Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Coming Out Of The Closet

I suppose my writing this may be akin to a homosexual person coming out of the closet to a room full of people who had known they were gay the whole time. Maybe I, like that person, am the last to acknowledge an important truth about myself.

I am an atheist.

I’ve been hedging on that issue for years now. Once, I was a devout Christian who took God more seriously than anyone I knew. I was that Christian who was always pestering his Christian friends to stay true to the teachings of the bible, and to remember to constantly have Christ on their mind. Yes, I was that pain in the ass. I never understood why my fellow Christians didn’t seem that interested in talking about, reading, and living the bible. God wrote a book for us! You’re not impressed by that?

The word of God was profoundly important to me, and I wrestled with it. I wrestled with things in it that I found deeply immoral. I knew that I had to be wrong about the things that I found to be immoral (because God can’t be wrong), so I went to work creating elaborate explanations for all of God’s many sins. I, like many intelligent Christians today do, tied myself in knots concocting word games and throwing up obfuscatory clouds of dust in the faces of my many challengers.

Eventually, I came to realize that I was putting way too much effort into defending the divinity of the bible, and I slid into a popular kind of cafeteria Christianity (actually, is there any other kind?) where I began to claim that only the New Testament was reliable. Eventually that claim slid to ‘only the words of Jesus are reliable’, and then, inevitably, I yielded to reason and evidence. The bible was written by men. Some of the things written in the bible are deeply immoral, and Christ was most probably not God in the flesh.

To one extent, I felt freed by my admission that Christianity was not a divine religion. I drifted into a kind of deism, where God was beyond knowledge, and even to talk about God was to reduce him somehow. I was a big one for writing ‘God’ as ‘G-d’ for awhile. I felt freed because I knew that there was no boogie man up in the sky making a mark in his notebook with a big coal pencil every time I masturbated. On the other hand, I was prevented from ennobling myself with the thought that I was somehow connected to the divine truth, and that I was part of a bigger plan. I couldn’t vouch for the mind of the God that I had come to believe in, or his intentions. I had to come up with a new way of understanding and behaving. At one point, if I knew someone had a bad opinion of me, I would say to myself ‘God knows the truth’, and let it go at that. I had to rethink my sense of self. I would look for signs in my environment, and would act on whims that I had decided were sent from above. It could be exciting from time to time, but not necessarily the most practical way to make decisions.

At the end of high school, I found a new way of looking at Jesus Christ through the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. I still value his interpretation of Jesus above all others. I always knew that it didn’t make sense to judge Jesus by the actions of his followers, or the silliness of the religion that was erected in his name. Vonnegut gave Jesus a voice that resonated with me, that I was able to keep after I had thrown away nearly everything else that had ever been written about him.

I took Vonnegut’s Jesus with me as I began taking my family to a local Episcopal church. I saw a lot of that Jesus in the sermons the reverend gave, and I liked it. I had begun to ease back into a compassionate Christianity that urged social action and love over ‘thou shalt nots’ and concern over what you believed about the divinity of Christ or the bible.

I thought I had found a spiritual place to settle. That is, until one night, when I was laying in bed with my then 5 year old son. I was getting ready to kiss him goodnight and go to my own bed when he said, ‘Daddy, I found a way to trick the devil so he can’t get me.’ And all of the bad stuff came rushing back to me. However benign the kind of religion I was practicing seemed, it was all based on unreason: Commandments handed down through revelation and by authority. However nice and progressive the religion I was practicing may have been, there were no tools in place to lead a person to follow its dictates. However benign it all seemed, it was inherently irrational, and grew out of the same soil as its scarier iterations. Religion—any religion—is a house built on sand. I wasn’t going to subject my kids to that. I wasn’t going to ask them to believe things that I myself didn’t know. I certainly didn’t want them to live in fear of demons, or make their way in this world with a dowsing rod; especially not while the tools of skepticism and reason were available.

That was the beginning. I had read all of the books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens before this point, because I have always run towards, rather than away from, things that frighten me. I read them antagonistically, but many of their arguments had gotten through. I began to think critically about the whole business, and I realized that it took a much cleverer person to defend religion than it did the non-theistic position. You have to be much cleverer to defend religion, because it is bunk. All a non-theist has to do is to ask for evidence, and be on the lookout for sophistry (which will be everywhere when you are debating a religious person). Eventually, my vague deism or ‘ethical monotheism’ slipped into atheism, although I haven’t called it that until now. I am an atheist, and the reason I am one is because, as I stated at the beginning of this piece, I have taken God as seriously as God deserves to be taken.

I am a college educated person, and that was not enough to ward of the demons of religion. A person who is committed to believing something can believe it no matter how intelligent they are. It took personal exploration, and intellectual integrity for me to challenge my faith, and eventually I shed it. For a few years now, I’ve been teaching my kids about the arts, religions, science, and history, and have been trying to instill in them the necessity of reason and skepticism. It seems to be working, and we are close. Now that I have abandoned religion, I am able to teach my kids how to think, not what to think, and am not personally offended when they come to a different conclusion that I have.

So, all of this is the case, and I’ve written about it a lot. But still, I haven’t used the ‘a’ word on myself. Alcoholics will know what I am talking about when I talk about the power a word or label can have. Since I have been on facebook, my ‘religious views’ section has always said cute things like ‘I enjoy wild speculation as much as the next guy’, or ‘apples were made for eating’. When asked, I would say, ‘I would never say there wasn’t a God’ as a kind of hedge. But how lame! Even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t say ‘there is no God’.

We are all agnostics, Christians and Atheists alike. When I was a Christian, I would tell you that yes, there is a God, and this is what God thinks, and this is what God wants us to do, and this is the book that he commissioned.

As an atheist I will tell you that I do not know that there is a God. That being the case, I won’t be telling you what God thinks or wants us to do. I will tell you that the probability that God commissioned a book—especially the bible, Koran, or Torah—is highly improbable, although I am always open to new evidence.

I feel much better, and much humbler, having adopted this position.

cross posted at The Daily Kos


Lodo Grdzak said...

Well Spence, just like life, I'd argue the God that's in you and that you feel is going to ebb and flow due to a variety of factors. There is no static "yes" or "no" on that issue; just like there is no stasis to a healthy person's emotions or energy level. "I feel great"/"I feel bad"/I'm happy"/"I'm sad." Barring chemical imbalance, its always in flux, 'cause that's what life's like; and thus, that's what God's like in our lives. A bit George Lucas I know; but hey, Star Wars hit a chord for a reason.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks, Lodo. I absolutely agree with you that there's no definite answer on that question (at least that is available to us at present).

I'd be interested to hear you flesh out what you mean by 'the god that's in you'.

PS, you never need to apologize for going George Lucas on me. My oldest son is a huge Star Wars fan, and because I'm such a huge fan of my son, Mr. Lucas has a special place in my heart.

Willie Y said...

Welcome to the club Spencer. Did you learn the secret hand shake yet?
I'm not the deep thinker that you are, wrestling with your self over your decision. I became a atheist after about 30 minutes of semi deep thought.That's just how I roll, as the kids say.

Spencer Troxell said...

Willie: No one's taught me the secret handshake yet. Maybe I'll make up my own.

Yeah, 30 minutes of semi deep thought makes sense. A person's relationship with God is bound to be incredibly neurotic. I had wound myself up in years worth of rationalizations and magical thinking. It takes some time to untie all of those knots.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Stealing from the great puppet-master known as George Lucas, I'd say that the God in you is simply the force that energizes all life on this planet. I suppose its origin is from the sun and its propelled through space and time via light. The organs of the body are fueled by the sun's energy via plants and animals that we consume. They communicate to each other within our bodies creating our temperament which we then take with us out into the world where we both shape that external world and are effected by it. Thus, our souls are formed.

Those biology classes coming back to you? Or is that psychology? Ah hell, a little of this and a little of that. And no--I'm not your father!

Adrienne Troxell said...

I am a big Jesus fan. I love to think of him as an individual and not the son of "God". I like to think that he was just a good person that was way ahead of his time and his followers just enjoyed the way he made them feel about their lives. He gave them hope for a less violent and kinder future.
...side note...I'd be pissed if my Dad sacrificed me for a bunch of sinners!

Lodo Grdzak said...

For the pathetic lot of sinners on this planet? I agree with you wholeheartedly Adrienne.

By they way, I meant "most respectfully" in my comment relating to Spence's last post. "Respectively,"...what the hell does that mean? I stand by the rest of my comment(s).

Spencer Troxell said...

Lodo: I like the idea of some unifying force connecting us all. It's a comforting thought.

Adrienne: I agree with you about Jesus. Have you read any Vonnegut? He's got one of the best versions of Jesus on the market.

The God of the bible is definitely a poor role model for parents.

here's what I wrote about that this past Christmas:


Lodo Grdzak said...

Spence, the concept of a unifying force is more than an "idea." Its a known fact. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, two arms, two legs. Now look at your dog--what do you see? Two eyes, two ears, two front legs; two rear legs. How bout a horse? Or a cat? Even most fish have the two eye, dual front-fin structure. Dolphins have the tail , but even that's divided on two sides to suggest the possibility of legs if it wanted/needed to evolve them. There's a definite connection/unifying force amongst life-forms. Not even a question.

Spencer Troxell said...

I can see the evidence for certain commonalities. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, especially when you consider the fact that we probably all shared a common ancestor.

The idea of a unifying source...Are you talking like an over-soul type thing, or like a we're all composed of the same kind of raw material thing?

I like the idea of being reunited with loved ones or becoming part of some kind of universal consciousness when all is said and done. It's nice to think that we'd all go back to where we came from and maintain some kind of semblance of who we are now. It's nice to imagine that whatever we came from exploded itself into the surrounding space on some kind of self improvement/fact finding mission.

All of those things are nice ideas, and I haven't seen any evidence to support any of them, although any or none of them may be true.

While it would be nice to have knowledge of what comes next, or if there is some kind of living energy that connects us all, the answer doesn't seem to be available.

What I do know is that I have this moment, and I'm not guaranteed to have another one. So I better do this one right.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Well, (as is so often the case) Im not really sure what I'm saying.

Most higher life forms have the commonality of physical form and pretty-much the same, shared genetic code. We also occupy the same planet in which we live our lives and interact. We all require food, have the drive to reproduce, tend to seek out the company of our own. If we live in different environments its just because thats where we were able to carve out our niche and do those previously-listed things that we want to do. So metaphysically speaking, our souls are probably not that much different than one anothers regardless of creature or species. I guess that's what I mean by a unifying force that connects us. Our physicality is very similar, and we interact with each other in the same physical time and space--each influencing the other's development and habits. So we are inextricably connected both physically and spiritually (the force). A rabbit has to know what a coyote is inside and out so that the rabbit can live another day. And the same holds true in the opposite direction. At the end of the day, its not too had for either one to understand the other, 'cause they're 98% the same thing.

Spencer Troxell said...

I feel you, Lodo. Your approach to spirituality practical & commonsense is. It's appealing.