Friday, July 17, 2015

Reflections on Life Beyond Faith

Since concluding that I no longer believe the Christian worldview that I grew up with I have re-analyzed almost every aspect of my life. Since my faith and my belief system affected everything in my life I felt it was necessary to metaphorically step back and look at every idea, belief, stance and conviction I had and rediscover it with my new understanding and worldview. More has changed than I could have possibly imagined and the impact of those changes is different than I would have ever imagined.

Atheism, to me, was always such a negative concept. I believed that would be such a miserable, empty way to live and that if I ever stopped believing in god that I would have no reason to live. I thought that people who didn't believe in god were deceived and possibly even in rebellion. All of these ideas were just a result of what I had been taught. I had no personal experience. I just believed what I was told.

In reality, atheism has been quite different than I expected. First of all, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. The changes in my life have been almost all for the better. I didn't expect that at all. Secondly, I didn't choose it. I simply looked at both sides objectively and drew conclusions based on the facts that were presented to me. It was the first time I had truly done that. Belief is not something you can choose. You either believe something or you don't. I believe that if I jump off of a 12 story building I will fall and, most likely, die as a result. I can't choose not to believe that. That belief is based on evidence. This is much like my disbelief in a god. The lack of evidence leads me to disbelief. Before you jump to the conclusion that I am uninformed on the "evidence for Christianity," you should know that I have studied Christian apologetics, theology, doctrine and history in quite a bit of detail. I find the "proof" unconvincing. Therefore, I cannot believe despite my desperate attempts to continue to believe.

I will now share some of the changes I've experienced since becoming an atheist.

I no longer feel at odds with myself

Possibly the biggest and most freeing change is that I no longer feel cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is "the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values" (cog. diss.). I have grown up as a Bible-believing Christian my whole life (I was 27 when I became an atheist). The Bible, to me, was the inerrant Word of God and what it said was Truth. Trying to reconcile what was in the Bible with what I believed to be true in the real world was very hard. Everything that I learned that didn't reconcile with what the Bible said would have to be crammed into the cookie cutters of my beliefs to fit with reality. At some point all my cookie cutters broke from the stress. Common sense just wasn't fitting for me. There are just too many discrepancies. Too many contradictions. Too many errors. Too many inconsistencies. Not enough evidence. Not enough to base my whole life and my whole worldview on.

I'm less judgmental

It may seem strange, but despite what the Bible teaches about not judging others, I'm actually less judgmental and more accepting of people now than when I was a Christian. I feel that my heart more readily opens to the people around me. When I give this some thought, I think that it is probably because I no longer see people's "sins" as being something that I should despise because God does. I don't feel this obligation to try to change them or save them. Now I can just accept and love them. I still believe in right and wrong and believe that people can do things that are absolutely wrong, but I don't believe that my understanding of right and wrong comes from a deity, but rather from my evolved mind (I'm not going to go into a ton of detail on that in this post - maybe in a future post).

I do judge some people's actions as being wrong based on morality, but my views are not concrete and I can change my perspective of what is right and wrong based on newly discovered facts. For example, I do not believe that homosexuality is wrong or even unnatural because it has become clear through research and scientific studies that people are born with tendencies toward same-sex attraction. I don't have to cling to an old book's laws on this as my absolute truth. I can adapt with new information. Besides, even if people chose to be gay, I don't see anything morally wrong with that anyway. They have a right to decide something for themselves that doesn't cause harm to anyone.

I'm more accepting of differing lifestyles

This plays into being less judgmental. Because I look at people differently and look at their desires and urges and the science behind them differently, I am more quick to accept whatever someone finds fulfilling even if it's not what society considers normal or even my cup of tea. I've been able to open my mind to all of the sexual lifestyle choices people can make and I'm realizing more and more that what goes on behind closed doors with consenting adults is completely their business and no one else's. I no longer have to feel torn about these sentiments. I don't have to be constantly reminding myself that it's not how God created us and that homosexuality grieves God. People are born with same sex attraction, so if I were to believe in a god I would also have to believe that he does indeed create people that way. As it is, I don't believe in a god so that's not an issue. There's no longer contradiction between what science says and what I feel I have to believe based on what the Bible says and I no longer have to try to figure out why it was once okay to stone people to death for being gay.

I'm less depressed

I have clinical depression so it has physiological causes, but my depression is often trigger-based, meaning that a circumstance or stressful feeling can send me into a downward spiral. The fewer triggers I have the fewer bouts of depression I have. Sometimes my episodes of depression are random, but usually they are caused by a trigger.

So when I say I've been less depressed ever since realizing that I no longer believed in Christianity or in any god, I mean that I've had fewer triggers. I've come up with a couple theories of why this is. One is that I no longer have this exhausting cognitive dissonance causing me so much discomfort and unease. Another very large factor is all of the guilt and shame that just came cascading off of me when I let go of these ridiculous rules and standards that I had held onto my whole life. At first it was a relief that I could just live my life without constantly feeling that I didn't read my Bible enough, pray enough, talk to others about Christ enough, etc. Soon it went even deeper than that. I realized that I could let go of the majority of the guilt I had felt throughout my entire life. All the times that I failed to lived up to the standard of being a good Christian girl or failed to live up to the standards I had for myself based on what I considered sin. I had restricted the most natural, beautiful aspects of my humanity by trying to live according to this ancient book. Don't get me wrong, I still feel guilt over things I've done that are morally wrong or were hurtful to other people or myself, but I no longer feel guilt over things that I've done or thoughts I've had that are considered "sin," but that aren't actually morally wrong (i.e. love something or someone more than god, sex before marriage, thinking sexual thoughts about anyone who is not my spouse - which was anyone before I was married, getting angry, feeling pride, doubting god's sovereignty, etc). Those things and many others are only wrong according to a religious perspective and living life with all of those things hanging over your head, whether you can ask forgiveness for them or not, is oppressive. I was taught to believe that I was born an inherently bad person and that I deserve hell and the only way to escape hell is to believe in Jesus based on what the Bible says about him. The Bible that also says to stone adulterers, homosexuals, women who aren't virgins on their wedding night, witches, and unruly children. The Bible that also contradicts itself on almost every aspect of Jesus' life (don't take my word for it, read the stories side by side for yourself).

So yeah, I'm less depressed. A huge oppressive weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Now the only things that really depress me are money issues. ;-)


I'm more passionate about life

This life is the only one any of us is guaranteed and what we do while we are here is what really matters. If I live my life as if this is just a vapor quickly fading into eternity and I will live on forever, then it takes away from some the importance of what I do with my every moment. It makes me less likely to care much about the environment or for the future generations. After all, Jesus is supposed to be returning soon anyway, according the Bible. I no longer live in light of eternity, but instead live in light of today. I feel privileged to have a chance to live on this planet while it is so hospitable to life. There will be days in the future that our sun will start dying and this planet will become a very difficult place to live. I also feel lucky that I was born in a prosperous country and into a family that took care of me, loved me and raised me to be a benefit to the people around me. Not everyone has that privilege and I don't take it for granted. I'm also not so arrogant as to say that it's just an example of God's hand on my life. How can people say that when there are so many people in this country and around the world who truly suffer horribly and truly don't deserve it? That level of arrogance astounds me to no end.

I don't take a single day for granted anymore. This life is all I get and I'm going to make the most of it and enjoy it as much as I can. I also think it's so important to attempt to make this a better world for the generations that follow us because Jesus isn't coming to fix everything. We are responsible to take care of our home and our species. I want the generations that follow to live in a more loving, reasonable world.

I'm more open to new ideas

My mind is now completely open to the facts of the world around me and what is observable and testable. When someone comes up with a new theory in science, for instance, I can more openly think about it and consider the possibility of its truth because I'm not held down by my belief that what the Bible says is infallible and therefore, science that proves otherwise must be wrong. This relates to areas other than science as well.

My thirst for knowledge is insatiable

Because my mind is completely free and open to consider all of the facts without having to try to cram everything into my cookie cutters of belief, I have gained an even greater desire and love of knowledge. I've always loved learning and studying things that interested me, but lately I have found that I'm not afraid of approaching certain areas of knowledge anymore. I no longer have to feel afraid of what I might find and the facts that may not line up with what I believe. I had enough troubling things in the Bible itself to contend with that I didn't want to add to my confusion by studying evolution, for instance. Now I can learn about our origins and the science behind what we know of our universe without it causing me to doubt everything that I base my life on.

I'm not afraid to die

This isn't as much a change as it is an observation. I wasn't afraid of death as a Christian either because I firmly believed that my soul was saved and that when I died I would go to heaven. As an atheist I don't believe there is a heaven or hell. There is no solid evidence to suggest that there are such places of eternal bliss or torture. There are only the ancient writings of people with a very limited understanding of the world and the personal experiences of some people who have either had dreams or near death experiences. I'm unconvinced of any of the religions of this world and unconvinced of the evidence given for the existence of a god, a heaven or a place of eternal torment.

This leaves me with nothing to be afraid of surrounding death. Just like every other animal on the face of this planet, I will cease to exist once I die and that is ok. There is no reason to believe that human beings would have any different of a fate than apes, horses, dogs or cats. If humans did have souls it would beg the question of when exactly in the evolutionary process we gained a soul. Did neanderthals have souls then?

I'm ok with not living forever and not having all the answers. Life isn't about death. Life is about living. Let's just focus on this life instead of being concerned about some imagined afterlife.

I have everything to live for

Because I have nothing to die for, I have everything to live for. Over the years I've prayed on many occasions that god would just allow me to die so that I wouldn't have to struggle through life anymore and just go on to the bliss and happiness of heaven. I couldn't understand why he would keep me here if I'm depressed and miserable and begging to come home to him. And if he was going to keep me here for some greater purpose why allow me to be so debilitated by depression? I finally just accepted that god wasn't going to grant me that wish and that I had to just try to make the best of life on my own. I figured maybe there is some greater plan that I was just unaware of. That's what most Christians reading this are probably thinking.

Well, I've never wanted more to live in my entire life than I do now. Even with the voice of my depression in the back of my mind whispering that it would be better if I was dead, my desire to take advantage of the one life I have is louder than that voice in my head. My desire to be here for my husband and my children are stronger than my depression.

I don't see non-Christians as being lost or deceived

In the Biblical perspective those who don't believe in god are fools. Psalm 14 says, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no-one who does good." And again in Psalm 53 it says pretty much the same thing again. When I was a Christian I believed that people who didn't believe in god must be missing something or were being deceived by satan into believing that god doesn't exist. I thought this because it was what was taught to me from the Bible and the Bible was supposedly the inerrant, infallible word of god so it must be true. I had a hard time with this concept though because I knew many non-believers and their reasons for not believing seemed pretty legit and understandable. I also think of all of the other religions and gods in this world and the fact that, as a Christian, I had to believe that they were wrong about their god and they had to believe that I was wrong about my god and the only way to find out for sure is to die. It just doesn't make sense to me that the all-powerful god of the universe would make himself so obscure that billions of people would completely miss him and spend eternity in torment.

I was taught that god doesn't undeniably reveal himself to everyone because if he were to do so then it would take away our free will and we would worship him like robots because we would have no choice but to believe in him and worship him. Recently I've realized how ridiculous that argument is. Just because a god reveals his existence doesn't mean that I HAVE to choose to worship him. If I have free will then I still have the choice to say, "Actually, I still don't think you're worthy of my worship or adoration. No thanks."

So now I don't have to worry about or feel bad for the people in my life who don't believe what I believe. It's a much better and more rewarding way to live to see everyone as equal.

I no longer believe in hell

Along the same lines, I am free of this awful concept of an eternity of punishment and torture for those who don't believe in Jesus during this life. Hell never really made sense to me, but the Bible is pretty clear about punishment in the afterlife for those who don't believe, especially in the New Testament, so I had to believe it if I believed everything else. I had to believe that my brother, who is an atheist, would not only spend eternity separated from god and the rest of his family, but would be burned in a lake of fire forever. I constantly just tried to convince myself that god was sovereign and that he would reveal himself to my brother. The crazy thing is that I knew that this wasn't the case for millions of people who died every day. It was so frustrating that I had to accept hell along with my loving savior. I had to acknowledge that my merciful, loving and just god created an eternal place of torment for people who simply didn't know or weren't convinced of his existence. From any angle that you look at that, it's insane. I'm reading a book by Francis Chan right now called Erasing Hell and, despite the title, he actually explains that the Bible is pretty clear that hell is real. He says that he was really hoping that he would find out otherwise. He shared his devastation when his grandmother died and he knew that she hadn't accepted Christ. He said that he would even prefer that non-believers would just be annihilated after death instead of suffering for eternity. Chan has such a huge heart for people, but because he believes in the infallibility of the Bible he has to accept the existence of hell and it causes him a great deal of pain (just like it did for me).

My hatred of the concept of hell had nothing to do with my apostasy, but ridding myself of the belief has certainly been a huge relief.

I'm more skeptical of everything

Instead of just accepting people's word on things I take a look at the facts for myself. I realize now that I have been terrible at this my whole life. I never actually realized that I was gullible, but in retrospect I most certainly was. I just accepted, as fact, most of what I was told unless it was really far-fetched. I feel that I have now taken a more responsible approach to the information I'm presented with and can make more informed and well-balanced decisions. Being skeptical is not a bad thing. It's healthy and it's necessary.

I'm afraid of hurting or driving away some of the people I love

Because I don't feel that I should remain silent about my perspectives, I'm often concerned that I'm going to drive a wedge in the relationships I have with Christians in my family and friends. I'm afraid that they will grow to resent me because of my views and lack of belief in the god that they love and worship. I'm afraid that they will not respect me because they'll believe that I'm deceived or in rebellion. I'm afraid that my beliefs will always be the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about (this would be hard for me because I've always been a very open person and love to talk about deep and intimate things). I'm afraid that they will take my disbelief as an offense against their intelligence or a condescending attitude. I don't feel this way. I know that there are many very intelligent people who believe in a god.

It is because of these fears that I try to be careful about what I say and things I share on social media. I don't think that I should have to hide who I am to avoid the discomfort of others, but I also don't think being obnoxious and rude is necessary either. I do consider myself to be a secular activist, but I, obviously, am sympathetic to religious (especially Christian) perspectives, having been there myself.






2 comments:

  1. This was beautiful. Very eye opening for someone who never believed. I am glad so many things are better for you, now. I shared this on my Twitter!

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    1. Thank you so much! It's been eye-opening for me too. I'm glad that I have the opportunity to share my journey. Thanks for sharing!

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