My failed faith
I was raised in a strongly religious home. My parents were Judeo-Christians who followed the teachings of evangelist Herbert Armstrong. Our sect followed the words of the Bible literally: we kept all the Old Testament holy days, refrained from eating pork, and kept the Sabbath. Since we believed that Jesus was the Son of God, I often explained to my friends that I was a Jew that believed in Jesus.
Religion was a major factor in my development. I was taught to pray continuously throughout the day. When I woke, before I ate, as I rode to school, before I went to bed, I always talked to God. Usually my talk was in my head, since it would be awkward to let in others to this intimate part of my life. Whenever I was scared or worried or wishful, I would talk to the Being whom I felt was always there. This habit came from my father, who constantly found time to pray. The image of my Dad on his knees, mumbling softly in the dark, is something that will forever be with me. Dad assured me that God would always hear me.
Dad would read the Bible to my brother and sister and me, and it was actually a joy for some time when he would read the Bible-story books printed by our church. They captured my imagination a little better than the Bible itself did. The story of Jonah thrilled me, and the tale of David inspired me. Perhaps the greatest impression of all, though, was the promise that pure faith would not go unanswered.
The earliest religious incident in my life occurred when I was still four or five years old. I had taken a handful of pills, which I believe were Tylenol. I probably knew that I was not supposed to take them as I asked my mother what would happen to me if I took the pills. She told me that it would make me sick, and it might kill me. I was terrified. I didn’t tell Mom what I had done, but ran to my room to pray to God to save my life. I told God that if he let me live I would not take the pills again, and that I would always try to do good. Well, it appears that I did not die, and I was grateful. It was evidence that God was with me. I had no doubts.
There were times that I spent thinking about religion and God when I was younger, but much of my attitude for church and religion were obviously emotional. Every Saturday I would get to spend time with friends at church. Every Wednesday I spent time with my Dad at Bible study. Even though I usually fell asleep during the sermons, it was a bonding experience—I always looked forward to spending that time with Dad. And no doubt, much of the talk and lectures seeped into my mind.
It was always a joy for me to sit around with Dad and his friends and listen to them talk. Almost all of their discussions centered on religion. Nearly any subject, from hiking to politics, found its way to religion. I listened more than I talked, and many of the ideas appealed to me. My Dad always seemed to have a strong religious voice, and I wanted so much to make him proud. Early on I decided that I wanted to be a minister.
By the time I was in high school I was devoutly religious. I would read the Bible every night. I would pray. I would preach to my friends about the Bible. I was a doomsayer, constantly pointing out how much people had failed God. I believed that humanity deserved God’s punishment for all its sins. Religion, the Bible and God and humanity and all the rest of the theology and philosophy bound up in religion, was constantly on my mind. I have little doubt now that I was a nuisance to many people, for I would almost always find a way to bring conversations to religion. Self-righteous to an extreme, I could have learned a lesson from reading Job a few more times.
I wrote essays about religion, hoping to influence my friends with clear thoughts on current moral decay. One huge topic of concern was evolution. I despised it. In biology class I laughed a smug laugh to myself when the topic was introduced. I wondered aloud how evolution could be taught in schools while the Bible could not. Of course, I was only echoing the common Christian complaint that mistakenly took evolution, and science in general, as a kind of religion. In one essay I wrote a passage that is painfully misleading: "Studying lately many books on evolution, I have found that people have found a new faith, more absurd than baby-talk. Why scientists and great minds actually believe in evolution has baffled me. It takes much more faith to believe in evolution than divine creation.” In truth, I had not studied "many books on evolution”; I had read only one, being William F. Dankenbring’s The First Genesis. Dankenbring was an adherent of Herbert Armstrong’s faith. When I read the book, it was very convincing, but only because it reinforced my already cemented beliefs.
Realizing that my arguments were really no more than regurgitated versions of others, I felt all too conscious of my lack of education concerning evolution. I feared getting into a debate with a more educated evolutionist and losing because I did not know enough. So I went to the bookstore and bought Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. I recall opening the book with apprehension and fear. I honestly felt that I was about to be exposed to satanic ideas, and I tried to barrier myself from them.
The affect that Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors had on me was profound. It was earth-shattering. But I do not think that the book could have had the affect that it had on me were it not for the influence of some other books. Earlier I had read Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen Covey. The book dealt predominantly with psychology, and it opened my mind to the gestalt, or paradigm, theory. After reading the book I was constantly conscious of the need to understand an argument or idea or feeling from the point of view from which it originated. The books by Robert Fulghum also prepared me for the affect of Shadows. Fulghum, a man of varied occupations, from teacher to minister to writer and philosopher, gave me a sense of respect for the findings of science. Here was a man who was deeply religious, but also excited by the findings of science. He had no problem with combining essays on morality, history and tidbits of science.
What I found while reading Sagan and Druyan’s book was that evolution was not what I had thought it was. I found that most of the things that I had heard about evolution were false; as most of what I heard about evolution had come from Christians, it became obvious that those Christians were talking about something about which they knew next to nothing. Perhaps more compelling than coming to grips with the truth behind the meaning of the theory of evolution was realizing that belief in evolution did not make a person evil: Sagan and Druyan seemed to write with an urgency of finding the truth behind what it is that we are. They portrayed a need for ethics, morality. This was a contradiction to what I had been taught at church—that belief in science and especially evolution made people immoral, or at least amoral.
I had opened the book in order to lambaste it. I closed it deeply shaken. Somewhere along the way I began to have doubts about my religion. The credibility of my preachers was damaged, as they had spoken with so much authority over something of which they were ignorant. That humans are fallible, I had no doubts. But when I began to wonder whether the Bible was wrong, then my faith wavered. For evolution to be true, the Bible had to be wrong.
The path that I took was to reject formal religion. For a while I kept the faith in some higher power behind everything, but in time that too disappeared. Embittered, I swung from fiercely faithful to almost militantly anti-religious. While I fiddled with atheism for a while, it never really stuck with me. Atheism bothered me emotionally even after losing faith in Christianity, but it now fails because it too requires faith. Atheism is untenable to me for the same reason religions are in that they require faith. Theism and atheism are both unscientific. I am agnostic on the issues of universal origins and significance. And to the horror of those of a religious mindset, I have become rather apathetic about the subject. Maybe there is God, maybe there isn’t.*
I have biases towards attitudes taken by both atheists and theists. And there is much about both which I deplore. For their part, atheists tend to be freethinkers; they try to form opinions regardless of what would be called standard or orthodox. But their fault lies in their inability to see that their atheism is a faith, and they seem too eager to offend people of a religious persuasion. Theists can be commended for their efforts to improve the lives of people. Their flaw is in their simple-minded aversion towards logic, rationality and science.
What amazes me about my conversion is that the "old me” and the "new me” are so different. He, being the religious aspect of me, was quick to form opinions without much evidence or thought. If ever he looked for any guidance concerning what he should feel and believe, it came from the Bible. The Bible was the ultimate authority to him for all subjects, even if it did not touch on a subject. So he found that the Bible was against science (even though there is one passage that implores people to prove all things); reading science fiction was evil to him on biblical grounds.
If I now fail at keeping an open mind on a subject, it is at least tempered with a will to do so. I try to collect as much information on a subject so that I can make a good judgment about it. This attitude formed while reading various books outside my previous religious realm. It could not have formed had I taken the advice of ministers and youth advisers to stay away from non-religious material. It is very true what Christians fear: books can influence people to question their faith.
I am pleased, though, that I opened up my world beyond Christianity. I feel much more complete now, much more sure of myself. My limits are those of all other humans, but at least I no longer deplore myself for being human. I feel more responsible for my actions now because I don’t have some higher being cleaning up my messes. Maybe this view of life is cold and meaningless to many people—it seemed that way to me so long ago—but it suits me fine now. I take pleasure in the time I have to share with my family and friends. Perhaps the Christians are right in saying that the Devil is only deceiving me, making me think that I am happy. Whatever the case, their religion no longer enters into my mind. I took from it a few good things like respect and love for people and a will to do good, but the truth is that I could have gotten these without the Bible. My parents were good, and that is all I really needed.
2011-10-30 At this point in my life, I would have to modify that. I'm still technically an agnostic. But in reality, I am functionally an atheist. I have no more reason to believe in God than I do to believe that there is some giant, invisible hamster controlling my fate.