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Grief and the loss of your faith

Moving Mountains

A poem written while reflecting on the loss of faith and the beginnings of my own personal grief.

This particular post is being written with the ex-christian and ex-believer who has embraced atheism or agnosticism in lieu of their former faith. This is done because this is where my best experience lies, however – for those that leave their faith for another many of these same words will ring true, and so I hope you will still read and take from it what you can – and share with me your own experiences if you are so willing.  I don’t write in this way to alienate anyone and I hope my words don’t do so – my goal is to provide those experiencing these emotions with some feeling of normalcy over what is happening and an understanding that they are not alone.
 
 

A couple days ago Neil Carter over at Patheos’ Godless in Dixie (Which is currently my favorite atheist blog btw) was gracious enough to use one of my posts from 2011 as a guest post on his very popular blog. That post, entitled “It Get’s Better: A Letter to Doubters” has made the round a number of times since I originally published it 4 years ago now and I’ve always felt like I’ve needed to follow up on it in some fashion, if you haven’t read it – I recommend you do. The emails and comments I’ve received since it’s appearance on Godless in Dixie have confirmed that need more than ever – and so today I want to discuss the process of grief and the loss of your faith.

The Death of Faith

Traditionally grief is a process that occurs after the death of a loved one and for many in the ex-christian and ex-believer communities the loss of their faith is very similar to the death of a loved one. I personally believe that just how death-like this process might be depends on how sincere and life consuming one’s faith has been – but even the nominal believer will experience the symptoms of loss when recognizing that he or she no longer holds the same beliefs that once rang true.  In other words – the devotion you have to your god or faith will be directly proportional to the pain you will feel as that faith dies.

This faith death is often spurred by a series of realizations, often the embracing of doubts that have long been quieted by the desire to leave well enough alone. Whether it be a recognition that  your particular holy book doesn’t meet the criteria for evidence and truth that you once thought it did, or  the epiphany that your own cognitive biases have held you in a belief system that new information simply can no longer reconcile. Whatever the reason and however abruptly or agonizingly long this death takes to occur the end result will seem very confusing and difficult to explain – most people say that they feel alone in the world and, despite a sense of data overload that accompanies all the new information coming to you about the faith you no longer hold, a sense of quietness that seems unlike any other that you may have experienced before.

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Choosing Hell

Choosing Hell

Choosing Hell: Leaving faith against your will

 

Any atheist who has spent any time talking with or debating with theists is going to have heard it at least a dozen times, “You have just chosen not to believe” or “You’ve chosen one faith over another faith” or some derivative of this idea. Personally, I’ve heard it hundreds of times – largely because of my status as an apostate.

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Gut Check for the New Atheist Jerks

Note: In this post you’ll notice that I lump various groups into a single group. I call atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and etc all Humanists – largely based on the assumption that most of us are. If you don’t identify as a humanist please don’t take offense to this post or that categorization, it was done for the sake of simplifying the language of the post and for the sake of brevity. For the sake of clarity I am providing a link to the Humanists Manifesto II.

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New atheists, we non-believers who dare to speak out against the evils we perceive inherent to religion, are consistently victims of a great number of stereotypes.  “Atheist jerks” or “angry atheists” are pretty common perceptions among those who maintain a faith system, but now it seems that those within our congregation might be growing weary of the people that cause these brash stereotypes to befall  the rest of us.

Don Rasmussen recently implored his fellow atheists to “stop being jerks” and identifies a number of things that he believes atheists should stop doing in order to improve our public image. Most of the things he alludes to — suing to keep manger scenes off of public property, suing to keep religious displays out of schools, etc. — really aren’t so ‘jerky,’ as they are intended to enforce the establishment clause of the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean that Mr. Rasmussen doesn’t make some very good points.

He says,

How can I ask 27 million Texans to put up with me if I act like they not only disgust me, but I’m entitled to legislate my disgust upon them?  How many nativity scenes have to be banned before Christians accept me? It’s a ridiculous strategy that makes enemies, divides people and carves up freedom; throwing away the parts that aren’t easily digestible.

In small part here, I think Mr. Rasmussen is dead on but please allow me to correct bits of it:

I don’t believe that lawsuits over manger scenes curtail freedom at all, people are allowed to put manger scenes on their private property all day long and I’d never even suggest that lawsuit is appropriate – it’s the fact that we all pay for the public lands and grounds that makes it reasonable to protect them from religious display.

Where Rasmussen is correct though is that it DOES divide people, and it DOES make enemies.  Atheists today don’t need more enemies and our country doesn’t need more division.

I’d like to pose an alternative to the American Atheists model of throwing lawsuits at every cross they find – here’s a screen cap from something I posted on my Facebook page in June of 2012:

American Atheists

This model doesn’t focus on being in the right, it focuses on being good and doing good.

I’m going to call this model the “Do it better” model. You see, atheists and agnostics don’t have a deity telling them what to do – we don’t have a James 1:27 telling us to care for widows and orphans like Christians, and unlike Muslims, we don’t have the zakat requiring that a percentage of our income go into helping the poor. What we do have, what all humanists have,  is a shared existence on this planet with theists. That shared existence leads me to a humanists  philosophy that requires as much social endeavor toward goodness as any other philosophy might but for some reason this endeavor hasn’t manifested itself in these cost efficient, good ways of helping real people.

I propose that we atheists of the world put our humanism into practice first before we concern ourselves with litigation and division. I propose that we solve what the combined efforts of Christianity and Islam have failed to do for the last couple of millennia  by focusing the bulk of our efforts on the truly important things: ensuring that the people in our world can eat, protecting the weak from abuse, and ensuring that liberty is extended to all people. I’d like to do these things better than those with a mandate to do so. I believe that this sort of action would not only repair the damage done to the atheist/humanist/skeptic/agnostic communities by fundamentalist religion thru the hate and propaganda we’ve earned by spending our time on less pertinent actions – it will also endear us in the hearts and minds of those we’ve taken the time to do good for. When we’ve become what people expect from big religion we won’t have to worry about fighting legal battles anymore because people will respect us enough not to push those buttons.

One of the giant 1.1 Million dollar crosses that have been built across the country by Cross Ministries

One of the giant 1.1 Million dollar crosses that have been built across the country by Cross Ministries

The way to transition from the most hated minority in the USA isn’t to call the ACLU every time someone wastes money and effort on a public religious display or spends millions of dollars erecting giant crosses throughout the country – it’s to do what they should be doing with their time, effort, and money: fulfilling the duties they are currently too distracted to worry with.

Let’s face it, they have more money and power than us – but I believe we have the compassion required to do this right around the world.  Let them spend 1.1 million dollars on a giant white cross in the American South (because we don’t have enough crosses around here) while we spend our efforts on food banks in our local communities and finding other ways to help real people with real problems. Without the distraction and threat of Hell we can focus on real problems.

Now, let me be clear for just a moment – I don’t believe that all Christians and all Muslims do nothing for other people. I don’t believe that at all. I know that the majority of the charity in the world comes from people that are either Christian or Muslim, of course – one would expect that considering they consume the majority of the population. Consider, however, that so much of the charitable giving that Christians do goes directly to their churches and then directly into overhead – like pastor salaries, staff salaries, building mortgages, taxes, and evangelism that simply isn’t focused on helping people in “non spiritual” ways. So little of the donations churches receive actually goes into feeding the hungry that it’s an absolute travesty – I suspect that if most Christians were more aware of the expenditures of their church they’d actually pull out (and you do, by the way, have the right to view the financial records of any church you are a member of – it’s the law). These “charitable” businesses simply aren’t efficient at helping people, even if well meaning members and donors believe they are!

Humanists, atheists, agnostics – the whole lot of us should rethink how we do things. I think I’ve given a brief argument for the way I think we can do good and make our name good:

We can do what they should be doing better than they are. It’s really that simple and it starts with me.


Testimony of a Dying Man

Last night a friend of me sent something to me from a friend of his who is dying. I don’t know the man who wrote this personally and his name is intentionally being kept anonymous, though I did get permission through my friend to post this testimony of the last days of this man’s life.

I’m thankful to this anonymous man, a former minister himself,  for the opportunity to share this very short but very touching part of his life with my readers.

It is often said that we unbelievers will find ourselves quick to repentance at the end of our days, grasping fearfully at the prospect of eternity. Here, proof otherwise.

Testimony of a Dying Man.

15 years ago I missed a turn and drove off a 30 foot cliff knowing absolutely that I would not survive when it was over.  I had often wondered through the years what I would say or do when facing certain death and I found out at that time. My wife was riding with me and as we went airborne I heard myself say “oh, sweetheart”… In that short moment airborne… And utter complete mental silence.  8 feet of snow saved our lives a second later.

A week ago I was scheduled for a gallbladder x-ray to confirm the presence of a problem which could be surgically removed… Perhaps even that same day.  Unexpected phone silence ensued.  My spirit began to open to other unexpected possibilities and to ready itself for whatever it may be.  My Catholic upbringing had instilled the concepts of sin, salvation, resultant heaven hell and purgatory.  My 44 year search since leaving that world view had exposed me to alternatives of every age of mankind.  During that 44 year search I have often wondered if, when faced with an ultimate certainty of death in the near future, would I resort to the old paradigm or could I bring forward and live within what I had found in the meantime…. For within the last year of my life I have arrived at a silent and deep knowingness that taking evolutionary cosmology to the deepest emotional level gave me the foundation I never found in an anthropomorphic God structure…. But I always had a slight wonder, “is it only conceptually deep?”

Five days ago, I and my wife listened to the words on the speakerphone as she sat opposite me and she later said that when I heard the words she saw a huge transformation of calmness and clarity come over me….”You have inoperable metastasized liver cancer, and may expect two months at the outside”.  And in the five days since that news I have experienced a calmness and centeredness such as religious faith had never provided.  I have found a sense of place and process within the world view of evolutionary cosmology such as I have searched for relentlessly in my 77 years…. And it is increasingly feeding my spirit daily with a sense of readiness for every present moment in this process of dying.

I am finally really learning how to live in the moment.  Fear and hope have no place in this process. It is a readiness and willingness of an utterly deep knowingness.

Farewell. We truly all are in this together.

 

Songs of the Deconverted by Jim Etchison- Review

Songs of the Deconverted by Jim Etchison It’s rare that I find stories that so precisely and eloquently put words to the way it felt for me as I lost my faith. It’s rare that I ever feel like someone actually gets it. Jim Etchison does such an incredible job describing these thoughts and feelings in his book Songs of the Deconverted, that I frequently found myself highlighting portions of the text and gasping for breath as I recalled feeling many of the same things described in the book.

Songs of the Deconverted is a collection of short stories, fiction, that reflect upon Jim’s own experiences. Each riddled with parts of his own life, they serve as the perfect allegory  for what it is like for the deeply devoted Christian to lose that which is most vital to him.

Jim says of his work:

I wrote this book of short stories for a rare group – those who dove in completely, let the current sweep them under, then realized their peril and swam for the shore. The people who climbed out, still dripping, and walk again on the dry land, are forever changed. The ocean won’t define them anymore.  Instead they will be defined by their singular decision to climb out of the roiling sea.

The stories introduce us to Andy, beginning with his climb up Tophat Ridge with an atheist friend who “baffles” him. By the time Andy and his friend reach the summit Andy too is without belief, no longer able to make God true after great revelations cause his religious infrastructure to implode on itself.

From:

Every action, every snapshot in time, was held up against the backdrop of God’s intention.

To:

…now I could see them [the clouds] for what they were: beautiful, gorgeous billows of white against a deep blue sky

Andy’s story is my story. Andy’s pain is my pain. Most importantly, Andy’s triumph is my triumph.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wrestling with deep and difficult doubts about their god, or for those just coming out of this transition period and waking up to a new life without.

Songs of the Deconverted is available on Amazon Kindle right now for only $2.99.

Tragedy sans God

Prior to last week I had never been to a funeral for a friend.

I’ve been to funerals of course;  when the parents of one of my friends died and they needed my support, or when an inlaw died in support of my wife.  This was the first time since I was probably 8 years old that someone that I called a friend, or someone I cared about directly died.

It feels different, emptier, and it makes me think about the brevity of my own life.

I’ve been mulling this over a great deal since it happened.

Then, today – December 14, 2012 – something like 20 elementary school kids get killed in a school shooting in Connecticut.

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The problem with certainty

I recall being certain that God existed, that he loved me, and that he was embodied in a set of books we call the Bible. I was so certain of this that I would have said, without any question whatsoever, that I even knew these things. Certainty, according to many Christian presuppositional apologists, is the cornerstone of the Christian worldview because it and only it provides any way in which to ascertain truth.

I remember the first time I became uncertain about my faith like it was yesterday. It started with the first in a series of questions about some doctrine that I’d now say is insignificant. It was the first time since I had given all of my life to my god that I considered the notion that perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I had been worshiping him incorrectly, perhaps something I believed about him was out of line with the Truth, perhaps the elders in my life were not as wise as I thought, perhaps even god’s very character was in question.

I know of no fear more all encompassing than that which came with my first experience with uncertainty.

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Finding common ground with an evangelist street preacher

What’s a street preacher doing here?

This last Saturday I was doing some audio work at the local Pondtown Festival;  a little arts, crafts, and music festival in the tiny city of Rhine, GA about 20 minutes from where I live.  As I was sitting behind the sound booth I noticed a sign off in the distance amongst the crowds of people that were about a block down the road that said something about Jesus and Hell.  Immediately I knew exactly who it was though I couldn’t quite read his sign yet. This was a street preacher.

His name is Derek, and he is a street preacher that spends most of his time in the Philippines as a pastor and evangelist. Derek is from the same town that I’m from and he visits here every so often to see his family and speak at many of the local churches. On his current visit he’s been going around to various events performing street evangelism with a number of the youth from area churches.

After I noticed this sign in the distance I knew I had to take a few minutes to go talk to him – Derek and I know one another and I heard him speak a time or two back when I was still a believer so talking to him isn’t such a big deal. So, I walk up to him and ready the camera on my phone – he notices me and kind of gives me a smile and a laugh as I snap a picture.

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Facing Doubt with Integrity and Honesty

There are a few Christian ministries popping up here and there that are dedicating themselves to ministering to doubters, one such ministry is called Credo House which has recently hosted a few podcast programs and blogs dedicated solely to being a haven for Christian doubters looking to restore their faith.   I contacted one of the ministers involved with this organization in order to offer to be a guest one of the pod-casts to give my testimony of leaving the faith.  He wasn’t interested.  I was surprised by the response because I thought this was an attempt at an honest examination of doubt and faith with the goal of giving people  hope that, regardless of where you end up as a result of your doubts, the depression, fears, and suicidal thoughts that often accompany these events can eventually get better.

Before I really became entrenched in facing and realizing my doubts about the Christian faith I had certainly dealt with doubts before. Small things like the Trinity, Biblical lack of clarity on some subjects, post or pretrib eschatology had made me question myself and the Bible in small ways but never in ways so ground-shaking as I eventually began to deal with.  I recognize that many of my Christian friends  deal with those same small issues and because of my own personal hindsight I recognize one of the main problems with the way believers of any faith deal with those doubts.

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Is Debating Theists Futile?

Many atheist activists take the time to debate and discuss religion with theists while others often assert the futility of such discussions.  I spend a good amount of time in discussion with theists and aside from the fact that I truly enjoy this type of discourse I personally find that the exercise is more often healthy for all parties involved than not.

Consider the following three examples:

Here in the deep south, in a small town where there are almost as many churches as people – many believers have never been exposed to such fundamentally differing opinions as my own rejection of the faith worldview in exchange for a naturalistic and evidence based approach to determining truth. In my discussions with “real life” people here I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of believers are under-prepared for this level of debate and in many cases find themselves admitting that they are ill-prepared and under educated in the tenets of their own faith.  Most of the time I’m the one that has to explain what the Bible says about any certain topic and I think that this fact has had an impact on many local believers in-so-much that they frequently commit themselves to better understanding their faith and even other view points.

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