Friday, October 28, 2011

The Final Chapter

This is the final chapter of my deconversion story.  For the other pieces of the story, click the "Crumbling Faith" tag.

Throughout the ten year relationship with my wife, we were friends.  We had started as friends at work, at a restaurant while I was finishing high school.  We had progressed to being friends with an attraction to one another.  We got married.  While my attraction for her only weakened slightly, it appeared as though her attraction for me decayed faster than Beryllium-8.  But we managed.  We were friends, after all.  I never strayed.

At the risk of sounding cliché, I think we had married too young, because I certainly didn't know what I needed in a life partner at that time.  So as we continued on together, it seemed that we grew farther apart.  We remained friends, but by the end we were like friends at work again.  Yet there was a final straw.  I am being purposely vague here, as I'm sure that telling my side of the story would have me appear to be a perfect husband when I am equally sure that that is not the case, but, suffice it to say, some things transpired which should never transpire in a marriage.  So I pushed the separation.

With the separation, and while the divorce proceedings resolved, I decided to abstain from romantic relationships for a year.  I wanted to give myself some time to establish who I really was, and wanted to make sure my judgement was not clouded; make sure I avoided a "rebound" relationship.  It turns out that I am still figuring out who I am, but, hey, life is like that.  :-)

Anyway, living alone and abstaining from romantic relationships left me with a lot of time on my hands.  Early on, as I was sifting through the boxes of my stuff, I came across the notebook where I had jotted down thoughts about the Bible when I had started reading it so many years ago.  I had never finished.  I had never even made it past Leviticus.  So there I was with time on my hands and an unfinished task.  It was a match made in heaven.  ;-)

I remember how I felt at that time.  I was skeptical.  I hadn't really gone to church much at all in the past ten years.  I hadn't felt any divine presence.  I hadn't seen any miracles.

But I was hopeful.  I believed, weakly.  So many people around me, including my family, believed with conviction.  Even more importantly though, with eternal consequences on the line, and the potential reward being so great, I wanted to have a strong faith.

With my feeble, tenuous faith (decimated by the lack of divine interaction as a teen, and withered through the subsequent years of malnourishment), I picked up the Bible again.  Skeptically hopeful.  Starting with Genesis, chapter one.

By the time I reached the story of the Tower of Babel, my skeptical side was amazed, while my faithful side became ever more desperate.  I had started to forget all of the important details of what I had just read, so I started from the beginning again; this time writing summaries for each chapter.

(I tried to only summarize what exactly was written, while keeping my skeptical comments separate.  Those summaries I would eventually share so that anyone could read the story of the Bible quickly.)

For my skeptical side, it seemed like the evidence against faith added up steadily and consistently as I continued to read the Bible.  As I enter into studying the New Testament now, that trend has not changed.

For my faithful side, the losses came in discreet blows.  Passages like the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the passages which seemed to boldly contradict everything I had ever been told about God, evoked a deep, visceral reaction as if my very soul had been stabbed.  Observing how God enacted a world-wide famine to result in the enslavement of the Israelites just so that He could free them 400 years later...  Seeing God almost take the life of a baby due to the matter of circumcision...  Reading how God toyed with the Egyptians, manipulating the free will of the Pharaoh, just so that He could provide a grand spectacle...  Etc...  Etc...

My soul died.  Hemorrhaging from so many shattered beliefs, it could not survive.  My desire for it to live, alone, was not enough to preserve it.

I thought back to my teen years, when I had picked up the Bible and had read some of those very same passages.  They had seemed odd to me back then, but not wrong.  Not abhorrently, morally wrong.  Why?  I'm not sure.  It could be that back then I thought that God was my friend.  Every good friend has faults you are able to overlook in the name of love.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Moral Disconnect

In 2006, the University of Minnesota released the results of an interesting poll, a telephone sampling of over 2000 households in the U.S.A.  Atheists were revealed as being the most distrusted minority group, even behind Muslims, even after 9/11.

The results were puzzling to me.  At the time, I couldn't think of a reason other than perhaps the lingering influence of our now-defunct arch nemesis, the Soviet Union.  Communism, after all, was godless by design.  That communist, atheist threat stood poised for decades with a nuclear arsenal which could obliterate our entire country several times over, not just fly some planes into some buildings.  I grew up as one of the last generations which had practiced duck-and-cover drills in elementary school.

About a year ago, my wife had gotten Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days documentary series from Netflix.  In that series, people end up spending thirty days living with someone of a polar opposite perspective, like a border patrol agent lives with an illegal immigrant.  It's really a great series for enriching the human side of controversial issues.

Anyway, in one episode an atheist woman went to live with a devout Christian family.  Over the course of the thirty days, the Christian mother and kids eventually warmed up to the atheist woman, but the Christian husband got stuck.  You could tell that he had begun to like the atheist woman as a person, but he could not figure out where she got the moral guidance from to do right as opposed to wrong.  In his mind, morality required faith in God and a Bible in hand.  Most churches are not shy about promoting such a stance, given that they consider God to the be author of morality.

From that perspective, it seemed as though the issue many Christians had with atheist is that they didn't have an official guidebook for morality, and no ultimate accountability.  Perhaps that's why atheists are scarier to Americans than Muslims.  Well, it may just be part of the reason.

Then, last week, I had a revelation of sorts.  I was listening on the radio to a passionate sermon from Chip Ingram, with Living on the Edge ministry.  He was discussing his conversion story of when he first accepted Jesus as his savior.  He described the day after (very paraphrased):
"Man, I tell you, I could swear up a storm.  It was nothing for me to drop curse words into sentences.  But after my conversion, I suddenly came to realize that that was not right.  From then on I cleaned up my speech and began trying to live as God would want me to live." 
I think that Chip's words held a key to better understanding where many Christians stand.  Chip associates his conversion with the identification of morality.  Biblically speaking, you could make a case for it too, as the saved are supposedly baptized with the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion.  Note that Chip didn't say that he consulted the Scriptures and discovered that being foul-mouthed was sinful.  Rather, he just knew it.  (Perhaps that's why too few Christians spend time really studying the Bible for morality.)

From the perspective of many Christians, not only do atheists seem to lack a sense of an ultimate accountability and an official morality guidebook, but also lack a defining moment in their lives, a conversion experience, when they were graced and bestowed with an internal Holy moral compass.  This last factor may be the most important in Christian-atheist relations, because psychologically it encourages Christians to project their own prior pre-Saved behavior (plus the pre-Saved behaviors from other people's conversion stories) onto atheists.  Atheists become potential representatives of the epitome of evil, even though atheists don't believe in the epitome of evil.

If your kids are still looking for an idea for a Halloween costume, may I suggest dressing them in a simple white T-shirt with the word "atheist" written across it?  Chances are, it will scare the bejesus out of people.  just make sure that you are there to protect your kids if necessary.

But seriously, like what 30 Days promoted, people tend to have more tolerant, or at least more understanding, views about groups who they are opposed to once they get to know well someone on the other side.  I suspect that the semi-regular Christian commenters on this blog, Ollie Wallflower and dsholland would agree.  So if you are an atheist who is good friends with a Christian, but you haven't told that Christian friend about your lack of belief, I would encourage you to do so to promote understanding and tolerance.  The more Christians know atheists, the less likely we are to be considered morally depraved, and instead we'll just be considered deluded.  :-)

Monday, October 17, 2011

One Less Charity...

I've got no children, and, aside from pretty nice vacations, I live a fairly simple and frugal life.  I am reasonably sure that I will have money "left over" when I die, so I have been filtering through in my mind which charities I am going to make an endowment to upon my ultimate departure.  Today, I learned there is one less charity to consider; the American Cancer Society.

According to a news story today, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has rejected the Atheist group Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB) from participating in the big fund raising event known as Relay for Life, despite FBB figuring that they could likely bring in somewhere on the order of $500,000 of donations.

Now it seems to me that if your goal is to combat one of the largest causes of death across all of mankind, you would not care where donation money comes from.  You assume, rightfully so, that people who are giving money to combat this disease are genuinely interested in saving their fellow man, or fellow woman.  It is an act of altruistic love.  Such donations often come from people who remained behind while they watched their loved ones whither away in pain before their very eyes, and they do not want anyone else to suffer the same fate.  Anyone.  Regardless of faith, or lack thereof.  Cancer doesn't ask if you believe in a god, or which god you believe in, before it starts festering in your body.

However, the ACS is prejudice where cancer is not.  It does not want freewill love offerings from those of no faith.  So, thank you ACS, for making my charity selection a little easier.

There should be no hard feelings, though.  I probably would have crossed ACS off my list upon learning (as I did tonight) that the Deputy CEO of this "charity" makes $1,407,719 a year for leading the organization.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tragic Comedy

At the end of the day, we're all just people.  No matter how valiantly or sheepishly we fight for the causes we believe in, no matter what side of the argument we are on, we are all encased in mortal sacks of flesh, and we all have our own families, and loves, and desires.  We are all human.

That's why it is truly a tragedy to hear about a the death of young woman named Kortney Blythe Gordon.  I didn't know her, but the people who did say that she was a gentle and giving person.

Kortney was in a car crash which took her life about a week ago.  She was pregnant at the time, and the baby could not be saved.  Another passenger in her car is in critical condition, and a passenger in the other car is dead as well.  Recently married, she had a joyous outlook ahead, but now only wreckage remains behind.

Kortney was a Pro-Life advocate, and well known in that circle despite her youth, and had held many different roles in her abbreviated career as an advocate.  In fact, if you Google her name, you'll find connection with tons of Pro-Life organizations.

It is a tragedy for such a young, motivated leader to have her life cut short, but I can't help but notice the irony of her death.  Specifically, she had been making a life out of fighting to keep unborn children alive, only to lose her own unborn child along with her own life.  Sure, accidents happen, but the Biblical standpoint is that God controls everything, including when everyone dies.  Ultimately, this death falls in God's hands.  Even if God didn't orchestrate the accident, having omniscience and omnipotence at His disposal, He could have easily kept Kortney alive despite all circumstances which should have proven naturally impossible for life to continue.  I think that they call those types of events "miracles," or something like that.

But God didn't perform a miracle.  He either planned the death of Pro-Life Kortney and her unborn baby, or He just let it happen anyway.  It's like God is into black comedy.  It is impossible to understand from a loving God.  As we are all too often reminded in times like this, His ways are not our ways.  Yeah, in our silly, human ways, we tend to look out for and try to protect people who are fighting for us in any way that we can.  Quite frankly, I think we have better ways.

I hope that this causes some deep reflection about God among those who fought the good fight along side Kortney.  But that can wait.  Right now, my heart just goes out to the husband and family left behind.  I wish no one had to endure such tragedy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ten Days and Amish Angst

Believe it or not, these could be your last ten days on earth.  Everybody remembers Harold Camping, right?  The May 21, 2011 day was just supposed to be the date of the Rapture.  October 21, 2011, that is supposed to be the actual end of the world.

What's that?  You still don't believe that these are the End Times?  Well then, consider this:

These are the times of Amish on Amish violence!  It is incredible!  According to a news story at Huffington Post, the "Bergholz Clan," a splinter group of Amish, have acted out against their fellow Amish, breaking into their homes to cut off their beards and hair!

The Bergholz Clan is led by Sam Mullet.  Supposedly Sam wasn't involved in the follicle foible, but is suspected to have been the one directing his followers to lop off the obvious, personal symbols of the Amish lifestyle. 

The Amish, normally ones to settle issues within their own communities, sought the local law enforcement for help on this one.

Sam could not understand why the police were getting involved in this purely religious matter.  Sam told the police that these trimming raids "started with us ex-communicating members that weren't listening or obeying our laws."  Presumably, Sam felt that if you weren't going to obey the laws, you should not be permitted to call yourself Amish or outwardly present yourself as Amish, and that's why he felt he had to take action.

There's not enough detail to say who is more correct from a Biblical doctrine, Sam's splinter group or its victims.  The Amish follow a code of self-imposed, non-Biblical laws, known as Ordnung, as part of an attempt to maintain a more-pure faith in the God of the Bible.  Go figure.

What makes this most amazing is that the Amish are known for their quiet and calm humility, as well as butter, cheese, and quality basic construction labor.  Nonresistance and nonviolence are tenants of their faith.  They are religious extremists, but on the peaceful side of the scale.  So when Amish people start attacking each other, my friends, you know the end has truly come.

Time to start that bucket list!  ;-)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Communionus Interruptus

The next installment of my deconversion... 

The fever of my renewed piety had died down after months of waiting for a sign from God on what He would have me do.  I felt rejected, for a little while.  My prayer stopped.  My Bible study stopped.  I just couldn't understand what was going on; why God wouldn't want to guide me or even talk to me.  It was a blow to my self-esteem, which wasn't really that high in high school anyway.

Eventually, over a period of weeks, I realigned my perspective into thinking that maybe, even though I had been ready for God, maybe God wasn't ready for me yet.  Perhaps God had plans for me, but they were just further down the road.

However, this was also when cognitive dissonance entered the picture, because that divine silence planted the seed of doubt within me.  Realizing how easy it was to deceive yourself with the discernment of spiritual matters, I began to wonder if anyone really heard from God, or if God even existed.  These were just brief, passing thoughts at the time.  The truth was that I still very much wanted to believe, so I clung to my faith even while doubt germinated.

On the order of a few months later, I started to date the woman who would become my first wife.  She and her family were Catholic.  I remember one of the first times that I entered her room, in her parent's house, how there was a crucifix nailed above her bed, and a couple of teen devotional books, including If the Devil Made You Do It, You Blew It.  The budding skeptic in me said, "oh boy, I wonder what I'm getting into here."  Meanwhile my pious, optimistic remnant said "hmmm, I wonder if Catholics have a better way of approaching and worshiping God, a way which does more than my failed attempts?"

It turned out that she was not exactly a devout Catholic, in many senses.  Yet, on some rare occasions, typically one of the big holidays like Easter, we would go to Mass with the rest of the family.

The Mass experience was quite bizarre to me.  The holy water at the entrance, there to dip your fingers and make a sign of the cross and give a slight kneel/bow upon entering.  The burning incense.  The large number of responsive prayers, where the entire congregation talks back to the priest with a preordained script.  The kneeling.  The standing.  The kneeling.  The sitting.  The kneeling.

Aside from all of the pomp and circumcision ;-), the main part of the Mass resembled the Methodist sermons I had been raised on.  After enough visits there, I became comfortable.  It turns out that that was a big mistake...

The last visit which we made to the Catholic church that I can remember, I can remember one part of it quite well; the Communion.  Up until then, I had stayed in the pew during Communions at the Catholic church.  Partly this was due to my skepticism, but another part was just being unfamiliar with how the Catholics ran things.  However, with enough experience now under my belt, I thought I could participate.  I didn't know exactly what to do in front of the priest, but I thought I could cheat off of the guy in front of me, so to speak, and see what he did and said.  Perhaps, with a little grace from the priest, it would all work out right.

More importantly, I would have a sanctified piece of the body of Christ within me.  I thought that maybe that would help get things moving in the right direction spiritually.

Unfortunately, the layout of the reception line did not permit me to mimic the guy in front of me, because I didn't have a clear view, and I was not close enough to hear.  All I was able to discern is that he knelt and opened his mouth.  But so what?  How hard could accepting a Communion wafer be?

I walked up the to priest and knelt before him.  I opened my mouth.  The priest set the wafer in my mouth.  I got up, and I started walking back to my pew, while chewing and swallowing the rather-bland bread-product.

Apparently, I didn't say the right secret words, or give the appropriate gestures, because about half way back up to my row of pews I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I spun around and, surprise!  It was the priest!  He stopped the entire Communion procession to chase me down and confront me.

"What did you do with the Host?" he demanded.

"Um, I ate it." I replied meekly, still in shock.

He turned around, obviously disgruntled, and continued the Communion service.

Meanwhile, my cheeks as red as a Cardinal's gown, I headed back to my seat.

My mind was racing.  What did I do?  What didn't I do?  Could he sense that I was different?  Could he sense that I had some doubt in me?  Was it simply a matter of broken protocol which caused this priest to chase me down?  Was the priest just a perfectionist?  Did I forget to say thank you?  WHAT JUST HAPPENED?  Even my Catholic in-laws were in shock and disbelief at what had occurred.

I didn't feel any different after eating the body of Christ, at least not from that wafer.  The events surrounding its consumption, on the other hand, did make me feel a bit different.  It nagged at me.  Not from a spiritual sense, but just trying to make sense of that behavior, which was just about a polar opposite as I would have expected from a church leader.  It wasn't until years later in my second round of Bible studies that I came across the answer.  In my layman explanation:  The Catholic church holds very high regard for the Communion wafer being truly, not metaphorically, the body of Jesus Christ, and they only share the good stuff with fellow Catholics, Catholics who know what to do and what to say.  And they have Biblical reasons for taking that stance.

As time passed, hope dwindled, but still existed.  Skepticism also became stagnant.  I was just waiting around for something to happen, something to show me the way.