“I am”

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Currently Listening
Imagine (Original Soundtrack)
By John Lennon
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"I am"

After many years in the shadows, I feel it’s finally time for me to come forward. Well, at least anonymously, for now.

I grew up a very religious person. My folks, while Christian, did not force this deep religiosity onto me. While several members of my family were serious, long term, involved church-goers, I wouldn’t consider them religious fanatics; they were just good people trying to do what they thought was right. And to their credit they didn’t try to turn me into a "Jesus freak", or anything like that.

In fact, I was more religious than the rest of my family for a number of years. I seriously considered going to Seminary so I could learn more about God and help preach His word as a pastor. I took what was said in Sunday school and church very seriously. I used to think, for example, that a lot of popular music was sinful because more often than not, the writer was "coveting" someone, which was clearly impure and against the Ten Commandments. When I mentioned that one time to my family, my folks thought that was a little extreme. I agreed to disagree.

In church, I could sometimes feel God’s presence on me. Sort of a tingling feeling of well-being washing all over me. I tried very hard to be at one with my Savior, some weeks I felt closer than others. But I knew God was there, looking down on us.

I really didn’t talk much about my religious beliefs to anyone. Part of it was that I was a very shy, quiet kid when I growing up. But also I think a part of me didn’t believe in forcing my beliefs onto other people. This is part of the reason why I didn’t make the decision to become a pastor. I guess I thought people would eventually "find the way" on their own, with God’s help of course. Or that by being a good Christian setting a good example, others would become good people, too, and that would lead them to Christ. Once people knew about how much God loved them, about what a wondrous life heaven promised, and realized that non-believers risked a life of eternal damnation, it seemed obvious that people would want to choose to believe in God. It was something they had to decide for themselves.

But then came the doubts. The first serious doubt I had was when I found out for sure that Santa didn’t exist. I had suspected something was up for a long time (the handwriting of Santa and the Easter Bunny did suspiciously look like my parents’… ). I think in a way I put Santa and Jesus in the same category. Both were these magical beings who kept track of when you were good or bad, and if you were good they rewarded you. So when I was out and out told one time to "grow up" about Santa, it kind of scared me. And I almost immediately thought about God: if Santa wasn’t real, was God pretend, too? I convinced myself that he couldn’t be: I could "feel" his presence, and all those people who went to church every week certainly knew he existed, too. So I decided that Santa was just make-believe for children, but God was the real deal.

The next doubts came with contemplating some of God’s punishments: specifically, eternal damnation. Do non-believers who never heard of Jesus go to hell, too? What about babies who died before they could be baptized: did God send them to hell? I don’t think I was the one who posed these questions, although I can’t remember where I heard them. But they seemed like valid points. I figured there must be some misunderstanding about what God did in these cases, or some loophole God had to save people like this. I believed that hell did exist, but knew that believers didn’t go there. I figured I would figure out the details some day. The more I learned about my faith, the more I would understand.

But the thing that eventually started weighing on me the most was something that I later found out bothers a lot of people: the question of suffering. If "God is love", why does God make us suffer? I had two family members who both got cancer within a short time of each other, and eventually they would both die of it. I could certainly think of reasons why God would punish them (after all, everyone is "by nature sinful and unclean", as we recited in church often), but why make them suffer? What made them more deserving of cancer than anyone else? Why not just forgive them? Isn’t that why Jesus died on the cross for us? It simply didn’t make sense.

I don’t remember a specific day, but eventually it became clear to me that I couldn’t believe in a God who made my family suffer, and made other people’s families suffer. If someone is all powerful, they should use that power to stop suffering, not inflict it. I did have several periods of "relapse": trying to read the Bible, read about other religions and seeing if there was a way I could reconcile my doubts and believe in a god (any god) again. I was very afraid of going to hell for my disbelief, but the more I looked, the more questions came up, and the less I could imagine truly believing again.

This was a very private process. I can probably count on one hand the number of people I know whom I’ve even hinted that I might not be 100% true blue Christian anymore. I found some solace in the Internet. I saw just how many people out there who, like me, thought the whole thing didn’t make sense. I started visiting a few sites, especially The Skeptics Annotated Bible (I felt if I ever got "caught" by someone, I could just say I had a few questions that I was looking up in the Bible, or that I wanted to see what the "other side" was saying about religion. "Skeptic" was a lot safer than "unbeliever".)

Then I eventually started posting on some sites, anonymously of course. In some sense it was therapeutic to be able to read and talk about things that I was really interested in, and to discuss more issues having to do with religion and spirituality. I could not talk about these things with my family and friends, so the Internet helped me discover more what I truly believed on some issues I had never dared to explore, or which I had only thought of briefly. And the best thing was, with all the information available the Internet, it wasn’t just beliefs or feelings: I could look up things that confirmed what I felt, that challenged things I believed, or that helped me make up my mind. I had blindly accepted my religious beliefs for pretty my much entire childhood; I wasn’t going to blindly disbelieve in my adulthood.

And that’s part of why I’m posting this blog. I have probably read nearly all of the Bible, much of the Book of Mormon, and a smattering of other religious texts. I’ve considered, read, and/or posted on various sites about a number of the big questions about religion, and some of the smaller ones. But it’s been with starts and stops, and not a thorough examination.

What I’m hoping to do is go in-depth and look at religious dogma, religious texts, and religiosity in its various forms, and examine it. I hope to find the good, the bad, and the ugly. Since I was raised Christian and I now see so much that is horrible in this book I once thought I believed in, the Bible will be my starting point. I’m sure as national, world, and personal events merit, there will be plenty of detours along the road that I’ll talk about. But I’m planning to re-read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, note my reactions and investigate some points more, before passing on to other religions and belief systems.

So many people (I used to be among them) think they believe 100% in the Bible and its God, without even having read the whole book! I think they would be thoroughly shocked at some of the things in there, just like I am. My story is not unique, and I know other blogs and sites have examined the Bible and religion from a skeptic/freethinking/atheist point of view. I’m not trying to re-do or out-do what has already done. This is just a continuation of my personal journey. And I welcome any and all comments as I go on this journey, from non-believers, believers, and anyone in between. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for people openly and honestly discussing their beliefs with me on the Web.

So much time, money, tears, and blood is spent on religion. People trying to please an imaginary God who does not exist. This greatly saddens me, and I can only hope that one day people can break away from religion like I have done. Although I’m still not comfortable openly being an atheist, I think this blog will eventually lead me to being able to confess this to the people I know and love, and to be able to confidently say why. Some day, when some family member, friend, or acquaintance talks to me about God doing this or that, I won’t be able to quietly pretend anymore. I’ll have to say that I don’t believe in God.

They will ask me, "Are you an atheist?" And my answer will be, "I am".