The Second Goodbye
July 13, 2018
I’ve never written directly about religion on this blog. In fact, for many years, I felt like I couldn’t write about it here. The fear that my family would discover my real opinions about religion kept me from writing. But I want to address the topic today for three reasons. First, I finally had a conversation with my parents in which I laid out the gist of my religious views — so that’s no longer an issue. Second, few things are more formative in people’s lives than religion ... and my life is no exception. The journey I want to chronicle here has shaped virtually every part of who I am, and it feels odd that such an enormously significant part of me should never be mentioned. Third, I need to write about it. I’ve been ruminating on these thoughts for so long. Lewis said, “I was ‘with book’ as a woman is ‘with child.’” I am too. I’m tired of gestating; it’s time for these things to see the light of day. So, without further ado, here’s my story.
I was raised in a conservative, Christian family. My parents were (and still are) very committed to practicing their Christian beliefs and values. We went to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, and we were always among the last people to leave the building. I attended private Christian schools from third grade to college graduation. I declared my own belief in and commitment to God and Jesus and was baptized when I was fourteen. At church, I regularly participated in Bible trivia and scripture memorization competitions, children’s choirs, Bible classes, youth group, and adult choirs. In primary and secondary schools, not only did we have a separate Bible class every day and chapel services multiple times each week, but every class was suffused with Christian language and concepts. In college, I was required to attend chapel every day and to take four semesters of Bible classes. After college, I married a girl (from the same college) who had an almost identically Christian upbringing. After several months of marriage, we moved to her hometown and got involved at the church where she’d grown up. I began teaching adult Bible classes there.
If you haven’t come from an orthodox religious background, then the previous paragraph probably sounds really extreme to you. It certainly sounds that way to me now. All I can say is that, at the time, it didn’t feel unusual. From my point of view, things didn’t feel particularly “religious”; it was just life. Everyone I knew went to church and believed in God, so I went to church and believed in God as well. No one I knew argued about whether or not God existed because no one I knew actually doubted that proposition. I used to think that I was “sheltered,” and maybe that word still applies. But now I’ve begun to think that I was mainly just “homogenized.” I rarely met people who were different from me. If there were kids at my school who did drugs or had sex or were gay or didn’t believe in God, then I didn’t know about it. Even in college, when the population was a little more diverse, I rarely strayed from my comfortable group of high school friends.
But, OHMYLANTA, did it all change. The transformation began in this way. As I mentioned, I began teaching adult Bible classes at my wife’s home church. I loved teaching those classes. I spent hours and hours every week preparing my lessons. I began reading theological works ranging from popular writers like Rob Bell to scholarly writers like N.T. Wright. I also began reading non-fiction works from C.S. Lewis, with whose fiction work I had been obsessed for many years. But I began to hit a snag in all of these books: I knew nothing about philosophy. That was a big problem, since all of those authors regularly spar with the popular philosophies of their day. Every time any of them mentioned an -ism, I felt utterly ignorant. So, I found some free philosophy MOOCs and started going through them ... and crazy things started happening. The philosophy courses I took just made so damn much sense. The teachers never tried to manipulate me into believing something with lame reasons like “I am the teacher, and I say so” or “It’s stupid to believe the alternative” or “Everyone finds it plausible.” They were so serene and content to let students weigh the arguments for themselves and come to their own conclusions — but, of course, since they were university professors of philosophy, their arguments always seemed utterly unassailable to me. During none of the MOOCs did the professors discuss religion. But the more I learned how to think for myself, the more sophistic and fragile religious belief systems seemed in comparison.
The core of the problem for me was something like this. Depending on which Christian you ask, “faith” is one of two things: it is either (1) belief in spite of evidence or (2) belief because of evidence. (And often Christians will say both at different times and never notice the contradiction.) For the first twenty-five-ish years of life, I had never given any thought to the question of whether or not there was evidence for God’s existence because I had inherited belief from my parents. In other words, I believed irrespective of evidence, neither in spite of nor because of evidence. But once the problem of evidence was raised, I had to contend with it. And I found that both directions were problematic. To believe in spite of evidence seemed ridiculous, dangerous, and unstable. If, after all, belief in spite of evidence was allowed, then one could believe in anything at all! No, I couldn’t do that. But neither could I believe in Christianity because of evidence, since there seemed to be very little evidence. (I may give a fuller account of this claim some other time.) And Christians seemed suddenly and obviously to be engaged in the most egregious fallacies of science and reasoning, especially by “ratcheting” with evidence that supported their claims and ignoring evidence that denied them. I began to understand that many scientists and philosophers were actually doing their dead-level best to find the truth, regardless of where that might lead them ... whereas Christians were usually only committed to finding the “truth” in science and philosophy so long as it accorded with what they already believed — and where evidence and reason parted ways with their “truth,” well, so much the worse for evidence and reason. (I’m painting with a broad brush right now, but I don’t want to make it sound as though all scientists and philosophers are intellectually honest and all Christians are intellectually dishonest because that’s not true.)
But because my entire life had been built on the foundation of Christianity, I began to feel a genuine terror as the first cracks appeared in that foundation. For the first time, I not only understood that I was looking through my Christian worldview like a set of lenses, but I even allowed myself to take off those lenses for the briefest of moments and to take the tiniest peek at what life might be like if God didn’t exist. What I saw wasn’t pretty. I didn’t like it. In fact, I hated it. But, in spite of that hate, my doubts about Christianity grew daily. I had learned that hoping that something was true was no guarantee that it actually was true. I also began to realize that belief wasn’t something I could choose; it was something that happened to me. For example, I suddenly discovered that I couldn’t choose to believe in Santa Claus any more than I could choose to make my heart beat. Belief (or disbelief) was revealed to be completely involuntary.
The struggle to hold onto my faith went on for four or five years, I think. I wanted desperately to believe in God. I wanted to be a Christian. But I simply couldn’t. I didn’t know what to believe any more, but I knew that I could no longer call Christianity home. Atheists would probably hope that my story would take a sharp upward turn here, that I would tell of my rebirth from the ashes of my former beliefs into something newer, brighter, happier. Sadly, the story is not so simple. For a few years afterwards, I lost all sense of self and purpose. I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. I felt unmoored, lost, drifting untethered a million miles from home.
No particular event helped to ground me again, but I did nevertheless become settled towards the end of those years. Slowly, the fear receded, and comfort in my own body returned. I became more self-confident and more courageous in my honesty and openness about my agnosticism. Still, most people who knew me didn’t really know that I was agnostic. The main thing holding me back from talking about my views publicly was my parents. I was worried that the knowledge that their son was an agnostic would either kill them outright or at least make them feel that they had failed as parents. So, I lived in fairly solid but nevertheless quiet skepticism of religion for a few years, and life sailed along pretty smoothly.
But then shit happened. I still don’t want to discuss the details, so I’ll just leave it at this: the last two and a half months have been some of the worst of my life. I’ve never experienced so much stress and fear and anger and grief all at once and for such an extended period of time. For the first month, I was crushed under such agony that I actually prayed for the first time in years. I didn’t care that I didn’t actually believe; I pleaded for anyone — Yahweh, Buddha, Allah, ghosts, Harry Potter, the cosmic void, whomever — to help me. I also began reading the Bible again, searching for answers and stability. I was immediately filled with an array of confused feelings. A not insignificant part of my fear was alleviated upon finding these old, familiar verses. I knew all the old roads, and they felt firm and unchanging in comparison to the chaos in my life. Really, it felt like coming home after a lifetime of wandering across the universe. But I suspected deep down that this return was nothing more than a visit. I tried on those familiar clothes again in hopes that they might provide me with comfort at such a critical time. But they still didn’t fit. I was — and still am — unable to hold the Christian beliefs (or any religious beliefs at all, for that matter). And so I let go again.
This brief return reminded me of a certain kind of movie plot. A lover loses his beloved. She returns briefly towards the end as a ghost, and he — who has not been able to accept her death — must now say goodbye for good. In this final parting, he finds unexpected closure, as though the wound which initially would not heal is now able to close. Something like that happened to me over the last couple of months. It was a second, deeper, more permanent goodbye to Christianity. Where the first had been an agonizing, tear-filled, torturous saga drawn out over many years, the second was a brief, silent hug by the dock, after which I stepped back into my boat and cast off again.
I mentioned at the beginning that I’ve felt the need to write all of this, but I’m not really sure why I’ve had that need. Much as I wish that a single, shining moral could be derived from this story, I doubt that there is one; it’s simply an account of my journey.
I know almost nothing; I do not claim to have any answers. But, in what I’ve observed in others, letting go of certainty and fear is the first step on the road to wisdom; so, I hope that means that I’m on my way.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Feel free to contact me via the links below if you have any questions or comments.