I became a born again Christian at the tender age of 7, and did all the Christian stuff, including baby baptism, water baptism, praying in tongues (baptism of the Holy Spirit) and what not.
I had a lot of Christian friends, and still do. My family includes a youth pastor, and the sort of people who socialise on weekends with the pastor of your church and his family.
Now that I am not a Christian, I hear virtually nothing from the Christian members of my family. It’s ironic, and not a little disappointing, that relationships with Christian friends appear to have survived my change of heart better than relations with my family. But if you think it's easy to not be a Christian when your family are Christians, no it is not. It is difficult and traumatic.
It is also tough to love someone who is a Christian, in a romantic sense, who can’t get over the fact that your not being a Christian is a dealbreaker, a ‘real’ problem, for them. How can one change or resolve differences, if the problem is your beliefs? Everyone knows beliefs tend be quite sticky.
What few people realise is that everyone’s beliefs are exactly what one would expect them to be, given the set of circumstances that that person has been in. Which is why atheism often goes against the grain, it goes beyond the average person’s experience, but once again, it is exactly what one would expect given the life experience of that person. It’s not easy to believe that when you’re dead you’re dead, but I did not become a Christian because I was interested in easy, or forsake my faith in God because that was easy – it wasn’t – I was interested in the truth. And the truth, when it is real, and integrated, and authentic, and objectively real in more than one sense, then it really does set you free.
The challenge here is not in finding sufficient reasons for why I am not a Christian, but what not to say on this particular subject.
I’ll try to divide this article broadly into 3 parts. The impact of the church itself on my beliefs, my personal experiences, and then the broader implications of our beliefs.
When our pastor contracted malaria after a trip to Mozambique, he refused to take anti-malarials, and after a long period of suffering, died. The church then arranged a sort of séance – I mean the word in the sense that the pastor was dead, the congregation was supposed to pray around his dead body and summon his spirit from the grave. I, being one of the most committed Christians in the church, surprised everyone by refusing to be part of it. My point was that he was dead, and tragic as it was, would have to accept it. I was warned that this refusal would be remembered. I accepted the warning, and was told I was missing out on an opportunity to witness a miracle, one that would send shockwaves through our community. But no such Lazarus event transpired. I heard later that there was plenty of hysterical praying and dancing and screaming, but after three days the pastor remained dead, and was later buried. I can’t imagine what the trauma of this extended demise did to his children and wife. In any event, I remained a committed Christian in spite of this event.
The End of the World (Again)
The first crisis that I clearly remember was when Christians began to inform me about the end of the world. The word ‘rapture’ came up often, and I think it was decided that 1988 was a good year to prepare for. Hal Lindsay was selling a lot of books about the second coming, and it’s interesting to see that after the world didn’t end, he continued to write and sell the story of the imminent demise of the world :
- The Late, Great Planet Earth
- Satan is Alive and Well On Planet Earth
- The Liberation of Planet Earth
- There's a New World Coming
- The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon
- The Final Battle
- The Terminal Generation
- Planet Earth: The Final Chapter
- Planet Earth - 2000 A.D.
- Apocalypse Code
- Blood Moon
- Vanished into Thin Air: the Hope of Every Believer
- The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Jihad
After counting down to Armageddon in the 80’s, we did the same in the 90’s, and still seem to be doing that. The imminent death of the world, whilst exciting to some Christians, was not something that inspired me. It was not something I welcomed, in contrast to the wild-eyed Christians around me.
What is it with those fake pastor voices?
Another episode that was jarring for me, was encountering Christians who saw every negative thing as a sign of demon infestation. There seemed to be every kind of demon too, a demon for boredom, a demon of lust, a demon of procrastination, a demon of jealousy, a demon of wanting to work too hard… And while some of the shaking and writhing was compelling, some of it started to feel like it was going off the rails. People telling you breathlessly how God found them a parking space, or the last roll of toilet paper, also didn’t help.
Thy shalt not have sex, think about sex or play with thyself, though sex slavery is perhaps permissible…
2 Samuel 12: 11-14 :
Thus says the Lord: 'I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight.’
Deuteronomy 20: 10-14:
As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you.
I think the most obvious problems that I experienced between Christianity and the real world were those that applied to sex. Some Christians are fairly relaxed about what the bible says, but I was not. I was a sincere Christian, trying to live as perfect a life as I could (even though we are saved not by good works, but by God’s grace). One of the first crisis’ I experienced was at age 24 when three of my best friends – all Christians – got married. Although I was also in love, and almost 20 years later still consider that girlfriend to be possibly ‘the one’, I did not feel I was ready to get married.
When the above relationship ended, I sought comfort in the bible and found none. In fact, the strangest thing was that the most relevant verse for me was ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’
Fair enough, but I also believed very strongly that fornication was wrong. And here Jesus does not provide a model for how to deal with sexuality, because as far as we know, he never had girlfriend, never had a wife or children, in fact does not seem to demonstrate sexual feelings of any nature. As such, the most important spectrum of humanity is not modelled in the bible through the life of Jesus at all. Presumably it is more honourable and divine for a Godman-figure to remain a sort of revolutionary bachelor. And a woman would make Jesus look bad, and perhaps ordinary. Really?
So how can one use the bible to make moral choices, and often very personal decisions that have less to do with morality, and more to do with sense and sensibility? If we decide to have sex outside of marriage, we have to make a personal choice, and a responsible one, and that relies on the individual being mature. Because in this respect, again, the bible is no help other than to say we should abstain completely from sex until we are married. But what if we only get married at age 30? Or 35? Abstain through the best years of our youth?
In any event, sex wasn’t the main or only reason I began to question my faith. But sex does ask the individual to be courageous, to individuate into his own person, to make mature decisions, and to think for themselves. (Those who don’t tend to have those not-on-purpose babies, and in my experience, I believe a third to a half of people in our society are conceived ‘accidentally’. If this number is wrong, the point is that there are far more accidental pregnancies than we realise. It is one of the things many people are too embarrassed to admit.)
But the strict discipline the bible imposes on sex is exactly why many people begin to keep secrets, why there is so much unnecessary subterfuge, which then also makes them feel dirty, and sinful, and best of all, guilty, and all religions thrive on the guilt feelings of their followers.
Another aspect to point out is that some Christians believe that their religion improved the status of women. As Bertrand Russell says in his book ‘Why I am not a Christian’, this claim “is one of the grossest perversions of history that is possible to make.” Jesus himself and the bible seems to advocate bachelorhood, but if you burn with lust, to get married. There are also innumerable verses that treat woman as inferior objects, including Eve constructed out of a man’s rib, Eve taking the fall (for man’s sinfulness) and Jesus himself saying to his own mother:
Woman, what have I do to with thee?
About a man wanting to bury his newly deceased father:
Follow me; and let the dead bury the dead.
In terms of family Jesus says:
For I am come to SET A MAN AT VARIANCE AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND THE DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND THE DAUGHTER IN LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER IN LAW. And a MAN'S FOES SHALL BE THEY OF H IS OWN HOUSEHOLD.
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
So Jesus himself is not exactly a paragon of family values. But let’s get back to the personal reasons for not being a Christian.
I travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Far East during my late twenties and early thirties. At first I was appalled that despite the magnificent cathedrals, the proportion of non religious folk was staggering (especially when compared to the high proportions of Christians in South African society). I also experienced my first real sense of being rejected by an atheist, when I met someone I had corresponded to for 10 years, and when we came onto the subject of religion, she was appalled that I supported such an obvious evil. Our friendship ended soon after that, but I continued to be a Christian.
Asking Questions and Finding New Answers
It was in the East, that I finally started asking questions, and going to the trouble to answer them. The internet helped. I also did a huge amount of reading. And also writing. One of the questions I asked myself was ‘what is your firsthand experience’, and used that to test the veracity of something. The idea for this I think came from the experience that when you suffer heartbreak, only you know your situation, the bible certainly can’t offer advice. And in many senses besides this, we are alone (with God).
So the questions I asked were:
What is your firsthand experience of prayer? Of death? Of God? Of miracles? Of the afterlife? Of the world? Of other Christians? Of folks who aren’t Christians? The creation/evolution of the world, how did that happen (what is the consensus of the world’s smartest people?) Is there a soul? How and why and when and who wrote the bible? And eventually: did Jesus really exist?
In terms of prayer, who changes, God or me? (Answer: Me, which means God does not have to be there).
What is my firsthand experience of death? I may not have died, but I know what it is like not to exist. How do I feel about not existing 2236 years ago? I couldn’t care less. I have no emotional feelings about it whatsoever. Death itself must feel the same way – one is not there to experience it.
Miracles? The pastor experience is a clear case of miracle not happening. I’ve experienced some inexplicable things in my life. I remember many people praying for me, and doing very well in those exams, but can one really call that a miracle? No.
Where is heaven? Can we go there now? Why not? If it’s such a paradise, why not kill ourselves and go there immediately? What does one do there? How can the energy of our bodies, our souls (supposedly) maintain their integrity and identities? Without a brain, how can we be who we are? Surely in heaven we don’t have ID books, so what is there to distinguish ourselves? If I think of the people I know who are dead, do I really imagine they are in heaven? Do I really imagine that I will form this silky field of energy and join them in heaven, or is that what I wish to feel?
My sense of the world is that it seems to be a place created and populated by man. And nowhere is this sadder and more disappointing than in religion. We try to cow ourselves into remaining children, and sheep, and making the business of life God’s business, his ‘mysterious ways’, and we basically defect from living into waiting to die in order to go to heaven.
I began to see, that on average, I disliked Christians, and found them uncritical, and for some reason, weak and unlikable people. People who had sent themselves off the playing fields of life, and become observers, and judges. I found Christians we\ho were less fundamentalistic more fun, and also, smarter. And I could not help admiring those who were totally untouched by Christianity – or any religion. They seemed to be living unfettered lives, they seemed to be happy and balanced and connected to the world and themselves.
I began to realise simple, obvious truths that the money we give to the church pays for a pastor’s salary, and that this had other obvious implications (that if you are being paid to say something subjective, how unbiased are you going to be?). I began to find more and more people who had been deeply ensconced in the church, only to be rejected for some problem. Sam Kineson is a great example – a preacher who became a memorable stand-up comedian. But also many scholars and pastors. The hypocrisy of Christians began to bother me intensely.
I also did a fantastic amount of reading. One book, Conversations With God, demonstrated how anyone can have a conversation with God. I can, right now. It just requires skilful, general, mythic language.
God is in the sadness and the laughter, in the bitter and the sweet. There is a divine purpose behind everything—and therefore a divine presence in everything.
Is it your thought that I despise some of these, while I love the others? I tell you, I despise nothing. None of it is repulsive to Me. It is life, and life is the gift; the unspeakable treasure; the holy of holies.
You cannot create a thing—not a thought, an object, an event—no experience of any kind—which is outside of God’s plan. For God’s plan is for you to create anything—everything—whatever you want.
I do not love “good” more than I love “bad.” Hitler went to heaven. When you understand this, you will understand God.
Incidentally those are Walsch’s words, not mine. Oddly enough, I began to see how God’s voice, and our own inner voice, are one and the same. In other words, we make God real. It feels powerful because our expectations are constantly stimulated, and the imagination does the rest.
And then when one researches the bible, and evolution, and the life of Darwin, and Hitler, and Einstein, and Pontius Pilate, and the geology of the earth, and Francis Crick’s research on the human brain in The Astonishing Hypothesis…the obvious lie of Christianity slowly comes into a sharp focus. My journey from Christianity to atheism took years, and involved plenty of ignoring of the most conspicuous conflicting signals for years afterwards. But gradually the truth began to percolate through all that near-impenetrable indoctrination.
Bertrand Russell, in his book, ‘Why I am not a Christian’ writes that people often say we should not attack religion, because it makes people better. I agree with him, that I have often found the opposite to be true. I have also found that to be true in myself. I am a far stronger person now than I was as a Christian. I am more actualised, more confident, more courageous, more in tune with myself and world. And also more mature. Most important, there is an exhilarating freedom that comes at the end of so much searching.
We have a very precious gift. One life. One lifetime, to live, to thrive instead of just survive. As Ernest Becker says, this is our chance to fashion something, an object or ourselves, and drop it into the confusion, the maelstrom, and make an offering to the life force.
We can do that with the vitality of our own living spirits, and live authentic, courageous lives. Or we can cower under the faux chicken wings of Christianity. I’ve made my choice. And like Bertrand Russell, I’ve come to realise that the decay of dogmatic belief can only be good, for the individual, our species and all species, and all the world.