Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Conversation With My Pastor, Part 2

Last week, I posted the first in a series of emails between myself and my former pastor. Here is my response to his email:
Hey Lance, thanks for responding in the manner that you did. "Coming out" to you was difficult, and while I didn't really think you would ostracize me, I am relieved nonetheless. 
I do not mind you asking questions about my change of mind, but I should be clear right off the bat: I am not "assured" there is no god. No one, who really thinks about it, can actually claim to be assured that there isn't. It's not possible to prove. With that said, let me spell out what I actually do think a little more clearly.
I do not think there are any gods, supernatural beings, or anything of the sort. I consider such entities to be in the same existential boat as unicorns, fairies, and free lunches. I could be wrong about the gods, just as I could be wrong about the unicorns or fairies, or even the gratis lunches! But I have no reason to think that I am. I don't think there are any good reasons to believe in any god, much a particular one. 
In regards to how I got here, I often think on that myself. It was a process that began many years ago. I am still surprised by it, when I think on where I was, and where I am now. I never dreamed I would be an atheist, as that thought was always very frightening. But here I am, and it's not scary at all! 
I was always somewhat skeptical by nature, even when young. I was raised a Christian, saved when I was seven, recommitted my life at twelve, but only got serious about my faith around seventeen or so. I met challenges to my faith from non-believers, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc., and wanted to challenge back, so I found apologetics. I got really into it, and enjoyed the discovery that there were in fact reasons to believe the things I already believed. 
I read and read and defended and attacked and wanted to win people for Jesus, intellectually. Of course I knew that ultimately it was a spiritual thing that had to happen there, but I wanted to clear the road of all the rocks one might trip over on the way to salvation. 
One of the problems with my approach, however, was I was not really reading what the opposition was saying. I would read about what this guy thinks or this author wrote, but only in Christian sources. Those authors would often be demonized (people like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell, and nearly any intellectual that disagreed with what Christianity taught), and that colored my view of those people. I really missed out on a lot of wonderful things because of that, but luckily, it is preserved on the internet for future generations to discover. Anyway, the point of this is that I had preconcieved notions about the opposition. "Stay away!," the warning went, "We read that nonsense so you don't have to!" 
I took a few philosophy classes and even considered majoring in it. I remember being cautioned by some believers about how anti-god that field was, and that I should reconsider because of that. But I affirmed that if we had the truth, then we had nothing to fear, since philosophy is just the study of thinking well. Through these classes, I was introduced to divergent thought, but on different terms than before. There were some ideas I had never considered, and I was challenged, but I was able to find why they were "wrong" easily enough. 
Needless to say, I was not really looking for the truth. I realize now that what I was doing, and what I suspect most believers who want to defend what they believe do, by definition - I was looking for justification for my already held beliefs. I wanted someone smart to tell me that what I already believed was in fact correct, and give me the reasons why. But this is the point: there is a difference between questioning everything and simply looking around for an excuse to still hold the belief you want to hold in the first place. I was doing only the latter, and I only realized that within the last few years. 
Over the years, through the things I read, conversations I had with people, and mental struggles with faith, I sought to have a more "reasonable" faith. A faith that was not so black and white, where I felt like I had to know all the answers - because really, that sort of faith is just impossible to defend! It seemed ludicrous to me when I would hear someone say that this verse means this or that when I knew that there are at least three other views on that very passage! I felt like the correct position was one of mild agnosticism about certain non-essential beliefs. I would often remark that the older I got, the less I knew. Not that I was forgetting things, but that the certainty I had was based on ignorance. The person who claims to know everything, knows nothing. 
At a certain point, my "theistic agnosticism" began to took hold. I would say that I believed in god, and Jesus, but the rest was uncertain, or at least not worth fighting about. It didn't make sense to me to say definitively that this belief was true, and this was false when things just aren't that clear-cut. Who am I to say that a Mormon wouldn't be saved? What makes it so they can't be saved? Was it their incorrect beliefs about god, his nature, his son, their additional books? Well even in the Christianity I believed in there are people with incorrect beliefs about god (all of us). So it can't be knowledge based, or else no one would be saved. It had to be the persons' heart. That was the key. So why even argue about the details? It didn't make sense to do so anymore. 
Once I started really thinking critically about these things, the non-essentials of my faith, or at least things I thought were non-essential, were unceremoniously chipped away and left behind. This continued to nearly all that was left was belief in the Resurrection, and that god exists, of course. I had the unique opportunity to have many email conversations with Dr. Gary Habermas, considered an expert in the evidence for the Resurrection, back when I was preparing my apologetics class on the subject at Roseville Hope. This allowed me to know what the evidence was, but even that belief didn't make sense to me anymore. I gave it up, but I didn't yet realize it. 
Only at this point, or somewhere near it, was I able to look at Christianity in a non-emotional, critical way. Only when I began to feel more comfortable with the idea of it possibly not being true. When I no longer had my entire life built within it, and it mattered less to me, was I able to truly look at it and judge whether it was true. Once I took the emotion and fear out of it, I saw that it's evidential foundation was rotted and weak. 
I remember perhaps one turning point for me in this journey. I was at Border's books and I saw Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" on sale. I would have never actually read anything he wrote with any real intellectual honesty before, but at this point, I remember thinking, "I'm not afraid of him anymore - let's see what he has to say." I bought the book, and read it twice. It was eye-opening to read what the former opposition was saying WITHOUT having a dog in that fight anymore, and not caring as much about the outcome. Needless to say, that really made me stop the spiritual fence-sitting that I was doing as to avoid being proven wrong, and just go where the evidence led me. 
Only then was I able to guiltlessly enjoy the genius of Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and many others. People who have so much to say, and I no longer have to fear it. But the greatest part is this: I don't have to believe it if it doesn't make sense. I am truly free to think as I will, and if Christianity, or Islam, or whatever is true, I will gladly believe it. All of the above named people, myself, and skeptics everywhere have only one true creed: "Think for yourself." I did think for myself. I feel extremely fortunate to have even been able to do so, because I really think many people don't even have the same opportunity. 
Well that turned out a lot longer than I thought it would! Sorry! I know I answered more the part about my journey than gave you specific evidences, so about that, let me just say this. The case against theism, in my reckoning, is less about proving that there is no god, and more about that life, the universe, and everything make more sense to me if god doesn't exist. 
Science, [with] which my mind use to have a constant struggle, is the best tool we have for figuring out the world around us. Evolution, which I could never quite explain away, is accepted now by me as a fact. I knew it was hard to get around when I believed, but I never even allowed myself to even dream how much evidence there was for it. Embracing that felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. But it was truly easy once I understood what it really said. Man, the apologists and literature about it that I used to read was so far off that it is possibly disingenuous. 
[It's a] fact that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, the earth 4.5 billion years old, and neither of these seem to care about us or our safety at all. I see nothing but blind indifference from the universe in regards to us, and would expect to see nothing less if god doesn't exist. You can lump in the problem of evil in there as well, as this is an example of cold indifference. 
None of these things really prove anything at all, of course, but are more just assertions that there is no evidence for god. In fact, a universe without a god seems more likely to me than a universe with one. All I am saying, and all that I will likely ever be able to say is that I no longer see any good reason to believe that god exists. I realized that the evidence that I used to hold so dear was not strong at all when actually analyzed with a mind in which religion no longer held sway. 
When I was a Christian, I had to do some complicated mental gymnastics to get my faith to seem reasonable and discredit the opposing arguments. No longer. Now my mind is truly free, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Some (meaningful to me) words from the late Christopher Hitchens: 
"The discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on. Why is that important, why would I like to do that? Because that's the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don't know. But I do know that it's the conversation I want to have while I'm still alive. Which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can't give way, is an offer of something not worth having." "I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don't know anything like enough yet. That I haven't understood enough, that I can't know enough, that I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom - I wouldn't have it any other way. And I'd urge you to look at those of you who tell you - those people who tell you, at your age, that you're dead till you believe as they do - what a terrible thing to be telling to children. And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't think of that as a gift - think of it of a poisoned chalice, push it aside however tempting it is, take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. Thank you." 
The last part about much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom coming from thinking for yourself, is in my case at least, absolutely true. The universe is so much more beautiful and wonderful than I ever imagined while I was restricted by my faith. The truth set me free. 

I will post his response soon.
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Tiffany Sears said...

Great history Eric. I find myself repeating my own journey to relatives and former churchgoers on a regular basis, and I thought your explanation was very well done and rang of truth. I have a similar post-belief relationship with my former Pastor and think it's great you are developing that as well.

Eric Burton said...

Thanks for saying so, Tiffany.

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