My untestimony is given below. Follow the arrows at the bottom to read untestimonies from others. If you have had a similar experience, I'd like to Perhaps we can include your article in this series.
My religion served me well for many years, except for the dreams, which began around age 11. Three or four times a year I'd dream about heaven. My schoolmates were there, and sometimes people I didn't even know. Yet we were one. Somehow I knew each and every one of them, and I loved them all. Happiness and joy were in the air, like nitrogen and oxygen in our Earthly atmosphere. Evil couldn't possibly enter here - not even a speck of sadness. I can honestly say I have never felt this much joy in my waking life. The flip side to this is the nightmares, which were, mercifully, less frequent. I saw the face of the Devil and felt the flames of hell, and I knew the parole board would never convene. Torment forever - that was my lot. I woke up in a cold sweat and wondered if that might indeed be my future. Perhaps I didn't say the prayer properly. I quickly said it again, just to be safe. But wait, what if I'm saying the right words, yet my thoughts aren't sincere enough? Or what if the teachers at church are wrong? After all, there are other religions out there. I had so many questions and no concrete answers. I read the Bible every night but it never gave me peace of mind.
Sometimes I would say the prayer a dozen times a day. After all, nothing in life matters if you don't get this one right. I was careful to include all the points: my guilt, God's perfection, the sacrifice for my sins, my acceptance of the gift, in Jesus name amen. Yes, that's the ticket, and I sincerely believed it, but the dreams kept coming - the good and the bad.
The fact that this obsession blossomed around age 12 is no coincidence. That is when I began to think about infinity. I talked to my math teacher at length about what 4/0 really meant. How big is big, and how long is forever? Compared to eternity, nothing in this life really matters, absolutely nothing. All that matters is heaven or hell. This is surely the question that demands my full attention.
During my freshman year of college I asked a Christian friend, whome I respect and admire greatly, for help.
Here is an approximate recreation of that conversation, some 30 years hence.
"How can a loving god do that?" I asked in astonishment.
"Just because someone didn't say the right prayer, or didn't believe in Him?"
"Perhaps He has to." suggested my friend.
"There are laws of righteousness, just like there are laws of physics."
"So God is omnipotent, except when He isn't?" I asked, growing more confused.
"Well, if He let sinful souls into heaven it wouldn't be heaven any more."
"Ok, but why doesn't He wink them out of existence?
Why the eternal torment?
What kind of a sick and twisted sadist is this God?
Perhaps He can't forgive us after the fact, or let us into heaven,
but He doesn't have to torture us.
When you get to heaven you will certainly find that a loved one didn't make it.
Are you going to be happy knowing that, with each passing second of eternity,
your loved one is in agony?"
My friend thought for a moment.
"Perhaps God can't distroy a soul.
They are immutable entities, like mass/energy in this world."
Very convenient - just take one more step away from omnipotence.
"So we can't be destroyed, but why hell?
Why not just put us in a room off to the side?"
"I think the pain of hell actually comes from being separated from God.
We need Him so desperately that the longing becomes the pain.
It is inescapable."
Interesting, but now the flames of hell are a metaphor.
I'd always been taught they were literal.
Somehow my pastor knew exactly which verses were literal and which ones were metaphor.
But how did he know?
And now my friend, whom I respect very much, suggests an alternate interpretation.
Maybe nobody knows.
I asked one final question on the subject.
"Ok, so God can't forgive after the fact, and He can't let us into heaven,
and He can't destroy us, and we're in constant torment simply because we're not with Him.
Now I'm granting a great deal to concede all these points,
especially for a God that I thought was omnipotent.
But He's still omniscient, right?
That's what I've always been told.
If He knew that a significant portion of humanity was going to be screaming
in pain forever, why create us in the first place?
The compassionate thing to do would be to pull out a deck of cards and play solitaire forever.
If He's a loving omniscient God, nothing else makes sense.
Or must we set aside His omniscience as well?"
At this point my friend was stumped.
"I don't know." he admitted.
"I guess I'll understand everything when I get there."
"How can a loving god do that?" I asked in astonishment. "Just because someone didn't say the right prayer, or didn't believe in Him?"
"Perhaps He has to." suggested my friend. "There are laws of righteousness, just like there are laws of physics."
"So God is omnipotent, except when He isn't?" I asked, growing more confused.
"Well, if He let sinful souls into heaven it wouldn't be heaven any more."
"Ok, but why doesn't He wink them out of existence? Why the eternal torment? What kind of a sick and twisted sadist is this God? Perhaps He can't forgive us after the fact, or let us into heaven, but He doesn't have to torture us. When you get to heaven you will certainly find that a loved one didn't make it. Are you going to be happy knowing that, with each passing second of eternity, your loved one is in agony?"
My friend thought for a moment. "Perhaps God can't distroy a soul. They are immutable entities, like mass/energy in this world."
Very convenient - just take one more step away from omnipotence. "So we can't be destroyed, but why hell? Why not just put us in a room off to the side?"
"I think the pain of hell actually comes from being separated from God. We need Him so desperately that the longing becomes the pain. It is inescapable."
Interesting, but now the flames of hell are a metaphor. I'd always been taught they were literal. Somehow my pastor knew exactly which verses were literal and which ones were metaphor. But how did he know? And now my friend, whom I respect very much, suggests an alternate interpretation. Maybe nobody knows. I asked one final question on the subject.
"Ok, so God can't forgive after the fact, and He can't let us into heaven, and He can't destroy us, and we're in constant torment simply because we're not with Him. Now I'm granting a great deal to concede all these points, especially for a God that I thought was omnipotent. But He's still omniscient, right? That's what I've always been told. If He knew that a significant portion of humanity was going to be screaming in pain forever, why create us in the first place? The compassionate thing to do would be to pull out a deck of cards and play solitaire forever. If He's a loving omniscient God, nothing else makes sense. Or must we set aside His omniscience as well?"
At this point my friend was stumped. "I don't know." he admitted. "I guess I'll understand everything when I get there."
Whatever the reasons, I could no longer accept the literal words of Luke chapter 16, and once you've questioned your first Bible verse you're on a slippery slope. Soon the entire religion is under scrutiny. Fundamentalists understand this progression, thus they will defend to the death every word in every verse, even verses that are tangential to the underlying theology. If the laws of the land permit, they'll do whatever it takes to silence those who propose a heleocentric solar system, or a round Earth, or an old Earth, or biological evolution, or anything else that might contradict a Bible verse as it is interpreted at the time. Sometimes the verse can be reinterpreted by the next generation, when the evidence is overwhelming. After all, "God sits on the circle of the Earth" was used to prove that the Earth was flat, and later it was used to confirm that the Earth is round, just one more of God's prophesies come true.
There is no good answer to question 1, although the fundamentalists keep telling me I have no right to ask "why". Presumptuous to second-guess God and all that rot.
The Hindus and Native Americans were much closer to resolving question 2 than western thought will ever be.
Finally, question 3 might have a reasonable answer: "The soul is assigned by god when the creature's mind is complex enough to support it." This is probably the key that allows a few well-educated Christians to accept evolution. We can only hope this mindset spreads, and soon, because rejecting evolution is dangerous foolishness that leads to reckless policies in agriculture, livestock management, medicine, the environment, and even sociology. Unfortunately it may take several generations before the vast majority of Christians accept evolution (it's already been 150 years), because a clear understanding of our origins necessarily raises questions about the existence of souls, and who has them. We have a long up-hill battle ahead of us.
"Man's fate is like that of the animals;
the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other.
All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal.
All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"
Ecclesiastes chapter 3
Yet there is an even greater obstacle to over come - suddenly nobody is watching over us. Nobody is guiding our footsteps and taking care of us as we move through life. Our prayers are a waste of time. Initially, I expected immortality to be the higher hurdle (it was for me), but as I have said before, most people cannot imagine infinity, especially when so many Earthly problems worry us each and every day. There are plenty of people who don't believe in an afterlife, but almost everyone believes in some kind of guiding cosmic force. Things happen for a reason, and each sorrow contributes to the greater good. Virtually everyone I know believes at least this much. It's terribly difficult to accept the fact that things just happen. Enos Cosby died because somebody's aim was true. A couple minutes of arc to the left and he'd be alive. No guidance from above, it just happened that way. Some good may come out of it, or maybe not. Events happen at random, with no cosmic forces acting for or against us. Strange as it may seem, many people are more comfortable with a cruel yet sentient guiding force, rather than no guidance at all. Remember, the God of the Jews, predecessor of the Christian God, wasn't exactly kind to His people. It all depended on His mood that day. If He wanted to kill Job's family, strip his possessions, and put him in intense pain, just to win a bet with the Devil, well, that was His business. (I'll not pick nitts about whether He did it or whether He allowed the Devil to do it; it's all the same.) Apparently a perverse God is better than no God at all. Accepting the fact that we are alone in the universe, or practically so given the speed of light, is the hardest lesson of all.
My unconversion was a gradual process, requiring many years. People can suddenly "believe", their lives changed in an instant, but it takes years to "unbelieve", as the tide of knowledge slowly wears away the granitee pillars of cherished assumptions. Then, suddenly, you find yourself swimming, with nothing to stand on. And if you're lucky, you learn how to swim.
More than anyone else, Carl Sagan taught us how to swim. The universe is a magnificent place all by itself. We don't need God or Scientology or Astrology to give our lives meaning and direction. "Do something worthwhile," Sagan encouraged, "and you'll feel worthwhile." The best way to achieve immortality is to leave a positive legacy behind. Mozart isn't in heaven, all his atoms have been recycled and his consciousness evaporated into nothingness, but he is immortal through his music. A good parent is also immortal, because of the excellent job he/she does raising a child.
Education might be a vaccine that shields our minds from irrational beliefs, but it is no cure. Once a life is based upon Jesus, or any other superstition, logic and reason are rarely sufficient to displace these cherished beliefs. You have to put something else in its place first, and remove the crutches of religion later. Unfortunately my thought process undermined my religion first, before I had an alternate structure in place, which made the transition more difficult. But I believe I am atypical in this regard. Most people cannot abandon the smallest aspects of their religion until they are standing firmly on another foundation. This is something Sagan understood. Each young mind should watch Cosmos (Sagan's series), and Hawking's universe, and the NASA cable channel, and Discovery, and the Learning channel, and the History channel, before it becomes addicted to an irrational system of beliefs. There is a wonderful real world out there, full of reasons to live.
"My religion is based on the Bible because of its many prophesies that have come true."
This is a reasonable approach, but it's hard to know that all those prophesies have indeed come true. I've already mentioned the ease with which verses are reinterpreted to fit the times. And other prophesies are shoehorned into history until they fit. Still other prophesies have unquestionably come true. But let's be fair; Nostradamus made more correct predictions than Jesus; primarily because he made more predictions, and he had a few more centuries of knowledge and insight behind him. Yet neither Nostradamus nor Jesus (whoever you credit for writing the Bible) was on target very often, nor did they make any unambiguous predictions that were entirely unheralded by the knowledge of their day. If Mark 7:5 had said, "The sun is just another star, but closer.", or, "Water is 2 parts 1 and 1 part 8.", then I might still be a Christian today. It would certainly be easy for God to slip in one or two pearls of this magnitude. My second example wouldn't change history at all; it would remain a riddle until the periodic table was developed. Once again, God offers no concrete evidence that He exists, yet he (allegedly) damns people to hell for eternity if they don't believe in Him.
While I was growing up I listened to a powerful and charismatic preacher, Jack Van Impe, who visited our church regularly. "Jesus is coming in 1988." he asserted confidently. "The bible predicts it, and like every other prophesy in the Bible, it will come true. Are you ready to meet Jesus?" He reasoned as follows. There's a verse that says "this generation shall not pass away ...", referring to the generation of Israel. That began in 1948, and a generation is 40 years (quoting another verse), so you do the math. I recently heard him speaking on a cable channel. "Jesus is coming in 2007. Are you ready to meet Jesus?" Since 1988 came and went, he had to reinterpret. Now the generation of Israel begins in 1967. After the year 2007, I suppose a generation will become 3 score and 10. Course he had lots of other verses supporting his original, 1988 deadline. Several verses (collectively) proved Russia was the antiChrist, a sure sign that the end was nigh. Looking at Russia today, this is laughable. He sincerely believed everything he said, and it only took twenty years to unravel it all. He still has thousands of avid followers. Go figure!
"Of course not." replies the Christian. "God always is and always was."
Ok, why not skip the middle step and assume the universe always is and always was? That seems simpler to me.
"Irrelevant." I hear you cry. "Don't throw out the religion because of its idiotic followers." This is a good point, so let's look at the moral code itself. Just as the Bible doesn't contain any scientific understanding beyond the first century, it's moral concepts don't exactly tear through the first century envelope either (though they do push the envelope just a bit). Confucius suggested the golden rule 500 years before Jesus, as did Rabbi Hillel. If there was a new thought, it was probably salvation/redemption through grace, rather than works. This was prominent in Paul's writings, including the oft quoted Eph 2:8-9. Then again, if I had done what Saul did, I would definitely lean towards a God who would wipe the slate clean the moment I asked His forgiveness. So there is at least one new thought in the Bible, but I don't think it is centuries ahead of its time, and I'm not sure it makes any sense.
Although an all-forgiving God is ushered in by the new testament, some of His earlier attributes come back to haunt Him. He'll forgive you of the most hideous crimes in an instant, if you ask Him, but if you don't ask Him, here come the flames of hell. Because the writers of the new testament were trapped within their century, they could not construct a self-consistent system that would stand up to analytic thought. They introduced some very desirable changes (who wants to sacrifice animals every week), but there wasn't time to clean out the basement. The Bible swims in the first century, and rarely pokes its nose out of the water.
Finally I call attention to the recent declaration from the southern Baptists, reaffirming a wife's subordinate role in the home and in society. After all, it's in the Bible - end of discussion! There are of course dozens of ways that the new testament perpetuates the subordinate position of women, because that was first century thinking. I'm not going to open that can of worms at this time. Of more interest to me is the verses on slavery that reside in the same chapter. We are told by God that servants should obey their masters and masters should love their servants. This is indeed an advanced thought, given the environment that Paul was immersed in. For a brief moment he saw one or two centuries ahead of his time. But he couldn't see 18 centuries ahead. Let's be honest; a truly moral God would have written, "Slavery is wrong. Don't do it. It really pisses me off!" It's hard to view the Bible as a divinely inspired moral code when it lacks the courage or foresight to eschew slavery completely.
I believe global utilitarianism (or perhaps prioritarianism) is the only rational basis for a system of moral values. This is the notiont, somewhat simplified, that if everyone did x, and the world got worse, then you should not do x. You might get away with doing x, for whatever reason, but if everyone did x, and that made things worse, then you should refrain, even if you might gain personally by doing x. Note that you need to think in four dimensions, including time, for this to work. If everyone caught all the fish they could, this year, we'd all be richer, but our next generation wouldn't have any fish. Thus it is immoral to catch more than your legal quota. In other words, x has to be better for everyone, for the foreseeable future.
I'm glossing over a lot of details, such as the inherent difficulty in measuring utility, a problem that economists know well. Still, this is a better place to start than "The Bible tells me so."
"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education,
and social ties; no religious basis is necessary.
Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of
punishment and hope of reward after death."
- Albert Einstein
I've heard lots of these stories, and I know for a fact that most of them are true. Religion takes people out of desperate situations and gives them hope. More important, it gives them the incentive they need to turn their lives around. Read the original AA charter - you'll never break free from alcohol unless a "higher power" is on your side. This doesn't mean Jesus is actually up there pulling the strings, but it does suggest a placebo effect stronger than anyone had previously imagined. We owe it to ourselves to study it, and learn from it, and use it wherever possible to benefit society. A few intrepid scientists are investigating the biological basis for religion, and others believe it is a product of childhood, but more research is needed. If this placebo effect cannot be reproduced in any other way, and personally I don't think it can, than I'll be the first to hand Gospel tracks to prisoners and drug addicts. Any system of beliefs, real or imaginary, is better than living for your next high. Still, I sincerely hope that 3 centuries from now, everyone is offered the beauty of art and the wonder of knowledge (and enough food) at a young age, so they are not forced to choose between drugs and religion/metaphysics to give their lives meaning.
We need an answer to this question, and soon.
25 years later, they now know I am an atheist, and I don't think anything in this writeup would surprise them, but their underlying sadness persists. It does not seem to heal with time. They have often praised me for my accomplishments here on Earth. "Overcoming a serious disability, advanced degrees, a good and rewarding job, a wonderful husband and father, kind to everyone, and making a real contribution to society." All this they grant me again and again, but I can always hear the second half of the sentence, albeit unspoken. "But you're not saved, so none of this means anything."
When you step out of your religious closet your relationship with your family is permanently affected. There is still love, lots of love, but always a wall of separation. I am reminded of the scene from Fiddler On The Roof, where Tevia declares his daughter dead, and weeps bitter tears as surely as if she had died, because she married outside her faith. I feel for him every time I watch the movie, and I cry with him, but I know is position is irrational, and his grief entirely artificial and unnecessary. What a waste! Can't he recognize the fact that both religions are equally valid (or equally invalid), and accept his daughter for who she is? All my relatives feel the same way when they watch the movie, because they don't belong to either religion. But Tevia knows his religion is right, just as most of my relatives know that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life." They can no more see over their towering brick wall than Tevia can see beyond his, and if I try to argue the point, it only erodes our relationship further.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, I'm afraid I don't have any easy answers. You could go through the motions for life (my grandparents died certain that I was a Christian), but you might find it difficult to stay the course, especially if you are trying to raise children in another way. Best of luck to you, and to all of us.
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Here is one of my favorite jokes. Yes indeed, atheists do have a sense of humor.
Over the years Mark had become an outspoken atheist. He wasn't obnoxious about it, but he wasn't afraid to share his views either. He even posted them on his website.
One day Mark was out hiking in the woods when he heard a rustling behind him. He turned and saw a large black bear coming up on him fast. He tried to run, but nobody can outrun a bear. Realizing this, Mark turned and screamed and waved his arms over his head, hoping to scare the bear away. But the bear was not deterred. The bear picked Mark up, slammed him against a tree, and raised his right paw, claws extended, over Mark's face.
"God, help me!" Mark shouted aloud. It was a reflex action; he didn't even realize what he was saying.
Suddenly time stopped. The bear froze like a statue. Birds hung in the sky, locked in mid flight. Insects fell silent. Each blade of grass held its position, no longer blown by the wind.
A voice boomed from the sky. "Why do you ask me for help? Lo, you have denied me all these years. And you have led others astray. Why should I help you now?"
Mark replied, "Lord, I see now that I was mistaken. Only God can stop time. Make me a Christian and spare my life, and I will praise your name for all my days."
"You know I can't do that. I created man with free will. I can't force anyone to be a Christian."
"Then I become a Christian here and now, of my own free will."
"No, I can read what is in your heart, and you still do not truly believe. When this is over you will decide it was all a dream, or a fear-induced halucination. Your heart is hardened against me, and there is no hope for you. I will now restart time."
"Wait!" Mark cried. He scrambled for a way out, a loophole in God's laws, and finally came up with a solution. "The bear is just an animal. He has no free will. Make him a Christian. Perhaps he will understand the concept of love and mercy and let me go."
The wind returned, and birds resumed their flight. Insects buzzed in the trees. The bear lowered his paw and stared at Mark. Then he seemed to have an epiphany. He gently set Mark down on the ground at the base of the tree, took two steps backwards, and sat down on the grass. He placed his two front paws together and said, "Dear heavenly Father, thank you for this food that you have so graciously provided. Bless it to my body, and thus to thy service. In Jesus name, amen."