Friday, January 10, 2014

"If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell."

This tweet by Mark Driscoll got a lot different thoughts flowing.

I didn't stop believing in hell until about a year before I stopped being a Christian altogether. It pains me that I not only used to think that any number of people were going to be tortured for eternity, but I also in some way believed they deserved it. It fills me with grief and shame when I think about that, to the point that I want to go around apologizing to random strangers for once believing something so hideous.

Now that I'm an atheist, it's a bit strange knowing that there probably are people in my life who think the same way that Driscoll does, or that I used to. Does the aunt sitting across from me at the Thanksgiving dinner table know that I'm not a Christian, and does she think that I'm going to hell for it? That I deserve to go to hell for it? I want to ask.

Anyone who tells me I'm going to hell is wrong. Anyone who tells me I deserve to go to hell is an asshole.

That doesn't happen all that often, but on occasion it does. What's more common is that someone will make a comment that about how nonbeliever are bound for hell without knowing that they're talking about me. I should tell them. I want to know what they'd say.

People try to use hell to scare people into believing. That doesn't work on me. I don't know how it could. You could tell me that there's a monster under my bed and that I need to sleep with the lights on or else it will eat me, and I wouldn't do it because I don't believe you.

If you told me that most people do it, I won't believe you.

If you tell me stories about a lucky few people who have survived monster-under-the-bed attacks and lived to tell of its horrors, I still won't believe you.

If you point to ancient books that tell of the monsters, I won't believe them, either.

And no matter how much you appeal to the fact that it's really, really easy to take the safe bet and sleep with the lights on, it still wouldn't matter.

And it would be much, much easier for me to choose to sleep with the lights on than for me to choose to be a Christian. I don't even think that is a choice I am capable of making. I don't know how to unlearn so much of what I've come to know and understand so I can go back to believing in something that ridiculous based on evidence that tenuous. And even if I actually was capable of making that choice, I don't think that I should. I guess I'm willing to risk my soul just for the sake of being intellectually honest.

But there's more to it than that. If hell really does exist, I'm going there. I have to. It's the only moral thing to do if the alternative is worshipping the being that created something so evil and unjust in the first place.

I once told someone that if I did become a Christian again, I'd have to be a universalist. And if I was wrong, if there was a hell, then it wouldn't matter how strong my faith had been or how much I truly, deeply loved Jesus. I'd have to go hell.

He said that that was the saddest thing he had ever heard in his life. I think he needs to get out more.

"But aren't you afraid of going to hell?" That's one of those questions that people love to ask when they find out they're talking to an atheist. And of course I tell them no, I'm not afraid at all. Because it isn't real. There's no good reason to think it is real and several good reasons to think it's not.

And that's not a bravery thing. I don't think that it's courageous of me to not be afraid of hell. It requires very little bravery to offer to fight a monster you know doesn't exist. But not everyone gets that.

It doesn't just bother me that I used to believe in hell. It bothers me that I did so casually. Like it wasn't a big deal, or not that important. Does that mean I didn't really believe in it? Or was I just that unthinking that I never examined what that belief meant? I suspect more the latter. And I think the same is true for a lot of people who believe in hell.

I feel like I want to warn them.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Thanksgiving wishes

Having known hunger, may I be thankful for the food I will receive today.

Having known cold, may I be thankful for the shelter of my home.

Having known illness, may I be thankful for my health.

Having knowing loneliness, may I be thankful for my family and my friends.

Having known loss, may I be thankful for the time I have with the people I love.

Having known people who have less, may my thankfulness inspire me to share what I have with those who are less fortunate.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Twenty-five cents worth of enlightenment

I'm a fidgety person. I'll constantly fiddle with whatever's in my reach. At my desk I'll play with the locks and keys I have strewn about. In meetings I'll my pen apart and put it back together over and over. In the car I'll push the window lock button a hundred times in a row or rummage through the center console while waiting at red lights.

On the way home from work one day I was fondling a quarter that I found in a cup holder. At one point I decided to look at it, and I noticed when it was minted. 1985. The year of my birth.

"This quarter is as old as I am," I thought. Then something occurred to me: I've grown; I've changed. The quarter has more or less stayed the same. It's scuffed and worn around the edges, but for the most part it is comprised of all the same stuff that it always has been. I, on the other hand, was constantly having little bits of me die off and get replaced. Only a miniscule fraction of the physical stuff that comprised my body when I was born was still a part of me in that moment.

"This quarter is older than me" was my next thought. Since it wasn't decaying and being rebuilt like me, that actually made me younger than it. But then it occurred to me that the various minerals that went into making the quarter were much, much older than the quarter itself, so it was actually older than I had originally thought. Of course, I then realized that the same was true of my body. The quarter and I, or at least the stuff that would eventually become our forms, are as old as the universe.

"This quarter is as old as I am."

There was something deeply moving about that moment. I already knew everything that I came to learn from that moment, but I experienced in a deeper and more profound way than I ever had before. The quarter and I were connected, along with everything else in the universe. There was something so beautiful about it that I actually wept. And it wasn't just tearing up the way I might when I hear a beautiful song. It was full-on, embarrassed-to-be-doing-this-where-someone-might-see-and-think-my-dog-died sobbing.

There was a Zen master whose name I'm too lazy to look up who said something to the effect of "before I studied Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I was a student of Zen, I saw that mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Now that I'm a master, I see that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers." I definitely don't want to suggest that I'm now enlightened or anything, but I think I touched on something that ties into what the Zen master was talking about.

I kept the quarter in the car. Every now and again I'd take it out and look at it, but I could never recapture that feeling. Eventually it got spent on something. I was initially upset when I found out that it was gone, which confused my wife completely, but I found I couldn't explain why I was upset about it without sounding foolish. I let it go and got over it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"We won't ask if you've been saved."

My wife and I are continuing to shop for a church in our new home. A few weeks ago we were faced with two very different options due to the time we got out of bed. One was a rather liberal Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation, and the other was a conservative Church of Christ. I was secretly pulling for the conservative option, hoping that I'd get some interesting discussion during the fellowship hour afterward (I was in the mood for a bit of an argument), but time constraints led us to the closer, more liberal option.

The members were a friendly, nametag-wearing bunch and we were welcomed (and encouraged to come back) by many different people. The gentleman we sat next to told us this wasn't a place where we could just sit in the back and go unnoticed. It was a far cry from the church we visited the week before where we were basically ignored, but not as overwhelming as the first place we checked out (we were given a microphone and asked to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the service. Churches, don't do that to your new people).

When the time came for communion, I stayed seated. This seemed to baffle the guy next to us, and he made it a point to tell us that "all are invited to the table." I already struggle a bit with knowing how much to participate during a service, but I draw a clear line at receiving communion. At the end of the service, presumably as a response to my being the only one who didn't go up for the bread and cup, the same guy told us that, if we stuck around, we'd find that they were a very liberal church. "We won't ask if you've been saved," he said.

On the one hand, I can appreciate that. It's typically an annoying question to be asked. If the person sitting next to you on a plane asks that, you're stuck without an escape plan for hours. If someone asks you that at work, you end up ruining all of your lunch breaks for years to come as they try to evangelize to you. But we were in a church; God talk goes along with the setting. I have no expectation that discussion of my religious point of view will be "off limits" when I step into a church building. But maybe the guy knows how heated those discussions can be and was simply trying to be nice.

But was it nice? "We won't ask if you've been saved." Okay, but you do believe that there's something for me to be saved from, right? That's usually a big part of the whole Christian deal. So, by not asking if I've been saved, isn't there an implication that it's more important to him that neither of us get into a potentially awkward conversation than it is to make sure that I get saved from whatever danger I'm in?

Religions, by and large, are supposed to serve the purpose of fixing some problem inherent to being human. In Christianity, the problem is sin, and the result of sin is spending the afterlife in Hell, which is an unpleasant place by all accounts. If you really, truly believe that that is going to be someone's eternal fate, you should probably tell them. There are bad ways of doing this, like wearing a sandwich board that says "THE END IS NIGH!" and yelling at people on the sidewalk, but it's probably a good idea to start up a conversation with someone who shows up at your house of worship of their own accord.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Yes, I am closed-minded

I've been called closed-minded more than once by certain Christians wonder how someone could read the Bible as much as I do, study Christianity as much as I do, and pray as much as I do and not become a faithful Christian. If I was truly open to the Truth, you see, the Holy Spirit would tap me and turn me into a follower of Jesus. However, since I am closed-minded, that cannot happen.

As it turns out, they are correct. I am closed-minded.

If I was truly open-minded...

If I didn't have a vested interest in a specific outcome...

If I was truly interested in only following the facts where they lead...

...I would have completely given up on Christianity years ago.

But I'm still trying. Because I'm closed-minded.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why can't I sing in church?

My wife and I visited a church in our new hometown on Sunday. I had her pick which one to try out first, seeing as she's the one who's actually a Christian, and we wound up going to a Methodist church up the street a ways.

The congregation was an older crowd, and the hymns were also of the older variety. I actually like a lot of traditional hymns (and detest pretty much all of the more contemporary worship music), and I knew the tune and (most of) the lyrics to all of the hymns that were on that day's lineup. In spite of this, I did not sing.

This really isn't unusual. I feel very self-conscious about singing in public. I'll sing along with the radio when I'm driving alone, but I can't when there's someone else in my car, even if it's only my wife, so the fact that I won't raise my voice in a group of strangers, even if my voice isn't likely to be heard over the voices of said strangers.

But the primary reason that I didn't sing wasn't that I was too shy; it was that I didn't agree with the lyrics. Singing songs extolling the virtues of a god that I don't believe in (and wouldn't necessarily worship if it did exist), or about how glad I am to be saved by Jesus' sacrifice when I don't believe that any sacrifice took place, it just feels wrong. And singing these songs would give people the impression that I believed these things. As it was, everyone I spoke to assumed that I was a Christian simply due to the fact that I was there (which, incidentally, is one of the many odd things about churches; most of them so desperately want non-believers to come, but they don't seem ever expect it to actually happen, or know how to handle it when it does).

My reluctance to sing the hymns probably seems reasonable, but I know that I'm being somewhat hypocritical. I've been to numerous non-Christian religious services and haven't had any similar hang-ups. I've been to Hindu temples and bowed to statues of gods I don't believe in and eaten food that had been offered to them. I've chanted Buddhist sutras, saying words I don't believe in languages I don't speak. I've praised Allah with a Sufi Muslim and meditated with a Jewish mystic. I've had no qualms about doing any of this, but I couldn't bring myself to sing with a bunch of Methodists.

It could relate to my reluctance to give false impressions. I'm pretty sure that when I visit a Hindu temple, it's pretty clear to everyone that I am just that: a visitor. But I've felt comfortable participating (shy of taking communion) in liturgical Christian services, bowing to and kissing icons in an Orthodox church, praying litanies with Episcopalians, and kneeling during the consecration at Catholic mass. I've even chanted Psalms with Benedictine monks, including Psalm 137 (136). Why would it be that I can chant "happy are they who dash your children on the rocks" but I can't sing "what a friend we have in Jesus?"

It may have something to do with my enjoyment of ritual. I'm willing to say and do things in the space of a ritual that my rational mind would normally rebel against. Christian services that follow some sort of well-established liturgy are able to trigger that ritual mindset in me, but most Protestant services cannot. This is at least partially because these services are so familiar to me, so attending them doesn't feel like part of a "sacred" experience the way that a less familiar service does. I think it also has to do with a mindset common in Protestantism that actually rejects the idea of ritual. It's common to see ritualistic and formulaic services as being "dead" or insincere; if you really believed all this stuff and are truly there to worship, you don't need all the fancy robes, the scripts, or the symbols. Subsequently, this ties back into my issue with not wanting to appear like I actually believe in Christianity by participating in the service.

Last but not least, I have to admit that I do harbor some resentment towards "the Church" (as I've experienced it) and some measure of animosity towards Christianity that I don't have towards, say, Buddhism. But that's a subject that can use its own post.

When everything is said and done, I think that this is small scale example of my larger issue of approaching religion. Continuing to simply show up to church and sit there doing nothing will not accomplish anything or help me grow, so it's not an option I want to choose. I only see two other options, which happen to be extreme opposites: either I participate as fully as I can and get whatever I can out of it, or not show up at all.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I'm back! (sort of)

The blog has been quiet for the past few weeks as my life has been hectic. My wife and I have relocated so that she could pursue a PhD. Introvert and homebody that I am, moving away from the place where I've lived for almost a decade, leaving behind family, friends and a good job to star over somewhere completely new is not something I'm particularly ecstatic about. However, I've tried to look at it as something of an adventure. I need to make some changes in my life, and starting fresh in a new location is an excellent opportunity to make those changes happen.

There's a problem, though. I haven't been able to find a job in our new town. I can't afford to be unemployed, even briefly, so I'm still at my current job. This means I'm staying with my parents during the week, then driving back home for the weekends.

There are multiple reasons that this situation sucks, the least of which is not that it screws up my "life-changing adventure" outlook. Rather than getting the clean break that I needed, I've got one foot in my old neighborhood and one foot in my new one. The move feels incomplete (because it is), and there's no telling when I'll be officially settled.

I really hate this.

On the plus side, I have time to start updating my blog again. I'm not particularly in the mood to do so frequently, but I'll still probably churn something out bit by bit between filling out job applications.