Thursday, December 29, 2011

Growing Up With Silent Doubt

I was reflecting on my childhood indoctrination the other day, and I remembered sitting quietly in the back seat of our station wagon on the way to church, hoping that maybe this time the preacher would say something convincing enough to remove all doubt. It never happened. I remember him saying once, "Millions of people around the world can't all be wrong!" and how I was almost convinced, except that my 9 year old inquisitive brain shot back silently and sharply in my head, "But what about all those millions of people who believe something different?" 

Early on in my indoctrination during the 1970's, Sunday School teachers and other adult congregation members (including my parents) would admonish me for being too inquisitive. I would be told repeatedly that to question the word of God was to question God himself and risk eternal damnation. So I kept my doubts to my self, silently fearing that my "sinful" thoughts were already known by the all powerful "Father in Heaven" and that my doom had perhaps already been sealed. The indoctrination had successfully done its job. I was sufficiently terrified enough to go through the correct motions of praying, reading the Bible verses I was told to read, proclaiming my love for a 2000 year old "savior" whom I had never met, and obediently stifling any doubts that would creep into my mind lest I be damned forever.

Even in my rebellious teen years, the fear still existed. I had pretty much determined that I would most likely go to Hell if I suddenly died, hoping that maybe I would have enough warning before hand to make a last minute prayer for forgiveness. I would imagine myself slipping into Heaven just in the nick of time, with the gates slamming shut and nipping the backs of my heels. I had an atheist friend in high school, and I remember him telling me how he didn't believe in any god or afterlife. I was so amazed that he could think such a thing and not be frightened of death, or of being wrong and finding himself in Hell! It was astonishing! And I had a hard time grasping how he could be so comfortable with his position. Somewhere in the depths of my mind though, buried beneath the lies, the fears, and denial, was a wish that I could be just as comfortable with my life as he was with his.

In my 20's my wife and I decided we needed to get our act together and start following the "right path." We both started attending a church and reading the Bible in earnest. By my late 20's, after digging deeper into the scriptures and finding all the contradictions and horrible atrocities committed by a supposedly "loving" god, those doubts from my childhood began to surface again, with fear of eternal damnation tagging along for the ride. My first breakthrough in shaking off the paralyzing indoctrination of my childhood came to me while I was thinking (of course).

I was working at a factory at the time, and 80 percent of my time was spent watching a machine run, intervening whenever it got jammed. So I had time to spare for self-reflection and thought. I first realized that my emotional fear was all that was holding me back from pursuing the rational doubts that I had been stuffing down all these years. So I conducted my own little "thought experiment." I asked myself, "If I had no fear whatsoever, would I still believe all of this Christianity stuff?" The immediate, almost knee-jerk answer that popped into my head was a resounding "NO!" Fortunately, my wife was having doubts as well, and although our individual searches for the truth didn't match up exactly, they were close enough in comparison that we were able to share our discoveries with each other, both of us agreeing that the doctrine of Christianity was bunk and would not get us any answers to our questions.

I didn't know it at the time, but that day in the factory was the beginning of my 13 year journey toward non-belief in a god and the supernatural. It took me several years of searching and struggling with the byproducts of my indoctrination before I eventually landed at being an atheist. I still wanted to believe there was a god of some sort; that there was some type of afterlife and some kind of externally defined purpose for my being in the world. Yes, there were still some residual fears that needed to be shaken off, but I was on my way to freedom, breaking my silence at last, asking questions and fearlessly letting my doubts be heard by anyone who cared to listen.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why Write All These Words?: The Death of an Atheist

For the past week I have been reading many online posts, blogs, and articles noting the death of Christopher Hitchens, best known perhaps for his book God is Not Great. Some atheists, myself included, felt mild sadness and will miss his writing and his skill at debating. Some atheists viewed him as their hero and were literally shedding tears. Some atheists hated the guy over political differences and were glad that he was gone. 

Of course there were also theists who had something to say about Mr. Hitchens’ death. Some were genuinely heart-felt and kind in their address. The rest of them seem to fall into three categories.  Some went with the Universalist idea, suggesting he would be in Heaven eventually. Others who do not believe in a literal Hell suggested that he was indeed dead and gone, missing the opportunity for “everlasting life” in Heaven. Lastly, there were those who said that if he didn’t convert at the last moment, that he was in Hell and/or separated from God forever, screaming for mercy. The latter group came across almost gleefully in an “I-told-you-so” sort of way, as if his death was somehow “proof” that he had begun his eternal torment.

At first I was angry at the theists in this latter group for expressing such terrible ideas about the late Mr. Hitchens. Then it occurred to me that in his day he didn’t really have any kind words for the late Jerry Falwell or Mother Teresa either. None of this really matters anyway. He’s dead. So what purpose do all of these words have? Why would so many people bother to write about their feelings concerning one man’s life and how he lived it? My guess is that when news breaks about the death of a widely-known person who has had such a divisive influence on our political and theological discussions, there are a lot more of us who notice a sort-of “empty spot” in our lives. Whether it’s big or small, or brings sadness or happiness or something in between, the fabric of our lives has been permanently changed, and we take notice.

Perhaps in the case of Christopher Hitchens, a very outspoken atheist who held no punches when it came to debating the existence of a god and/or an afterlife, there is an odd curiosity of what it must be like to come face to face with death, unwavering and unrepentant. His fellow atheists, whether they liked him or not, might recognize this one aspect of his outlook on life and death with some respect, perhaps awe. Theists on the other hand, especially the more fundamental ones, might have a harder time wrapping their heads around this.

Of the many misconceptions widely held about atheists, the idea that we actually believe in a god but simply refuse to acknowledge it somehow, seems to be one of the most common. So when someone like Christopher Hitchens dies with no remorseful last-minute conversion, the theist might conclude one of two things:
  • He honestly did not believe that there was a god or an afterlife. - For the theist to acknowledge that Mr. Hitchens’ disbelief was truly held through to the very end could mean that there is the slightest chance that he might have been right. Such a concept seems to be one of the scariest for a stalwart theist to imagine.
  • Or he was simply too stubborn and prideful; refusing to believe what was “obvious.” - This allows the theist to continue feeling secure in his or her beliefs without having to address any doubts. Thus the theist, depending upon the flavor of religious faith, concludes that Mr. Hitchens is burning in Hell or just eternally separated from God or is truly dead with no chance of experiencing an afterlife, and all is right with the world.
No, the words aren’t for the late Christopher Hitchens, they’re for us, and they help each of us to describe how we are dealing with this “empty spot” that has been left behind. Whether we agree with each other or not; whether we are theist or atheist; whether we liked the man or not, all of these words paint a tapestry of how his life influenced the world around him. So, if we all felt the same, it would be a pretty boring tapestry, wouldn’t it?