Sunday, April 04, 2004

Encounters with God

Before I present this week's essay, I'd like to take a moment to say that the purpose of this site is not to be a forum for my autobiography. While I do intend to occasionally include autobiographical elements in my essays, it is my goal that, when I do so, it will be to illustrate a larger point or idea. As it happens, this essay is almost entirely autobiographical being mainly a story of my personal journey into and out of religious belief. It's also fairly long. If this doesn't sound like the sort of thing that would appeal to you, I would suggest that you might want to wait until next week.

Atheists in this country (by which I mean the United States of America) have a common tendency to exaggerate their plight. This is not to say that there arn't any atheists, here, who have suffered discrimination in the workplace or before the law, nor is it to claim we are never the recipients of threats and even violence. It is, however, to say that these are not the norm. Certainly, in comparison to such groups as homosexuals, our lot is not so terrible.

In my own experiences, the very worst thing that has happened to me as a consequence of my atheism was a single death threat. This sounds dramatic but it was the sort of anonymous threat that tends to bubble out of the cesspool that is Usenet and, while I did forward it to the proper authorities, I did not feel any great distress. I have certainly never suffered any actual violence due to my atheism and the only times I have felt compelled to conceal it was not for concern for my safety but rather for fear that I'd have to engage in some awkward discussions with people whom I had no interest in debating.

Rather than saying that American atheists are a persecuted minority, I would say that we are, in fact, an irritated minority. It is important to understand, however, that the amount of irritation that we receive is not negligible. There is a de facto presumption, in our culture, that it is perfectly okay to criticize atheism and to belittle atheists for holding incorrect beliefs. At the same time there is a double standard where atheists are considered to be arrogant for assuming that we are correct in our beliefs and that we are bitter and hateful for having the audacity to question the beliefs of others. In particular, it is inevitable that if one admits to atheism it is only a short amount of time before someone comes along to challenge that admission with a set of arguments that we have heard innumerable times before. It is for this reason that atheists tend to have a very ironic familiarity with religious argument.

For myself, the most vexing response to my atheism, however, is not the amateur theological arguments that I get exposed to (there was even a point where I sought such arguments out, though not so much anymore) but, rather, the suggestions that people give me to help me cure myself of this epistemological affliction. In particular, the people who suggest that I should just open my heart up and try to believe in God. The reason that this is such an irritant is that I have yet to meet an atheist who hasn't, at some point in her life, attempted to do just that or, at least, has given the question some very serious consideration.

My first experience with the notion of God was while I still in Kindergarten. We had a teacher who wasn't overly concerned about adhering to the Supreme Court's stance on the separation of Church and State. She read us the tales of Narnia, she had us sing religious songs and our craft projects would have the occasional religious iconography (especially around Christmas). I definitely knew about God. Did I believe in God?

It's hard to say. I suppose that it would be accurate to say that I believed in him (and yes, he was a him) in the same sense that I believed in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. This isn't to say that I had some advanced theological sense whereby I knew that God had to be considered a fiction. Rather, I had the same sort of relationship that five year olds have to all things that are outside of their immediate experience. For a child, the border between reality and fantasy is thin, blurry and permeable. I seriously believed that my best friend and I were actually alien dinosaurs, for instance. At the same time, when my friend announced that the whole alien dinosaur thing was just make believe, I had no trouble nodding and agreeing with him. Reality, at that age, is malleable.

There is also the factor that I didn't really quite understand what God was supposed to be. I knew that God was supposed to be able to do anything, and that God was supposed to be invisible and that he was, most confusingly of all, supposed to be everywhere. Beyond that, the sum of my knowledge about the subject was conveyed to me by the sort of religious claymation specials that they showed around Christmas and Easter (but Christmas and Easter were definitely about presents and eggs, respectively).

It should be noted that my parents never introduced me to religion (more about that later) so it's possible that my own understanding of God was thinner than the other kids. I don't think that's necessarily the case, however. I remember an incident where one kid claimed to be God and one of the other kids demanded that he prove it by picking up a nearby motorcycle. To me, this suggests that God and Superman occupy the same niche for kids that age.

Around the age of seven, I learned that I was an atheist. When I say that I learned this, what I mean is that my parents told me that we were atheists and that we didn't believe in God. This does not mean that I had any more of an idea of what atheism was than I did of what God was. It was just a label. If I had been told that we were Jewish, I would have happily considered myself a Jew. If I had been told that we were Buddhists, a Buddhists I would have been. If I had been told that we were Martians, I would have cheerful and proudly been a Martian.

Past the point of correcting my mother for her occasional "God bless you," in that smugly insufferable way kids have when they catch an adult in an error, I just didn't think much of it. The closest it came to being any sort of issue was one day, in the third grade, when I got into a lopsided shouting match with the rest of my class over whether or not there was a God. It was the typical sort of opinion exchange that kids have with them yelling "Does too!" and me yelling "Does not!"

I think that our teacher was more distressed about this than any of us. For us, it was just the sort of argument that kids have over anything where there can be a difference of opinion. It was no more serious than arguing over whether Mickey Mouse was better than Donald Duck.

I didn't have my next brush with religion until the age of nine or ten when I was vastly surprised to find that I needed to go to Summer Bible Camp. So, how is it that my so-called atheist parents sent me to what amounted to a Christian summer school? Well, the answer to that question is that I am not sure that my mother was really much of an atheist. I know this for a fact: through her childhood and up into her adulthood she was raised a Catholic. At some point between there and then she became an "atheist". At least, she said that she didn't believe in God but, I suspect, that she was probably just going along with my dad's stance rather than stating her true beliefs. I think that she was actually somewhere between a lapsed Catholic and an agnostic. To which of the sides she was closer, I cannot say.

Be that as it may, this wasn't an attempt to sneak some religion into me under my dad's nose. Her reasons were humanitarian: my best friend was apparently worried about my soul. At least that's what my mother heard from his grandmother. So, to sooth my friend's alleged concerns, she cheerfully sent me to "camp" with him. His grandmother was a saintly woman but could she have made that up, herself, in order to save my soul? I honestly don't know.

It was not a grueling ordeal. It was, actually, pretty fun. Now, I should disclose one thing. At no point did I display my atheism. I decided that it was best to just blend in and go with the flow. When the pastor asked for amens, I gave them mine right along with everyone else's. When we were asked to affirm our belief, I affirmed mine, too. I even ended up giving a one-boy presentation, on our graduation night, where I gave a free flow talk about religion (and got many compliments, I might immodestly add, afterwards).

But at no point did I start believing. It wasn't that I was being deliberately deceptive so much as that I found that the subject really didn't concern me. It didn't really bother me that people were claiming that God actually did exist. We just didn't agree. I even thought that it was kind of nice that my friend was concerned about me. I certainly didn't feel adverse to Christianity or anything like that. It just wasn't for me.

My overall indifference didn't last. By the age of twelve I started to get this urge to find religion. I remember giving God a test, once. I prayed for him to show me the location of something that I had lost. Naturally, I found it at some point after that and decided to construe that as a sign and a miracle.

I just could not sustain my belief. The harder I tried to open myself to God, the less I could bring myself to feel anything. It literally felt like I was clutching at air. In the end, I gave up and didn't think about it, again, until I was fourteen.

By that point, my understanding of religion had become more sophisticated. I had, at least, a passing familiarity with all of the major world religions as well as a good sense that there were even more religions out there. I had a feeling that I ought to believe in a God but I had no clear sense of which one. Attempts to find Christianity continued to fail and none of the other attempts had born fruit. I studied and I prayed. I felt an acute need to find something.

Finally, I found Islam. There's a story that had a lot more meaning to me at the time which, now, simply seems embarrassing. One day, while I was studying the Koran, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I miraculously "knew" that Islam was the one, true religion.

Yeah, I know. It's pretty thin. Conversion stories often are, though. How many of the great religious stories revolve around having a vision or an epiphany, after all? All I can say is that it seemed like a genuine revelation and I embraced it with all my heart.

Why Islam? Who knows. I did know an Islamic girl whom I was attracted to, but I retained my newfound faith even after she utterly rejected my claim to be a Muslim (and I can only imagine how outlandish that claim must have seemed to her). She stopped talking to me, and I continued believed. She moved away, and I still believed. I remained a believer for a full three years after she disappeared out of my life (for a total of four years of religious conviction).

Did puppy love have something to do with me choosing Islam? I think it's plausible and even likely. Did it have anything to do with me remaining a Muslim? No. That was part of something deeper.

When I believed, I felt fulfilled. I felt part of something bigger and more important than myself. I felt like I was, personally, part of some grand design. Most importantly, I had a wonderful feeling of certainty – that I had an inside scoop on the answer to the most profound mysteries of life and existence. I knew God and felt his presence in my life and in the cosmos as a whole.

I liked that feeling and wanted, very much, to keep it. That's why it felt so awful when it finally came tumbling down.

In the end, I found that had to keep making compromises between my religion and the rest of what I knew. I have always been a bookworm and one with an appetite for scholarship. I read voraciously on a wide range of topics. Whenever some random fact came into conflict with my religion I would invariably (and, often, instantly) reconcile it with my religious beliefs with a typically small change in perspective. I actually got quite good at being a lay apologist.

"Perhaps this passage where God tells us that we start out as a clot of blood isn't actually meant to be taken literally and – hey! – that's really not that far from embryogenesis, is it? Of course it’s not!"

It couldn't last. Eventually I reached a point where I had to decide whether or not I should trust in knowledge or if I should trust my faith. It was a slow and grueling process but the conclusion was, I feel, inevitable. When put on the scale of my beliefs, knowledge won.

This is not to say that I gave up hope on religion, just Islam. I devoted myself to serious study to see if any of the religions I was aware of, or any potential religion, could bear the scrutiny of examination. I have given every modern religion, and quite a few ancient religions, close scrutiny. The more I looked, the more elusive God (or Goddess, or the gods, or God knows what) became. The more I learned, the harder it was to hope for conviction.

The final deciding point came when I start debating the merits of atheism on the Internet. By that point, I already considered myself to be an atheist, but I wanted to hear the best arguments for theism that I could find. It was a very educational experience. I was exposed to all of the arguments for religion, both the good ones and the bad ones. The arguments had the added virtue of being delivered by their most sincere proponents.

I threw myself into that debate with passion. I tried (with varying success) to avoid the mocking of opponents that so typifies online debate but, rather, tried to focus on the serious arguments. I encouraged my opponents to make their best argument and I debated them vigorously.

At this point, I really have seen all the arguments. It has been, literally, years since I last heard a new case for theism. I've heard arguments ontological, epistemological, qualitative, deductive, inductive, emotive, rhetorical and satirical. I have had gentle discussions with theists of the highest caliber and I've gotten into shouting matches with grievous morons (and have acted the part, myself, now and again). I have thought, I have contemplated and meditated, and I've even had some very good and kind people try to pray for my soul, to no avail.

For me, at least, there is simply nothing there to find. I haven’t stopped considering the question. At the utter least, I think that religion is an interesting mirror upon which we can see a curious reflection of the human psyche. I also reject the assumption that religion can only be the source of hatred and evil. I have yet to encounter a religion from which I can take nothing of value or insight; it’s just that the insights seem, to me, to be human ones and not the works of transcendent beings or processes.

So, how do I reply to the well-intentioned suggestion that I just give God a try? I’ve never found a good reply. I don’t want to summarize my travels through the religious spectrum each and every time but I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m dismissing the consideration out of had. Usually, I’ll simply say that I have and try to leave it at that.

It is not a perfect solution.

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