June 04, 2014

Dear Christians: I promise, my life is not full of despair

Dear Christians is a regular column that addresses many of the fallacies about atheism I was brought up to believe in under fundamentalism.

This week’s Dear Christians post was inspired by a letter from Reverend Richard L Shaw to  Asbury Park Press titled “Christianity promises hope; atheism has empty message”.

Dear Christians,

Recently, I read a letter online and one line in particular struck me. The writer said of atheism, “Despair is pretty hard to peddle.”

As a former fundamentalist, this truly struck a chord, although probably not in the way that the author intended originally. Rather than making me reconsider my newfound atheism, it conjured up memories of all the times that I heard the same or similar sentiments from pulpits.

I don’t know why we assume that religion is the only source of hope out there. That’s simply not true.

So today, I’m here to say, no, my life is not full of despair.

Since “turning my back” on my Christian faith, in fact, I find myself more hopeful than I have been in a very long time.

I was “saved” when I was nine years old. We had been in and out of churches, and I had attended a Christian preschool and kindergarten. I knew the basics, and I was well-schooled in the Bible. I was also well-versed in the ways of guilt.

Growing up, I felt guilt over everything. I consistently felt that I was failing to live up to the standard. I was interested in sex, I was interested in learning about things that my church said I shouldn’t. As a teenager, even as I professed to believe in all of the Bible, I was consistently trying to reconcile it with my observations of homosexuality. I was always trying to reconcile it all with my own budding knowledge of my own bisexuality.

Reverend Shaw said:

The message of Christianity is a living hope that has lifted billions from despair to purpose and meaning. Its power has freed drug addicts, alcoholics, neurotics, and other everyday people after all other hope has gone.

I have to respectfully disagree. For me, Christianity was not freedom. It was slavery.

It was never being able to just be human and experience life.

Today, I’m experiencing life in a way that I never have before. I’m working on releasing decades of guilt over what I now realize are completely natural human impulses. I’m enjoying exploring the idea of being moral just for the sake of doing what is right—not because someone is always watching me. I’m still working through many confusing and conflicting impulses—a lifetime of indoctrination will do that to you—but it’s okay. Every day is another step in the journey, and I am learning so much.

For the first time, I’m able to reconcile all of my beliefs—because the basis is not an arbitrary moral code in a millennia-old document. It’s my own ability to reason and rationalize.

If I have regrets, it is because I did not accept this path sooner. I fought against it for so long, clinging to any vestige of faith that I could. I should have let go long ago.

Shaw says:

Rather than a lack of belief, atheism is a belief in nothing. The message of atheism is nihilism, despair, emptiness, futility, absurdity.

To me, those are all adjectives that I would apply to my experience of Christianity.

In philosophy, nihilism is the extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence. To me, that applies to my former life more so than my current. Now, everything in my life has meaning, because I am not storing up rewards in some posthumous existence. Life has meaning, because this is all I have.

Despair is the complete loss or absence of hope. In my Christian existence, I was fighting to cling to any hope that I could find, fighting my rival impulses—things that I do not worry about in my new life. I do not require some promise of eternity to live happily and hopefully.

Emptiness is the state of containing nothing. It is also the quality of lacking meaning or sincerity. I saw this time and again in churches that tore themselves apart over silly differences. For people so focused on eternity, they had a habit of turning on each other at the drop of a hat.

Futility is pointlessness or uselessness. In Christianity, I was confronted by the idea that I was fundamentally weak and flawed. I required rescuing. Nothing I did was good enough.  I don’t know what was more futile than that.

Absurdity is the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable, and yes, this too, I find applicable to my former life. It was hard to reconcile all of the different beliefs with my own personal experiences and observations.

I don’t write this to point the finger at Christianity. There are many people for whom the belief does amazing things, and that’s perfectly alright. The problem comes when people assume that their experience is universal, and that therefore, non-belief is a half-life, a life only worth pitying.

It’s a very full life, in and of itself.

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