This is a bit of a touchy subject to write about, but its been coming up a lot lately, so I figure the time is right. One of my ‘big quits‘ last year was leaving the Christian faith, which has many people I know concerned about me. This is a rather lengthy subject with a hundred different points floating around my head, but I’ve attempted to condense my reasoning to the basics here.
Until last year, I had always considered myself a believer; I grew up in the church, I was confirmed, I was baptized, I went to youth group, I went to a Christian summer camp, I went on missions, attended bible studies, and I married a good Christian girl. I knew my way around the bible, I knew the songs in the hymnals, I knew all the apologetics to defend the faith (and often did). I did everything a good Christian boy was supposed to, and didn’t do the things I wasn’t supposed to.
While I regularly attended church and did all the good things I was supposed to, I don’t think I was ever enthusiastic about it. If there was any reason to stay home from church, I’d usually take it. I would sing along with the songs, and I would pay attention to the sermon, but I was glad when it was over and I could change into more comfortable clothes. Looking back, I think I always had a bit of a nagging feeling that something wasn’t adding up.
A foundation of sand.
The crux of the problem for me is the circular logic Christians use to defend the authority of the bible, which is the foundation of the whole faith. How do we know the bible is the word of god, and true? Because the bible says it is:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17
The problem is that by the same logic, I can claim that this blog is God-breathed. How do you know? Because it says so.
Any serious biblical scholar would have to concede that much of the content is not timeless, but skewed and bias toward the culture and time in which it was written. It’s why the Old Testament is so different from the New. It’s why we eat pork, and don’t relocate menstruating women outside the city. It’s why every year a new translation comes out trying to make the text more “relevant” to the modern Christian life. I’ve also thought it was a bit weird that Jesus, supposedly God in human form, didn’t write any part of the New Testament, but it consists almost entirely of letters from Paul and other early church leaders, and the accounts of Jesus are mostly hearsay. God had a pretty obvious opportunity there to literally do some of the writing himself.
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
So lets presume that the bible is merely a collection of religious documents written by men, built upon each other over centuries. They contain much wisdom, but aren’t divine. But people who saw Jesus were obviously believers, and therefore lend credibility, right? Well sure, but prophets aren’t unique to Christianity. What’s not valid about Islam? Hinduism? People believe Joseph Smith found a bunch of gold tablets that only he could translate – why aren’t Christians converting to the Church of Latter Day Saints? Scientology sprung up in the last century and has devout followers who swear it’s true – is that valid as well? The bible has no more real credibility than dianetics.
I sometimes think our distance from the events of the bible somehow make them more believable. It was in a time long long ago, when things were mystical and magical and miracles happened all the time. There were talking snakes, global floods, rivers of blood, cities destroyed by fireballs, men delivered by whales, walls brought down with trumpets, virgin births… We accept for some reason that God is simply less active in the modern world. Most Christians don’t believe that Benny Hinn is really healing anyone on TV, but they believe Jesus healed the lame and the blind. Christians don’t believe Joseph Smith, but they believe Paul and Luke. What’s the difference, but a few centuries?
The tree of knowledge.
So at this point, for me, the whole thing starts to unravel. The foundation is broken, and the house is collapsing. And then I think about the whole history of religion, and the purpose it has served through the written history of humans. Many millennia ago, we understood very little about the world around us, and what we didn’t understand through physics, we understood through myth and religion. There were many gods, and they were responsible for creating everything, for moving the sun and stars through the sky, for bringing rain or drought, for disease and health, for everything that was otherwise unexplained. But over time, we came to realize that there were explanations for many of these things. Galileo turned our flat world into a sphere, Copernicus repositioned the sun as the center of our solar system, Bassi and Pasteur showed us that disease was actually the result of tiny organisms in our bodies. Darwin showed how life adapted and changed, and specie diversity was a natural process. At every discovery, the world fought (sometimes literally) to maintain its innocence.
During the 18th century enlightenment, the faith of the educated of the time pointed to a world not controlled by dozens of gods, but by a single god, who was mostly hands off. The “clockmaker” god, who simply defined the laws of nature and set everything in motion. In every generation, god seems to shrink a little bit more. Historically then, god seems to be simply a placeholder for the things we can’t explain. There is still a place for god in our modern world, but only because there are still mysteries to be solved. I had always argued that science and religion weren’t mutually exclusive, that science could help us better understand the nature of god, but I’m not so sure anymore. The curtain continues to be raised at an ever faster pace, and the mythical stories of the past are becoming more and more unlikely.
All of this begs the question: what the hell are we doing here, anyway? Why do we exist, why does this universe exist, and what is our purpose? It seems those of faith demand an answer. I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps there is no purpose after all. Maybe we are simply complex constructions of energy that the universe happened to throw together in some distant little corner of one of the billions of galaxies floating around. Perhaps we are not so unique, and the universe contains many wonders greater than life as we know it, and we’re simply full of conceited ignorance. Our intelligence and self-awareness may compare to an ant when next to other more complex constructions of energy elsewhere in the vastness of the universe.
Maybe that’s an unsettling idea, but is the alternative any better? That we were created by a bi-polar god as some sort of lab experiment? That we were made perfect in his image, but designed to fall? That we must serve and worship him, unseen, else risking eternal torture? That he only told some of the people on this planet about this requirement, damning 99% of all those who ever lived? Is that our purpose? Or is it just the innocence of the ancients trying to make sense of an indifferent world that doesn’t have any special regard for us?
In my conversations with people in the church about these topics over the last year, I’ve found that many of these doubts and concerns are shared, though not openly. For some reason, most people who have found themselves on the fence seem to fall back on the side of faith. During a recent 2500 mile road trip with a friend of mine who attended a conservative seminary, who shares many of my concerns, I asked him why he thinks that is. His response? Fear. If we’re all wrong about religion, and there is no god, we haven’t lost anything; but if the bible is true, we risk a lot. I can understand that reasoning. But then, we’re also risking being wrong about every other religion out there. And most importantly to me, we aren’t being honest with ourselves. Ultimately, we all have to decide what really rings true for us. If there is a creator, he created us with great intelligence for a reason. At least for me, that means I can’t accept things merely on faith.
I don’t consider myself an atheist, or an anti-theist, as I would never be so haughty as to claim to know one way or another whether or not there is a higher power (and I doubt we are the highest power in this world). And having spent so much of my life in the church, I understand the appeal, and I understand why it’s important for many. I have, however, always held to the idea that big-T Truth should withstand any scrutiny, any criticism, any test. And for me, the bible has too many holes to be regarded as Truth anymore. It contains much truth, but I can no longer consider it holy, or authoritative.