Friday, February 29, 2008

Why I No Longer Consider Myself a Christian, or Even a Theist

I finally posted this on my real blog.

Why I No Longer Consider Myself a Christian, or Even a Theist.

Dear Friends and Family,

This is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written, as I know all of you will take this in different ways, and it may actually offend some of you, and this is definitely not my wish. If you are receiving this letter it is because you are someone who is important to me and I want to be honest with you about what I am thinking and feeling, and most importantly what I no longer believe and part of the reasons why. I know some of you will be shocked and even hurt by this letter, and I assure you that is not my intention. That is one of the reasons this letter is so difficult to write. I wanted to write this letter because my faith was always so much a part of who I was to some people. My realization that I have never actually believed in God is something that it is important for me to share with you.

I no longer believe in God, the Father Almighty, or that he is Creator of heaven and earth, nor in Jesus Christ.

Jesus the man may or may not have existed, but I do not believe that he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

I do not believe he descended into hell or that the third day He arose again from the dead.

I do not believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting, at least not in the biblical sense.

Yes, the above mostly came from the apostle’s creed, it seemed like a good way to get it all out of the way. I also do not believe that the bible is the word of God.

Do I absolutely know that God doesn’t exist? Of course not! I would have to be omniscient to declare such a thing, and I’m barely aware of my surroundings when I get wrapped up in something, I’m far from all seeing! Am I open to the idea of God? Sure! I respect one’s right to believe or disbelieve as one chooses. I guess the next part of this letter should explain why I don’t believe anymore.

I’ve been a Christian for more than 25 years, and a Bible believing biblical literalist for more than 15 of them. I used to read the Bible daily, I still do read it quite frequently, and no, not with a critical eye, but still seeking truth in it. I used to be quite the apologist, even to the point of my friends jokingly dubbing me the ninja theologian. One thing that was always lacking was a concrete feeling of God’s presence. I had lots of warm, tingly feelings that I attributed to God, but never anything real. There was never a single moment of my prayers where I felt like I was praying to anything more than the ceiling or the sky. Sure, I reasoned through a lot of problems with my internal dialogue, and sometimes things came to pass, but sometimes they didn’t. Yes, I know there are lots of arguments for why some prayers are answered and some or not. Trust me, I know most of them and probably even made up a few. You see, I always had to do repetitive things to make God seem more real to me. Constant prayer, surrounding myself with Christian music, going to Bible study and church, even putting scripture and faith words on my walls to keep the thought of God ever present in my mind. Even with all of these things, putting on the armor of God as Ephesians says to, I still never truly experienced the presence of God. Now I have acknowledged all of the arguments in my mind against God, particularly against the God of the Bible, but the biggest one, and the only one I will reveal in this letter is this: Why if God is the omnipotent, non temporally bound, omniscient creator of the universe do I have to practice all the time to make myself believe in him? I don’t have to do that to make me believe in any of you. Heck, I don’t have to do that to make myself believe in people I’ve never met!

I’ve been listening to Christian music while writing this; in fact I’ve been listening to it quite a bit recently. Some of it still moves me. God of Wonders gets me every time; I’ve been singing it for weeks. There Is A Redeemer is another one, especially Keith Green singing it. A proper singing of Holy, Holy, Holy or Be Thou My Vision can give me chills. I still get emotional thinking of Rosalyn Pratt’s version of Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, I don’t have the recording anymore, but it was amazing. You see, it’s not that I want to run and hide from God, or that I want to not believe in him, it’s just that I don’t. I’m not writing this to try and convert anyone to my way of thinking. There was a time when I wanted to convert everyone to Christianity, but gradually my thinking changed over the years, thinking that God must be much bigger than any concept we could ever have of him, and certainly he could reach through the bounds of religion and touch anyone at any point in their life. I always believed that Jesus was the only way to heaven, just that he could meet people on their terms. The thing I was always ignoring, is that God was never tangible to me, at least not in the way other people are, or even inanimate objects. The warm fuzzies were, but I think even the most faithful would admit that emotion and feelings are not enough.

One of my best friends, and a receiver of this letter, told me a story once about a crisis of faith. Forgive me if I tell it wrong. He was looking out his bedroom window and spied a moth fluttering about across the street. He prayed, “God, if you are real, then make that moth fly over to my window.” Sure enough, the moth fluttered around quite a bit and gradually made it’s way across the street, right up to his window. I’ve been praying for years for God to please make himself more real to me, and at times I got the tingles, but I’ve gotten those from McDonald’s commercials too, and I certainly don’t worship the golden arches.

I don't know if this letter will come as a surprise to any of you. Maybe you could tell I was heading to this way of thinking, but I didn't really see it coming. I knew my thoughts were changing, but never thought they would end up here. At one time my faith in the Bible and Christianity was so strong, but even then I had awful questions and really feel that I was making excuses for God and the Bible. All of what I have written is open to discussion and I welcome any questions you may have. I will still attend church from time to time, and will gladly participate in any sort of gathering with religious or spiritual themes. I will not be taking communion out of respect for the practice. Most churches ask that you believe to partake and since I do not, I will not.

Lastly, I am not sad, depressed, angry, or in any other way distressed. Quite to the contrary, I am happy and feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest. I never had a miraculous, emotional conversion to Christianity, but this feeling may be what it’s like if you do. I feel like my eyes have been opened and now I can truly appreciate people for who they are and life and the world for what they are. I’m not going to run off and live a life of immoral debauchery. In fact some of the atheists I know are incredibly moral people and I respect them every bit as much as I do those who I previously called my brothers and sisters in Christ. As I reach the end of the letter I still have the urge to sign off with “God Bless” or some such thing, but that would be ridiculous given my lack of belief. I sincerely apologize if this letter causes you distress, but I had to write it, to be honest to both you and myself. This may seem like I came to this decision overnight, but I assure you it is the result of many years of study, prayer (unanswered), and meditation. I have no idea where my life's journey will take me. If a deity reveals him or herself to me I will not ignore them. I just know now that none have ever truly done so for me before.

Wishing you many blessings, regardless of their source.


For now Agnostic/Atheist

Sites I frequent:

Sunday, February 17, 2008

No Compromise - An exploration of honesty and spirituality

The title, No Compromise, is also the title of Keith Green's biography, found here at Amazon.

He's someone who has been inspirational to me over the years, and for some reason that title jumped out at me as a good one for this post.

I first thought of posting this on my real blog sort of as a coming out to my friends and family about my new found lack of faith, but that might be seen as seeking some sort of attention or worse, antagonistic. I'm fully open to discussing my change of faith, but I do not want to get in any fights. It seems so pointless.

I've always had questions about my faith, and I've prayed for answers and sometimes I think I may have rationalized the answers and given God the credit. Why did Jesus have to die? Why did God create hell? Why did God flood men, women, and children during the time of Noah?! Why did God create Adam and Eve knowing they would fall, and then he would have to send his son to die for Adam and Eve's mistakes, for eating a piece of fruit! Speaking of that fruit, why the heck did God need to put the knowledge of good and evil into fruit? Who was going to eat it?

Now, what about me? For starters, I'm better than you, and you, and you...or at least I thought I was. I really subscribed to the Christianity is right and everything else is wrong mentality. There were always parts of the Bible that I explained away as cultural or part of the old covenant. Why is it some churches don't allow women to preach, but they are allowed to wear gold?

1 Timothy 2:9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

1 Timothy 2:11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

I heard a woman on the radio going on about how women shouldn't be pastors or priests, but she never even mentioned that they shouldn't wear gold or pearls. It's only a few verses away, but in the same chapter!

I used to feverishly devour apologetics literature. Ironically my entire Christian life has been plagued by apologetics books. They always made me doubt more! I read all those books wanting to squash the doubts I had from time to time, and to "… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…" (1 Peter 3:15). I found myself desperate to defend my faith, but was I defending it against the attacks of others, or was I defending it against my own doubts. Those books try to bring reason to a faith issue with ludicrous arguments like the gospel must be true because all the early Christians risked their lives and became martyrs for it. I bought that hook line and sinker...then the events of 9/11 ...or a look at a picture of a Buddhist monk on fire in protest, or Jim Jones, or Heaven's gate and on and on, all made me realize that being willing to die for something doesn't make it true.

One of my best friends, and one of the strongest Christians I know, told me a story once about his crisis of faith as a youth. He was questioning the very existence of God when he spotted a moth fluttering around a bush across the street. He prayed "God, if you are real, please make that moth fly to my window." He then watched the moth flitter for quite some time and then eventually make it's way to his window. I've been praying for my moth for some time now. No dice yet.

Prayer. Every time I pray it's essentially talking in my head or, if I 'm with a group, out loud. If I do it enough and really talk through an issue, the answers come. If I'm praying for someone, or for something, sometimes the answers come and sometimes not. Certainly praying for healing is a crap shoot. My fiance and I prayed and prayed for a wonderful friend of ours, if there was ever a literal saint, it was her, her body was destroyed by painful cancer and she died. Then again, I've prayed for others who have recovered. Of course any recovery has been with major help from doctors, nurses, surgery, and medication.

So basically I am working up the courage to admit, not just to myself, but to my many Christian friends, that I don't believe in God, and in fact, I'm pretty sure I never did. I told myself I did, but I always had this nagging feeling I was praying to a ceiling.

For the past ten years or so I've been troubled by the fact that we have to work so hard at believing in God. The Brother Lawrence classic Practice The Presence of God, was always an inspiration to me. He talked to God during his whole day. He truly prayed with out ceasing, just as we were commanded to in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Then the word "practice" really started to plague my thoughts. You practice something to get better at it. Why would I need to practice the presence of the most powerful being in the universe? I don't need to practice the presence of any human. Why do I need to practice the presence of God? Wouldn't he be the most tangible of all things? Wouldn't he be more tangible than any single part of his creation? Why then do we need to sing songs about him as mnemonic devices to help us remember him, to make us feel in a certain way about him? I love my family, friends, and my fiance. I don't need to sing songs about them to make me feel that love more strongly. I just feel it.

Have I rambled enough? Let me end by addressing the title of this post again. No Compromise means exactly that. Keith Green would not compromise what he believed in, and neither will I. Maybe I'll get my moth some day, but I seriously doubt it. I can think of no experience in my life that truly made me believe God existed. I can recall lots of warm fuzzy feelings, but then I can get that from a nice commercial too. Am I an atheist yet? Probably. Can I admit it yet? Probably not. I do know that I am happy. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my soldiers. I don't have to worry whether or not it's ok for women to preach or teach. I can smile at homosexuals and tell them I am happy for them. I don't have to think persons of every other religion are going to hell. I've never lied to anyone. When I've spoken of my belief in God, I was being as sincere as I could. I really thought the warm fuzzy feelings were God speaking to me. I don't believe that anymore, in fact I think I was deluded at the time. Now I just need to get comfortable enough to admit these feelings to more than just my father, my fiance, and my friend Bill. They are the only ones I have told so far. Their feelings for me have not changed. Lets hope the rest are as understanding and accepting.

I won't ignore my moth if it shows up. I just seriously doubt it ever will.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

From Psychology Today - An Atheist in the Pulpit

From Psychology Today

An Atheist in the Pulpit
Public identity and private belief are never more at odds than when a preacher loses his faith.

James McAllister, a 56-year-old Lutheran minister in the midwest, was working on his sunday sermon one Thursday afternoon last summer. It wasn't going well. The reverend wasn't suffering from writer's block—in fact, he was crafting quite an elegant parable about "the importance of making our whole lives a prayer." No, the problem was bigger than that. The sermon skated around a private truth that McAllister could no longer deny.

McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. "You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror," he says of his sermons. "But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I'm a fraud."

Three months ago, McAllister, who is presented pseudonymously here, took his crisis to the bishop. He'd lost the faith, he explained, and he wanted out.

"Oh you're not quitting," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "You haven't lost your faith."

"Um, yeah I have," McAllister said. "This is for real."

The bishop shook her head. For the church elders, McAllister's revelations simply did not compute.

"They're either in complete denial," he says, "or they're completely comfortable with the idea that they have a pastor who's a fraud, as long as he puts asses in the seats."

McAllister took the issue up with his psychiatrist. "It emerged that she was a devout Christian herself," he says. "To her credit, she tried to be professional." Where she had once begun and ended their sessions with prayer, she stopped when he asked her to. "But I could see she was squirming. You know, she was sitting with a man of the cloth who had lost it. She had problems with that."

To be a clergyman struggling with God in 2008 is to reside at the center of a great battle. At a time when the tension between faith and doubt arguably defines the distance between people more than does gender or race or even politics, the Doubting Priest bears witness for the defense and the prosecution. (Mother Teresa's grave spiritual doubt, as revealed last fall in her letters, means one of two things: Either the closest thing to a modern saint was a phony, or her trials actually make her religious life more meaningful, a poignant example of faith not as a certainty but as a required test that leads to a more profound commitment.) The spiritual struggles of ministers and priests and rabbis remind us that, amid encroaching fundamentalism, atheism is also on the rise. The neo-atheist movement is fueled by outspoken academics and intellectuals including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others who bombard the airwaves and bestseller lists with their calls for deconversion. You can now send your kid to an atheist summer camp or get yourself certifiably "de-baptized." (Britain's national Secular Society offers the service: "Liberate yourself from the original mumbo jumbo that liberated you from the original sin you never had.") There are hundreds of college-campus groups devoted to secular humanism. The Atheist Alliance International reports "so many speaking requests that leaders of national atheist groups can't keep up."

Even amid the neo-atheist din, a clergy member's crisis of faith stands out. The natural order of things is upset when those entrusted with the protection of souls lose the plot. Because the clergy's livelihood and public identity are intimately bound up with their faith, practical considerations can be just as pressing as theological doubt. And the split between private beliefs and public sermons can leave religious leaders feeling deeply inauthentic, a source of psychic stress that most laypeople will never know.

Many soul-searching clergy never leave the church, making the ranks of ordained agnostics and atheists impossible to tally. But the raw numbers aren't much on the minds of clergy actually in the throes of deconversion. Their doubt is as real and immediate as a cloud over the sun. And somewhere in the nest of questions is a simple one: How did this happen?

McAllister had been raised Catholic, then drifted into a 25-year interregnum where he stopped going to church and called himself an atheist. A midlife spiritual restlessness nudged him into chaplaincy training 15 years ago. A second-career minister—for most of his life he was a graphic designer and a fine artist—McAllister approaches the Big Questions more in the manner of a scholar than of a monk. (Even as a Catholic grade-school kid, he recalls, he hungered for real evidence. "Why," he would ask the nuns, "did this stuff all happen so long ago before there were cameras and TVs? Why aren't there prophets and holy people and miracles now?") A year ago, frustrated with his denomination but by no means ready to bail out, he picked up Sam Harris's book The End of Faith. He found he "agreed with about 98 percent of it."

He picked up other books in the neo-atheist canon. He read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and then the one-two punch of Christopher Hitchens's mega-bestselling God Is Not Great and his earlier Letter to a Christian Nation. He closed the latter book and found himself saying, aloud, "Amen." He had to face his misgivings. "I realized, it isn't just that I'm hurt by the way I was treated at synod, and it isn't just that the senior pastor that I work with was an asshole. It's that I don't believe in this anymore. And that was terrifying."

McAllister is not just scared for himself. "I know that my parishioners look to me for comfort," he says. "They're coming to the end of their life and they want some assurance that it's all going to be OK. I have sat at the deathbed of people in my congregation and told them what I regard as lies—or fantasies, at least—just to give them comfort. I'm willing to do that up to a point, but not for the rest of my working life."

Then there's the practical dimension. McAllister owes the church $18,000 for his schooling, at the same time as he's trying to put his last son through college. "I'm 56, which isn't a real good age to be pounding the pavement, and I've got a master's of divinity, not the most marketable degree in the world."

Richard Dawkins is convinced that McAllister's situation is common; in fact, he hopes one day to address it through "clergyman-retraining scholarships," set up through his charitable foundation, to "bridge the gap between living a lie and getting a new life," as he puts it.

McAllister's dilemma is familiar to Dan Barker, who coheads the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The group spreads the word about atheism and fights legal battles to keep church and state separate. It is a soft place to land for the doubters who find it. Barker daily receives e-mails and letters from people who are wrestling with issues of faith, and he always writes back promptly and cheerily. E-mails from clergy are a very small part of the mix. But of all the stories he hears, these are the ones that resonate most—because they are his story, too.

Barker was a religious prodigy. Raised attending a charismatic Pentecostal church near Disneyland, he received "the call" at age 15, and wasted no time spreading the good news. He converted his high-school Spanish teacher. He became part of an evangelical team that went door-to-door holding revival meetings. He penned and performed popular Christian jingles.

But after a milestone birthday, number 30, came and went in 1979, Barker found himself agitated. Creatively, he was stalled; he was having trouble working on a Christian musical about a lost lamb, "because," he explains, "my views were changing while I was trying to write it." The restlessness, he determined, was spiritual. "It was as if there was a little knock on my skull and somebody was saying, 'Hello! Anybody home?' I was starving and didn't know it, like when you work hard on a project and forget to eat and don't know you are hungry until you are really hungry."

He began reading widely outside the Christian canon: science magazines, psychology, philosophy. It was the liberal-arts education he never had, and what followed was "a slow but steady migration across the theological spectrum" that took about five years. (Among the deeply faithful, doubt is often first stoked with exposure to the "outside world.")

As he carried on a secret life of secular reading, Barker phased out the fire-and-brimstone sermons. "But even then I felt hypocritical, often hearing myself mouth words about which I was no longer sure, but words that the audience wanted to hear."

The confirmation, as Barker interpreted it, came one night in November, as he lay on a burlap cot in a church in a Mexican border town where he'd come to give a guest sermon. As he peered out at a splash of stars, Barker had a sudden profound sensation that had nothing to do with intellect, the kind of deeply felt moment more commonly associated with finding God than losing Him. He was, Barker understood, utterly alone here.

"For my whole life there had been this giant eyeball looking at me, this god, this holy spirit, this church history, and this Bible. And not only everything I did but everything I thought was being judged: Was God pleased? I realized that that wasn't there anymore. It occurred to me, 'I own these thoughts. Nobody knows what I'm thinking right now. There's no fear of hell, no fear of judgment, I don't have to be right or wrong, I can just be me.'" It felt as if charges had been dropped for a crime for which he had been falsely accused. It was exhilarating and frightening all at once. "When you're ready to jump out of an airplane to skydive, you can be terrified but excited at the same time," he says. "There's a point where you go, all right, let's do this."

Says barker: "we surveyed our members 10 years ago, asking them: "If you were raised religious, why did you change your mind?" There was no one answer. Some people gave social reasons: the way the church treats women. Some people gave reasons like, 'the fear of hell—I just couldn't live with that.' But the answer people gave more often than any other was that it was intellectual: Religion eventually just did not make sense."

Looking back, Tom Reed, a former Roman Catholic priest from Mississippi, can pretty clearly identify his own moment of truth. It followed a quick succession of historical events: the 1968 Vatican statement upholding opposition to birth control and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The two events finished off Reed's faith in the church and his faith in God.

For Reed, deconversion was almost as quick and binary as the flick of a switch. At a certain point, he says, "it was suddenly clear that the courageous thing to do was to just admit that this is all made up.

"I remember waking up one day saying, I'm going to practice being an atheist, just move through the day with that in mind. It had become a part of my being, the idea that God was ultimately responsible for everything that was happening. Now I proceeded from the assumption that there was no God in the picture."

It sounds like a coolly rational process, a Jesuitical internal debate tipping forward into certainty. It wasn't. "It was scary as hell," Reed says. "I realized, 'I'm not going to see my mother and father again.' " The sense of cold finality, the impression that one's prayers are just so many tennis balls served into the ocean: Such existential issues are a big part of anybody's crisis of faith. But for religious leaders, the stakes are raised even further, for faith is no longer a private matter.

"As a clergyman your livelihood is not just a job—it's a whole theological system that you'd better be on board with," says Dick Hewetson, a 77-year-old former Episcopal minister from Minnesota who left the church to do secular work and soon called himself an atheist.

"It hit me during those last couple of years in the pulpit that everything coming out of my mouth was being taken as gospel," he says. "I began to think, This is crazy. If I tell these people something, they believe me. Remember Jonestown? People asked, How could that happen? Well, I know how. I wasn't the Jim Jones type, and my people weren't the Jonestown type. But I was the shepherd and they were the sheep, for sure."

Charles Templeton, the late Canadian evangelist-turned-journalist, argued that a disjunction between what clergymen say publicly and what they believe privately is so common that serious cognitive dissonance comes with the territory. "Most intelligent clergymen preach to the right of their theology," Templeton wrote in his memoir Farewell to God. "They are more conservative in the pulpit than they are in private conversation or when counseling a parishioner."

What eventually happens, as it did for James McAllister, is that sermons become cooler and less dogmatic. The clergyman, stated Templeton, "is likely to settle for what might best be described as an altruistic, do-goodest Christian philosophy."

Krista Wren [name changed], who never became a minister only because doors were quietly closed in front of her, tells a tale of spiritual disaffection with an ironic twist. A 44-year-old minister's wife from Atlanta and "a flailing Christian for 23 years," Wren worked with her husband on Pat Robertson's ministry before leaving to do missionary work in Africa. She thought of herself as a missionary; unfortunately for her, no one else did. At one fund-raising meeting prior to the couple's African departure, three dozen people gathered around her husband, Tom [name changed], and one said a prayer: "God, anoint Tom to bring forth your word with power! Let him see miracles as he prays for the people of Africa. May he lead many to Christ as you empower his words... " Then the crowd gathered around her. She held her breath in anticipation. "And Dear God," a woman's voice said, "please give Krista creative ways to do laundry." It was a decisive moment and in a way a portent of the end. "Maybe I've not gotten past it because it sums up the mind of many churches and even so many scriptures," Wren wrote in a recent e-mail to Dan Barker, with whom she had been corresponding. "Men do great things for God—and women wash their shorts."

Wren is currently a hairsbreadth away from throwing it all over the side and coming out as an atheist.

But here is the twist: Her husband became a pastor only because, going on 30 years ago, she converted him. ("And with a great deal of effort.") Now she's heading back across the bridge the other way. She is virtually certain he won't make the trip with her. What is certain is that their marriage will be tested. Her disaffection is a subject so delicate she handles it with tongs.

"I'm hesitant to say too much, but the things that I have said have caused him to look as though his dog just died. When he learned I was corresponding with Dan—he looked over my shoulder in the middle of an e-mail—the color drained from his face. He shook his head and said, as he walked out of the room, 'This is just sad.' Well, part of me thinks it's sad, and part of me thinks it's about damn time."

Barker's own marriage did not survive his spiritual U-turn. (His wife, who remains faithful, remarried a Baptist minister.) And their four children?

"We both agreed that the children should never have to be in a position where they had to choose sides." One son has announced that he doesn't believe in God. One daughter "was going to a Unitarian church for a while, and I think she might be a nominal believer." A second daughter "has been a New Agey believer for a while." The third daughter is patently, traditionally religious. Barker seems pleased by the way the kids landed all across the spectrum of belief/disbelief, pixels in a snapshot of free will. Religious conversion is often explained in part as an effort to relieve the tension of uncertainty ("If the decision could be made conscious," psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once wrote, "I think it would be as if that person said to himself or herself, 'I am willing to do anything—anything—in order to liberate myself from this chaos.'") But letting faith go, in the end, can bring relief, too.

"We tend to ignore how much cognitive effort is required to maintain extreme religious beliefs, which have no supporting evidence whatsoever," says the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He likens the process to a cell trying to maintain its osmotic pressure. "You're trying to pump out the mainstream influences all the time. You're trying to maintain this wall, and keep your beliefs inside, and all these other beliefs outside. That's hard work." In some ways, then, at least for fundamentalists, "growing out of it is the easiest thing in the world."

In Dan Barker's journey from fundamentalism to atheism, there were two stages of disillusionment. First came the loss of faith in the religion (that is, the loss of faith in the literal word), and then came the loss of faith in faith itself.

"The first step is hardest," he says. "Because as a fundamentalist, there is no middle ground.

"I remember a pastor telling me that he had a couple of congregants who didn't believe in the historical truth of Adam and Eve. They thought that Adam and Eve were a metaphor. I was shocked. I thought, 'How can you even let them be in your church? If parts of the Bible can be allegorized, then anything goes!'

"But I made the leap: OK, the fact that I disagree with these Christians should not be grounds for disfellowshipping them. That was a hard thing for me to do. But once I did it, the later flying leaps that I made were easier to take, psychologically, because I'd already admitted some gray."

A number of the clergy who have contacted Barker tell of a similar spiritual arc. It's as if a kind of psychological algorithm begins to work, with the shedding of illusions proceeding in inevitable, sequential steps, until an outdated belief is pitched with last night's coffee grounds. We wake up, if we're lucky: case closed.

And yet it is not so simple as that. Carlton Pearson is an example of a clergyman whose spiritual about-face need not end up where neo-atheists say it should. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Pearson, then a Pentecostal bishop, was among the most prominent and beloved fundamentalist preachers in the American South, heading up a megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a loyal congregation 5,000 strong.

But something happened to Pearson as he and his church nosed toward the millennium. He stopped believing in hell and sin and the literal interpretation of the scriptures.

He was eating dinner in front of the TV with his baby daughter. On the news, Peter Jennings was revisiting Rwanda, investigating the fallout from that country's civil war. The scene was nightmarish: tiny infants, flies in their eyes and hair red from malnutrition groping at the empty breasts of their skeletal mothers. Carlton looked over at his own plump-faced child, then back at the TV. These African kids would soon be gone. Gone where? According to his own formal belief system, they were bound for hell. Somebody, he thought, needs to preach the gospel to these kids right now. To save them.

And then another thought formed. "You think I'm sucking them into hell? Carlton, look. They're already there." This, he thought, is where the pain comes from, all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. We do it to each other, and to ourselves. "I saw emergency rooms and divorce courts and jails," Pearson recalls. "For the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of hell."

It was a very different Carlton Pearson who returned to the pulpit. A lot of things he had been preaching, he told his congregation, were wrong. The central premise of their faith, the idea, "as my dad used to put it, that 'You gonna be cookin,' but you ain't never gonna get done!' " was bogus. There is no eternal damnation.

Almost all of the flock abandoned Pearson, who was officially declared a heretic by the College of Pentecostal Bishops.

Like Dan Barker, Carlton Pearson made a big leap away from literalism. And that leap set a chain-reaction of new perceptions: He became much less judgmental, more receptive to people and ideas he had dismissed or discounted. Unlike Barker's leap, Pearson's did not land him in a godless place. Throughout his trials the transmission signal of the divine, a felt thing, an inarticulable but absolutely bet-the-farm certainty persisted.

And so instead of abandoning God he invented a new theology that he calls the "gospel of inclusion," and he hung out a new shingle for a church he calls New Dimensions. It's a theology that gives everyone, not just avowed Christians, hope of salvation—and spares everyone the eternal fire of hell.

"I believe the logic of God is inerrant," he says. "I don't believe that the letter is. The logic of God would be love; the letter of God would be law." That Pearson is nominally a Christian seems almost a trivial point. After he was officially declared a heretic by the College of Pentecostal Bishops, the Unitarian Church of Christ opened its arms to him; and since it preached an inclusiveness he appreciated, the denomination seemed as good a place as any to hang his hat.

The Unitarian Church is a haven for many an atheist and agnostic, offering the comforting ritual (hymns are often rewritten with nontheistic lyrics) and esprit de corps of religion, without the dogma. Suzanne Paul, a minister to the New Hope Unitarian Universalist congregation in the suburbs of Detroit, was raised Roman Catholic, but could not stop questioning the "logic" of the Bible, and concluded that she was an atheist at age 20. She became involved in humanistic Judaism through her husband and finally found a niche in New Hope, where she leads holiday celebrations she sorely missed. "We celebrate Passover, Easter, Yom Kippur, asking, 'What can we learn from this holiday?' Yom Kippur, for example, is about forgiveness and atonement. We are naturally social animals and like to be with like-minded people. I enjoy the community aspect of religion but not the theistic end of it."

It took Suzanne some three decades to openly declare herself an atheist. "I recognized early that you can clear a room if you say you're an atheist. I prefer to identify myself as a humanist."

Pearson, too, has struggled with when and how to characterize his beliefs. "I don't always say this publicly but I'm starting to feel more free to do so: I don't necessarily believe in a god, or the God; I just believe in God."

Since his new direction, Pearson's fortunes have plummeted. Only about a hundred people hear him preach on Sundays at 1 p.m. because they have to wait until the Episcopalians finish their service. "We're in a foster-care program," he says.

And when people approach him and say, "Bishop Pearson, I'm losing my faith," he now has a better answer.

"We spend our lives impersonating who we think others want us to be," he says. "And we end up as living impostors. So, when someone comes to me and tells me they're losing their faith, I congratulate them. You're starting to embrace your own thinking self—the essential, immutable, immortal self— as opposed to the accidental criminal you have been made to think you are."

Doubt, for Carlton Pearson, isn't a sign that one's faith is evaporating; it's just a sign that it's going underground and changing.

And so there emerges, in the literature of spiritual self-transformation, a kind of parallel canon between the religious conversions and the Dawkins-style deconversions. It is the idea of the full circle, or the nun-turned-religious scholar Karen Armstrong's so-called "spiral staircase," wherein we eventually come back around to our old spiritual position, but at a higher level, from which we see a wider landscape.

It's the story of the young Carl Jung. Growing up in Geneva, he watched his parson father become tormented by religious doubt. This made him reject conventional religious practice, but it sharpened his sense of the importance of some sort of personal spiritual quest, which he regarded as the main issue in the life of everyone over 35.

The desertion of priests and nuns from the Catholic church since the 1960s seems to be the story of an en masse loss of faith. "But it can also be seen as a strengthening of faith," says John Portmann, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, who is working on a book on "cultural Catholicism." (By far the most-cited reason for leaving was unrelated to God: It was church policy on celibacy and marriage.) "If some semblance of faith can persist in spite of all [the church's missteps and scandals], you know your faith is real, you weren't in it for the trappings of the church or the comfort of the rituals."

Dan Barker has now been an atheist longer than he was a believer, and he is at peace with his decision. But for the more recent deconverts, some struggles remain. Perhaps chief among them is finding a substitute for the very real consolations that faith provided. When you've lost God, how do you fill the void?

"That's what I'm wrestling with now," says James McAllister. "I don't have anyone to talk to in my heart. The prayers I used to say, I simply don't bother anymore. I obviously regard prayer to be silly, even. But it was a comforting place that I could go. I've let that go. And there is a void. And hopefully it can be replaced just by appreciating being alive."

Psychology Today Magazine, Jan/Feb 2008
Last Reviewed 29 Jan 2008
Article ID: 4493

Psychology Today © Copyright 1991-2008 Sussex Publishers, LLC
115 East 23rd Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10010

From - I once was a born-again Christian…

By writerdd of

I once was a born-again Christian…

…but I’m not any more.Every once in a while I get an email or a comment accusing me of being a liar, saying it’s impossible for me to once have been a “real” Christian and now to be an atheist. Of course, the people who are so sure of my history have never met me and certainly didn’t know me in my past life as a Christian. Even so, their assuredness that what I’ve said cannot possibly be true always makes me think.

Reading Infidel, I’ve been made acutely aware that Muslims don’t have this problem of understanding. They are quite certain that people of their faith can fall away, and therefore have a solution to stop the apostasy from spreading: kill the infidels. Hmm. It might be the only sure-fire way to control the flock.

I just finished reading an article from Psychology Today, called An Atheist in the Pulpit, by Bruce Grierson. In the article, Grierson interviews several ministers who have lost their faith for a wide range of reasons. Worth reading if you’re interested in finding out how and why this can happen and, perhaps, how you can be an influence for reason and sanity among religious family and friends. It will definitely give you insight into the struggles experienced by those who awake one day to find that their faith no longer makes sense to them.

Here’s part of my story, and some of my thoughts on this topic:

It was a very strange day for me the first time someone asked me “Are you a Christian,” and my answer was, “No.” I’d spent all of my life up to that point — over 30 years — proclaiming to be a Christian. First I was a Catholic, a Christian by tradition and baptism; then I was born again.

John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

On December 24, 1971 in a middle pew on the right-hand side of the sanctuary in Calvary Baptist Church on Jayne Boulevard in Port Jefferson Station, New York, six months after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I accepted Jesus as my personal savior. I was 9 years old.

Jesus loved us, the pastor said, and gave his life freely to save us from sin and hell. Wouldn’t anyone like to accept Jesus tonight, this holy night of Jesus’ birth? “If you would, get up out of your seat and come down to the altar, and pray with me now.”

I didn’t get up. I sat quietly in my seat as a few adults walked up to the front of the church to be saved. But when Pastor F—- had the new converts repeat the sinner’s prayer, I closed my eyes and said the words silently in my heart.

Romans 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

About twenty years later, I stopped rationally believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. But I still believed it emotionally.

I told myself I was a Christian because nowhere does the Bible say you have to believe in your head to be saved. For years after I stopped thinking that the virgin birth and the resurrection were real, I still felt like the stories were true. Cognitive dissonance? Sure, and I was definitely aware of it. But I told people that I was a Christian, and by doing so, I was “confessing with my mouth.”

Eventually my feelings caught up with my thinking and I realized I no longer believed, not with my head or with my heart. It wasn’t until someone asked me, however, that it hit me how much I’d changed. I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian.

Proverbs 14:14 The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways.

There’s a reason that many Christians can’t fathom that there’s really such a thing as an ex-Christian. That’s because the born-again experience is supposed to be a magical occurrence where your spirit is literally changed by a supernatural touch from God. It is difficult to fathom not being a Christian any more if you don’t view becoming a Christian as a psychological change but as a spiritual birth. How does one become un-born?

I know that many Christians are unable or unwilling to contemplate that someone can have had the same experiences they’ve had and then turn away from it all. It’s a scary idea. It means they might be wrong. It means that they can’t say, “If you only felt what I’ve felt and lived what I’ve lived you’d turn your life over to God forever.”

Some of us have had those feelings and have lived that life. Some of us have read the Bible cover to cover with an open heart, seeking for truth. Some of us have been Christians, and we’re still not buying it. I know I can explain this until I’m blue in the face, and few Christians will understand or believe me. They’ll say my heart is hard or I’m not spiritually open. I hope, though, that a few will find food for thought in my words.

I Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I no longer need to believe in a supernatural God, a virgin-born savior, a resurrected Lord to validate my journey or to give meaning to my life. Everything that happened to me when I was a Christian was real. My born-again experience was as serious, life-changing, numinous, and yes, real, as that of any person on this earth. (And you doubters can ask my mother if you don’t believe me.) It just wasn’t caused by God. It was caused by my own thoughts and emotions and by the communal ecstasy that is present in many evangelical Christian church services. I now interpret my past through the lens of the natural world and the human condition.

Does this mean my experiences were worthless or fake? Far from it. Although I no longer believe in the tenets of my former faith, the fact that I went on this journey, searching for truth and fulfillment, says something important about the state of my heart. A change in explanation — from the supernatural to the natural — in no way reduces or diminishes the value or reality of my experiences, but rather enlarges them and gives them meaning that transcends doctrine, dogma, or ideology.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Ok, I confess that not everything that is in my Blogrolling section is a blog, but it's just sooo easy to add links that way!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Q&A About Atheists and Atheism

Another gem from

By David Gleeson

Do atheists hate God?

No. Consider: Do you hate Santa Claus? Or Zeus and Poseidon? The fact is, atheists just don´t believe in "God" or gods. You can´t hate something you don't believe in.

Why don´t atheists believe in God?

The reasons why an atheist doesn´t believe in God can be as varied as the beliefs of believers, but it usually boils down to a simple fact: the atheist just doesn´t see any evidence for the supernatural in general, and God in particular. If you are a Christian, think about why you don´t believe in Zeus or Shiva. That will tell you a lot about why atheists don´t believe in your god, or any god.

So atheists think there´s no greater power than themselves?

Whoa! Who said anything like that? Atheists believe we are just one ordinary life form that managed to evolve on a rock that circles one ordinary sun in one unremarkable galaxy, in a universe of 100 billion such galaxies and ten thousand billion billion such suns. Compare that world-view to the typical Christian mindset: the God of the Universe cares so much about us (me) that he sent his only begotten son to Earth to die for our (my) sins, so that we (I) may have everlasting life. Now ask yourself who is more guilty of arrogance, the Christian or the atheist. An atheist who thinks nothing is greater than him? You´ve got it backwards: an atheist wonders what could possibly be less than him.

Sometimes I hear atheism defined as "the belief that God doesn´t exist". Other times I hear it as "the lack of believe in God". Is there a difference? Which is right?

There is a huge difference. If I were to say to you, "Santa Claus doesn´t exist", I am making an assertion, and a bold one at that: I am absolutely affirming that the being known as Santa Claus does not exist. That is a claim, and, incidentally, an indefensible one. It is absolutely impossible to prove the non-existence of Santa Claus, and it is therefore wrong to positively claim that he doesn´t exist. The same is true of "God" (in the general sense). God cannot be disproved, just as Santa Claus cannot be disproved. But that doesn´t mean we should believe in these beings. If we were to believe in everything that could not be disproved, we´d have to believe in virtually everything - a preposterous way to go through life. Atheism is literally a-theism, meaning "lack of theism" or "lack of belief in God or gods". Atheism is not a claim; it is merely a statement of withheld belief. When someone calls himself an atheist, he is merely saying that he doesn´t subscribe to the god-belief. That is a far cry from positively asserting that God doesn´t exist.

Even atheists as prominent as Christopher Hitchens sometimes fall into the atheism-as-belief trap. In a recent interview for CBS, when asked to define atheism, Mr. Hitchens said, at first, "Well, it is the belief that God does not exist", before realizing his mistake and then adding, "or, it is the lack of belief in God." It is not an either/or proposition. Atheism is not a belief - it is the lack of belief. Atheists make no claims about God; they simply do not believe in Him/Her/It.

Are atheists immoral?

Some are. Some theists are immoral, too. I suspect what you really want to know is: are atheists more immoral than they would be if they didn´t reject the existence of the "source of all morals" (as some Christians would argue)? Personally, I think it´s the other way around. I think religious beliefs are the source of most of the misery in this world. But this is a personal opinion, and there´s not a lot of conclusive evidence to back it up. But consider this (and this is something that Christopher Hitchens has asked numerous times without an adequate answer): Can you think of a moral action performed by a believer that couldn´t have also been performed - unselfishly - by an unbeliever? And then ask yourself when was the last time you read about an atheist blowing himself up in a cafe, or flying an airplane into a building at 500 mph, or killing an abortion doctor, or beheading an infidel, or crucifying a gay man upon a fence, or dragging a black man like an animal behind a car to his death.

Why are atheists always attacking Christians? Why not Muslims or Jews?

Atheists fight irrationality, in whatever form it may take. In the United States, where over 70% of the population claims to be Christian, that irrationality usually takes a Christian form. Atheists in Pakistan, I´m sure, speak out against Islam, while Israeli atheists take on Judaism. American atheists don´t have a bias against Christianity; it´s just what we see most often.

You can´t prove that God doesn´t exist, so isn´t what you´re doing a waste of time?

Possibly. Believers hold their beliefs very deeply, and convincing them to abandon beliefs that they´ve held since childhood is usually a futile effort. It isn´t always about converting people, though. Personally speaking, most of the time I'm simply trying to get people to look at things from a different point of view. When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas at Christmastime, it has probably never occurred to them that there´s a 30% chance I´m not a Christian. Saying things like, "And a Happy Hanukkah to you!" is a great way to raise consciousness. And I´m not trying to prove God doesn´t exist. As I said above, that´s impossible. But that shouldn´t be necessary. We don´t need to prove the non-existence of Santa Claus to be skeptical of his existence. That´s all I´m advocating: skepticism of things that have virtually no supporting evidence.

What do atheists think happens after we die?

In a word: nothing. We live, we die. Just like every creature on the planet.

What´s the point of life, then?

I guess it´s whatever you make of it. Why do you need the promise of an afterlife to find a purpose to this life?

So we´re just an accident?

Well, if you consider four billion years of evolution by the non-random process of natural selection an accident, then yes. Any number of tweaks in the evolutionary process would have guaranteed our non-existence, or at least the existence of a species far different from us. The evolution of life on this planet was not an accident once it got started (natural selection is the complete opposite of a random process), but in a way, every species that exists today is an accidental species, simply because there are so many more ways of being dead than alive. But so what? Even if our existence is completely accidental, and even if everlasting life is an illusion, why does that mean life itself is pointless?

Why are atheists always trying to impose their beliefs on the rest of us?

I don´t see that happening. Give me an example.

How about with the abolishment of school prayer? Or by trying to take "one nation, under God" out of the pledge?

First off, prayer hasn´t been abolished in schools. Students can pray, in private, any time they want. It is only school-sanctioned prayer that the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. Second, trying to remove the "under God" wording in the pledge is not an effort to impose a belief system. It is simply an effort - a moral effort, by the way - to get the government to remain neutral with respect to religion. A pledge with the phrase "one nation, under no gods" would be an imposition of atheism. A pledge that says, simply, "one nation, indivisible", is a pledge that remains neutral with respect to religion and respectful of this nation´s diverse religious culture. That´s all atheists want - a government that remains neutral with respect to religion, or, failing that, at least one that isn´t so blatantly pro-Christianity. No "In God We Trust" on currency, no state-sanctioned (and taxpayer funded) Christmas celebrations, no tax breaks for churches, etc.

Do all atheists believe in evolution?

Let´s get some terminology clear first. There are beliefs, and then there are beliefs. I believe it might rain tomorrow. I also believe the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Failing a cataclysmic disaster, my second belief will turn out to be true. There´s a good chance my first belief, though, will turn out to be false. Clearly, the word "believe" is something we need to pay attention to.

I don´t believe in evolution. As much as I know anything, I know evolution is true, just as I know that there is a force called gravity that obeys an inverse square law. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. We don´t need to believe in things for which there is overwhelming evidence. We simply know them to be true - as much as we can know anything to be true.

I would venture to guess that, yes, virtually all atheists accept the truth of evolution, simply because without the lazy "God did it" argument, there is quite a lot to explain about how we came to be. And evolution is an amazing explanation that´s backed by mountains of evidence.

Are atheists´ lives empty and meaningless?

I guess that would depend on the individual. An empty and meaningless life isn´t an immediate consequence of rejecting the possibility of an afterlife. There would need to be other, more serious, psychological reasons for this. This goes for believers, too. If the only reason your life has meaning is because you´re relying on a better world in the hereafter, then you need therapy, fast. Our lives are as full and meaningful as we make them. If purpose and meaning and fulfillment come to you only as the result of a wish for something better beyond death, that´s when your existence is truly hollow and meaningless.

Aren´t atheists afraid of going to Hell?

Not even remotely. If you are a Christian, are you afraid of Muslim hell? If not, why not? If the Muslims are correct, all infidels (that is, all who reject the teachings of Islam) are bound for everlasting torment in the pits of hell. Does this keep you awake at night? I doubt it - and it shouldn't, either, simply because Muslim hell, like Christian hell, is a human invention, a sick, twisted, immoral doctrine invented by the Church to scare the poor and uneducated into fearful submission. If you are a person of decent moral character, you should be sickened by this evil doctrine.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


Emotion plays a huge part in my faith, even though I know it shouldn't. If I believe something I should just believe it regardless of emotions. I have to confess that if I don't feel that I believe in God then I just plain don't believe. I like the way I feel in church when they sing a song that moves me, but why don't they all move me? Maybe it's not God, but the notes and chords? Certainly instrumental music can move me, any decent movie score proves that.

It comes and it goes

For years my faith has waxed and waned and I've never known why. One thing is for sure. My faith has always involved me pushing back other beliefs, practicing the presence of God as Brother Lawrence would say. No, I've never ever been a perfect Christian, but there have been long stretches when my every waking moment was fully dedicated to Christ and his kingdom. I can only really recall two crisis of faith. One was around 8 or 10 years ago and then there is the current one. All others have been insignificant. The questions that I ask in this blog have plagued me on and off for many years, I haven't been afraid to ask them of God, or even my fellow Christian friends, but I seldom get persuasive answers. God's wisdom is foolish to men. If that is the case then it's his fault, after all he wired us in a way that makes it difficult for us to understand him.