Normally I find inspiration for writing from interactions with friends on Facebook. Widely divergent views on topics from politics, economics, and religion that couldn’t be effectively addressed in a short space on Facebook was the impetus for starting this blog.
In a bit of a departure from the norm, I’ll use my wife’s interaction with friends this week.
My wife, Ellen, posed a simple question to her friends on Facebook:
“Does it make me a bad person that I don’t believe in a god any longer?”
It was at once both simple and profound.
Those that know her know that Ellen considers herself a secular humanist and does not believe in a Biblical God but she’s not ready to embrace the term “atheist” completely as she remains open to the possibility of a “god,” just not a “man-made god.”
When I read her post on Facebook I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of pride for her. Privately she is open with people about her rejection of Christianity, but she had never been so open to inviting potential scorn, criticism, or judgment by the masses for airing her beliefs or lack thereof.
Obviously her question was rhetorical in nature. Of course she is not a bad person. In fact, in my incredibly biased opinion, she is same wonderful woman now, without god, as she was when she considered herself Christian. Sometimes we like to joke that we think we act as better Christians today, without god, than when we were Christians.
The responses received from her friends, in my opinion, completely missed the point of her question. You can tell by how people replied that some were surprised, saddened, hopeful (in the sense that maybe she’ll come back to God in time). Christians are seriously upset when one of their own chooses to leave it all behind. It’s almost as though they feel betrayed that you would stray from the flock. Anger might even come into play – possibly because as a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, if you reject God you are destined for an eternity in Hell.
Had her question been posed along the lines of:
“If I told you I no longer believed in a god, would you think differently of me?”
The subtle nuance being, in her original question she puts all the onus on herself, asking the alternative – the onus falls on the respondent, who is then be forced to examine their own feelings before replying.
The point she was trying to make, possibly too subtlety, is that she is the same person today that people knew and liked when they thought she was a Christian. By letting people know she no longer followed a god, the only thing that could possibly have changed is the attitude people would now have for her.
There is a wide spectrum of non-believers. Not all are created equally. As I said, Ellen has yet to declare herself an atheist – she holds to the possibility of a god. I emphasize possibility as a key point to her agnostic view. Christian friends might read into this that there is a chance she can get her soul straight in the future and come back to the flock and that would be missing the point of this altogether.
Leaving Christianity is hardly as easy as waking up one morning and being hit with the blinding flash of the obvious that the whole belief system is a house of cards. It’s a decision that is made with careful forethought and research and when made, there is a grieving process that many go through. It’s as bad for some as losing a parent – possibly worse – especially for those raised in the church from infancy – always having that invisible friend to talk to about your problems and seeking solace and understanding from. If you haven’t seen it already – please get Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God. Her poignant story of her divorce from God, while told from a comedian’s perspective, is very powerful and heartbreaking.
But once the break is made, there really is no going back. After several positive responses to her post, Ellen wrote:
“Nice to see so many people unplugged from the matrix ;)”
The Matrix is a great allegory for leaving Christianity – not only becoming “unplugged” from a fantasy world, but knowing that the world as it really exists can be a cold and lonely place among those that remain plugged in.
Agnostics hardly hold a universal viewpoint, they simply do not reject the idea that a god of some fashion may exist. Now while I have no problem embracing atheism, on the Dawkin’s spectrum of belief I fall into the de facto atheist category, “I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” That is to say, I’m open to the possibility as well as an agnostic, but I doubt I will ever see it.
But you might ask, if you remain open to a possibility of god – why not the Biblical God? What kind of god are you looking for? That’s the question that gets to the heart of the matter isn’t it?
As I see it, the god of the Bible has gone through major revisionism over the centuries. From basically a blood-curdling, jealous tyrant to a loving and caring god. But we are also taught that God is unchangeable and He has actually never changed, only our understanding of Him has changed over time. I have to push the BS button on that. We’ve adapted god to fit our lifestyles and our times. I’ve written of “Cafeteria Christians” previously – those that pick and choose the good things we want out of the Bible and leave the horror stories and unfollowable commandments behind – you have to respect those Islamic Fundamentalists, at least when they aren’t visiting strip clubs and getting drunk before blowing themselves up (as several of them did before flying planes into buildings on 9/11), they at least follow the barbaric teachings of the Qur’an as well as the loving message of Mohammad.
Ellen puts a bow on her post by responding to those that are praying for her for her ‘astrayedness…’
“Okay, Sean is right. My question is a rhetorical one. I was not having a moment of doubt, just curious if my standing falls in your eyes. In this country we are more comfortable with people with different faiths that with those that do not have a religious faith. I don’t understand why.”
When asked by a family member if she still believes in an afterlife, she replied:
“The afterlife may exist, but not one described in biblical text. If there is an essence of me left, it will meld with the essence of the universe. I plan on living this life to the fullest because I don’t think there is something after it. And I’m totally cool with that!”
And talk about fortuitous timing.* Another blogger, Alise Wright, wrote earlier this month on how to engage deconverted Christians in conversation – such as her husband who had recently left Christianity. Her observations are outstanding and I highly recommend them to my Christian friends. A couple key points she made:
Please don’t assume that it’s just a phase. Most atheists who have “deconverted” from a religious background have studied it and other religions thoroughly before choosing not to believe. Painting it as a “phase” denies the seriousness of both their study and their decision. I would certainly not want to have any encounter with God resulting in a closer devotion to my faith called a phase and neither should we use that terminology for those who have left the faith.
Please don’t say “It takes just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a Christian.” Most atheists will say that they are empiricists. That being the case, they are just looking for proof. It doesn’t take faith for me to not believe in Big Foot. If there was proof that he existed, I’d be open to it, but it’s come up short so far. Atheists feel the same way about Christian proofs for God. Non-faith is not the same as faith.
The most common mistake we make with just about any group that is “the other” is that we tend to make assumptions. And the best way to avoid assumptions is to ask questions. And the best way to get to the questions is to just be a friend. Which is really what most of us want anyway. To be known. One need not share a faith to share that.
*Special thanks to Neece at Heaving Dead Cats for spotting this