Does it make me a bad person?

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
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13 Responses to Does it make me a bad person?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I believe religion was a way for our earliest ancestors to achieve cohesion of community- to band together and to be able to trust others in their tribe not to steal, kill, etc. People outside the tribe(religion) were therefore suspect…leading to all of our present prejudice/distrust of those who look/believe differently.

  2. steve benson says:

    Very interesting. And nicely written. I really like seeing the love you two have. It warms my heart. This is a very cold and cruel world we live in. I think what ever brings you comfort, and caring and love,, is very worth while. Steve

  3. Anonymous says:

    If someone told me they no longer believe in god. I would be very happy for them. I would not see them as worse than before. I would know that they are entering into a new found freedom and would now be living a life of self-reliance and a life that is free from fear of a creator. I would be very happy for them. It takes a brave person to stop believing when you have been brought up a believer.

  4. LaDonna says:

    Very well put, Sean.I missed the post of which you write on Ellen's Facebook wall. I'll have to go read some of the comments. I too am Agnostic. Fortunately for myself, my parents had different religions. Mom was raised Baptist and dad was excommunicated from the Catholic church for getting divorced (bad thing a long time ago). I basically grew up in secular household. Growing up, many of my friends and their parents tried to "fix" my religious upbringing by dragging me to church with them. I found the whole practice ludicrous (for me).I've often wished I did believe in God. Many people seem to take comfort in bad times that things happen for a reason. I just can't do it, though. All religions seem like cults to me. The brainwashing that their belief is the only one really puts me off. Many have tried to make me see the light by warning me that my sins will land me in hell (especially since my boyfriend and I have been cohabiting since 1992 without marriage). They can't wrap their heads around the fact that since I don't believe in their god, the concepts of sin and hell are irrelevant. I tell my religious friends that I don't think any less of them for their beliefs, yet I can tell by their actions that they think less of me for mine. I have one acquaintance, in particular, that I flat out said to her, "If I'm such a bad person because of my lack of belief, why do you keep trying to be my friend?" She replied that it was her Christian duty to convert me. Needless to say, while still being polite, I've distanced myself from her.

  5. Jonathan says:

    OK..I'll bite..A couple of years ago, I was sickas a DOG with the flu, spending about 4 days doing nothing but laying on the couch. I was there so long that my back became incredible painful, almost to the point of not being able to move. One day, I forced myself to get off the couch and go make some noodles (yummmmm).. While making those noodles, my back pain got to the point of being unbearable and I had to go sit down. (This is going to seem so small, but to me, it was INCREDIBLY significant because of the pain I was in). I said a short prayer along the lines of "God, if you could just take this pain out of my back, I would be very grateful.".. I stood back up to check on my noodles, and not only was my back no longer in pain, but my fever was gone.My initial though was "wow. Thanks". Ive told that story to many people, and a lot of times they just say it was my MIND telling my back to stop hurting, or I just ignored the pain. I know it was something more than that. It might not seem like a mountain was moved, but to me, knowing the pain I was in, I have no doubt that my pain was removed so that I could share it. (My wife can back up my story)…I really respect the stance that you and Ellen have made, and as family, I still love you guys. Our differences in beliefs or politics won't change anything. For me, I have just seen and experienced too much, and NOT believing to me just doesn't feel like an option.

  6. Sean Asbury says:

    For the first comment from anonymous, it's a fantastic point you make and a field of study that is, in my opinion, underrepresented. Anthropological religious culture should be a wide open field of study and review!

  7. Sean Asbury says:

    For Steve – I know we see the world through different lenses – but I appreciate you hanging in with me and staying vocal with your views! I completely disagree with your your view of economics, politics, and religion – but through an open discussion, we can try to find middle ground 🙂

  8. Sean Asbury says:

    For #2 anonymous, and to LaDonna – what can I say but thanks for chiming in. Great comments and I appreciate you taking the time to read and share!

  9. Sean Asbury says:

    For Jonathan – thanks for biting!The point of my rants is to raise an issue for discussion. Through talking about these issues that separate people we can begin to see we are not all that different, family or not :)I respect the strength of your faith, as well as every member of our family! While I may think it's misguided, as you must think of ours, I'd never suggest to you abandoning it; however, if there ever came a day you did, I would be happy for you – probably a little less happy than you if we ditched our non-belief for Christianity – just saying ;)The only comment I can make from your story, if you'll bear with me. I think it's great God intervened on your side and took your pain away, but I have to say, in my humble opinion, I find it specious that God would take the time to heal your back while allowing thousands of others in this world – many of whom also faithfully believe in Him – to die horrible deaths, from disease, drunk drivers, natural disasters, etc. on the same day, same time he intervened on your behalf. Surely a God that is all powerful, could have done the same for all those people at the same time. While I'm sure it makes you special and strengthens your faith, it actually serves as a reminder to me why I can't allow even a sliver of remorse in for not buying into his "goodness." Doesn't change how Ellen or I feel about you one bit – we love you guys too and wish we could see more of you – love to see your beautiful little girl and expected one 🙂 Maybe you guys will schedule a visit to the DC area one day and stay awhile with us!

  10. Jonathan says:

    Understandable.. I have had students all the time ask me "If God is real, then why would He allow something like (this) to happen?", or "why does he allow babies to die??".. I can't say that I know all the answers bc I don't. In terms of faith, I have had someof the same questions. I had several former students of mine pss away at a very young age. For example, a young girl in her senior year og HS dying in a car wreck on New Years Eve. I spoke at her memorial service, and I constantly had to ask myself "why?"..I truly don't know. One thing I have heard, and that I totally agree with is that we were given a PERFECT world, and as humans we made the decision to mess it up (The forbidden fruit). We chose not to follow the 'rules', and our perfect world was gone. I have no idea why things happen the way they do.. But I do know that in life the good FAR outweighs the bad. But nobody likes to focus on the good. We like to see, and focus on, the bad things that happen because it's more interesting. (i.e., the evening news)

  11. Sean Asbury says:

    Jonathan – one weird thing about the whole creation story is that many Christian sects (Jews as well) have taken the view that Old Testament stories – including that of Adam and Eve – are allegorical stories that never really happened.But if that was the case and the Adam and Eve story is simply a myth, then the concept of original sin is kind of irrelevant isn't it? If original sin never happened, then the whole redemption/sacrifice story falls apart as well.Now if you are a literalist that accepts everything in the Bible as the word of God, no more, no less – then why aren't we out stoning adulterers and adulteresses for that matter – shouldn't we be joining with the good people of Iran and applying Biblical law (which when you read it is about as horrific as the Qu'ran in its' application of human rights) throughout the land? The difference here is that we don't stone adulterers – we run them in the primaries and see if they might become good presidents…I'm simply pointing out that for the literalists, people are either all in, or they're hanging out on the sidelines, held at bay by secular law and not biblical law.

  12. Alise says:

    Just linked over here from Rachel's blog. Thanks for sharing. I think your tweak of your wife's question is really good and has been one that we've had to address a bit. Fortunately, our experience with my husband's deconversion has been primarily positive.More than anything, I just want to see people talk rather than assume. It's very easy to make assumptions about what others think about a given subject based on the loudest voices out there (either by what they say about "the other" or what they say about themselves), it's less easy to take the time to find out what an individual thinks. But ultimately, the experience is so much richer when we interact.Have a fantastic day!

  13. Sean Asbury says:

    Alise – Thanks so much for visiting and commenting! I really enjoyed your article and your words seemed a perfect ending to this piece. Sean

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