January 8, 2013

Losing My Religion

“It is strange but true: religious people don’t know much about religion. It is dangerous when billions of people passionately believe in things that they barely know anything about. One of the fastest ways to turn a believer into a nonbeliever is religious education. Religious ignorance is faith’s ally. Religious education is faith’s enemy.” -Guy P. Harrison

I understand that God (or the concept of a god) brings some people joy and peace that cannot be found elsewhere. They are okay with not necessarily understanding him or trying to rationalize his existence because the god they know in their minds is real and that’s enough. To many, those feelings that God brings are more important than truth. With that said, I really do feel it’s better to be happy than be right. However, for me personally, those are not exactly the feelings that came over me when worshiping God.

I was raised Catholic and for as long as I can remember religion has puzzled me and even bothered me in some way or another. It was something I could never quite understand and yet never felt allowed to question. The lessons life taught me were not to believe everything I hear; if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; contradiction and inconsistency are major signs of a lie; and so forth. Religion seemed to be the only exception I could think of where none of these principles applied. For some reason, God didn’t have to follow these rules and I never understood why. In fact, the opposite always seemed to be true. You are not supposed to question God’s existence. God is so much greater than us it’s impossible to make sense of him and his decisions. You must trust in God’s plan despite all outcomes. God does not require proof (though ironically in the Bible he demands proof for other gods); you are just supposed to have “faith.” Because I was told this repeatedly by people I loved and trusted, I felt nothing but guilt for the questions stirring in my mind. I feared having thoughts of doubt. Even when I was brave enough to ask questions, the answers felt like more like cover stories or excuses and never left me satisfied. The idea of a supernatural god and all the religious teachings that went with it didn’t fill a void for me, rather it left one.

I realize that religion does make sense for some people and that even for those whom it doesn’t, there isn’t always a strong desire to seek answers. People have asked me, “Even if God isn’t real, why would you want to know?” Ignorance can absolutely be bliss. However, the difference for me was that my belief in God didn’t inevitably lead to bliss. It brought more confusion, worry, fear and guilt than it did joy and always left me with questions I couldn’t get adequate answers for. Praying for forgiveness for the sins I committed, worrying I wasn’t doing enough to get to heaven, thinking my unanswered prayers meant I wasn’t deserving or God was punishing me, feeling guilt every Sunday I skipped mass (which I hated attending), wondering how God could possibly allow so many bad things to happen to good people, the list goes on – none of these things brought me happiness or comfort. It definitely was not all bliss. I will admit I found excitement in thinking about heaven and immortality. Who wouldn’t? But I could not think about those things without the worry of the alternative. The God I was taught to believe in isn’t just all great and forgiving, he also sends people to the fires of hell to be tortured for all eternity. His “unconditional” love ironically comes with a heck of a lot of conditions. I’ve always known I was a good person at heart despite my mistakes. What worried me though was exactly how much “bad” God was going to hold against me come judgment day. There are countless passages in the Bible that explain just how difficult it really is to get to heaven. When you consider the length of eternity, it seems incredibly unjust to me that how your eternity is spent is based on a VERY tiny speck of time in comparison. But unjust or not, if I truly believed in a judgment day based on life on earth and an everlasting afterlife as a result, then there should have been nothing holding me back from dedicating my short mortal life to God. Yet, there was always something that made me second guess doing so. That something was deeply rooted doubt. As much as I attempted to cover it up, it was always there. I personally felt like a hypocrite because I wasn’t doing what I claimed I believed in. Those were not good feelings.

Another major roadblock for me was that I could never comprehend why humans were the only species that had an afterlife waiting for them. It is well accepted in Christianity and pretty obvious in the Bible that humans are the species favored by God. Humans were made in God’s likeness. Humans have souls. Humans are the ones who need saving. God sent down himself (as his own son) in human form. Humans are no doubt superior in God’s eyes. For some reason, I have felt a connection to the rest of the animal world where this way of thinking of humans as “special” always left a bitter taste in my mouth. I feel very strongly that if more people spent time learning about the characteristics and behaviors of other animals on our planet, they too would recognize the undeniable similarities between us all, both physically and physiologically – but that’s another subject altogether. People can so easily comprehend how life can just be over for an ant or for a squirrel not realizing they are made up of exactly the same stuff we are. Science has already proven repeatedly that emotion, behavior, personality and memory come solely from the brain. Diseases like Alzheimer’s are proof that when our brains start to degenerate, those things go with it. If they lived in a state called “the soul,” this wouldn’t be the case. When and why, only for humans, these things get transferred to a soul that’s supposed to be eternal despite all evidence suggesting otherwise, was a big mystery to me.

Despite religious teachings, I accepted evolution as truth a long time ago. This made me wonder at which point in the incredibly slow process to human evolution God decided to inject us with souls. Biologically, we are hardly any different from our predecessors. At one point in time the Bible was taken literally by its followers and its stories accepted as truth (including the creation story), but over the years science has changed that. When analyzing content of the Bible, I was taught that much of it is symbolic and you have to read between the lines. Throughout my childhood, the rules as well as answers to my many questions differed depending on whom I asked. This always left me questioning how I can trust a book left to human interpretation and why God didn’t make sure it was clear enough to eliminate confusion. Surely a book that was divinely written would be remarkably sophisticated and revealing. To justify the flaws, I was always reminded that it was still humans who wrote the book with the help of God. But it didn’t make sense to me why God didn’t just create it himself. God speaks to audiences through the clouds in the Bible. Would it have been much more of a stretch to send down a book? For a book that carries SO much responsibility, it sure would have solved a lot of problems. Even more, why can’t he just speak through the clouds today if he could do it then?

Though all these doubting questions were there, I got very good at suppressing them and coming up with justifications for the things that brought them to surface. It really wasn’t until taking my first job after college where my faith was tested like never before. For the first time in my life, I met people who didn’t just have different religious views, they actually worshiped different gods. I met an atheist as well. I got into conversations that required me to be the one preaching about my god who sounded absurd to those I was speaking to. In return, I was just as fascinated with learning about the things they were taught to believe and found them to be equally as bizarre. It opened my eyes to the fact that what I believed could most definitely be wrong. The possibility of other gods or no gods at all became real in a way that had never dawned on me before. If I believed I was right, that meant humans were good at inventing gods, rituals, religious experiences and holy books, which also meant everything about my religion could just as likely be false. My most immediate takeaway was the realization that a lot of people in this world aren’t abiding by all the religious “rules” I was instructed to follow. They don’t worship Jesus Christ. They don’t pray to saints or to a virgin mother Mary. They don’t go to church on Sundays. They don’t fast or observe Lent. They don’t confess their “sins” to a priest. They live together outside of marriage. And they don’t feel an ounce of guilt for any of it. It sounds naive but, growing up completely surrounded by Catholics, I always assumed most of the world was at least Christian. I guess I never learned or thought about the fact that 70 percent of the world’s population doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as anything other than human or mythology. This made me the minority, not the majority that I always assumed. By peeling away the bias I had towards my own religion layer by layer I was able to see the absurdities in it that I always so easily spotted in other religions. For the first time I felt like I was finally thinking openly and clearly about the subject.

The feelings I just described, alongside of having constant unanswered questions and never being able to satisfy my curiosity, were enough for me to consider looking into God and my religion a bit further. Throughout my childhood and even into early adulthood, religious ideas and thoughts have been imposed on me. I did not choose my religion for myself, it was chosen for me at birth. I don’t like to give anything 50 percent, but I cannot give something 100 percent and be passionate about it unless I really believe in it. And I can’t truly believe in something I didn’t reason myself into in the first place. I look at it this way – I take the time to shop around for houses, vehicles and vacation packages so that I can feel good about what I end up with. Even though a salesman could make that decision for me pretty easily and tell me which deal is best, I don’t really know for sure unless I have something to compare to. I can’t be proud of a car I purchased until I know I’ve done my research and spent my money wisely. I felt like I owed the same to my god more than anything else considering the importance of religion in my life. How could I ever say and firmly believe my religion and my god were right and other religions and gods were wrong if I never looked into the alternatives? If I had never even fully read the holy book in which my beliefs were based, much less any other holy book for that matter?

I started my research about two years ago by actually reading the book from which my beliefs were rooted, the Holy Bible. I attended both Catholic grade school and high school and went to church every Sunday since birth, so I figured I knew most of what it contained. To say I was surprised by its contents would be an understatement. I couldn’t believe all the things that are completely disregarded. I always imagined God as pure, loving and perfect in a way that humans could never be. I was shocked to learn that God has lowly human characteristics in the Bible. He was wrathful, he murdered millions of people for seemingly no reason, he sought revenge, his view and treatment of women compared to men angered me, he ordered homosexuals to be killed, he encouraged and advocated for slavery and much more. He did so many things that even we, as imperfect humans, know better today. To learn all this so late frustrated me. In my opinion, much of the Bible is primitive and childish. Thankfully most people have outgrown taking it literally. One of my biggest questions that repeatedly emerged while reading it was why God commanded and required worship at all. To me, wanting attention, recognition and worship is a selfish human characteristic. Even humans do good things anonymously without asking for praise and for people to bow down to them. Wouldn’t God rather we spend time volunteering somewhere or simply laughing with our loved ones instead of praising him? On top of needing to be worshiped, why did God have to make so many rules on how people went about worshiping? And the punishment for not doing so was outrageously extreme. It just didn’t add up.

When my coworker handed me a book in favor of atheism, called 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison, I honestly didn’t think my beliefs would change by reading it. I had worshiped God my whole life and was pretty certain what I believed matched what was true. But because of everything mentioned above, I at least wanted to try to see where the other side was coming from. To say the least, I was very intrigued after reading that book which opened a flood gate. It led me to learning about the history of gods and religions, both past and present. It opened my mind up in ways I could not have imagined. It allowed me to dig deeply into all those questions that I had been suppressing for so many years. It gave me the freedom to think for myself for the first time in my life without guilt or bias. My favorite quote from that book came from Stephen F. Roberts, “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” I read this quote several times thinking very hard about what it was really saying. I thought about all the reasons why I so quickly dismissed every other god and religion and applied that logic to my own views.

What I came to realize during my research was that I am not a believer in a god. It took 20 years of trying to convince myself daily that God was real, and even after all that time, I still never felt absolutely certain. After just a few months of research, critical thinking and freeing my mind, I am more confident there is no god than I ever was convinced there is one. It was like everything that had to deal with God – the stories in the Bible, the way God was running the world, the fact that we had to worship at all, the rules, the rituals – was all silly to me, yet I still believed in him. Looking back now, I can see how illogical that was.

Really, the biggest thing that kept me believing was the abundance of supernatural stories floating around. Whether I saw them on TV, read them in a book, heard personal stories from friends or experienced them for myself, without a doubt it was what I hung on to. While researching I became conscious of the fact that other religious groups with completely different ideologies and gods all have personal “supernatural” experiences that happen to match their beliefs. Only after digging into this seemingly odd correlation and learning about human psychology was I fully able to perceive the power of belief, not the power of gods. This was the last piece of the puzzle that allowed me to finally accept God as mythology and let him go.

What you might find surprising is I can honestly say I find more inner happiness and peace as a nonbeliever than I ever did believing in God. At the same time, I will admit there has been discontent in that my view on this matter no longer matches the “norm” of the society I live in. It is a sensitive subject in which my opinion now differs from the majority of the people I love and care about. That has most definitely been, and will continue to be, my biggest challenge and the worst consequence of exploring this topic.

However, at the same time, my appreciation of life and the things around me have only been heightened. The phrases, “live each moment as if it was your last” and “life is short,” have stronger meanings for me now than ever before. I believe life is right now and is exactly and only what we make it to be. I no longer worry about making adjustments to please a god that may not even exist. I do my very best to always live in the present and find ways to be happy today here on earth because I truly believe it’s all we get. Whether or not we live on is up to the people still living. I hope to make a big enough impact in other people’s lives for the positive that they keep me alive after I’m gone, even if it’s just for a short while.

Instead of crediting the wonder (and the evil too) in our world to a god, I make a constant effort to try to really understand the way it all works and fits together. Learning how our world came into existence and how it has evolved into what it is today makes it more exciting, amazing, and fascinating to me. The reality of what’s out there is beautiful and pretty magical in my opinion, superpowers aside.

I feel a connection to the human race, nature and this huge universe in ways I never felt before. I believe this is a connection I was only truly able to grasp after fully accepting that we aren’t superior and made “special” by a god who is running the show. Learning the science behind the formation of the universe, earth, oceans, trees and humans, to name a few, is incredibly humbling and continuously reminds me of how connected we all are. I have always been empathetic towards others but believing there was a god with a master plan looking out for everyone somehow made all the bad in the world a little more acceptable. I used to feel that bad people will eventually get what’s coming to them and good people who suffer through horrible lives will be rewarded someday in a magical place called heaven. Now that my beliefs have changed, the empathy I have and desire to want to help and make a difference has only grown. Religious people often have a negative view of atheists as bad people doing the devil’s work. I know now that could not be more opposite from the truth. I have learned that atheists are good people too (besides, we don’t believe in the devil either). In fact, the studies and statistics on religious vs. non-religious societies would probably surprise most believers. The principle of “do unto others as you’d have them do to you” is a very common sense concept that is comprehensible for anyone, religious beliefs aside.

People have asked me, “What if you’re wrong? What if there is a god?” It’s a valid question. Here is my short answer. If when I die, the god (or gods) that turns out to be real says to me, “How have you lived your life?” I will tell him/her/it that I helped people when possible, I loved as deeply as I could and I tried to make a positive difference in the world in any way I was capable. If that god then angrily replies, “But you did not worship me!” then I would rather that god send me as far away from him/her/it as possible because that’s no god I want to spend eternity with. Besides, even if I did believe in a god, with all the gods people worship both past and present, the odds of me choosing the correct one aren’t in my favor. Because most of these gods are very jealous and disapprove of worshiping other gods, I would likely be going to someone’s hell anyways. And there would be a lot of really good people going with me. On another note, why would some devil figure punish you for doing what he wanted? Wouldn’t he be giving you high fives or something? Surely he’s smart enough to know he’s going to deter people from doing his work if the only reward is eternal torture. It makes absolutely no sense.

In defense of heaven and the notion of an afterlife, I’ve heard many people say, “There’s got to be something more to life than this. This can’t be it.” What I hope people come to realize is that we already know with 100 percent certainty there is something greater, and it’s all around us. It exists now, while we are living, and you don’t have to look very hard or wait until you’re dead to find it. It is frustrating to me how many people don’t even look twice at the amazing things that surround them. Don’t wait until you die to think you’re going to find that “something more.” It’s out there for you to find now. If you still have a need for something bigger to look forward to, then all you have to do is use your imagination. The things that people dream up for fiction movies, science actually makes possible. What you fantasize about today might just be reality tomorrow. Believe it or not, but things like flying, teleportation, time travel and eternal life here on earth are considered to be real possibilities someday. That gives me plenty to dream about, hope for and look forward to.