Introduction to a Nonbeliever

I wrote the following at the request of a Christian friend at Love Life, Embrace Risks, and Live for Eternity, to portray the viewpoints of an atheist for a Christian audience:

I am an unbeliever.

However, I am not “unchurched”. I have known the power and love of the church firsthand and had attributed it to my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was raised in modern Baptist home with loving parents and a life rich within the church. I was saved early on and until I reached the age of twenty-five, my life was devoted to living for Jesus and spreading His Word and love.

Yet, I have rejected the church and the Bible, notions of Jesus, the Christian and Jewish God, Heaven, Hell, and an afterlife. You may ask why.

My journey was never intended to draw me away from the Christian faith. Rather, I made it a goal of mine to become closer to who Jesus truly was so that I was able to serve him better. I made an internal pact with myself and God that I would see this line of questioning through to the end. I had anticipated coming out the other end with a much closer relationship with God through Jesus.

However, my quest began to show me, slowly at first, then like a tidal wave, that there is nothing unique about Christianity; that, instead, it contains as much (and as little) truth as all other religions, and that the things I thought were truths were far from it, that the power of the church and things attributed to God and Jesus were actually of a more sublime nature, more akin to the social cohesion obtained through the common human experience resonating in all ancient texts and mythologies.

The details of my deconversion are long and winding, full of twists and turns, and I’m working on piecing together the tale in its entirety. But let me first get a few common misconceptions out of the way.

Accusations

1. You never were a “true” Christian.

Yes, I was. If you doubt the commitment I had to Jesus, I am writing a more longwinded version of my conversion, my Christian life, and the circumstances that caused me to leave the faith. However difficult it may be to understand that a believer could stop believing, it is true. I’ve got plenty of family and friends that would stand behind my life as a Christian.

2. You left Christianity due to sin.

My deconversion began with the simple request to know God more. The journey carried me through the various Christian beliefs, until ultimately finding no god at the end of the tunnel. I knew that in order to attain a closer relationship to God, I would need to remain pure of thought, mind, and deed. It was probably the most sin-free time in my life.

3. You are angry at God.

This one is hard to explain to someone who believes that beyond a doubt, there is a God. Let me try: I am as angry at the Christian God as you are angry at Zeus. The concept of God, while not foreign to me, is utterly lacking in substance. I can’t be angry at what I don’t believe exists, no matter how much you disagree.

4. You are angry or have unresolved issues with the church.

This is utterly false. My childhood in the church was fantastic and unbelievable. Most of my social life was inside the church and there was a never-ending fountain of fun things to do, lessons to learn, and spiritual “truths” to behold. The same goes for college.

If I have any underlying tensions with the church today, it is due to the dogmatic approach to scripture, the absolute assurance that the rest of the world wants what they have, and the willingness to assert those beliefs onto others unquestioningly.

5. You’re exaggerating your previous claim to Christianity.

Nope. I’ve got plenty of family and friends to vouch for me on that count.

6. You’re lying.

Come on now, really? I know this is posted on the internet, a veritable treasure trove of truth, but in this article, I have strived to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

7. You are unhappy or bitter.

Absolutely false. While I struggled through the deconversion process spiritually and emotionally, today I am more spiritually fulfilled and happy than ever. To assume that a lack of beliefs in Jesus causes unhappiness and bitterness is to ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

8. You’ll be back to Christianity, there’s a lot of people praying for you.

Ten years ago, I was certain that I would never leave my faith. If I were to make such a promise now that I would never leave my non-faith, that would mean nothing. But, now that I am able to read the Bible and see the faiths of man for what they truly are, I very much doubt that I will be returning to any faith, at any time. Those prayers, however much in earnest, have had no affect.

9. Your life has no meaning without Christ or the hope for heaven.

I’d prefer to think exactly the opposite. The fact that I know this is my one and only life to live causes me to make every moment worthwhile. While I don’t doubt that there was a time I questioned this very topic, I now see more meaning in my present life other than waiting for some future reward or trying to convert others to my belief system.

10. You are arrogant for not recognizing the creator.

On the contrary, I consider myself rather humble in this sense. I know that I am a speck of dust on a speck of dust on a speck of dust in an infinitely (or finite, we’re still looking into that) expanse of universe. I don’t assume that there is a maker of the universe, of supernovae and galaxies, of relativity and of quantum mechanics, who was greatly interested in the animal sacrifices of ancient Jews, or the sexual life of people today. That is what I’d call arrogant.

Assuming Too Much

The details of my decision are too many to name here. I won’t go into exactly how or why I came to this my worldview today, but I’d like to get a few things off my chest seeing as how I have a Christian audience.

The terms “godless” and “atheist” are unnecessarily looked down upon, and a lot of that comes from the portrayal of unbelievers in religious circles hammered in by religious texts. We are frowned upon by most organized religions. Most unbelievers tend to keep their unbelief quiet in order to not disturb the peace, and because we don’t adhere to a central doctrine commanding us to tell others of our beliefs.

I challenge believers to open their mind to the overwhelming fact that nonbelievers can be good people in no need of conversion: ones that are completely happy, spiritually fulfilled and generous towards humanity without the need to subscribe to a certain personal relationship or set of rituals or beliefs. We don’t all want to be Christians, nor do we have the same relationship that you have with Yahweh. If we make you queezy, ask yourself why you may believe negatively about unbelievers, or why you may look down upon them for not knowing the deeper truths you may consider yourself to hold.

I view religion (or personal relationships with Christ, if you prefer) more as a construct of social life built out of primitive fears and superstitions, mixed with the intrinsic nature to want to be good. There are other ways of fulfilling that goal without resorting to beliefs in deities and afterlives. Some people fill that gap with an overwhelming obedience to an interpretation of God and Jesus through the Bible, and I can understand why because I’ve been there. The spiritual highs that are attained through acts of worship can be adequately described in terms of psychology and neurology (albeit dryly). I no longer fool myself into thinking such experiences are the cause of a higher power, and somehow that makes the experience of life on Earth all the richer for me.

I can’t speak for all unbelievers, just as no Christian can speak for all others qualifying themselves as Christian. I know that there are atheists born again as Christians, and I know there are Christians born again as atheists (myself included in the latter). This all seems characteristic of the human experience, so I am unable to speak for all.

I am an atheist. But that is only the beginning.

Huckabee’s Theocracy

I ran across this link today in which Mike Huckabee blatantly wants to

“…amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.”

How on earth is this man still in the race after expressing his thoughts? Is the evangelical arm so strong that it can suppress the outrage this should have created?

This is, of course, a huge breach of church and state separation, but how can anyone vote for a man so out of touch with the public? Millions of people in this country aren’t his brand of Christianity and yet he blatantly disregards all of them in one fell swoop.

And who is going to do the biblical interpretation for his constitutional amendments? With such diverse interpretations coming out of many different languages of the bible, there’s no way to reconcile the viewpoints into something feasible.

I would have thought that America would be sick of a leader who purports to talk to an invisible man. And yet this man has a strong following, despite his whacked out worldviews.

Resurrection Life Church

Inspired by Hemant Mehta‘s book, I Sold My Soul on Ebay, I decided to visit a local church this morning. Resurrection Life Church is an evangelical, charismatic megachurch in Grandville, Michigan. I chose this church to visit first mainly because a friend mentioned that they’re into the whole speaking in tongues thing. I’ve really wanted to see firsthand what could possibly induce such trance-like states in white middle class suburbia.

Although I didn’t witness any speaking in tongues this morning, it was an amazing experience that I won’t soon forget. It has reaffirmed and strengthened my belief that all religions are man-made and filled with superstitious absurdities. Granted, this probably isn’t the message they’re trying to get across, but the point couldn’t have been made any more plainly.

The pictures below were taken with my cellphone after the main service. Sorry for the graininess in the photos, it’s just a cellphone and I was trying to be discreet so Jesus, or one of his followers, wouldn’t smite me.

The Terminal

This is no ordinary church. It’s interior can best be described as a hybrid of a mall and airport terminal. I was immediately overwhelmed by the grandiosity of the entryway and walkways. Maybe grandiose isn’t the word. How about unabashedly commercialized? Either way, the effect disposes of any notion of a place of worship in favor of a fun place to hang out with like-minded people.

I’ve read the story in the Bible about Jesus throwing out the moneychangers in the temple courtyard, but apparently ResLife never got to that chapter. Around every corner, they’re selling something, either at one of many coffee shops or a bookstore to rival any Waldenbooks.

Seriously, I felt exactly as I do when walking through an airport terminal. They even have the same kind of signs hanging from the ceiling indicating where certain things are located so you don’t get lost. It’s a good thing too, because I may not have otherwise located the massive auditorium.

Did I mention the five thousand wide-screen plasma TVs they had all over the place? And when I say all over the place, I mean all over the place. I think they’re adopting a policy of not leaving any wall-stud bare of a high def TV. Each and every one was turned on and showing… showing… hell, I don’t know. But I imagine that whatever it is must justify the spending of tens of thousands of parishner’s hard-earned dollars. Ol’ Satan must be shaking in his spiky boots at the lengths these people will go to in order to flex their collective biceps in his direction.

The Game Hall

Luckily, if you get lost in baggage claim and don’t make it to the worship service to flail your arms around, there’s another section of the building I’ll just call the game hall. In itself, it’s larger than most churches I’ve been to and houses at least fifteen awesome pool tables. And not second-hand scratched up tables either. These were very nice and obviously expensive billiards tables. While I’m no good at playing pool, I occasionally go to a local pool hall and shoot some nine ball with friends. This church far outdoes my local pool hall in number and classiness of pool tables. And it appears to be free and I’m guessing there’s no smoking allowed. I think I may have found myself a new place to shoot pool. The only thing missing is a bar…

Or maybe not; could that be? Yes, apparently they also have a bar (of sorts) within this massive game hall. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re gonna serve any alcohol besides maybe a little communion wine. Next time, I’m totally ordering a Blood-of-the-Savior Smoothie. I hear it comes with a tall rusty nail right in the glass!

Besides the approximate six hundred plasma TVs in the game hall alone, there were a few huge projection screens in the far corner of the game hall. Several rows of chairs were laid out in the hopes that the pool-playing youth would stop long enough to watch the pastor ask for more money before returning to their game of eight-ball.

My Church can Beat up Your Church

I managed to follow the river of righteousness to the main worship hall. This room was just as I expected: Stadium seating but with the sanctity of pews; huge enormo-screen monitors above the podium; a section for the band and an elevated stairset for the choir. Initially I found myself up on the balcony, but I couldn’t stand being in the nosebleed section so I moved to the floor level about ten rows back. I wanted an up-close view of the action.

And video cameras, oh my! To the right side of the stage was a man operating a thirty foot contraption with an attached camera that allowed for those fancy flyby zoom shots on film. I think I watched that guy more than the actual service, sadistically waiting for him to slip and skim across the heads of the first ten rows of Christians. He never stopped moving!

The left side of the stage had a shorter camera arm that zoomed in and out on the band, giving you those close-up shots of the musicians that make you feel like you’re watching Jay Leno during a commercial break. During the worship service, there were several other cameramen walking through the aisles getting nice up-close shots of people at their most holy. All that was missing was a program that automatically photoshops a glowing aura around the heads of the faithful. You’d think that kind of thing would show up naturally on film, but I didn’t see any. Must be the cameras.

Understanding Ted Haggard’s Sin

The monitors all had a professionally designed graphical countdown to worship. When the clock struck zero, the band and choir were all in place and in walked the worship leader. All cameras focussed in on this guy, who had more charisma, and let’s face it, studliness, than any pop star I’ve seen. With his wavy blond hair and rugged five o’clock shadow (at 9:30 AM) and dashing, caring smile, I now understand the fall of Ted Haggard. If the founder of New Life Church had this guy leading worship, I could totally understand how he’d feel the need to experiment. Hell, I’m straight but now I think I’m gay for this guy. At least I know Ted Haggard has found a cure for homosexuality, in case I ever feel the need to bat for the other team for a while.

A typical song-singing service ensued for the next twenty minutes. This had the expected it’s-great-to-be-loved feeling – the only difference being the greater amount of people swaying around and waving their arms about. I watched with eager anticipation, but never saw anyone go nuts and start spewing off gibberish or speaking in tongues. Pity.

I couldn’t bear the thought of singing something I didn’t believe and observed the phenomenon instead. I wondered if people really considered the words they were actually singing. All that Jesusy stuff just seems so far fetched and archaic that I found it amusing. And as much as I willed it, the long arm of the camera on stage right would come straight towards the congregation, only to swoop dramatically upwards just before knocking a few out cold. Damn! So close that time!

Sieg Heil

After the singing came to an end with a forced feeling of guilt and redemption, a pastor came on stage with a large box full of prayer requests and fasting requests (fasting requests? oooook?). He rambled on for a moment about the importance of everyone praying to God regarding the contents of that box. He was going to have the congregation all pray towards the pile of requests, assuming God already knew each one of them individually. But really, if all it takes is a “God, help all those that wrote shit down,” and not individual prayers, can’t we just go ahead and get it all over with “God, help everybody everywhere” and be done with it?

And here’s where I had my first brief moment of horror inside a church. The pastor said “Now stretch out your hands towards these requests and pray with me.” I kid you not – Everyone in the congregation immediately did the Heil Hitler sign with outstretched arm, palm down. It caught me entirely off guard. At first I chuckled inside but then had a moment of absolute horror as I imagined what kind of influence these people were under, and that I was in the minority. That momentary fear faded into an uneasiness, realizing that it wasn’t quite the same, but still. It. Freaked. Me. Out.

With the knowledge that most of these people would welcome and encourage anything that they thought hinted at Armageddon, I think my initial fear was more justified. Jesus Camp, anybody?

The Ten Thousand TV Drive

The first part of the sermon was a call for alms. A good five minutes were spent on the benefits of giving to the church. Plastic buckets were then handed through each of the aisles so we could all empty our pockets (which I fervently passed on).

I could hardly contain my disdain at the audacity of this preacher to get up and ask for more money. Are you kidding me? The amount you guys spent on plasma TVs alone could feed an entire third world country for a decade. The freakin church itself was big enough to house a third world country of its own.

This place was nothing more than a glorified social club with a crackpot worldview, perpetuating an arcane religion and misleading hundreds for its own glorification. If it sold itself as a social club, I’d have no problem with people giving their own money to aid in its plasma TV drive. But it doesn’t. It guilts people into giving their hard earned money for its own benefit, all the while preaching the benefits of helping others. How contemptible.

Perpetuating Superstition

The stage then went dark as they moved things and brought out a stand for the pastor. During this time, the jumbotrons showed a couple thirty second announcements of upcoming events. It was a cute girl who must have aspirations of being a news anchor, but it ensured that there was not a dull moment in the service. They must think we have the attention span of a bumblebee.

The pastor then went on with his preaching. Summed up, it hit on the following points:

  • Your body is holy
  • Treat your body with respect in life and in death
  • Burial is the way to go out. Cremation is for pagans and should stay that way.
  • Tattoos are bad
  • Cremation is really bad and Christians shouldn’t do it. I mean, God can still resurrect you, but you gotta make it easy on him. Don’t cremate yourself.
  • Homosexuality is bad
  • Pagans are bad
  • Did I mention cremation yet? Because it’s bad. In fact, the polls show that more and more people are getting cremated, and this is just evidence that they are leaving Christianity and becoming pagans.
  • I’m hoping the rapture is right around the corner, but you shouldn’t live like that. prepare yourself to die rather than be raptured
  • And by the way, if you come back tonight at five o’clock, I’ll give you my top ten reasons why cremation is bad

This guy seriously went on and on about the evils of cremation, I couldn’t believe my ears. I came here for the speaking in tongues and all I got was a guilty feeling for wanting to donate my organs on death and have my body turned to ash. His reasoning for the anti-cremation rant was a tendancy towards superstition; that although God can still resurrect a cremated body, you should have yourself buried to show that you believe you’ll be resurrected. I’d say it’s laughable if it wasn’t such a blatant disregard for the life-giving benefits of organ and tissue donation.

And boy did he mention pagans a lot. I didn’t know paganism was such a prevalent force these days. You’d think he’d focus on more dangerous religions, like fundamental Muslims or *cough* evangelical Christians.

Edit: Nothing was mentioned in the sermon about organ donation. That was on my mind because last night I just renewed my license and organ donation registration.

I assume since they’re against the destruction caused by cremation, that they would feel equally as queasy about donating parts of said body. It seemed implied from the sermon that any destruction of the body God gave you is heretical. It’s sad to think that such a viewpoint is probably held by those four thousand or so people in attendance.

Life Lessons

Resurrection Life Church, or as they like to call it, ResLife, is the first evangelical and charismatic church I’ve visited, so maybe it’s just as absurd as all the others.

It lies just a few miles away from Grandville’s other megachurch: Rob Bell’s Mars Hill. I now have a much greater appreciation for the direction that Rob Bell is taking his church. Mars Hill is a very low-profile megachurch that is much more liberal in its beliefs. More importantly, they are honest and virtuous in what they do with their money and have some very specific ministries that are supported, whose goals are to help people while here on earth, rather than trying to convert them through pressure.

I’m definitely going back to this church. It’s like a freakin circus in there, and I have to bring a few of my friends so we can all laugh. Or cry.

Origin of Species

I am no scientist, but I had to see what all the fuss was about. Armed with admittedly feeble evolutionary knowledge, I decided to read The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect. What was it about Mr. Darwin that got the Christian panties all in a ruffle? Having shed my previous burden of religion, I was intrigued by this book and wondered what scathing blasphemy would be contained therein.

What I found was a book of science filled with long and tedious explanations and examples. I didn’t actually read, read the book, I listened to it on audiobook. I didn’t think that I would have the gusto to make it through a full text-book, but knew that I’d be able to force myself to listen to it while driving and working out (Yes, I do listen to nerdy books about evolutionary biology while lifting weights, I’m just that cool).

I didn’t really see anything controversial about the book. From what I had heard about it back in my religious days, I would have expected serpents to jump out of the mp3 player as soon as I turned it on. In reality, it is very dry. It builds up the evidence towards the theory of natural selection, explaining how we have selectively bred species of all types of domesticated animals for all of our existence. The Origin of Species only mentions the word Evolution once that I can recall, and that was in the last word of the end of the book.

I find it ironic that almost every non-religious argument towards evolution was brought up by Darwin in the book with his explanation. He stated that he had fought long and hard with his own theory with similar hard questions – such as the seemingly small amount of intermediate forms in the fossil record, or the long time necessary for his theory.

Darwin never outright attacked any religion as your Sunday School teacher would have you believe. Instead, his statements were, for the most part, neutral and limited to the facts, along with fact-driven speculations. Every once and a while he would mention that those who believed in distinct creation of species had a lot of explaining to do about how and when and where certain species were found in proximity to others in nearby habitats. There was never any outright attack or mention of any gods. It was simply a very focussed work on his theory of natural selection.

Perhaps Darwin had more controversial works later in his life which demonized the man. If he did, I think I’ll read the cliff notes. It was hard to focus on such a dry, scientific book. But it had to be done, although I’m glad I don’t have to take a test on it. I could never be a biologist, with all those crazy species names and genres. It’s truly mindboggling. I’ll stick to writing software.

Who Else Kissed Dating Goodbye?

Back in my church-going senior highish days, there was a book that was all the rage titled I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. Does anyone else remember this book (mid/late 90’s)?

It’s a how-to guide for Christian Courtship. It advises against the traditional one-on-one dating scene in favor of traditional courtship. He emphasizes group socialization and never being alone with the significant other in order to avoid those all-too-evil physical moments. As I recall, the only alone-time he advocated involved walking side by side with your significant other in front of her parents house within plain view of the parents.

It’s so funny looking back on that, and how much the church and other religious organizations praised the book. I didn’t take too much of it to heart and thought the courtship idea rather comical even at the time. However, it did sort of warp my view on relationships. For a few years I avoided relationships because in my skewed mindset, they weren’t endorsed by god.

I have no regrets now, because I’m with the best girlfriend ever. During college, it took a while to get out of that weird anti-relationship funk. I finally realized that my prayers to a complacent god who would just drop a girl in my lap were just a pipe dream. You can’t go through life sitting back and expecting a deity to bring opportunities on a platter. I think that’s a given for the nontheists, but it’s something I never figured out till my waning years as a Christian.

Does anyone else remember that book?