Tag Archives: Christianity

Guest post: The genesis of my atheism

Hello everyone, my name is James. My wife Rebecca has kindly allowed me to write a guest post on her blog, discussing the end of my Catholic faith and the birth of my atheism. My usual writing topic is video games (here and here) so when I wrote a long email about atheism and Rebecca suggested I put it online, I did not have an appropriate channel through which to share it. This is why she gave me permission to put it on this blog as her first ever guest post. Thanks Rebecca!

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As I showered this morning, I was thinking about the genesis of my atheism.

The process of losing my faith completely was a long, gradual one. At 21 I was a devout Catholic – anti-abortion, homophobic, and everything else that goes along with it. A couple of years ago, around the age of 34, I was surprised by my sudden realisation that a mostly unnoticed process of transition was complete and I was indeed an atheist.

I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but I will filling in some kind of survey or a form (the last census, perhaps?) and I was asked for my religion. Without even thinking about it, I ticked the box marked “atheist”. I then stared at the choice I had made, a little stunned. “I’m an atheist now!” I thought, shocked by the undeniable truth of it. “When did that happen?”

In my reminiscences this morning, I realised that there had been a little termite in the timber of my religious faith for almost two decades, nibbling away invisibly, until one day I found that the once solid structure had been replaced with a hollow shell. That termite was a single powerful idea that I never put into words until this morning.

In essence, that idea is this: God is omnipotent, omniscient, omni-everything-else, and he exists outside our human perception of time. All times are now to God, and all places are in his presence. This means that when he was a spirit floating over the water before the world began (if you subscribe to biblical literalism) he was aware of everything that was to come.

God made humanity and the world and everything in it, already knowing that Adam and Eve would sin, the human race would fall into damnation, that he would have to sacrifice his own son (technically himself!) to save humanity from a punishment of his own devising, and that this salvation would be scattershot at best, saving only a fraction of the people of the world.

God made humanity and the world and everything in it already knowing that the future would hold the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields, the Black Death, two World Wars, the Jonestown massacre, and countless everyday atrocities and horrors.

God made humanity and the world and everything in it already knowing that human beings would suffer a multitude of cancers, blindness, brain tumours, strokes, heart attacks, and birth defects ranging from crippling to fatal.

God made humanity and the world and everything in it already knowing that human beings would persecute each other based on features outside their control, that in fact God himself had built into them – the colour of their skin, the place where they were born, the religion of their parents, the sex or gender of their bodies, the sexual orientation built into their brains, and any of the other multitudes of ways in which we make our sisters and brothers into “the other”.

This supposedly supreme being, with the power to make every whim become truth and the ability to foresee every consequence of every action before he has even begun to perform it, could literally have made any world at all. Physics, chemistry, biology, and even logic and causality are subject to the will of the Judeo-Christian God, and any world we can imagine would be within his ability to create.

Yet this is the world he made, with its wars and diseases and injustices without end.

Frankly, any God that believes that this world is the best of all possible worlds is must incompetent, evil, or (and this seems to be the most likely option) simply non-existent.

Without even realising I had been debating silently with myself, I had reached the conclusion that the cruelty of the world we live in is a reflection of its chaotic, unguided development, and the occasional horrific behaviour of my own species is psychological residue of its evolution in a brutal, uncompromising, and competitive environment.

I quote Marcus Cole from the great SF show Babylon 5:

“I used to think that it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”

How terrible a place would the world be if all of this horror was planned? If some invisible deity were wilfully causing murder and death and famine and drought because it aided in the completion of some opaque plan that would only reach fruition in some unhinted future?

No, like Marcus I find randomness far more plausible and comforting that a murderous and vengeful man in the sky who blames me for the very faults he built into me, like Geppetto casting Pinnochio into a bonfire as punishment for his own flawed workmanship.

The wonderful folk musician Penelope Swales said well in her song Monkey Comfort:

Can you see, my friends, why I don’t find my insignificance frightening? Oh, no! I find it comforting. It steadies me. /
When I’m hounded by fear, grief or loss, frightened by my death or yours it grants me some serenity. /
Coz I’m knowing that I will die and take my place in eternity. Ah, just one more monkey that lived on a rock where 10 trillion monkeys lived. /
No more important, nor less essential, than any other snake, bear, insect, or monosteria /
And when I go, it’ll be a compliment to me if some other monkeys grieve.

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Losing faith

1 Corinthians 13:11

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

Once upon a time I was a relatively devout Catholic, it wasn’t even that long ago that I stopped being a Catholic and lost my faith completely.  It wasn’t a lightning bolt moment, waking up in the night and thinking, “OMG, I’m an atheist”, it was a gradual thing that happened quietly and peacefully in my head (thankfully I didn’t stress about it one way or the other overly).

The reason that this post has suddenly become relevant is that I’m reading “Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell” by John Shelby Spong (a retired Episcopalian (Anglican) Bishop from the USA).  It is an interesting book, the first half makes perfect sense to me as Spong deconstructs religion and declares that god is dead.  The next section was far harder to comprehend where he attempted to argue that god is within each of us and that by knowing ourselves we know god, and that all the mystics are pretty much right.  Then he talks about the Jesus story through this lens and how this has affected his personal journey.

I have a few problems with the book which are fairly easy to summarise.

Self consciousness

Spong, in his recounting of evolution and why religions were formed, uses self consciousness as the basis for what separates humans from animals.  The fact that humans are aware of death and plan for the future, makes us different from animals he argues, and the corresponding fear of the unknown and death began the rise of religion in early human history as a form of security.

That may all be true, but there are animals which are aware of death and who can plan for the future, two key parts of what Spong says separates humans and animals.  Elephants are very aware of the death of members of their herd, and mourn when one dies, knowing at the same time that they must keep moving to get to food or water to continue the survival of the herd.  Dogs, apes and some monkeys are also aware of death, though less good at the planning for the future bit.  Dolphins and whales would appear to be conscious of death and plan for the future also.

Christianity

I know that Spong is an Episcopalian Bishop and has grown up in the Christian traditions, however I felt that in his writing, although he acknowledged other religions, returned to Christianity as the one true religion.  He hasn’t stated it directly, but clearly to be involved in a religion means that the other religions are wrong or incorrect in some fashion (wrong god/s, wrong worshipping practice/s, wrong dietary requirement/s, wrong clothing, etc).  Little was done to address any other religion’s views on life after death, to look at mysticism in other religions, to even compare the fact that the Jesus story appears in many other religions, and that there appears to be little historical proof to support Jesus’s existence. Ultimately this reinforces the privileged position that Christianity holds in Western nations.  His use of “religion” to generally also only describe Christianity also doesn’t help.

Belief and non-belief

The biggest issue I have with the book is that Spong states that the death of old-school religion (that currently practised by most Christians around the world), is just the stepping stone through to enlightenment and self-knowledge.  It did feel, while reading this part of the book, that those of us who state that there is no god, are lesser beings, as Spong states that those who have moved into new belief are effectively superior (though he probably means superior to traditional Christians).  In my opinion, stating that god is dead should be the end, and enlightenment is where you step free from the need to have any religion.

Currently I haven’t finished his book, so I’m not 100% sure what the end result is going to be in regards to what he believes that faith is going to be like.  The first third to half the book is an excellent argument as to why people should not believe in any god/s.  It details a lot of issues and questions I thought my way through when I started losing my faith, such as:

  • Why would a loving, all seeing, all present deity allow suffering and pain in the world (particularly in big environmental disasters)?
  • Why must we cajole and praise a deity in order to have our prayers answered? (Much like whining children getting what they want)
  • Why are there poor and homeless people, and why aren’t their prayers being answered?
  • Why must people who do not believe, but who live a good life, go to hell?
  • Why are the traditions/rules of this religious institution telling me that X is good and Y is bad, when both X and Y are neutral?
  • What do you mean women are lesser creatures?
  • If there are so many different religions, how can I know which one/s are actually correct?
  • If there was a god, surely there would only be one religion.

The standard responses to suffering, pain and misfortune in the world by religious leaders: they deserved it; it is god’s will; karma; etc, are all non-answers really.  No one deserves to have themselves or their family killed in a monsoon/earthquake/bombing/train crash/bushfire/flood, and any god who willed that such a thing should happen, is not a god that I could possibly respect or worship.

One last note.  Whenever I write about religion, it will typically be about Christianity because that is the religion I grew up in.  I will not spend time critiquing other religions because I know little about them.

ADDENDUM:  I realised over lunch that I haven’t said all I want to say on this topic, and that there are some very good excerpts from Spong’s book which might also help me get to the other bit of the point I was attempting to make.    Basically, there will be another post on this topic when I have time.  The worst bit about writing when busy, is that I tend to forget the points I had neatly ordered in my head.

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“The Ten Suggestions or A Royal Law of Love?”

Subject courtesy of the “United Church of God” and a pamphlet they sent me recently. I want to address the whole idea that the 10 Commandments apply to EVERYONE in the WHOLE world. I think it’s sheer arrogance… but here is what else the United Church of God has to say on the issue.

Do the Ten Commandments have relevance to our every day life in this hectic and confusing 21st century?

Some people consider them to be only good suggestions, while others may make an attempt to practice some of them. Very few view these commandments for what they really are: the best advice our loving Creator can give us. They are designed to protect us, our families and communities.

Properly understood, these principles not only apply to today’s world, but they can also transform the way we think and how we approach the problems and difficulties of life.

Ok, so apparently the 10 Commandments are just as valid now, as when Moses walked down Mt Sinai countless centuries ago… First lets go and find what the 10 Commandments actually are… as biblically stated versus the common understanding of what they are… because biblically there are actually two versions.

The first in the bible is actually from Exodus 20:2-17 (NIV) and the second version is from Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (NIV). There is also a set of 10 Commandments at Exodus 34:11-27, which are completely different to the first Exodus set and Deuteronomy. Wikipedia has usefully outlined the similarities and differences here so that I don’t have to. Actually go and read the whole article, I can wait… its interesting.

Ah, you’re back… so the 10 Commandments… are they actually still relevant in this day and age? All of these are taken from here which doesn’t necessarily tie in with the NIV bible I have in front of me. Where significantly different, I’ll comment…

ONE: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’

Right… clearly this only applies to people who believe in the Christian-Judiac-Islamic God. There is no wiggle room here for Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians (??), Taoists, Atheists… or anyone who isn’t Christian, Jewish or Muslim (though the Qu’ran has its own Commandments).

Clearly this fails the modern day understanding of freedom of religion being a human right.

TWO: ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’

I think many Christians fail this one… Muslims tend not to create sculpture or paintings of people for it is forbidden, and some Jews also don’t have statues or paintings of people for the same reasons.

The actual bible quote refers to creating and worshipping idols, somewhat different to creating images and likeness of stuff. Oh and the original bible verse has God being a vengeful God… hardly the type of image that we want to propagate these days.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.

So, yes this one fails as well. Again assumes a belief in a certain God, and then tells you not to worship other stuff. Something that many people tend to forget… Evangelical Christian right in the US? Hello, can you hear me? Worshipping money and power? Bad people, naughty… big smacks.

THREE: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.’

Oh Jesus Christ! Oops did I just blaspheme? I don’t typically say that phrase, but I think that most English speakers these days use, “Oh God” just as freely as they say, “and”, “if” and “oops”. Again this relies on a belief of a certain God, and for those who don’t, clearly doesn’t apply.

FOUR: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’

Which Sabbath day? Exodus goes on to suggest that no one, not the Jews, the slaves, their animals or foreigners are allowed to work on the Sabbath, hence the Orthodox Jews not working on Saturdays, looking for ways to avoid working accidentally… you know by using light switches… I think that its all a little over the top, but that’s their choice.

So, back to which Sabbath day… The Jews, the originators of the Old Testament of the Bible say that the Sabbath is Saturday, the last day of the week. Most Christians view Sunday as a holy day because that is when Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore is holy for that reason… the Sabbath moved thanks to Jesus. But Christians may attend a service or mass, but then continue on with the rest of their lives, working or whatever on Sunday… well these days anyway.

I think the Seventh Day Adventists returned the Sabbath to Saturday, but I don’t know a lot about them, and haven’t researched them, that’s a story for another day.

So, again, this requires a particular belief in a particular God, because you’re resting on “His” day of rest, so… it fails.

FIVE: ‘Honor your father and your mother.’

Not a lot of leeway here. So what about the parent which abuses the child, physically, sexually or emotionally? Should that child honour their parents? I certainly wouldn’t suggest so. That’s gross betrayal, and certainly not good parenting according to anyone’s idea of decent parents. We don’t live in the dark ages any more. It’d be nice if the 10 Commandments didn’t any more either. This one fails for not considering what happens to the children who are abused.

SIX: ‘You shall not murder.’

Yay! One that passes. Apparently Catholic catechism goes one further and states that “You shall not kill… except in cases of capital punishment (though they’d prefer incarceration and rehabilitation) or war (if necessary and for good reasons).

So, standard ethics here… don’t kill people because you don’t want to live in a society where people could kill you. Killing is bad… m’kay?

SEVEN: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

According to the bible I commit adultery every second week night and every other weekend when I sleep with my other husband. Because men could have multiple wives back in biblical times, women however were the property of their husbands and didn’t have the right to have multiple husbands. I’m fighting back against this trend… lets not also mention the bisexuality… that might make the bible writers head explode.

So adultery you reckon… what exactly is adultery?

Thanks to wikepedia (again)

Adultery is the voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and another person who is not that person’s spouse. In most cases and especially in Western countries, only the married party is said to have committed adultery, and if both parties are married (but not to each other) then they both commit separate acts of adultery. In other countries, both parties to the adultery are considered guilty, while in others again only the woman is able to commit adultery and to be considered guilty. In some cases it is only considered adultery when a married woman has sexual relations with someone without the permission of her husband.

Right… actually on the basis that modern, so called Christian societies fail this one on a regular basis, I’m thinking of Governor Standford as a beautiful example here, and I’m sure you can think of other so-called Christian and perhaps even Jewish people who have had affairs and recognise that this standard is failed by society in general.

Given that I’m not a practiser of monogamy, can I actually be accused of adultery? If I cheated on my partners, then perhaps I could… I’ll let this one pass only if we can redefine adultery to mean “cheating and lying” and then tie it into number 9 below.

EIGHT: ‘You shall not steal.’

This one passes too. You don’t want to live in a society where people steal your stuff, so you shouldn’t steal their stuff. Nice simple ethics.

NINE: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.’

This one passes too. Don’t lie, be honest. Not that hard really… I don’t care how much you don’t like or even like your neighbour… being honest is the right thing to do.

TEN: ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.’

To covet:
1 : to wish for earnestly
2 : to desire (what belongs to another) inordinately or culpably (Merriam Dictionary)

What exactly is wrong with wanting something? I’d love to be as rich as… urm… Bill Gates, minus the tosseriness (and yes that is a word). I’d really like to have so much money that I can sleep on it, rub it all over my body, burn it to keep warm… and not have a care in my life. I don’t… but what is wrong with wishing for that?

What is wrong for looking at a neighbour’s or relative’s house and thinking that I’d like something like that, or some item in that house? Provided I’m not stealing or lying about it, how is this wrong?

This one fails on being illogical. Its good to have dreams and its good to chase them… wishing or desiring an object, a status or lifestyle can provide the impetus to seek out those dreams. I’m all for coveting, so go right ahead.

So in summary, the 10 Commandments are not “A Royal Law of Love” and are not relevant to the 21st century. Lets find some other decent ethics and create a new and interesting moral society… I’m all for moral universalism myself.

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