losing faith | my departure from theism [cc]

Atheism happened to me when I wasn’t looking. Theism happened to me when I wasn’t thinking. I was an intensely rational boy. It was born from a natural ravenous
curiosity about the world. I love pulling things apart to see how
they worked. Not living things. I wasn’t one of those boys who terrorises insects. But inanimate objects were fair game, and as a child my toys had a rough time of it. I also had a love of reasoning for its own sake and could while away hours absorbed in logic problems purely for the mental exercise. There was a period in my childhood when I applied that curiosity and reasoning freely to all areas of life. I wanted to understand everything. My incessant questions were greeted
by the adults in my life with everything from amusement to exasperation. But there was one subject where my questions met with a very different response. Not at first. At first, information was
gushingly forthcoming. When I walked into the strange building for the first time and saw the giant man of wood standing with arms outstretched like a
gymnast or a diver I didn’t even have to open my mouth
before a smiling stranger leaned in and told me the man’s name which to my young
ears sounded like ‘cheeses’. At home, we had cheap little pint-sized
reproductions of statues like the Discobolus of Myron, the Venus de Milo and Rodin’s The Kiss. I’d never seen anything on the scale. To be told this cheeses was a real man, and to see how people revered him,
piqued my imagination. My young head was soon being filled
with stories about a god called Yahweh, who I realised was the invisible lord my
parents always spoke to before meal times. The stories came from an impossibly
dense book called the Bible which looked to me as if it might take
a hundred years to read. But it seemed no time at all before I was pulling this Bible apart too. In the book of Genesis the first humans, Adam and Eve,
were expelled from the paradise of Eden for eating fruit from the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil. But if they didn’t know good from bad
until after they ate the fruit how could they be blamed for eating it? Yahweh seemed to accept that they were
manipulated into eating it by the serpent who told them it was okay — so why punish them? The Adam and Eve story also said they heard Yahweh walking
through the garden of Eden. But I’d been told Yahweh was everywhere. How could you walk and
be everywhere at the same time? And why punish all of humanity
for Adam and Eve’s actions? You didn’t jail the children of bank
robbers for their parents’ crimes. There was the story of Lazarus who was
raised from the dead by cheeses. I’d been told you went to heaven when you died so why did cheeses cry when Lazarus died? Why wasn’t he happy he was in heaven? And didn’t raising him from the dead mean taking him out of heaven? That didn’t seem very kind. At first answers were given, but these
just led to more problems which I would then point out. Increasingly, I’d just be told there
were some things only Yahweh knew. This didn’t stop my questions. But before long, the responses
took on threatening overtones. I remember the cold stare from a relative when at the age of around six I started
pulling apart Noah and the Ark. In this story, Yahweh commanded
Noah to build a huge ship to house specimens of every land-dwelling
species, to prevent them all dying out when a forthcoming flood engulfed the Earth. Only, while the Bible depicted the flood
as a deliberate act of genocide by Yahweh, cleansing the Earth of his flawed creation, we’d been told a more child-friendly version in which Yahweh merely foresaw a
global flood and told Noah to warn everyone. Here, the flood was being presented as natural. I pointed out that rain was produced when water evaporated from the land which meant the more it rained, the more
water had disappeared from the land. So how could it ever build up to cover the Earth? Where did it go afterwards? And why did Noah even have to build an ark? In Exodus 14:21 Yahweh divided the waters for Moses. Why couldn’t he have held them back here? Wasn’t he powerful enough? I recall the low, menacing voice warning me:
‘Don’t question God’s word!’ The glare that immobilised me with its hostility. I didn’t have the first clue what I’d done wrong. I just wanted to understand this unfathomable story. My questions had never received
this kind of response. But when it came to religion, that’s how
it would be from now on. When I highlighted various practical problems
Jonah would’ve encountered living inside a fish for three days I got another furious scowl. The message was clear: questioning the Bible would no longer be tolerated. It was immensely frustrating. If I couldn’t ask questions how could I learn? But if the adults were acting this way I must be doing something very bad. Over the weeks, it reached a point where I felt absolutely stir-crazy, sitting in church being fed more problems I was forbidden to investigate. The prospect of coming to this place
every week for the rest of my life filled me with a sense of doom. I said I didn’t like church and I didn’t want to go anymore. My complaints were dismissed. Faced with unbearable but inescapable situations, our brains sometimes flip those situations
into something more bearable — even positive. An example is Stockholm syndrome,
where hostages bond with their captors. I remember watching the adults listening
contentedly to the sermons, thinking how easy it must be when you didn’t
concern yourself with the problems; when you just accepted without question
— as they did. Before I knew it, I had stopped
swimming against the tide. I succumbed to a rationalisation
offered in many sermons, that unquestioning acceptance showed
spiritual maturity. Soon I was groaning when I heard other
children a church asking their parents similar questions, thinking to myself how pesky I must have sounded. Religion had split itself off in my mind. It was now an area bound by its own rules. Here, my natural skepticism had been
replaced by submission. Here, contradictions were okay. It was enough simply to believe that
someone somewhere knew the answer. Here, faith had become a virtue. Even though my questions
were a thing of the past, religiously inspired aggression from the
adults in my life was not. On one occasion, I’d been collected
from school one afternoon. When asked what I’d learned that day, I mentioned that the teacher
told us about speech disorders. In an innocent moment, I pondered out loud
whether cheeses might have had a stammer. In the next moment, my head was
slamming against a brick wall, the side of my face buzzing, and two words thundering into my ears: ‘Don’t blaspheme!” Over the next few years, my private
commitment to christianity grew. And when I changed to a new school
at the age of eleven I joined a lunchtime christian group
called Christian Union. consisting of students,
teachers and invited speakers. While church was a
predominately passive experience, Here, we were encouraged to express ideas and testify to the possible signs of Yahweh in our lives. My participation got off to a creaky start. But I soon got the hang of the rules which were essentially the rules of comic improvisation. Rule number one: agree. When someone puts forward an idea, go with it. If someone started talking about
what Yahweh wanted you shouldn’t start disagreeing and
saying you thought he wanted something else. That was dropping the ball.
Dropping the ball destroyed the magic. Even if what was being suggested didn’t inspire you, you needed to go with it and affirm it. Rule number two: add. Don’t just agree. If disagreeing is dropping the ball, then merely saying ‘Yeah’ is blandly handing it back. The aim is to keep the ball moving. To do that, you had to offer your own observations. Say what you thought Yahweh wanted. Rule number three: assert. Don’t ask questions. Make assertions. Asking questions means making problems
that other people have to solve. In the ball game analogy, this is like
switching the ball with a bowling bowl — constantly weighing people down
and dragging momentum. Assertions generated more material
for folks to bounce off. Before long, I’d become quite
a vocal member of the group. I’d found a fellowship I could really relate to and began to take unprecedented fulfilment in my faith. Even began to think about becoming a priest. A Nigerian pastor called Yemi
who’d spoken at Christian Union struck up a personal connection with me, visiting me at home and corresponding
with me when he returned to Lagos, telling me Yahweh had given him a vision of my future in which he saw me doing great things
for christianity. I was high on religion. But later that same year a simple question from one of my teachers
would bring it all crashing down. In response to a turgid little essay
I’d written about my faith, a teacher called Mr Elliot — a butcher’s dog of a man, prone to safari jackets — had written a comment asking me why I
believe what I believed. The question seems straightforward enough at first. Nothing sprang to mind. But I’d think about it when I got home and then I’d have a lot to say. But when I got home,
I didn’t have a lot to say. My brain churned up endless signs
of Yahweh’s hand moving through my life. Coincidences I couldn’t explain.
Physical sensations I couldn’t explain. Lessons life had taught me. Stuff that would’ve gone down fine in Christian Union. But faced with a discerning
individual like Mr Elliot, I suddenly saw how flimsy it looked. My inability to explain coincidences
and physical sensations illustrated nothing but my own ignorance. And so what if I’d learned some
lessons from life experiences? That merely meant I had a brain. I needed stronger material than this. In the next Christian Union meeting,
I put the question to the group. I was sure I’d get some good answers
because some members had claimed in very strong terms that Yahweh
had actually told them to do things. But when pressed, they now said they just meant that they’d interpreted certain life experiences
as messages from Yahweh. I was bewildered. You’d never claim humans ‘told’ you
to do things when all you meant was that you thought they might want you to do things. There I’d been, hoping Yahweh would one day
speak to me like he had to them when all the time they’d had no more
experience of him than me. I was disillusioned but not defeated. I had faith that someone somewhere had the answers. At church that Sunday during tea and biscuits after the service I put the question to some of the congregation. But it was the same story. One woman spoke about prayers healing the sick. I asked the question I suspected Mr Elliot would ask: What about when the person we pray for dies? She paused and said that it was just their time. I pointed out that if it was already determined whether or not it was someone’s time that made prayer pointless. An awkward smile from her. And the beginnings of panic in me. My critical thinking was spilling
into my religious thinking. And, like prayer and predestination, they didn’t mix well. I tried to make the predestination argument work. Could it be argued the predestined
prayers worked because they were predestined to be heard by Yahweh? But this made a nonsense of Yahweh’s omniscience. This demanded that he’d have to pretend to himself that he had a different plan for people knowing all along that he would then hear
a predestined prayer that would change his mind. When I got home, I set out to
answer Mr Elliot’s question myself. After all, I should be able to give my own reasons. It was time to take a much closer look at the religious dogma I’d been
so stridently defending. My assessment would be a brutally honest process. But I felt I could afford to be brutal. I was confident there’d be an abundance of support. So I threw myself into the arguments. It was like a huge house, with each idea
a room to be explored. I sped through some of the basic
fallacious justifications. Did it count for anything that so many
people shared my beliefs? Or that among them were some of
history’s geniuses? Or that these beliefs had lasted for centuries? No. Our former belief that the sun orbited the Earth showed that everyone could be wrong, even geniuses, and that a belief’s longevity
was no guarantee of its validity What about the fact that
these beliefs changed people’s lives? I’d recently met with a christian group
one evening to see a film called The Cross and the Switchblade which told the story of a New York pastor turning teenage gang members away from crime through his christian ministry. But this was no argument either. That beliefs could inspire changes in
people’s lives was not evidence of their truth. — merely of their potential to inspire some people. Time after time, unexamined arguments like these that had always had a vague, intuitive appeal fell down the instant I examined them. In Mr Elliott’s class, to my relief he didn’t pursue his question. But I continued to look for some solid answers. I didn’t want to be put in this position again. Eventually, I turn to the Bible. I’d read much of it in my time but never actually gone cover to cover. It was disquieting. Blatant contradictions leapt out at every level — from the inexplicably petty to the indefensibly unjust. In Numbers 6:5, Yahweh instructed
men to grow their hair long. But 1 Corinthians 11:14 stated that long hair
on a man was intrinsically dishonourable. 1 John asserted that there was
no place for fear in love. But in the book of Deuteronomy alone Yahweh’s desire to be feared
was underscored 14 times. In Psalms 51, Yahweh took no pleasure
in sacrifice or burnt offerings while a moment ago, in Genesis 8,
he’d seemed rather partial. The practice of punishing children for
their parents’ sins was approved in Exodus 34, seemingly disavowed three books
later in Deuteronomy 24, only to be approved again four chapters
later in Deuteronomy 28. I already knew several Biblical episodes —
like the testing of Job and of Abraham — where Yahweh permitted or
instigated horrendous cruelty. And I’d long ago learned the sordid
Biblical version of Noah and the Ark. Previously, I’d blocked out a lot of the anxiety
these aroused by focusing on Jesus. But going through chapter by chapter
Jesus was no longer enough to eclipse the sheer scale a brutality. There was the tale of Onan whose brother was killed by Yahweh and who was then instructed to marry and
impregnate his brother’s widow. When Onan declined, Yahweh killed him too. There was the tale of Elisha who cursed a group of children
in the name of Yahweh when they made fun of his baldness. Two bears then appeared from the woods and tore up 42 the children after which Elisha went happily on his way. A candidate for the
most nauseating slaughterfest was the story of the Levite and the
concubine in Judges 19 to 21 in which the rape and murder of a woman led directly to the deaths of over 40,000, as Yahweh repeatedly sent the tribes
of Israel into war against each other. The story ended with the subjugation of 400 virgins, the only survivors a tribe wiped out for declining to participate in the wars. My fellow Christians could produce no
convincing defenses. Some argued that it was a time barbarism back then so Yahweh had to relate to humans in barbaric ways. That was ridiculous. Any god who had to pander
to the psychology of humans had no moral sovereignty. Also Yahweh was perfectly
willing to harden people’s hearts — to deliberately make them more
disagreeable, destroying their free will. So couldn’t he soften hearts too? Make people more agreeable? Isn’t that what loving parents would do
if they have the power, rather than send their children into war? Throughout my reading and discussions A new thought would occasionally
bubble up in my mind: I could do a better job than Yahweh. Instinctively, I’d instantly dismiss
this blasphemous notion. It kept coming back. Larger and larger. With the Bible only generating new problems, I turned to a subject I’d tended to keep out of mind. It wasn’t the reason I believed but it was a reason to believe: hell. Because if you didn’t believe that’s where you were going — To a place of everlasting torture. Instinctively, I recoiled at
the very thought of the fiery pit. But within seconds my fear of hell had
vanished forever. Within those seconds,
I realised the idea of hell was moronic Dividing the entire human
population into just two groups — one going to hell, the other going to heaven — on the basis of what gods they believed in? So all those who’d dedicated their lives
tirelessly to humanitarian pursuits but had been raised to believe in
hindu gods deserved eternal torture? That was plainly immoral. Any just system should judge everyone
fairly on their individual deeds. But that was incompatible with
a binary system like heaven and hell. You couldn’t divide people into either good or bad. Human morality was a spectrum, with folk stretching across every part it. I imagined everyone who’d ever existed standing in a row from good to bad with the person on the right marginally more good; the person on the left fractionally more bad. How could you draw a dividing line — a cut-off point between the two sides, where one side went to hell, the other to heaven? It was absurd. Wherever you drew the line it would be between two people with
a virtually identical moral score. The difference between them might be a single deed. And yet one would be destined for eternal torture and the other eternal paradise. the irony was that many of my fellow christians had spoken of hell has the ultimate justice for those who escaped it in the earthly life. But hell was about the most pathetic
parody of justice imaginable. Yahweh should’ve been a moral genius. But the dichotomy of hell and heaven displayed the black-and-white
thinking of an infant. After years spent averting my gaze
from its flickering menace, I so hell for what it was: a tiny idea casting a large shadow. Argument after argument, discussion
after discussion on subject after subject, The entire contents of my belief were falling apart. Finally, I went to the source. Asked Yahweh to show himself. Not through cryptic signs open to interpretation, but unambiguously — a direct communication that would validate my commitment over these years. Silence. I was alone in a house full of contradictions. So it was that I turned my attention to the concept that had allowed all these contradictions to accumulate; the concept that had anaesthetised
my enquiring mind: ‘Faith is a virtue’. This assertion had come to feel
so monolithic and indisputable. But now the simple truth was revealed: No it isn’t. The concept of faith tried to arouse and exploit the kind of protective loyalty we might feel towards loved ones. in whose goodness we trusted. But I realised that the trust we invest in loved ones was based on very different principles. Trust in humans was earned. We believed in the goodness of loved ones because
we had direct experience of their goodness. Religious faith was not earned — it was
simply demanded based on a stack of bold claims
that were never substantiated. In fact, bizarrely, if direct evidence
was ever offered, faith would become instantly redundant. Faith, by its very nature, was forced to reside in the ambiguous, the circumstantial relying purely on the believers’ conviction that their inferences were correct. Faith differed from trust in another key respect: if a loved one was accused of a trangression that contradicted our good opinion we’d want to see evidence — in fact, we would demand it. but with religious faith all contradictory evidence was dismissed as invalid right from the start on the assumption that if you took the time to investigate it properly it would turn out to be false. It was as I contemplated this last point further that I experienced one of the creepiest moments in my exploration — when I realised that what I was looking at here was the perfect system for protecting lies. Faith required that you believe despite an absence of expected evidence or despite the presence of conflicting evidence. But how do we detect lies? Through the absence of expected evidence or the presence of conflicting evidence. The very things that faith demanded we disregard. Any supreme intelligence would know that a system that protected lies so efficiently Would lay humans open to just about any conceivable abuse. People could be manipulated to accept all kinds of deceptions. those who complained about inconsistencies could be silenced by the devastating accusation that their faith wasn’t strong enough. No supreme intelligence would entertain
such a perverse concept as faith unless that intelligence was itself perverse. it was disorientating when I emerged
from my period of reflection …. into an entirely different space. It seemed …. incomprehensible …. but I no longer believed in a god. Everyone believed in a god. If not Yahweh, then Allah, or Vishnu — or someone. I genuinely thought I must be the only
person on the planet who didn’t. The first person in history. That’s how cloistered I’d been
in my cocoon of christianity. But I became aware that I
wasn’t alone in this new space. My brother had also found his own path here. I was glad of the company. We took no immediate action. We played along. Went to church. Took communion. Life had been stripped of all context, all reference points. We took time to collect our thoughts and consider and next move. The more I thought about it the more impossible it seemed that we
were the only ones who’d made it here. We were only just entering our teens. It simply wasn’t plausible to me that folks in their 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s had never found this place too. I began to theorise that maybe
religion was a giant hoax perpetrated on children. A test of reasoning; a rite of passage. There had been obvious precedents. Father Christmas. The Tooth Fairy. I constructed a whole
elaborate model in my head where deceits like Mr Claus and Ms Tooth were set up as the early practice runs and the adults were just waiting for us to see through religion too. At the same time they seemed to take it so seriously. I remembered the anger at my questions. The slap the sent me into the wall. But then I reasoned that if this was the
big test, maybe they had to play for real right up until I told them straight out that I didn’t believe. I also figured that once we’d passed the test we could all stop these pointless visits to church. So, one Sunday morning we announced we didn’t believe in god. Wailing. Threats. Fury. I felt suddenly sick. It wasn’t a test. Within minutes we were given an ultimatum: go to church or suffer punishment. We chose punishment. All kinds of prohibitions,
confiscations and gratuitous labours were proposed if we didn’t comply. We accepted them. When the fear strategy failed, it was put to us that we’d made a lifetime
commitment to Yahweh. We said that it was an invalid
commitment, made in ignorance. When the obligation strategy failed, We were subjected to the most
intense pleading for our return. But there was no way back,
even if we’d wanted one. The magic trick, once explained, can no longer deceive. When the guilt strategy failed the frail, helpless act was swiftly dropped replaced by sneering contempt, name-calling and aping. It was behaviour you’d expect to see in a playground. In my innocent idealism I imagined that once the theatrics tied down all I’d need to do was explain my thought process and my position would be clear. So, when eventually my parents
demanded to know my reasons I was more than happy to oblige. But when I started to talk,
I found I was constantly blocked I’d be spoken over; my sentences would be finished in outlandish ways; and the conversation would be derailed by insults. Each time, we’d grind into silence. Later, they’d start the whole routine again. It was such conflicted behaviour. They seemed simultaneously determined
to hear the answer and not hear it. I didn’t know about the concept of
cognitive dissonance back then But what I was seeing reminded me of
Robbie the Robot from the film ‘Forbidden Planet’ who blew his fuses when pressed to kill a human — a command which contradicted his programming. I perceived a similar conflict here. If our reasons for rejecting religion were valid that would contradict their religious programming. That contradiction had to be resolved. And it was being resolved by attacking us. In this conflicted state, like a hall of mirrors our parents were incapable of honest reflection. We were characterised as dishonest, arrogant, rebellious, naive — whatever distortions would, in their minds,
discount the possibility that we might have a point. Although I despised the behaviour I was witnessing two thoughts kept a glimmer of empathy
from spluttering out completely. First, they’d been subjected to religious
indoctrination, just like I had and, compared with me,
they’d sacrificed many more years. Second, just as I’d had my crisis they were now having theirs. While I’d contained mine within myself I was seeing their inner conflict nakedly expressed. But, empathy notwithstanding,
we were getting nowhere. And eventually I refused to continue. I made it clear that if they wanted a proper discussion I’d be waiting. But I would no longer dignify any abuse. The christian teachers at school
attempted to exert their own pressure expressing deep disappointment in me. Again, no curiosity was shown. They did ask me questions. But they were closed, rhetorical
questions like: was I angry with god? Questions that show they weren’t really listening. They were just attempting to rationalise my unbelief into a form from which they
could distance themselves. When eventually they ran out of rationalisations they distanced themselves from me. Animosities at home gradually died down. The ground was scorched but, millimetre by millimetre, the bare bones of respect
and trust began to regrow. My offer of a proper discussion wasn’t taken up and religion became a closed subject. There were occasional lapses. For many years, my brother and I
patiently rebuffed expressions of hope That one day we would come back to religion. There was even the old random grenade
thrown in at mealtimes. Like ‘Darwin recanted!’ In response, we would calmly decommission these kinds of incendiary remarks by introducing the facts and the meal would continue. Decades after we came out I was to hear some very unexpected
sentiments expressed. Expressions of regret for the way
me and my brother were treated. Expressions of pride for the integrity
we’d shown over the years, and for the people we’d grown up to be. Touching as those sentiments might seem all they aroused in me was a great sadness. because they underscored the utter pointlessness of all the conflict and estrangement we’d gone through. They underscored the love and closeness
that we’d all missed out on. All because unbelievers were damned in a book of higgledy-piggledy myths constructed in a time of inconceivable ignorance but coercively inculcated
into generation after generation as the indisputable truth. What a waste. I was an intensely rational boy. It was born from a natural
ravenous curiosity about the world. I loved pulling things apart to see how they worked. And then I was pulled apart. My rationality trampled. My curiosity smothered into a coma. My whole life knocked off course by a blood-soaked old book. Theism happened to me when I wasn’t thinking; when I was systematically punished for thinking until I surrendered and let others think for me. Atheism happened to me when I wasn’t looking; when I started exercising critical thought again to pursue a path that I was convinced
would justify my faith. I sometimes refer to it as
my Wile E. Coyote moment — looking down and discovering the ground I so confidently ran across was no more than a cloud; realising too late what a profound mistake it was simply to take it on faith that someone somewhere had the answers. Faith is not a virtue. Far from reflecting supreme intelligence the concept to faith reeks of a very human phenomenon. Fraud. As Oppenheimer noted, in order to detect errors We need to be free to enquire. Faith stifles that free enquiry by protecting lies and silencing those
who threaten to expose them. To the curious, an encouragement: continue to enquire.


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