Dear Christians is a recurring column that deals with my intersection between belief and nonbelief. It looks at my personal views of belief and deals with the myths of nonbelief that I was taught growing up. All opinions are, of course, my own. To see more Dear Christians columns, click here.
Recently I read this passage in Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, and it really struck me as correlating to my own experience:
Well, it seems to me that there is only one conceivable approach to these matters. If we have such an emotional stake in the answers, if we want badly to believe, and if it is important to know the truth, then nothing other than a committed, skeptical scrutiny is required. It is not very different from buying a used car. When you buy a used car, it is insufficient to remember that you badly need a car. After all, it has to work. It is insufficient to say that the used-car salesman is a friendly fellow. What you generally do is you kick the tires, you look at the odometer, you open up the hood. If you do not feel yourself expert in automobile engines, you bring a friend who is. And you do this for something as unimportant as an automobile. But on issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, of the origin of the world, of the nature of human beings, on those issues should we not insist upon at least equally skeptical scrutiny? (145)
One of the sentiments that I have heard, and that I have seen expressed by fellow nonbelievers, is the reaction that we will "grow" out of it. As a nearly thirty year old woman (one of the few times I will claim that, actually!), it's truly insulting. The insinuation that I only disbelieve because I am a rebellious child completely undercuts my own maturity, reasoning and decision-making skills.
But beside that point, it also makes it seem like belief is something that I--we---take lightly when nothing could be further from the truth.
Believing--or not--was one of the most important processes of my life.
I was raised in religion. When I was very small, we did not attend church, but I attended a small Christian daycare. It's where I learned my ABCs and 123s--often with quite heavy religious overtones. It's where I learned "He's Got the Whole World (In His Hands)" and "Father Abraham" and "When the Saints Go Marching In".
I began attending that daycare as a toddler, and I can't remember a time when I didn't understand God, Jesus, Hell and salvation.
When we began attending church, I was enthusiastic. As a tween and teen, I was there whenever the doors opened, up until I turned seventeen, sometimes more committed than others, but never doubting the importance of what I was doing.
And yet, throughout my life I also had doubts.
Why did bad things happen? Why did Satan exist? Why did God let so many people not believe? If the Bible is inerrant and literal, why do the scientific passages not agree with scientific theory? Why does the history not agree with historical record? Why couldn't God make things more clear? Why would God curse all of mankind for the sin of two people? Who said the serpent was Satan? These were some of the bigger questions that I asked, and I can remember creating quite some discomfiture in various Sunday school classes and youth groups by voicing them.
The answers were never truly satisfying to me, but I put it aside and tried to actively avoid thinking about it.
When you define faith in terms of believing and not doubting, that's what you get--you kill the questioning because to question is to doubt and to doubt is not to believe enough. I didn't want to be a doubting Peter.
But that's exactly what I was.
As I grew older, into my sixteenth and seventeenth year, the doubting really began to take hold. The summer I turned seventeen, we went on missions trip to Costa Rica. There I saw true poverty for the very first time. I had seen the poor in my own hometown, but this was an entirely different level.
In a shantytown in San Jose, Nicaraguan refugees lived in lean-tos, with dirt floors, often constructed of pieces of tin. I can remember feeding hungry children beans, rice, and a piece of watermelon--something my little sisters would turn their nose up--and watching them enthusiastically eat every bite before anxiously waiting to see if there would be any left for seconds after everyone was fed. I can remember sitting behind a little girl in a service in the church--the nicest building in the shantytown--and watching lice crawl through her hair. She was thin and starving, her clothes had holes in them, and I wondered why God would allow it. She had done nothing to deserve those circumstances.
And the patent answer didn't make sense to me. Satan, and sin, and decay, and the Fall--none of it seemed to explain why that little girl should have to be there in front of me, without sufficient shelter, without good food, with little access to education to make her life better.
I was sixteen, and I came from a middle class family. We had struggled at points, but I had never known hunger. I attended a great public high school, and made really good grades. Most likely, I would be attending a good university after graduation. I remember thinking about the differences in our lives and wondering why God thought that I deserved better than this little girl. I certainly didn't see how I did.
Looking at my privilege versus her reality, I was shocked that an all-powerful, all-knowing, compassionate, loving, just god would allow such a difference for seemingly no reason at all.
This reality damaged my "walk" with God. Looking back now, I see it for what it was--a moment of clarity that focused and honed all of my prior doubts and brought them to the forefront. I lost my mooring.
At eighteen, I had a resurgence of faith. I was pregnant with my older son, and I was determined to raise him how I had been raised--a decision I regret now, actually. Through a variety of events that aren't my story to tell, though, I began to doubt again.
This time, I decided that it was the fundamentalist independent Baptist sect that I was rebelling against. That was it. I distanced myself from the sect, even trying on Christian mysticism.
I studied the Bible, I prayed. I wept for what I now see was the death of my faith. Little by little, I found that I couldn't cope with my cognitive dissonance anymore. I couldn't hold my views, views that I truly believed in--things like marriage equality, and a woman's right to choose, and the equality of all people, and the right of people to believe and live without needing to believe what I did--and also my faith.
It wasn't a decision that I took lightly. It also wasn't a quick one. My husband, who was not raised as a fundamentalist and who had doubts much sooner than I did, would ask questions. "Why do you believe XYZ?" "Do Christians really believe ABCDE?"
I would answer him with patent answers, or with a quick, "Not all Christians..."
It soon became apparent that I had very little in common with my faith, and I began to ask myself, "Why do I believe any of it?"
My doubting became stronger and more confident. I began researching my questions, jotting down notes on my understanding, on what doctrines I could find, and on the other side--what nonbelievers said about them.
Little by little, I realized that I did not believe in God. One day, it was a full epiphany. "I think I'm an atheist," I said to my husband.
This wasn't a light sentiment. It was a very heavy one. To leave behind the only life I'd ever known was incredibly painful, incredibly difficult. There was also the niggling fear of, "What if I'm wrong?", a fear I still have from time to time, although it is easier now to recognize it for what it is--the manifestation of childhood indoctrination.
It's easy to look at someone who is boldly non-believing--I'm not quite there, but at least I'm boldly blogging about it--and assume that they took it lightly. And some do. Far be it from me to speak for every nonbeliever out there. I am but one person, who is influenced by her own experience and perceptions.
I'm not one of them. But today, I feel content in the path that I find myself on.
To any of you who may be reading this and doubting yourselves, you are not alone. Indeed, you are carrying on a deep and rich tradition. As Thomas Jefferson once said:
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
Question with boldness. Choose reason over fear.
Not even God can fault you for that.