the same story as ancient, polytheistic myth, no different from the fantastic myths of the Greeks and Romans.  I had long thought that the story fell in some genre of inspired myth, but one that ultimately pointed to Christian doctrine.  But if I tried, even just for the sake of argument, not to impose later Christian dogma onto the ancient story of Adam and Eve, and just let the story speak for itself, the interpretation of the text became simple and obvious.  Suddenly, the story made sense.  It worked.  It fit perfectly within a pre-scientific world that routinely generated myths to explain natural phenomena.  So much the worse for that part of Christian dogma.  Christian dogma was what I was scrutinizing.  If it was not working, I figured – tough luck.  It had to go.  If I could find a simpler model, a less contrived explanation to what had been impossible to put together, I figured that one was more likely to be true. 

So, one chip at a time, inspiration and inerrancy was removed from the Bible.  From here, it seemed that everything about my Christian religion collapsed all at once.  The doctrine of the Biblical Inerrancy was very fast to go.  I had seen ‘alleged’ contradictions in the Bible, but I had been trained with plenty of apologetic talking points that would save my Bible from embarrassment.  It was not until I started reading library books, then buying them for myself, that I discovered just how many problems there really were with the Biblical text, and just how ludicrous most of my canned responses to them were.  Biblical inerrancy went fast.  I was still a Christian, at least I still felt like one, but I knew my Faith was going to go through a rapid transformation.  I was vaguely aware by this time that I might even have to discard my Faith completely.  For some reason, I do not remember being particularly afraid.  I knew that my intentions were honest and sincere.  I knew that I was not looking for an excuse to sin.  I knew that I did not hate God.  I was just fed up with being confused, miserable, and forcing myself to settle with unsatisfactory answers.  I just wanted to get to the bottom of what my religion was really all about and to cut through the lies that I knew I was being fed from the pulpit.

I was more afraid of my friends and family than I was of God.  Rosemary was certainly concerned.  Since she was a Catholic, I don’t think she ever understood my bizarre obsession with understanding the Bible.  It seemed that every day, my reading and research led me to some new unsolvable problem with Biblical inerrancy.  After enumerating everything I had just discovered about the contradictions, for instance, between the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trail and crucifixion, my suffering wife would just seek to make peace rather than argue. 

Rosemary could tell me, “Yes, yes, they wrote their gospel stories differently, didn’t they?  Maybe they just wrote from their own perspectives, and could never get all the tiny details exactly the same.  I am sure those were busy times with lots of confusion and intrigues.  Nobody could have gotten it exactly right!”  I had by then learned that there were plenty of reasons why the differences between the four Gospels should be concerning to a person trying to preserve inerrancy, but I never argued with her.  I just did my best to listen to her point of view, and take from it what I could.  But she really did not know what to say to me.  She did not know what it would take to ease my doubts.  She had been raised in a religious environment that emphasized Faith as the ultimate virtue, and unlike my tradition, never looked to the Bible for evidence of her Faith.  Looking for evidence would make her a doubter.  If she was to be a Catholic, she was to believe, Bible or no Bible, evidence or no evidence, and that was all there was to it.  She did not understand why I would begin doubting after finding Biblical discrepancies or contradictions.  To her, such things were unimportant and irrelevant.  I did my best to explain to her that I was on my own religious and spiritual quest.  I needed to find out what was best for me, and what I could understand as truth to my best satisfaction.  I believed that to be the best husband that I could be, I needed to be honest with my convictions and with her.  Although she was concerned for me, I tried to reassure her that my beliefs were mine alone, and I would never force her to believe exactly as I did.  Rosemary was incredibly patient with me during this time.  I am sure it was a stressful situation for her.  We had married with different religious traditions from the start.  Now less than a year into our marriage, she could tell I was headed for some kind of drastic change.

We continued hosting weekly Bible studies in our home, but I think everybody in the room was feeling the tensions of my changing beliefs.  I never kept any thought or doubt secret from Rosemary.  I was not ashamed to show her the books that I was then reading.  But I kept everything secret from my Bible study group and anybody else at La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.  Instead of venting my doubts to my Bible study group, I presented them with some challenges that I had suddenly been made aware of to see how any one of them would react.  Many Fundamentalists are particularly sensitive to the charge that their Scriptures contain contradictions, so every now and again I thought I would challenge the members of my Bible study group with a bit of a problem.  Inevitably, the only person who responded to my challenges was our group leader, Dave.  Everybody else sat in tense silence.  A typical challenge would go something like:

Me: I know that there are no real contradictions in the Bible, only ‘seeming’ contradictions, so what is your opinion of salvation by grace versus salvation by works.  I grew up believing in Grace Alone, but Rosemary grew up as a Catholic, and that God’s grace allows us to do good works, but ultimately we have to work out our own salvation.  So who is right?

John: The Bible says that we are saved by grace alone.

Me: What about the problem between Paul in Romans and James.  I read both, and it really like they are saying two different things.

John:  No.  Paul is saying that we are saved by God’s grace.  James is saying that our works are the evidence that we are saved through God’s grace.

Of course I had heard this apologetic countless times before, but I did not want to needlessly press the issue with my study group.  I was not trying to cause problems with them, or cause any of them to doubt with me.  I was just interested to see if they had anything new or more compelling to offer than the usual apologetics that I was finding increasingly unconvincing.  I never told my group that I had noticed the common strategy of ironing over contradictions by inserting things into the Biblical text that were not there.  I figured that the doubts swimming in my head were far beyond anything my poor group was equipped to deal with.  Both Paul and James reference Abraham as a model of salvation, but Paul uses that model to say, explicitly, that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).  James uses that same model to say, explicitly, that we “see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24).   My study group responded to this nasty theological problem with the common apologetic tactic of making James say things that I did not see in the text of his epistle. 

I felt that if there was this much controversy, with my Fundamentalist traditions interpreting these texts one way, and Rosemary’s Catholic traditions interpreting them differently, then what good reason did I have to choose one interpretation over the other?  What good reason did anybody have to choose a favored interpretation of ambiguous texts, except by appealing to a favored religious tradition?  But even if my friends were right, and James said that works were only an evidence that we were in fact saved by Faith alone, how do we Christians know how many good works are enough to count as evidence of our own salvation?  I knew plenty of non-Christians, especially in my university years, who were definitely not Christians, but whose outward actions made them indistinguishable from Christians.  So if works are the evidence of salvation in a Christian, and the Christian finds himself not performing enough works that he feels would be a manifest result of his Faith, he will be forced to perform more good works, just to prove he is in fact saved!  I had struggled with this problem many times over the years.  I had to believe that I was saved only through my Faith in Jesus, and not to rely on my good works for salvation.  But if I did not do enough good works, I did not have solid evidence that I was in fact being sanctified into the image of Christ.  So I would have to perform more good works to demonstrate my sanctification.  As a result chasing my tail like this, I could not tell the difference between works and faith.  It was all just ridiculous semantics that I was basing my salvation on.  I feared that my home Bible study group would suspect my doubts had increased to an unacceptable level.

But what about my Christian friends?  If they wanted to say they were saved, and that their good works were evidence of salvation, I should have expected to see that evidence manifest in how they lived their lives.  But from what I saw, their morality was nothing markedly different from anything saw in the typical, non-believing heathen.  If anybody stood out as moral paragons, it was some of my Catholic friends who had devoted enormous amounts of effort and sacrifice into border justice, all done in the name of Christ.  These were the same Christians who criticized my strong focus on the Bible.  Yet, my Fundamentalist friends constantly spoke of grace, faith, and our works manifesting the sanctifying work of the Spirit, yet they evidenced nothing that demonstrated some supernatural Force compelling them to divine service.  Outside of church and Bible study, they acted pretty much the same as anybody else.  Where was this ‘works as evidence’ of divine grace?  If Christians were in fact indistinguishable from non-Christians, how could their works be any evidence of their supposed salvation? 

Our home Bible study had stagnated into a half hour or so of exploring a theme in the Bible, asking everybody to volunteer their opinions on a few selected scriptures, then gather group prayer.  How many decades had I spent repeating this same material over and over again?  How many different ways can we repeat the constant refrain – we are sinners, Jesus is the Savior, He died to bare our sins, and we now need to accept His salvation?  How many times must we dredge up Scriptures that convict us to love our neighbor, to seek His higher glory, to pray without ceasing, etc, etc?  I felt that there were only so many ways to express the same things over and over again, and I was afraid that some of the more, shall we say, emotionally needy believers in our small study group were leaning far too heavily on the wisdom of our group leader, John.  With a limited number of scriptures that could be referred to in a finite book like the Bible, I felt that stagnation was inevitable, and these people had become complacent in constantly hearing the same thing.  They asked questions of our group leader, but I suspect they knew what the answers were before they asked, and would have been disappointed if they received an answer that they did not expect.  Complacency in my Faith was the one thing that I was trying to escape from.  Fed up and frustrated with this seeming over-reliance on Faith at the expense of Works, I decided to test my home study group with another kind of challenge.  

Martin Luther King Day had just passed, so I decided to read a small excerpt from Dr. King’s classic of activist literature, his powerful Letter from Birmingham Jail.  I had just recently finished reading a biography of his life, and I was gripped by how much he had sacrificed for the cause of racial justice, and by how powerfully he was empowered by his religious beliefs.  In 1963, King was arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama While he was in jail, eight white pastors from around the state wrote the local Birmingham newspaper, and editorialized against King’s activism.  They figured he should be a good preacher, stay behind the pulpit, and keep his nose out of racial justice and activism.  In response, King wrote from solitary confinement what came to be known as Letter from Birmingham Jail on scraps of paper, and smuggled out by his lawyer bit by bit.  King’s letter detailed his commitment to using the Church as an empowered vehicle that I thought made our comfortable Christian apathy pathetic in comparison.   Would my fellow Christians be as affected by Dr. King’s letter as I was?  I gave my study group a short background of the history behind Dr. King’s letter, then read to them this excerpt:
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
I told them that this letter had a powerful effect on me, and I waited for their response.  I was not expecting an instant moral commitment to social justice.  I was just expecting a comment for discussion.  Perhaps somebody in my group could tell me what Dr. King’s letter and message had to say about our modern church, specifically ours, who had the same concerns of falling into apathy and irrelevance.  What I did not expect was the room full of blank stares and tepid nods of accent and agreement.  I could not even get an honest opinion from these people who believed that their morality and works were manifest evidence of their personal salvation.  These people had no desire or intention to have their convictions challenged, even by a fellow Christian like Martin Luther King!  They clearly were not interested in Spiritual growth or any kind of moral challenge.  My spiritually empowered and sanctified Christian brethren only wanted to coddle themselves up to the same familiar, warm and simmering pot of stewed ingredients that they had been born and raised with.  I loved them all, but I had to be honest with what I was seeing.  The evidence of works that the Spirit had made manifest in these fellow Christians was nothing more than a pathetic dependence on comfort food.  These people had nothing to offer me, and I did not want to be content with their spiritual complacency.  I was searching because I was no longer satisfied with living a spiritual life of doubts, concerns and questions.  The familiar Fundamentalism of my home Bible study group and La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church had nothing more to offer me.

Simultaneous with these events was my discovery of the Internet.  I have never been especially enamored of electronic gadgets in my house.  I did have a boom-box to listen to music, but that is about where the technology ended.  In 2006, I still had my rotary telephone and no television.  I certainly did not have a home computer!  Rosemary would have none of my aversion to technology, and had the Internet installed in our house around the time we started hosting the weekly Bible studies.  I had used the Internet quite a bit as a research tool at work and when I was attending university.  I had no intention or desire of ever using it for personal use, until I saw a need to do some personally important research.  I discovered that there was an endless supply of the apologetics that I had come to despise.  I discovered that Chuck Missler was still around, and still selling the ‘briefing packages’ that I had practically memorized back in the early ‘90s.  I already knew that stuff.  I needed to be challenged with something different.  I remember naively typing ‘Bible Contradictions’ into the search engine.  What a mammoth mistake that was!  I discovered that there were a lot of irrational and unwarranted criticisms of Christianity that seemed to come from very angry people.  I did my best to avoid emotional ranting that contained obvious lies.  But I eventually found two sites that were instrumental in my ultimate departure from Christianity. introduced me to the works of Robert Ingersoll.  I had never heard of Ingersoll, and had no idea who he was when I started browsing the lectures stored at  Robert Ingersoll, polemicist and orator, toured the United States during the turn of the century, back during the time when public lectures were a form of entertainment.  I opened something from Ingersoll called Heretics and Hericies, only one of dozens of his public lectures in print, and started reading:
Whoever has an opinion of his own, and honestly expresses it, will be guilty of heresy. Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrine of the weak. This word was born of the hatred, arrogance and cruelty of those who love their enemies, and who, when smitten on one cheek, turn the other. This word was born of intellectual slavery in the feudal ages of thought. It was an epithet used in the place of argument. From the commencement of the Christian era, every art has been exhausted and every conceivable punishment inflicted to force all people to hold the same religious opinions. This effort was born of the idea that a certain belief was necessary to the salvation of the soul. Christ taught, and the church still teaches that unbelief is the blackest of crimes. God is supposed to hate with an infinite and implacable hatred, every heretic upon the earth, and the heretics who have died are supposed at this moment to be suffering the agonies of the damned. The church persecutes the living and her God burns, for all eternity, the dead…
I had a visceral gut reaction to what I was reading.  It felt like an emotional gag reflex.  It was one of the very few times that I was offended by the blasphemy of what I was reading.  I felt the strong urge to choke on what I was reading, to look away from the horrors of heresy.  No!  I had to force myself to override the instinct to look away from what was on the page before me, and rather ask myself if there was anything in Ingersoll’s shocking words that were not accurate.  Was my revulsion due to reading lies and distortions, or was I reading ugly truth?  Is it not true that, for instance, “Christ taught, and the church still teaches that unbelief is the blackest of crimes”?  Was Ingersoll correct when he said, “Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrine of the weak”?  I knew very well about purges and inquisitions of the past.  But even if heretics are not now persecuted to the extent that they were in the past, Ingersoll was still correct about the Church’s hatred of heresies.  After all, why was I hiding my own heretical thoughts and opinions from my small Bible study group?  Was I not afraid of their hatred of my unorthodox thoughts?  I had to accept that Ingersoll was not stretching the truth.  He was expressing Christianity’s hatred of heresies and originality and freethought in highly charged and polemical prose.  This is what public speakers do.  It did not make it any less true.  I was fascinated with what critical evaluation of Christian texts and traditions had to offer, and how it expanded my mind to new ideas about my Faith.  But the bluntness of Ingersoll’s polemics forced me not to sugar-coat what the outcomes of my changing Faith really were, and where I was headed.  I was becoming the subject of countless condemning sermons from the pulpit.  I was becoming a heretic.  I may have been intimidated by my fellow Christians, but I was no longer afraid of God.  Was I becoming hard of heart, like Pharaoh’s defiance against God?  Was I in the process of being handed over to a reprobate mind?  Perhaps, but I had lost all my guilt and fear of Divine judges.  I was not afraid of Him because I knew I was being honest.  If anything, I knew that my integrity was intact.

One other website that I must mention, pummeled my senses with a blunt question - Why won't God heal amputees?  Reading in particular a long article which addressed this question, brought me back nearly twenty years before to a Calvary Chapel service in which believers were sharing their stories of miraculous healing.  As I have written about in a previous article of this series, one man shared how he had prayed for the healing of a friend’s severed hand.  When he shared with us that he had seen that hand grow back with his very eyes, Pastor Skip quickly intervened to quiet his obviously deluded testimony and end the sharing of miraculous stories.  It seemed strange to me at the time why everybody would believe stories of healed colds, bad backs, even cancer remission, or anything else that had one thing in common - that any testimony could conceivably occur with no miraculous intervention.  But nobody, not me, not even Pastor Skip, believed a sincere, faithful and enthusiastic story that involved something truly miraculous.  I was finally ready to confront the question of why Christians never pray for the healing of amputees, the mentally retarded, the Alzheimer patient, or any other person in which there was no chance of natural remission.  When the question was raised in Calvary Chapel, I ignored the obvious implications, and brushed them under a rug.  But fifteen years later, I was finally ready to examine those questions again.  I pulled them back out from the rug and the answers were immediately obvious to me.  Christians, at least every Christian I had ever personally encountered, only prayed for things that would take no faith to believe would be answered.  Nobody prayed for the healing of our Bible study leader’s autistic son.  Nobody ever prays for the regeneration of severed limbs.  Nobody ever prays for new skin on a 3rd degree burn patient.  We all know that those prayers will never be answered.  But why shouldn’t they be answered?  The entire Universe will be just as insignificant as a speck of lint to a Being of infinite scope.   Healing a head cold and healing a congenital birth defect should be pretty much the same thing to a Creature of unlimited power.  So why, why did we never pray for those miraculous things that would unquestionably demonstrate His existence and majesty?  Why shouldn’t a prayer for the resurrection of a still-born fetus be just as common as a prayer for the relief of an aching back?  

I knew the answer why.  I think that deep down, we all knew the answer why, and we always knew it.  But it took me decades to accept that grim fact of my Faith in the Almighty.  We never prayed those prayers because we knew they would never be answered.  We only prayed for those things which would not make a mockery of our magical genie in the bottle.  We only prayed for those things that take no faith at all.  We even append each prayer with ‘…but Your will be done’ just in case, because we also know that even pathetic, faithless prayers are only answered with no greater certainty than random chance.

Looking back at the year 2006, I am shocked at how fast my Christian Faith collapsed.  I never intended to stop believing.  I was not out to look for an excuse to stop believing.  I did not know this intense ‘spiritual quest’ of skepticism and scrutiny of my religious beliefs would lead to my eventual abandonment of those beliefs.  I caught myself by surprise when I realized that I no longer believed.  I knew that my beliefs were changing, and I knew that I would not come out of this skeptical period with the same Fundamentalist beliefs I had held before.  I initially welcomed that change and I was not afraid of where it would eventually end up.  I had no idea it would end in non-belief!  I was expecting to wind up, perhaps, as an enlightened Catholic Christian, which was just fine by me.  All I wanted was to believe in something that I could be honest with, and not have to lie about or tie my brain into logical knots to justify.  Finally, I wanted to believe in something that would be attractive to my wife and hopefully be compatible with her beliefs.  I wanted a happy and successful marriage, and I needed some religious framework that would make our relationship stronger in the coming years.  So I merrily went along, reading everything I could get my hands on that looked intelligent and skeptical, yet fair to my Christian Faith.  I did not know until it was too late how quickly my Faith had completely eroded away.

The shock of what I was doing to myself finally came early one morning sometime in summer 2006.  Rosemary was asleep next to me in bed.  I was up early, reading a book that gripped me like a best-selling suspense novel.  I remember reading in that book about the various forms of early Christian beliefs that existed in the first centuries after Jesus walked the earth.  Bart Ehrman’s book Lost Christianities demonstrated to me that the ancient Mediterranean was a cornucopia of religions, mythologies, saviors, miracles, god-men and pagan beliefs.  Ehrman demonstrated from the numerous writings that are preserved from the ancient Mediteranean world, including the New Testament itself, that the Christian milieu was awash in various types of Gnostics, Marcionites, Encratites, Docetics, Ebionites, and other extinct forms of Christian heresies.  Ehrman showed that what later became Orthodox Christianity most likely sprung out of this syncretistic stew like the first strands of primitive DNA had once steamed out of chemical reactions in thermal vents and magma flows.

I lay next to my sleeping wife.  I put the book down momentarily, dumbstruck at what I had just then realized.  “Oh no,” I whispered to myself.  “Joe, what are you going to believe?  What are you going to believe?”  It was a stunning moment.  I knew then where I was.  Rather, I knew where I was not. 

One evening in 1988, I had walked behind the Calvary Chapel stage in Albuquerque, New Mexico to make a firm commitment to Jesus as my Lord and Savior.  I had cried and slobbered my way through the Sinner’s Prayer, convicted and repentant of my sins, and ready to live a new life for Jesus.  F there is any such thing as an ‘Apostate’s Prayer’, I said it to myself that morning in 2006, with Ehrman’s Lost Christianities open in front of me. 

“Joe, what are you going to believe?” 

I did not know quite what to believe.  But I knew, right then and there, that I did not believe a single thing I had once thought was true of God, Jesus, The Bible.  Heaven or Hell.  The sanctification of the saints and the inherent virtues of holding to the Christian Faith.  In that moment, it was gone.  All gone.  Slash and burn and start all over again.  All those years – all that time and effort and expense of holding up a belief system to mold everything in my life into – all of that was gone.  I realized it all at in just that moment.

I momentarily panicked.  But it did not last long.  I guess that was how it felt to be abandoned by God and “given up unto vile affections” (Romans 1:26).  I felt the breathing of my sleeping wife lying next to me, and I turned the page to expose myself to more damnable heresies.