Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Coming out

I'm coming out.

(Not as a homosexual. Sorry, boys, but I still like girls.  This is something different.)

When I was a little boy, perhaps 7 or 8, I came to recognize that there was no Santa Claus, and that it was my parents who were supplying the gifts on Christmas morning.  I don't remember how I learned it--maybe I just figured it out and asked my parents, because they cautioned me against ruining the magic for my brother.

Around the same time, my next-door neighbor, a kindly old man, died of a probable heart attack late one evening.  He was the first person I'd ever known who had died. I'd seen him on the last day he was alive.

I was a little bit older, about 9 or so, when my mother sat me down and explained human reproduction to me.  It was an eye-opening experience that took a couple of hours and focused a lot on the biological aspects of it.

I cite these three events in my life, all of which occurred within about eighteen months (at least in my memory, which may be faulty), because each one of them represents my awakening to some aspect of human existence, from a child's perspective to that of an adult.  These are three lies that parents often tell their children, or that children tell themselves:  That Santa Claus is real, that people live forever, and that babies come from storks or magic or some such.

I don't want to cast my parents as liars. They're not. But these events have a common theme, which is that not everything that parents, or adults generally, say to children is necessarily the whole truth. That is no surprise to anyone, I should think.  But it had a powerful impact on me for another reason.

I grew up a Presbyterian.  I wouldn't say we were a devout family in the sense of having a tremendously spiritual life, but missing church was a rarity.  My brother and I sang in the children's choir.  My parents were involved in church activities and leadership, teaching Sunday School and leading the youth group.  We pledged and gave regularly. It was not a small part of our lives for the entire time I lived at home.

I believed, and still do, that churches have the power to be a tremendous force for good in our society. The church I grew up in, at the time I was a member, did things the right way:  It had a real social conscience, centered on alleviating poverty and obtaining social justice (instead of a pretend conscience that focuses on homosexuality and abortion and opposing Islam).  It was open and unpretentious most of the time. It did not teach or tolerate hatred.  Even though we moved away when I was 12, I have friends from that time that I still talk to, and they are almost uniformly good people who try to live their lives according to the greatest commandment of all: love God and love your neighbor.

But at that small age, 7 or 8 or 9, I wondered why it was that God never spoke to me.  It is not as though I didn't have a conscience--what people refer to as a voice inside themselves, helping them make decisions. I heard that "voice" loud and clear.  The problem was that it sounded like me.  And when it became clear to me that sometimes people lie, sometimes even people you trust, even for the best of reasons, it became possible to understand that they will lie about important things, like hearing God. 

I believe that what most people call "God" is actually themselves--which explains why people so often are able to discern that God's prejudices conveniently match their own.  I believe that people who say that God speaks to them are speaking merely metaphorically at most. I believe that most of the people who say that do so out of worry about what people will think of them if they do not. More maliciously, some people who claim a direct hotline to God do so to give their words more importance than they themselves could muster.

I have a very distinct memory of being a young boy of that age and wondering to myself whether religion was simply an elaborate ruse, wrought for some unknown and perhaps nefarious purpose.  It must have been about that time that I read the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, and the parallels could not have been more striking.

At that age, prayer was even more of a mystery to me.  By "prayer" I am referring to supplicative prayer, not prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, or confession.  If you are going to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God, it certainly makes sense that you would want to pause in whatever you are doing to pray in those ways.  But a prayer of supplication, of asking God to do something or not to do something, for yourself or for someone else, was beyond my understanding, and it still is.

It is not in my nature to ask for things, and never has been.  I have a strong sense of doing for myself, and when there are things that I cannot do myself, I have always tried to find ways to earn my keep at least in trade. Praying for something strikes me as a useless exercise.  If God exists, and God is genuinely omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent, then there is no need for me to pray for something.  In that circumstance, God is here, He knows what I want, and He is going to do what He wants regardless.  Perhaps prayer is intended to be an exercise in self-discovery, in organizing in your own mind those things that are important enough to bother God with.  But it is hard for me to imagine a God who says, "I was going to do this nice thing (help you get a job, or help poor kids get a meal, or make your grandma not have cancer), but since you didn't ask me nicely, too bad."

I suppose it's possible to pray for understanding, enlightenment, or guidance.  I have done those things, and I have found that understanding, enlightenment, and guidance mostly come from carefully considering facts with a critical eye, and from observing how people respond to various stimuli, not from prayer.  So I don't find that helpful, either.

It strikes me as extraordinarily insincere much of the time when, on Facebook for example, I read people post that they are praying for someone who is having a tough time.  I know that for some people that is a sincere statement, but it comes across as an advertisement:  "Look at me, and how good a Christian I am, because of the thing I am doing 'for' you that has no consequences for me at all other than I don't play Candy Crush for a few seconds while I do it."

I won't lie--it does feel good to hear that someone is thinking about you when the chips are down. When my grandfather died last year, a dear friend who knows what my true beliefs are reached out to offer her prayers, and I meant it when I said that it meant a lot to me and to my family at the time.  But to hear it repetitively thrown out there, in a cheap and tawdry way, for inconsequential things, is tiresome.  It is also contrary to what the Bible says about prayer. I like the New Living Bible's take on Matthew 6:5:  "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get."  Facebook is the modern street corner.

It seems to me that if you genuinely believe in the power of prayer, the way to accomplish it is to do it without telling people you're praying, because the only one it matters to is God.

I tried for many years to pretend.  I was active in my church youth group, even as a leader.  I appreciated the ritual of Sunday services, of holy communion, of baptism.  I enjoyed the music maybe most of all. The music I found to be moving in an especially poignant way--but there are lots of secular examples of music I find moving, too, in exactly the same way.  In college, I went to church a few times.  More recently, I embraced a sort of churchless Christianity that focused on emulating Jesus--something that I would hope Christians could appreciate.  I read the Jefferson Bible, a work that consists primarily in telling the moral story of Jesus without the benefit of miracles.

I even thought about joining the United Church of Christ, a famously tolerant brand of Christianity, or the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, a famously tolerant brand of spiritualism that is not explicitly Christian.  I decided that neither of them reflected my values. Mostly, they seem to be focused on being spiritual without being religious.  If anything, what I craved was being religious without being spiritual.  (I was once humorously counseled that if I wanted that, I should consider Catholicism.)

I tried really hard.

And over that time, I saw the kind of Christianity that I thought held the most real value for the world--the kind I had experienced as a child--wane in favor of a new form of radical, charismatic evangelical Paulism* that focuses solely on "saving souls" and taking right-wing political beliefs.

* - "Paulism" refers to Pauline Christianity, which focuses on the teachings of Paul, often (in my view) to the exclusion of the teachings of Jesus.

And I came to wonder why I was pretending.

I titled this post "Coming Out" because after 20 years of hiding it, I'm coming out as an atheist.

I am an atheist.  I don't believe in God. Or gods. Or god. Or spirits. Or souls. Or luck. Or fate. Or anything supernatural.

I "believe" in what can be proven or deduced from what is known.  I'm told that makes me a Freethinker. I'm not sure that is entirely appropriate, but it will do for now.

I'm not a homosexual, so I don't know what it's like to be gay and in the closet, or to come out of that closet.  But it seems the same to me in a qualitative way.  It's really a hard thing to do.  I am part of a religious family.  My wife's family, with whom I have a good relationship, is much more religious than my own.  One of my very good friends is studying for the Episcopal priesthood, or at least plans to (I don't know what the exact procedure is, or where he is in it).  I live in a state where religious belief is the norm, where they still pray before public school football games, where there are more state legislators who are guided by their version of evangelical Christianity than are guided by anything else.  Atheists here are devils incarnate according to the prevailing wisdom. 

Some of my friends already know this about me.  I fully expect that some people who are my Facebook friends, and maybe some of my friends in real life, will disassociate themselves from me as a result of this revelation.  If that's how it has to be, so be it.  I have to view it as their loss, if only for my own egotistical purposes. 

But it's something I need to do, to say, because I'm tired of succumbing to the most insidious form of peer pressure the world has ever seen:  the coercion to religious belief.  I am no longer afraid of what others will do to me because I don't believe in the god they do.  I will take my lumps as they come.

But those of you who do believe in God, whomever you might be, shouldn't be afraid of what I'll do to you.  I have no interest in converting you to any form of atheism you don't already embrace privately.  If you truly feel the spirit of God inside you, please understand that I'm happy for you. And if you want to engage in self-deception because you think it will help you, that's fine by me.

I just don't.

If that disappoints you, I'm sorry.  I tried really hard to make it work for a really long time.

In the end, my disagreement with religion crystallized when I heard someone quoting a Bible verse, Proverbs 3:5:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.
The third chapter of Proverbs is a paean to submitting graciously to God, to accepting what God gives you, good and bad, without complaint, and to doing right for righteousness' sake.  It is a beautiful piece of poetry, even in the New International Version (which is not known for its poetic value).  There are even some things I agree with in that chapter.  But I find the fifth verse to be utter nonsense in its implications, and it stains not just that chapter or the book, but the whole Bible.

I have spent my whole life as someone who is thought of as "smart."  My intelligence is really not of my own doing; it's good genes and good upbringing. I have never worked hard at being smart. I was a poorer student than I should have been.  My intelligence has mostly served me well in what I do for a living, and in my relationships with other people, because I have the ability to put myself in others' shoes and to see the world as they see it.  That is an invaluable skill to have when the object is to motivate others, or to manipulate them.  But it is mostly not a skill that I have had anything to do with, and there are many people who are naturally smarter than I am, and many more who worked hard and made themselves smarter than I am despite my head start.

As I see it, though, the practice of intelligence isn't about knowing facts so much as it is about engaging in critical thinking.  And Proverbs 3:5 tells us that critical thinking is a bad thing. I cannot accept that.  My ultimate conclusion, as it stands today, is a product of the realization that I cannot ever accept that.

And if I can't accept that, why try to accept any of it?

I believe that there are more people like me than anybody realizes, and that many of you share my view but don't want to admit it because you are worried about what others will think about you, and that you will be ostracized from your friends and fellow worshipers.  I understand that, and I feel it.  The hardest part of publishing these words has been the hurt, or at least disappointment, that they may inflict on people whom I care about very deeply.  Ultimately, this is something I have to do for me.  I hope that one day you will find the strength to be true to your own self first.

I also think that a lot of believers are making Pascal's Wager.  Blaise Pascal, a physicist, mathematician, and Christian apologetic of the 17th century, suggested that even if you have doubts about the existence of God, it is better to err on the side of caution and choose to believe, because even if in doing so you guess wrong, you've lost nothing by believing and everything by not believing.

I understand that, too.  But there is an essential flaw in the reasoning.  If you devote your whole life to believing in something that's just the accumulated lies of a thousand generations, and there is no afterlife, you have lost everything, because this life is all that we have, and you will have wasted it on something that isn't so.

I suppose that some of you choose religion because you don't trust yourself to live the life you should without it.  If religion helps you stay right, if it keeps you off booze or pills, or keeps you faithful to your spouse, or keeps you doing the right thing despite your inner desire to do wrong, then you should stick to it, by all means.

And I think that some of you are absolutely convinced that what you believe is true.  If that causes you to think less of me, because I have admitted to you what I am, then that's OK with me.  Admitting to everyone what I am causes me to think more of me.  Perhaps, when you see what I believe and you see the life that I lead, you will not regard me, or my decision to disavow religion, as something evil.  Above all, my choice not to believe as you do is not an attack on your beliefs.  I do not think less of anyone merely because that person chooses to believe.  We have lived different lives, starting at different places and progressing at different rates.  We should all have the opportunity to come to these decisions for ourselves, whatever they might be.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story.  I hope it was worthwhile, and I hope you'll find the time and the courage to share your own, whether here or elsewhere.

1 comment:

  1. Jim,

    First, this is by far your best blog post to date. Eloquently stated.

    I have fought the fight against Pauline Christianity till I'm tired of it. Paul was the first "Televangelist", if you will (had he had the medium, he'd have out-Swaggart'ed Swaggart). He took a small underground sect and (against the will of most of its leaders, notably Peter) turned it into a global religion. I agree completely that my entire career in the Baptist church, with less but still prominent times in the Episcopal church (of which I was a part from 1984 forward), the teachings of Paul were emphasized far more than the teachings of Jesus (upon whom the religion is ostensibly built).

    My older sister died before I was born. She was a beautiful baby, blonde curls, sweet smile. Mother and Dad were young; she was pretty, he was handsome; both were brought up in the Baptist church. Dad's family was (and is) VERY God-fearing. They epitomize what you said about the Paulists. God is merciful, God is good, God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, right? Then why did she die a horrible, painful, agonizing, prolonged death, screaming basically the last year of her life, with a brain tumor? Did God not like her? Was she horrible? She was 3; other than doody-ing her diapers, how horrible could she have been? Were Mother and Dad to blame? Trust me, the church dragon-ladies took haste to point out to her (while her baby's casket was in the living room) that this was God's punishment on her for marrying "above her station" (Mom's family was poor, while Dad's was at least middle class).

    So, I have asked the Christians I have known over the years, many of whom I trust (and I started asking this when I was very young), "Why did this horrible thing happen to my sister? Why did God do this, or allow it?" The answers I got were, "Well, it's a mystery." "It was God's will." So it was God's will that this adorable baby suffered agony until she died (which action ultimately sent my mother for a stay in a mental institution)? Was it an act of comission or omission on the part of God?

    I always had a problem with that.

    The more I've thought about it lately, the more I think modern Christianity is just so much nonsense. It's a social construct. It's a way for people to get together and interact socially. In its current form, it is mean-spirited, bitter, and ugly. It has little to do with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Do I hold a grudge? Yes, I do. Why? You explained it far more eloquently than I, in your post above.

    Unlike you, I have had the added component of all the hatred directed toward gays, knowing I was one, and having to hide for fear of retribution. Therein lies the rage.

    Unlike you, I'm angry about being lied to.

    Also unlike you, I haven't quite gotten to the atheist stage--yet. I've had some things that are hard to explain (I'm not ready to go there publicly yet). So, here's my deal: I am an agnostic/deist. It's roughly akin to "The Force"--there is a higher power out there, but if so (and the agnostic/deist requests proof, but finds none), it's not a man floating on a white cloud, a la Michelangelo, it's a spiritual force as far beyond us as we are the amoeba; farther. Are there spirits? I'm convinced there are. Are there vibes? I'm convinced there are. I don't think science has scratched the surface of human potential, which is why there are still so many unexplained things in the universe.

    Like you, I hope not to offend any of my Christian friends, but I'm not going to go sit there every Sunday and listen to someone selectively interpret the Bible to say whatever they want it to say, while ignoring those parts of that contradictory collection of ancient writings that are inconvenient.
    So, congratulations on "coming out". I hope yours is as successful as mine has been.

    Your friend,