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Religious Autobiography 2004-2007
Part 3 of this series is here: Religious Autobiography 1998-2002.
After quitting my job at the church, I kept my promise to become less involved. I went to Sunday morning services, but that was it. No Sunday school, no Bible studies and no volunteering. This was the least involved in church I had ever been in my life. And for the first time I can remember, I stopped reading my Bible and stopped praying. I thought that if I just did the bare minimum for a while I might get interested again. I knew that it was possible that I wouldn't, but I didn't really care.
During this period I made a few posts to my blog about religion, but none of them were particularly positive. Then, between July 8, 2005 and January 24 is 2007, I didn't make a single post to this site in the religion category. I wasn't practicing religion, I wasn't blogging about religion and I wasn't even thinking about religion.
I had never been a nominal Christian in my life, but I guess that's what I became. Church services, an activity that I spent so much time participating in and even crafting, became strange to me. I didn't want to sing the songs anymore. This was partially because I wasn't sure if I believed in the message of the lyrics, but also because I felt odd chanting religious statements in unison with a group. What had once been a cherished activity now felt like subtle tool for brainwashing.
As for sermons, the best way to describe my feelings toward them is to say that they became less and less useful to me. The preaching hadn't changed, but I guess my approach had. I began to dissect them and to think about how they might actually benefit me. I guess I was less interested in the esoteric religious doctrines and more interested in practical knowledge. I was finding a disappointing lack of the latter. It didn't help that during that period the church had a long sermon series instructing the members to donate more money to the church.
Finally, two years after my resignation, Sara had had enough. She wasn't upset that I had become indifferent toward religion, but she didn't think it was right for me to sit on the fence. She thought that it was unlike me to not think something through and arrive at an opinion. I admitted that I had been avoiding the subject and I pledged to her that I would make an investigation and come to some sort of conclusion.
I decided that I would do what I did when considering leaving the Church of Christ and what I should've done when first dealing with my doubts about religion in general. I would research the issue from both sides. Here is a list of books in chronological order that I read between my talk with Sara in mid-2006 and my public announcement of atheism in August of 2007. I'm giving the full list even though they weren't all about religion. Even some of the fiction books played a role.
The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog by James W. Sire
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Raising Holy Hell: A Novel of John Brown by Bruce Olds
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
Darwin (Norton Critical Edition) by Charles Darwin, Philip Appleman
Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward
The God Who Is There by Francis A. Schaeffer
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Neuromancer by William Gibson
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by Bart D. Ehrman
I also had discussions with friends, both Christian and non-Christian. Through all these inputs, several factors were coming into focus. I was put off by the massive failure of the most theocratic president in my lifetime, and by the hateful, anti-scientific fundamentalists that have a powerful voice in our country. I knew several liberal Christians, including my wife, so I knew that that was an option. But I didn't know if I could consider it a reasonable option for me.
So, I returned to those three arguments that had salvaged my faith in college. Would they still convince me?
I had used the teleological argument in my teaching at the Church. I even recounted Paley's watchmaker illustration. The problem with that argument is that it was written in 1802, 50 years before Charles Darwin described an alternate explanation for the apparent design that Paley referred to.
In The Language of God, Francis Collins defends evolution and warns his fellow Christians that the teleological is a losing argument. That left me with two arguments, the cosmological and the moral. And those were the same two that Collins used.
The cosmological argument comes in many forms, but most of them run something like this:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe had a cause (God).
I always found this explanation to be very convincing, and I used it once when I preached at the church. That was a Sunday when an ex-convict I had been working with finally accepted my invitation and came to church. Later on, he told me that this argument didn't sit well with him. The question that kept coming to his mind was, "Then who made God?" I gave him the standard answer, which was that God did not have a beginning, so he didn't need a cause. That explanation didn't satisfy him then and now that I was revisiting the argument, it wasn't satisfying me, either. I recognized now that the first premise was stacked in the Christian's favor. The first premise must be worded very carefully in order to include the universe but exclude God. And I don't see any reason why we should take that distinction as a given. If time itself came into being along with the universe, and the idea of causation is necessarily bound up with the existence of time, how can something be caused before time even exists? The beginning of the universe is still a great mystery, but I don't think that God makes a satisfying explanation.
Collins attributes his version of the moral argument to the opening chapters of mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (which I've since reread). The argument from morality comes in several forms, but I think Lewis' is the most representative and accessible. It runs something like this:
1. Morality is an absolute law.
2. All laws have a lawgiver.
3. Morality has a lawgiver (God).
This begs several questions. First, if morality is an absolute law, then why don't we have a clear idea of what that law says? It's not found in our conscience, for nations, periods of history and individuals do not all agree on which actions are good and which are bad. This absolute morality is not recorded in any book that I know of. It's certainly not in the Bible. We have to use our own human judgment to determine which parts of the Bible are good (love your neighbor), and which parts are evil (enslave your neighbor).
Even if someone could establish that morality is very like a law, that would not mean that morality shares every attribute of human law. If you flip through the first few chapters of Mere Christianity, you'll see that Lewis uses the word "Law" over and over. He even capitalizes it. I think his hope was to bludgeon the reader with this metaphor and then slip in the second premise. Once you've bought the idea that morality is a law, the rest of the argument is easy to accept. But the problem with metaphors is that they break down.
As I revisited this argument I recognized that it had something in common with the other two. They're all promoting a God of the gaps. They are all creation myths, like the story that thunder was caused by Thor's hammer. Just because we don't understand something doesn't mean that God did it. Not only is it bad logic, but it's not a satisfying answer. Just as we can ask who designed God and who caused God, this argument leaves us wondering who gave God his sense of morality. I explored this question in an article about the Euthyphro dilemma.
Is there a good way to explain morality without invoking God? I think there is. Much of what we consider to be morality is probably evolved instinct. The loyalty and affection between lovers, the tender care for children and our desire to protect the innocent can all be explained by the benefits that they give to our species. After all, we are not the only species that cares for its young and cooperates. I think that these instincts, combined with culture and refined by reason, provide a much more satisfying explanation of our shared moral values than a creation myth ever could.
So now, the three reasons that did the most to convince me of God's existence were no longer getting the job done. By the time I read The God Delusion I was already having serious doubts. I had always been told (and repeated in my own teaching) that the loss of belief in God necessarily leads to nihilism. But in this book I learned that a person can be an atheist and be happy. I learned that if this life is all we have, then every day is precious. Love, knowledge, progress and contentment are their own rewards. If I don't have eternity to look forward to, then I better get busy living this life.
Finally, I returned to the Bible. Since before I could read I had taken it as a given that the Bible was true. But now I came to the Bible with a skeptical approach. I read Bart Ehrman's book on the New Testament as a historical document and I read through the Gospels and compared them to each other, keeping in mind the order in which they were written. It seemed clear to me that I was reading legendary material that grew over time. Some people say that the Gospels were written too soon after the events for legends to have arisen, but those people have obviously never heard of Mormonism, Scientology and e-mail chain letters. And somehow, I doubt that a largely illiterate and prescientific people of the first century were more skeptical and reasonable than people are today.
Some people say that there were plenty of chances for first century people to have debunked the Gospels if they were legend, but I'm not so sure. There were plenty of people trying to debunk Mormonism and Scientology as they got started, but it didn't stop those new religions from taking hold. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, any dissenting opinion about the origins of Christianity was suppressed. So there may have been attempts to disprove Christianity that were lost to history when the Christians came into power. Imagine if America had a Scientologist emperor. They would destroy all the evidence against Scientology and in a few hundred years, there would be nothing left on the subject but pro-Scientology propaganda.
The legs that held up my belief in God had been removed one by one: the teleological, cosmological and moral arguments, the Bible, fear of meaninglessness, peer pressure, political leanings and most of all, habit. By June of 2007 I had stopped going to church and started telling friends and family. Astute readers of my blog had already detected a change in the tone of the posts I made during the first half of 2007, especially my review of Language of God.
On August 4, 2007 (my birthday), I publicly announced on this site that I was an atheist. That's the story of how I went from odd-ball fundamentalist to campus ministry intern to youth pastor to nominal Christian to atheist.
I’ve been moonlighting your blog for some time, and must say that I’ve appreciated this look into the story of your relationship (and divorce) with God. It’s been eerily familiar to me, though I am not yet staked-out in the ‘atheist’ camp.
And though I know it wasn’t one of the religiously-oriented reads, I’m impressed to see the Color of Magic in your book list. Pratchett would be proud, I should think.
Thanks for writing all of this out. I’ve been curious about the progression since 8-4-07 when you made that post. I feel like I must have met you at some point, either when Melanie and I made a trip to Kirksville so she could make a presentation to CCF, or maybe on one of our many visits to Kyle and Erika (a trip we are making as soon as I get off work tonight!).
This might be crossing the line, so let me know if I am. But I am curious as to what Sara really thinks about your professed atheism. I know you have said before and here again that she told you to look at the issue and decide what you really believe. But I also know, as a married man myself, that huge disagreements can arise from our differences in something small and trivial like how we fold a piece of clothing, so I can only imagine that disagreements would arise when a couple who formerly found agreement in matters of faith and religion are suddenly on opposite sides of the fence. I might be making incorrect assumptions about your wife’s faith and religious beliefs, and as I said at the beginning, I might be crossing a line by asking.
Thanks for your honest thoughts Dan. This has been interesting and provocative to read.
Not sure where you are in your journey (still investigating religion or not so much), but I think a book by Stephen T. Davis called “God, Reason and Theistic Proofs” might give you a more rigorous (and I think plausible) treatment of the arguments for theism you have explored, especially the cosmological and teleological arguments, and surprisingly enough the ontological argument. In general, I find the popular presentations of these arguments to be wholly unsatisfying, but when they are given with proper philosophical rigor, they are at least more plausible and perhaps persuasive.
Regardless, I would also recommend the work of Alvin Plantinga, who has argued for years that theists do not, in fact, need to “prove” their faith, or at least they are under no more burden than an atheist is to demonstrate that there is no God. Plantinga suggests that belief in the existence of God might simply be taken as a “properly basic” belief, i.e., a natural starting point for thinking about the world that needs no further justification. This may seem implausible at first, but I think if you consider the many significant beliefs we have like this (e.g., belief in other minds, belief in a physical world, belief that our memories are reliable) it is not so strange. Indeed, if the atheist is to hold up a positivist view of science as the canon of knowledge when no one has proved the existence of a physical world, it is unclear why theists must labor to prove the existence of God. Anyway, Plantinga says it all better. Food for thought.
fascinating reading. i can relate to the questions, but am not clear what led you to the atheist vs. agnostic path. so i’m thinking to myself, “what’s the difference between the two?” i was an agnostic for many years. i didn’t believe in god, but could never be so certain as to say there is NOT a god. i’m wondering what made me different from where you are now. is it just different personalities? so i’m thinking about psychic readings - i don’t believe people actually have that ability but i don’t think i would be so bold as to say it does not exist with anyone. would you? life on other planets - can’t be proven so would it be reasonable to say it does not exist until it’s proven? i believe there is a god but i don’t think i would go so far as to say there IS a god, no doubt about it. maybe i have a more wishy-washy personality and that’s the difference, but it’s always seemed a bit arrogant to me to be so certain that god does or does not exist. how can anyone be so sure?
we went to hear some author’s last night who read from their most recent books. much of it had to do with disillusionment with their religions. it’s such a universal theme and it’s interesting how people end up in such different places after such similar dilemmas. makes me want to write my own account. thanks for sharing yours.
My nephew lead me to your blogg. I asked a question on facebook, he answered that he has a friend that became an atheist atempting to prove there is a God. A friend of my nephews, is a friend of mine. I have read your “struggle” your journy away from God. I do not see you as an atheist, but rather as a man serching for God. I believe that had somone cared more about your relationship with God than refridgerators in the church, you would have a different perspective in this matter. I care. Today I’ll share two stories and one thought. I first attended NYR in 1981 and I returned each year until 1991. I could tell many stories. The one lesson that left the biggest impression on me was a high school class in 1986. The teacher asked all the freshmen to stand, sat them down, asked the sophmores to stand, sat us down, asked the juniors to stand, sat them down, then asked the seniors to stand. He talked about seniors for a minute, then said statisticaly 50% of all seniors will leave the church within 1 year after they graduate. Now half of you sit down. The 50 or so seniors looked at each other,(who’s spose to sit?) the man said “that is what we don’t know,” we don’t know who, we don’t know why, we just know that 50% of you will not be members of the church next year. This has haunted me for years, the question, why do they leave? The answer is, because everyone who attends church as a child/teenager goes to church because somone else expect’s them to. Their parents make them, most even like to go. Some times a guy or a girl get’s us to attend. One day we wake up and realize that we get to decide for ourself to go or not to go. It is that moment that we transform from what we were taught to believe to what we believe. It is the duty of those who are spirtually mature to prepare teenagers for that moment. The other story, on the way home from NYR in 81 I prayed that God would cause my brother and his girlfriend to break-up, three weeks later she died. Three months later my brother took his life because he lost his girlfriend. I was in the 6th grade. I could have blamed God. Instead I trusted God. That he had a purpose.
I have several thoughts, one, you read many books serching for answers, yet you didn’t refernce the Bible, in fact you said, “I quit reading the Bible, I stopped praying” You have studied the thoughts of man, but not the word of God. I would reason that one cannot read the Bible without realizing the power of God. Two, Hebrews 11:1 says,
“faith is the belief of things hoped for, The evidence of things not seen.” As long as there are people that believe in God, God exist’s. Three, All men agree that Jesus Christ lived, so much that we measure time against his birth. It is accepted by all men. The question then becomes, is he the son of God? A man stood at the foot of the cross watching Jesus die, this man did not belive, in fact he did not care who this man was. he was given an order, “execute these three men.” As he stood there he heard the words of Jesus, “forgive them, they don’t know what they do.” He heard Jesus calling out to his father. He saw the sky turn dark, He felt there ground shake, he saw the rocks break in two, a centurion said “truly this was the son of God.” Man has reasoned for years, that there is no God, a man with nothing to prove stood face to face with Jesus and realized that he was the son of God.
Jesus cannot be the son of God if God does not exist.
I’m going to explain something to you that you may not “understand". The human mind is the seat of doubts. The heart is the seat of faith. The more you begin to question and doubt and think about things… the more active and powerful Satan becomes in your soul. He has so much power… that he can actually cause you to forget what you know and believe in your heart.
The mind cannot know God. Only the heart can.
God isn’t a system of ideas… God is Love. When your heart has waxed cold and you have lost contact from your heart with God as the result of thinking too much with your head (which is how Satan comes in as a spirit to block the knowledge of God from your heart)… you can absolutely lose contact with all you know in your heart.
Stop thinking. Pray. Just that simple. When the knowledge of God returns as the spirit of Satan is broken over your soul… and the love of God returns to your heart… you’re going to think of these years as lost years.
Or, perhaps you never knew God.
If you were saved, you are still saved. You just are no longer consciously aware of Jesus in your heart… because Satan has you in bondage.
You can’t “think” your way out. You must pray.
I’m going to commit to praying the blood of Jesus over you to break the power of Satan to blind your mind. You’re playing with spiritual powers. :)
Let’s see what happens as I pray for you for the next week.
“Stop thinking” seems like an unusual course of action in any endeavor.
Why would anyone ever want to stop thinking? Skydiving, maybe?
Dan, thanks for sharing your experiences. They are helpful to me.
I followed a link and got into your website. You seem like a guy that has read quite a bit. Here’s a book that I would highly recommend:
Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
Haven’t finish the book myself, but seems compelling. I hope you are still in the process of thinking, whether or not God exist. He hasn’t given up on you. Blessings.
Glad you found truth. At least, the closest we can get to it.
Your blog is very insightful, loved reading.
Keep it up =)
What great writing!
Thank you so much for sharing your story. To reveal those personal parts of your life for public consumption is a somewhat brave and risky thing, especially with your connections to so many well-meaning Christians who are wont to criticize and belittle you and your experience.
I stumbled on to your site, oddly enough, looking for chords to a Waterdeep song, and found the article where you list one of my old favorites among the Top 5 Worst Worship Songs! I can actually recognize that the theology on that one is perhaps a little shaky, but then I’m not sure that Psalm 88 would make it into a Sunday morning worship set in most Evangelical churches… and perhaps God, if He exists, isn’t as concerned with my beliefs about him as He is about my attitude towards Him and my neighbors. I must say that you are completely right, however, about songs involving rivers.
I’m just getting into the blogging thing myself, I’d love to hear your opinions about my ramblings, if you find yourself with the time and inclination.
Thank you for telling your story.
Try the Bible, no matter what version and start with the Gospel of John. I believe there is God no matter what you will write or try to think you will come back to this at the end of your life here on earth.
I’m glad you blogged about your experiences. I’m a youth minister in an Ind. Church of Christ (where I play the drums in the band!) so I am familiar with some of your background. I was raised in the Methodist church and joined my church because I think the Bible is more awesome than tradition… :) And I know every church is different. I’ve worked at five now and only 3 of them were “good experiences"… Been a YM or worship leader for about 15 years.
Anyway - I just want you to know that I’ve been thinking exactly like you do in so many ways - doubting, struggling, even depression - you’re story seems eerily familiar to mine (minus the politics - I just hate politics of any kind now). My conclusion through the ups and downs of faith and life is that my disillusionment is with people, tho, rather than God. I’m not trying to convince you of anything here - just sharing me.
I do believe that these are roads we all have to go down - and God goes with us and the Spirit (can lead) leads us as we constantly struggle to believe in what is unseen and try our humanly best to come to grips with it. I think God loves it when we honestly struggle - even when it’s with Him. You know the Psalms - David got in God’s face and spilled his guts out but it was never considered blasphemy or disbelief - because he was just being honest. Maybe there are some parallels there with you, maybe not…
Ultimately its the concept that God is personal that wins it for me. I loathe the concept of religion and religious-ness (new word?) - but I love the idea that the Creator of the Universe and the mystery that surrounds Him is at-least-partially knowable by the common dude.
Keep walking, man. I pray that your journey with God is just beginning rather than ending.