TRUTH AND SUFFERING: A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
Upon our return to the United States, I became a devout and studious believer in the fringe realm of anti-evolution, creationist science and a well-read, vocal obsessive in eschatological Christian theology. I took to internet forums as a precocious teen, spreading the message of Earth’s impending doom and our need to repent or face the consequences upon Christ’s imminent return and the onset of the apocalypse as told in the Book of Revelation. I took on atheists regularly with enthusiasm and (I thought) unbeatable arguments.
Ideas tend to reinforce themselves through the natural process of our psychological need for internal consistency, and so it wasn’t long before I was a young man on the brink of a college experience fully committed to the truth of the Bible as the literal, inerrant Word of God.
I suppose you could point to this pivotal moment as the beginning of a long and difficult de-conversion process. As a fan of classic Christian apologist thinkers like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, I was drawn to the concept of strengthening and clarifying ideology through effective challenge and argument. It was primarily for this reason that I chose to attend a secular university and study religion academically rather than take the course of some of my fundamentalist peers who were heading off to Christian colleges.
I’d like to paint for you the picture of an open-minded seeker of truth who dove into the secular study of religion with gusto, free from bias and craving correction, but this of course is not how the human mind generally works and my mind is unfortunately not exceptional. If I did anything exceptionally it was a willingness not to shy away from hard facts. I took courses on the historical Jesus, studied Biblical Hebrew with a rabbi to better understand the words of the Old Testament and undertook extra-curricular trips with professors to experience the cultural variations of my own religion and those of the world’s people. I wanted to know my faith because at the time I sincerely believed it was beyond recrimination.
I can still remember a discussion I had with Dr. James McGrath, a New Testament expert, in a hotel café in Riga, Latvia. We were there on a two-week trip to study the religious history of the Baltic States. This was the summer of my sophomore year and the cracks in my armor of self-deception had already begun to show, if ever so slightly.
I asked him about the problem of inerrancy, a question that had been plaguing me perhaps most of all at the time. If the Bible isn’t inerrant, how can any of it be trusted? Aren’t we essentially creating our own religion if we don’t accept all of it? And if it is inerrant, how do we reconcile the apparent contradictions and morally difficult passages? He began to offer a response, but our time was cut short by the next item on our itinerary and we put a pin in the conversation. We never did get a chance to revisit those questions, but it’s not because of this frustrated conclusion I remember it so well. I remember it because it marked the exact moment that the questions I’d been struggling to answer crystallized into genuine doubt about my beliefs.
I now understand why so many religious leaders caution against asking hard questions, once the doubt sets in the yarn tends to unravel. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim all religious people are suffering from acute self-deception (at least no more than anyone else), I am sure that many have doubts they effectively manage or deem inconsequential in the face of religious experience. Others feel no doubt at all. I was not one of these people.
With the doubt came that sinking feeling that profound uncertainty tends to bring with it, and I spent much of the next two years in a near constant state of mental struggle. The realization was a trickle at first. A series of questions that hung in the air. If the truth of the Bible is self-evident and God has both the desire and ability to reveal himself to us, why does it seem the vast majority of people live and die within the religious tradition they’re born and raised with? Is eternal damnation a fair punishment for temporal failing? If brain trauma impacts personality and decision making, does free will actually exist? Since morality shifts with history and the advancement of science, can a series of books written in a specific historical context truly claim to speak with the voice of absolute moral clarity?
Philosophical questions of this sort soon gave way to the dilemma of the moral message itself. Slavery, male dominion, genocide, the entire book of Job, animal sacrifice and the condemnation of homosexuals. If this collection of books was truly perfect in its depiction of morality, why did it conflict so consistently with my own innate sense of conscience.
Many of these questions probably seem patently obvious to some of you, but when you’re deeply nestled in the warm comfort and protection of profound self-deception, they are startlingly easy to overlook or ignore. When you’ve spent your entire life convinced of a fundamental truth about reality, reinforcing that belief with every opportunity, it takes a great amount of intense self-reflection and willingness for painful, soul-exposing vulnerability to even engage honestly with these questions of immense importance.
Family and friends when presented with these doubts encouraged me to focus on the New Testament, on the person of Jesus and his message for humanity’s redemption. Most of my concerns, they said, were abrogated by Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament; eye for an eye became turn the other cheek after all. But if this was true, why did Jesus quote so heavily from the Old Testament? Was the God of the Old Testament not also God? I found their answers, and those of the many apologists I consulted through their writing, unconvincing. Though I wanted badly to believe, I now knew that I was lying to myself.
The process to this point was slow and painful, but once the moment of epiphany is reached it is all but impossible to unlive that experience. Arguments I once found compelling and emotionally moving struck me now as childish, even delusional. The core of my being had shifted irrevocably.
In the years since this moment, I’ve largely kept my lack of belief to myself. Even now as I write this sentence I struggle with the reality that the words I’m typing will deeply wound people I love. I share my experience as an example that real, fundamental change of thought is possible, though it’s difficult and personal. I share it also as a much-needed emotional catharsis. Facing the depth of your own carefully crafted self-deceptions is a challenge not to be undertaken lightly and it leaves many scars.
I see atheists on social media often who seem singularly focused on de-converting the religious. They make compelling arguments that religion is a net-negative force, that it demonizes science and divides people. It’s hard to look at the state of the world right now, engulfed in religiously motivated violence, and not feel the truth of those words.
But there’s a different side of religion too, and much is lost when God dies in the human heart. For most of my life my religion sustained me, it gave me meaning and it told me I was loved by my creator. It tied me to those closest to me and gave me a community of like-minded, mostly kind-hearted people to belong to. I feel that loss and it still pains me, but that pain is honestly earned and so I bear it. Living in what I believe to be a lie is a different kind of pain that I cannot accept.
We are complicated animals, and the human brain remains a great mystery. Even now I doubt myself all the time. I doubt the existence of an uncreated universe (in the same way I doubt the existence of an uncreated creator), I doubt my intuitions and feelings, I doubt the origins of my own thoughts, I even doubt whether there is such a thing as truth at all. But maybe I’ve learned to live with my uncertainty. I just hope someday I can learn to embrace it, retaining some degree of humility in the process.