A Born Again Unbeliever

The last time I wrote to you, I was a Christian fundamentalist. Now, I’m not.

That’s not quite true. The last time I wrote to you, I still gave a nod to Christian fundamentalism. Now, I do not.

In April, that house of cards collapsed. And while the fundamentalist dogma runs deep, I think you’ll find I’m largely the same guy you knew, but hopefully new and improved.

This is my coming-out post.

I remember wanting to be an atheist a couple years ago. I was listening to an episode of Penn’s Sunday School. I don’t remember which one; I think it was an early episode.

As I recall, Penn told a story of a fan who came up to him after one of the Penn & Teller shows. The fan told him, he didn’t believe in God, but he couldn’t tell that to his family or friends, because his entire sense of community, his entire support structure, depended on them thinking that he was still a believer. And I thought, Yeah. That’s me. I wish I could just not believe in God. It would simplify so many things. But my life, my family, my synagogue, my friends, they all depend on me worshipping—or appearing to worship—Abraham’s God. On top of that, I was heavily involved in synagogue life. I sometimes led music for the Shabbat Shacharit service. And I was a home-group leader.

By that time, I was already thinking of the Bible not as literal truth, but as a metaphor, a narrative we tell to help us understand ourselves and how we fit into the world around us. I would go to service, read through the liturgy with everyone else, and see deeply personal meaning in the words. I believe that most of the thoughts we think are narratives of this sort, but especially religious thoughts. I had already given up a belief in God as a literal hyper-dimensional being that somehow is always sticking his nose into our business but is only there when we’re not actually looking at him. But I knew how to couch that unbelief in riddles, how to keep up the charade.

In the book Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, a study of clergy who have embraced atheism, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola relate story after story that reflect my own:

They would ask the question in class in just the right way to get by with it, such as, “Well, how do we answer those who say…?” And that’s the clue— “those who say.” Then the professor would give the answer, and you could tell the person was still wrestling with it. [pp. 50-51]

You try to talk to your wife about it, but she’s still pretty orthodox, so it’s hard on her. You’re alone. [p. 62]

In other words, nobody would come straight out and say, “No. I think it’s all a crock of shit, but this is how I make my living, so I’ve got to stick with it.” [p. 104]

“I’m an atheist, I’m a nonbeliever.” And yet I’m still using the language; I’m still helping people depending on where they are. But most are not atheists, or at least they’re not admitting to being atheists. So I compartmentalize that conflict. [p. 126]

I’ve lost the idea that there’s something out there, that there’s someone out there in control of the universe but also very, very personally concerned for my life. [p. 179]

I have a bad habit. When someone says, “Studies show…” I tend to want to go right to my computer and ask Google which studies and what they actually say. And when one of the rabbis at my wife’s synagogue this past February said that scientific studies have shown that intercessory prayer actually helps people, I had to look it up. The best science I turned up says that praying for someone probably won’t do them any harm, unless you tell them they’re being prayed for. (Some studies suggest that people who know they’re being prayed for are less likely to improve. But this may be a spurious result. More research is needed.)

Now, this does not disprove the existence of God. It only proves that you can’t put God in a test tube. He sees the scientific study you’re trying to do on him (because he’s not stupid), and he says, “Ha! I’ll tell you what! I’m going to heal these people over here in the control group, the people you’re not praying for, just to screw with your scientific experiment.” And that’s a fine narrative, for a religious narrative. But that was also the key that unlocked my atheism.

And then I lost my fundamentalism. (I’ll tell the full story some other time.) On April 2, in an obscure comment thread on Rachel Held Evans’s blog, I wrote that I did not think I wanted to be an Evangelical anymore. April 3, I woke up, and I was no longer one. I’m not sure I was even Christian anymore.

There were a few theological truths I was sure of.

  1. You cannot put God in a test tube. You can’t perform scientific experiments on him and get him to perform. The only way we can know God is through faith, not science. We cannot observe God objectively in the world, only subjectively through our own interpretations of events we otherwise cannot understand.

  2. Theists believe in an omniscient, omnipotent God whose first order of business is to use that infinite knowledge and power to hide from us the fact that he even exists. Deists believe in a God who set the universe in motion but does not interact with us personally. Atheists don’t believe in a God at all. In practical life, these three views are indistinguishable, as they are all mere explanations for the fact that you can’t put God in a test tube.

  3. Because we can’t observe God scientifically, we also can’t personally interact with him. If we could interact with him, then we would be able to observe him. The difference between the way we observe God and the way we observe scientific evidence is as how you can distinguish my imaginary friend from my actual friends: the first is subjective; the latter, objective. (This seems to be a point both theists and atheists agree on.)

  4. The Bible at best is literature set in a cultural context, not some divine user’s manual for modern life. Even if we accept that the Biblical writers were inspired by God, they were still writing down their own subjective interpretations of God’s heart, which we now eisegete via our own subjective interpretations. Subjective interpretations are human, not divine. Therefore, the Bible itself is human, not divine.

And I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in this God, who hides himself from his creation, only interacting with it through the supernatural, but leaving the natural to be observed undisturbed.

There’s much more to the story, of course. And I will tell you those pieces of the story later. Writing this blog post has, I hope, opened the floodgates. I’ve been struggling with how to begin. Losing the fundamentalist dogma is really the only thing that has changed about me. And if you read between the lines of what I’ve written over the past decades, I think you’ll see, that’s been coming for a long time. But the dogma runs deep. Shedding the mask of fundamentalism has revealed a completely new person underneath.

I am a born-again unbeliever.

I’m not a rabid anti-religion atheist. (Or at least not yet… But give organized religion some more time to convert me.) I’m not anti-religion. I simply don’t believe God exists. I can’t prove it: that makes me an agnostic atheist. (Yes, that’s a thing.) I used to be an agnostic theist—specifically, I thought of myself as an agnostic Christian, but if you had asked, I probably would have just told you “Christian.” As an agnostic theist, I believed in God but thought it was silly to try to prove that he exists. Now I’m an agnostic atheist, because I don’t believe in God, and still think it’s silly to try to prove that he exists.

The one thing I don’t want to hear is that you’re sorry for me, or sad for me, or disappointed, or any of the other pseudo-compassionate things people say when they find out one of their friends has declared himself an atheist. I have not “lost” my faith. Rather, I have exchanged a belief in Santa Claus for a fuller appreciation of Christmas: instead of waiting for presents to appear under the tree, I focus on the joy and companionship of my family and friends. Instead of trying to appease a theologically correct god, I bask in the divine that I experience around me.

I have lost a few friends, and not just because of the theological issues. I no longer have to pretend to think less of my gay friends, for example, and I even feel ashamed that I stood by for so long and let good people be spoken down to, and I never objected. I am objecting now, and it has cost me friends. I’m much more liberal, much more loving, much more tolerant. I’m now sex-positive, because that’s the right thing to be, even though I was raised in a very sex-negative environment. And some of my sex-terrified ex-friends have caused me more than a little trouble. But that is largely behind me now.

And I may lose more friends. But even my religious friends have basically accepted me and understand me. And those nightmare fantasies in which my family disowned me, they turned out to be just that: silly fantasies. And I have new friends, too, who accept me for who I am. Some of them know all of my secrets, and love me anyhow.

In general, I am happier now than I have ever been before in my life, because I feel more comfortable in my own skin than ever before. And that’s a process that began early in the year, before I even wrote my series about things I want my kids to know about sex. My Beloved and I are more in love than ever before, and happier with our relationship than ever before. And I think this is primarily due to the changes in my life and my values.

So don’t feel sorry for me, because it would be petty to feel sad about someone else’s happiness.