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.