Atheism, Personal statements, Theology

Rejecting Jesus

[This post is in response to a comment by a pastor on my previous post; here’s the link to the comment].

Miss Burke, my Kindergarten teacher, was young, pretty, caring toward me and all my friends, and best of all, single! (I always took my childhood crushes way too seriously.) Sadly, I left that school after third grade, and Miss Burke didn’t come with me to my new school. Adding insult to injury, she got married, and lived in a house with the man who bested me in a home cloyingly close to where I had to walk to and from my new school. Every day, I had my wounded feelings revived as I mourned having loved and lost. (Waaaaaay too seriously…).

When my Kindergarten crush on Miss Burke dissolved, I never felt the need to publicly or privately ‘reject’ a relationship which had existed only inside my imagination. In the same way, I never felt the need to make any kind of announcement that I have rejected my relationship with Jesus. Which relationship, I figured out, was only in my imagination.

Like Miss Burke, Jesus existed for me as someone who taught, who loved students, and promised wonderful rewards for good behavior. Miss Burke had one thing Jesus didn’t: she was a real, live person in my life, who showed up every day in my classroom, and melted my heart when she smiled at my drawings. I had indeed embellished my perceptions of her in my imagination, and paid the price for it in a broken heart (puppy love version).

In previous blog posts, I’ve been clear about having a knowledge of Jesus, the Bible, and at least one version of Christianity, Seventh-day Adventism. However, as Christians are sometimes urged to do, I invested great emotion and time seeking more than just knowledge about Jesus, but also a relationship with him, as if he was real. As if he heard my prayers, even all my thoughts. As if he had the power to make that kind of a God–believer communication more than one-sided.

And I fully expected him to do just that. To make himself real to me, in obvious and faith-building ways, or even still, small, subtle yet undeniable ways. Or even just any unambiguous way. The longer I went with no obvious communication from God, I got good at lowering my expectations, lowering the bar for what could pass for the amazing all-powerful Jesus making himself real to me.

Constantly reminding myself that faith in Jesus has much more to do with that relationship than with any other way of experiencing religion, I poured my whole heart and soul into maintaining communion with the One I imagined had created me for just such a connection. The testimonies of those fortunate Christians who had successfully made contact with our Savior formed a tantalizing goal for me, and I presented such testimonies to my Bible classes in the hope that some of us, any of us, would have similar good fortune. When evangelism or revival meetings came around, these ‘relational’ testimonies were frequent and occupied key places in the messages. It was obvious to any who paid attention that there were true Christians, who could say they were in a personal relationship with Jesus, and then there were all other Christians. The ‘good’ Christians were those seeking that relationship, and I counted myself among the good ones; the ‘better’ and ‘best’ Christians had it already.

I was as passionate and sincere about trying to make personal contact with Jesus as I knew how to be. When just memorizing his life and teachings from the Bible itself wasn’t producing results, I turned to EGW’s writings on Jesus. When Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ didn’t make Jesus seem any closer, I turned to popular Christian devotional writers, like E. M. Bounds, Charles Spurgeon, C. S. Lewis, and many others. I attended and lead out at worship services designed just for the purpose of getting Christians into relationship with Jesus. Eventually I abandoned my early doctrinal focus altogether and became fully focused on promoting this kind of ‘relational’ Christianity, even while it eluded me. As long as I could help others have it, that would be enough for me (once again, lowering the bar, you see).

After at least a decade and a half of pursuing it, no relationship emerged that was any different than one which was purely imaginary. Like many Christians do, I had trained myself to accept personal powerlessness, so the most frequent request I had in prayer was for strength, and wisdom, and patience, and other character traits I felt I lacked. One very low-bar way I could claim I had been answered by God was whenever I had personally experienced strength, or wisdom, or patience; I could thereby count that as evidence of God existing and moreover showing up in my life. Anything good that ever happened, whether it could have been luck, accident, or the result of my own good decisions, I had gotten into the habit of seeing it as God and me having a close relationship. It is pitiful, when I reflect back on it, but it is, I think, an experience which many Christians are immersed in right now.

All part of the many sophisticated and elaborate ways people embellish their own perception of reality in order to justify irrational beliefs. My atheism is simply a natural end result of seeing how low the bar had been set; recognizing how little evidence there really was that Jesus was alive and active for me, or for anyone else; and then letting my life reflect those truths. Truth has always been important to me, not just being truthful, but that capital letter ‘Truth’ idea. I still feel a kind of dedication to seeking Truth, and I believe now that I’ve searched for Truth in Jesus thoroughly enough to satisfy myself that there isn’t any there.

UPDATE JANUARY 4, 2015:
The following is my reply to an old fellow church member who started a conversation with me about this post on my link to it on Google+. If you want to see the whole conversation, click this link right here.

Joanne:
You say you’re sad for me. I don’t know why; please, don’t be! Read more of my autobiographical writings and you’ll hear the refrain repeatedly, that I’m much more at peace, and joyful, and contented, and more free from depression and anxiety and guilt and shame, than ever I was while inside religion. I’m sad that you’re sad that I’m happy!

Freedom from religion has caused many ills to drop away from me, and simultaneously added so much health, wellness, and richness to life. I guess if you want to lament my good fortune from envy, I get that. But please don’t bother hoping or praying that I give up my better condition in exchange for a return to the worse one. It’s wasted effort for you; it’s just not gonna happen.

I “never quite [got] it right,” you say. That’s insulting. Yes, I did. Of course I did. Shame on you for stooping to insult. I let go and let god, I practiced the presence of Jesus, I asked WWJD, I surrendered, I fasted, I prayed the word, I claimed the promises, I answered the altar calls, I listened actively, I sought windows when doors closed, I counted my blessings, I used prayer lists, I journaled, I played the guitar leading others in worship, I sacrificed financially, I followed every dietary rule, I taught Sabbath School classes, I preached sermons, I taught christianity to your church’s youth until your son (who I helped to get hired) stabbed me in the back and got me tossed out of my teaching post–exiled to Fresno, I bore that insult with grace and magnanimity, I forgave many so much, I sang, I worshiped, I cried tears and pondered verses and memorized every verse, text, slogan, prescription, maxim and principle. And got nothing in response. For you to deny that, saying “I never quite got it right,” is the same as calling me a liar.

I hope you remember that I was the teacher your daughter Lori and her friend Alyssa came to after you attended your first Prayer Conference, and I was the teacher who helped AUA get connected with them. We even hosted one. You reference these events sometimes as if I wasn’t present for them.

You were there for some of those Prayer Conferences we attended, during which I did all the right things, for the right reasons, with correct motivations, in every way doing exactly what was expected in exchange for the elusive goal, “Jesus showing up in my life”. Your daughter, Lori, also did all the right things, and got it exactly right, and yet got the same non-response from your god, and became an atheist long before I did.

And yet you say that I didn’t quite get it right! I don’t sit by and tolerate that kind of childish insult, any more than you should. I wrote in the blog post that I got it right, I tried getting any communication from god in every way he himself commanded it be done, and I got zero response. I tried for twenty-five years, Joanne; you tried for 45, you said. I gave up long after I should have. You can’t accept that, perhaps, but to accuse me (or others who’ve left) of the old “not trying hard enough” trope is a great way to get them to ignore everything else you have to say. My advice to you: Refrain from insulting the lost sheep you’re trying to win back. Condescension does not win souls to your worldview (at least not the kind of souls who reserve the right to think for themselves; but you probably don’t want those anyway).

This insult gets to the heart of the problem with attempts at communication between religious believers and their ex-religious friends & family. There just cannot be friendship when the ex gets treated with the condescending insult, “you didn’t do it right; please try harder…” Because you don’t know another person’s inner life, their private mental states, or their motivations. Because you can’t know that, and yet you say that you do, is insulting.

And even worse is how many contradictory biblical statements exist, teaching about how simple it all is, “even little children get it,” about the great lengths god went to just to make it easy to comprehend and accept the biblical Jesus into one’s life. Well you can’t have it both ways, can you? You cannot promise that a thing is not only possible, but necessary to eternal life, and actually simple enough for little children to do, and then get me to accept that a fully invested, mature adult can try her hardest and fail for 45 straight years!?! That’s doublespeak. That’s a con job. That’s a hustle. That’s how multi-level Amway-style marketers snag suckers for their downline (Just keep at it! Rah, rah, rah! You’ll get there! Year, after year, after year; $ after $$ after $$$ until they finally wake up: “I’ve been robbed!!!”). Sorry, Joanne, but rational, thinking people are rejecting this bullshit now. In DROVES. Why don’t you join us?

Regarding your personal testimony: I’m glad you seem to see how little there is to recommend believing in Jesus. I’m honestly even less interested after hearing how little he did for you to get your undying loyalty.

If I’ve got this calculated right, summing up the deal your “omnipotent, omniscient” Jesus got you to accept was:
* you get to be his spokesman
* you get to finance his professional spokespeople (at 10% of your income, minimum; more, if you want bigger bragging rights);
* you get to believe (against all appearances otherwise) that a good god is in total control of your life, this planet, even the universe.

That was what god got, in exchange for the following series of unfortunate events from you (any one or all of which he could have prevented you from experiencing)?
* incest and lifelong debilitating effects from childhood trauma
* 45 years of uncomfortable doubt
* a car accident
* neglectful parenting
* neglect of your spouse
* misery
* pain (emotional, physical, spiritual)
* fibromyalgia
* CHF
* cancer
and you indicated that this is just a brief summary of the crap your god allowed you to experience, rather than prevent it from touching you.

(It’s funny how into ‘preventative health’ some Christians are, in the name of a god who never prevents any misery in the world, not even in their lives!)

It is impossible to distinguish between what you call “god working with you and controlling your life”, and there being no real god at all, just you pretending he does. I can’t distinguish between those two possible explanations of all that happened in your life. Or in mine, or in the lives of the many who told me their stories, or in all those thousands of personal testimonies I heard over two and a half decades, and still occasionally hear. It’s much easier (and more honest, I believe) to go with the simpler, less fantasy-based explanation: humans created gods, and duped their children into believing them.

Miracles. I don’t think an appeal to science is going to work here, if you actually think that planets require divine intervention, or else they smash into each other (I’m just going by what you wrote). So, we’ll skip over miracles. Let it suffice that medical science and groupthink and placebo and cherry picking and confirmation bias are better explanations for what you call “miracles”.

Finally, I disagree with your statement that I “chose not to believe.” That’s rewriting my story, and that calls for a correction. Your current worldview (and my former one) denies a lot of evidence and censors lots of dissent in order to arrive at a false dichotomy: “you can either believe in the religion of the Bible, or you can believe in anything else–which means you believe in the religion of Satan.” (You never mentioned Satan, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you probably still believe in the old Fallen Angel.)

Being a false choice, that oversimplified, black/white fantasy is convenient for the maintaining of the charade; it’s the clasp that keeps the Christian blinders from falling off, if you will. I did not, in fact, choose not to believe in Jesus anymore; his complete non-interaction/non-intervention with me or anyone I ever met over the course of 25 years of crying out to him for ANYTHING from him with my whole soul was the unclasping of the blinders–the belief just dropped away. I had no choice in the matter. I could no more continue the charade after finally allowing myself an uncensored look at the evidence than one can unring a bell. When Dorothy looked behind the Wizard’s curtain and saw the sham of it all, she stopped believing in the Wizard of Oz.

I don’t know if you’ll ever have the experience of the blinders dropping off, of waking up from the delusion of religion. Until you do, though, you will continue to be mentally blocked by the programming Christianity must constantly flood your brain with; you won’t see past that false dichotomy. You are not permitted to see it.

That’s the great chasm that exists between church members and ex-members which forms a formidable barrier to any meaningful conversation, to any trusting relationship. It’s tough to connect with someone who has completely rejected everything you hold dear in life, someone who used to hold your God up as the Ultimate, but now despises every kind of falsehood spread by god-fearers, god-lovers, and all the ‘true believers’. I get that. And I thank you for taking the time to reach out.

All our best to you and your family, we wish you all health and wellness in the new year.

Good luck,
Jim
PS: I’m copying this conversation onto my blog, to document it where it will do the most good.

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Atheism, Counter-apologetics, Ethics, Personal statements, Philosophy, Seventh-day Adventism, Theology

Good Without God, Better Without God




For whatever reason (I’m not sure I’m willing to guess), in the few years since I’ve come out atheist, I have experienced a motivation to behave ethically and morally far beyond that which two and a half decades of Christianity ever provided.

My denomination was the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was not your average pew-warmer, either. Within 18 months of my baptism at the tender age of 20, I had embarked on a year-long foreign missionary teaching assignment, been ordained a local elder in that mission-field’s church (at the ordination ceremony, when the pastor read to his church the biblical requirements of an elder, he literally skipped over the verse in 1 Timothy 3 which states that the elder must not be a recent convert; I swallowed hard and kept smiling), and had preached sermons and taught lessons more than many elderly members who had been Seventh-day Adventists all their lives.

Within five years of my baptism, I had married a pastor’s daughter, was the father of my own daughter, and had entered my religion degree program at the church’s most conservative college (then called simply Southern College, now called Southern Adventist University). Three years later, I was continuing my teaching career, standing before classrooms full of youth in an official church ministry capacity: Bible teacher, licensed to teach grades 7-12. My life had a trajectory; my role in the church gave me unlimited opportunities to model good citizenship, and the character qualities of a member in good and regular standing. Mine was a Purpose-Driven Life.

In the Bible, in Ellen White’s writings, and in fellowship with like-minded fellow Adventists including especially the most Christian-like people I’ve ever met– my wife and her adoptive parents– I actively sought moral motivation. I wanted to be a better person, just like most of my fellow Christians were actively seeking to be. It’s one of the things Christians do.

However, I remember that I always received from all my spiritual sources something mixed in with the motivation, something that perhaps tainted it. I know that I always believed that my sinfulness was real, was permanent (until God would remove it at my resurrection), and that it was part of me– I believed in that Bible doctrine of the sinful nature.

I was damaged goods. I was broken. Yes, I was redeemable, and sometimes I actually managed to believe I was redeemed. But mostly, confirmation bias of my sinfulness created a feedback loop in my mind, so that every idle moment, every stray temptation, every minor cruelty or neglect or mistake or stumble always reminded me that I was never going to be good enough for the most important One in my life, my God. I had to have a substitute who was better than me, a mediator who would step between me and judgment, a Holy Spirit guide for my decisions and choices– because I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good. I could never be good by nature until some future time. Maybe I’m guessing now at why I couldn’t be truly good by nature while I was a Christian: it would have contradicted the teachings of the Book I’d wrapped myself in as a career and personal compass, the Bible.

Eventually, I stepped away from that high Christian post, came down from a life as a watchman on the walls of Zion, and became just another family guy in Orlando, Florida. I also joined a small but growing group of Americans who identify as “none” when it comes to religion, and the even smaller group who class themselves as non-religious, non-spiritual, non-believer in all gods. In other words, atheist. Which to me restates a negative: ‘no god’. I also became an official, dues-paying member of another organization whose positive, life-affirming and hopeful principles I could whole-heartedly support, the American Humanist Association.

Humanists have a little motto: Good Without God. I like that, and it describes my current ethical motivations. But as I started to say at the beginning of this, I now experience a more powerful and consistent motivation to be good, now that I’m without God (as it were). Now that I’m no longer deluded into believing that all my attempts at goodness are “filthy rags,” (Isaiah 64:6), I feel that morals and ethical values are more important to me than ever before. I read books about the topic, I listen to podcasts about it, scour philosophical writings for clues, discuss it with my ever-patient wife, and through it all, I am coming to the conclusion that like the Humanist motto, ‘Good Without God,’ it’s quite true that a secular, atheist, humanist person can perhaps even be Better Without God.
________
UPDATE: The Facebook friends I have occasionally comment on my posts. The following was posted by Larry Hallock, and is reproduced here with his permission; I thought it extended nicely the theme in this post:

Larry Hallock: Excellent blog post, Jim. That first paragraph says it all… I mean, I have had the same experience, and from what I’ve read, many others have said the same thing—life becomes so much richer, so much more meaningful and rewarding… the pieces of the puzzle finally fit… without the baggage, life just seems brighter. And it’s enormously better emotionally when you’re not constantly fretting, consciously or subconsciously, over whether or not you’ll get the promised supernatural help, or why it’s not there, or why you can’t understand, or whether you’re accurately reading the mental impressions from your god (any given thought could be a deceiving counterfeit from the bad god, Satan, so an enormous amount of resources, especially time, is required for constantly praying for the good god to come and fight off the bad god for you), and whether you’re pleasing the god by interpreting its “will” correctly and then carrying out whatever it is you think it wants, according to the minimum standards required for you to be brought back to life in order to go to the great fantasy land in the sky rather than being brought back to life in order to be killed again, only this time by torture. Life was never truly joyful for me, not in a deep, abiding sense, when I lived by all of that, compared to just living by what is good, loving, positive, constructive, kind, …the Golden Rule. It is invigorating to live according to your own skills, ingenuity and creativity (being your own boss!) rather than always living every waking moment solely to please others, to say nothing of solely to please just one guy who makes enormous demands with deadly consequences if you don’t make the cut—and, all the while, he refuses discuss any of it or talk to you, just sorta leaves you to guess at what’s wanted. Sorry, but at this point I’ve started chuckling out loud, so I need to stop typing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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jimblog.net, Personal statements, Philosophy, Theology

Philosophy and Theology WAR! What Is It Good For?

Absolutely NOTHING! Say it again…



Sam Harris in Moral Landscape said:

“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing this book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.” (Note 1, Chapter 1; emphasis mine)

I stood up and applauded when I read that. Well, mentally, anyway; I read most of the book in the break rooms at my job while I ate lunch, which means a literal standing ovation-of-one would’ve been awkward.

If I may repeat the gem here, in paraphrase: 
Academic philosophy “directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” That’s a fact!

The boredom property of philosophy impacts it’s relative value to human well-being, since that which bores gets ignored. That’s another fact. I’m sure that professional philosophers must highly value their work, and who am I to judge them unworthy of their pay, since no one is forced to pay them (except undergrads required to take Philosophy 101)?

But my twenty-year teaching career left me with the impression that if you want your lessons to be remembered (and thus impact your students and through them the world) then your first priority must always be to NOT. BORE. THEM.

And haven’t most of us had to endure a boring teacher? Or two? What positive or empowering impact did they have on us? Couldn’t we all agree that the time we spent ignoring boring teachers was time wasted?


It’s common sense, perhaps, that what is boring gets ignored, and certainly the advertising and visual mass media and video game industries have learned this lesson. Knowledge transmission to unmotivated learners is a thorny problem every teacher faces (excepting perhaps human sexuality teachers and military ordnance instructors; humans are pathologically obsessed with sex and weapons).
When I was a Christian, I was taught one doctrine more consistently than all others: God’s #1 priority is saving sinners, and He wants you to share His priorities.

While teaching Christian doctrine for twenty years, I wrestled with that thorny problem mentioned above. I studied theology with the intent of communicating Bible teachings to distractible, often religion-averse teens. My conclusions: say it fast, say it simply, and repeat it often. Otherwise, you might as well not bother saying it.


When I wasn’t teaching Christian beliefs I was teaching history classes– another area to which the average teen comes prepared to be bored by yet another worthless (to them) subject. And the majority of tools available to high school history teachers make no attempt to capture the ever-dwindling attention spans of social media saturated teens. The poor teacher is left with the task of creating their own tools for transmitting critical knowledge to his or her students.


Having to face that task week after week, in four or five different subjects, and in my tiny school often having the same students in two or more classes– pressuring the teacher to change up their strategies for every single class– this is often simply a physical impossibility.


The biggest single sense of relief I’ve ever experienced was when I finally got off that maddening treadmill, and no longer had to personally feel responsible for the knowledge, and moreover the eternal salvation, of each new batch of students sitting in my classroom. Quitting teaching was the best thing I ever did for my own sanity.


The problem with theology and philosophy is that boredom thing Sam Harris so eloquently stated above. The first post in the first blog I ever made (jimblog.net, which I maintained between 2005 and 2010) was titled “Theology is Worthless.” I was still a sold-out Christian, deep in the delusion, when I wrote it. Most of it appears below, for your reading pleasure (please remember, what follows is my former Christian believer self talking, and as such does not reflect my current atheist perspective):


Teaching high school kids is what I do. My job is to get across to them ideas about God and about history… Not an easy task.

Attention deficit is a disorder they all have. Some more than others. Without real energy and creativity put into a lesson, it simply will bounce around the room and never enter their minds. It’s gotta be practical, it’s got to have some usefulness that THEY can perceive to their immediate future. And why shouldn’t they demand that?

Mission work is something else that I have done. And occasionally still do. There, too, is an attention problem, but rooted in the weaknesses of translation. If it can’t be put into a simple form, they can’t get it, because the translator cannot take it from your language and put it into theirs.

Between mission work and teaching high school I have learned this: if you can’t say it simply, it isn’t worth saying. Which calls into question much of higher learning and theological studies. I’m not talking about science or math, here; just the humanities, especially my areas, history and religion. Most particularly, religion.

I believe that the highest priority of God for human beings is that they be saved. I think their eternal lives are the number one priority for Him, and should be for those who take His name in connecting to a religion.

… The high school in which I strive to teach teenagers is owned and operated by the SDA church. And in the twenty years I’ve been called a member of this denomination, I think many of my fellow members see this high priority of God the same way I do.

So, if the first priority is saving people for eternity, and the message must be simple enough to communicate to teenagers and to translate across all languages, then someone needs to explain to me why we waste so much time dissecting Biblical theology. When Jesus came, He quoted often from the Bible, but He didn’t say things that I can’t grasp. But many Bible teachers, preachers, and especially theology professors, speak in terms that I can’t fathom. I was taught the terminology, and research methods, and even a little Biblical Greek, but it never figured into my work with teens or in the mission field.

Many in my church pride themselves in being amateur theologians. I think they would even balk at being labelled amateurs, but I only use that term to distinguish them from the ones who get paid… There’s no shortage of amateur publishers and bloggers and preachers and teachers out there, investing enormous sums of money and hours and days cranking out material that never really saves a single soul.

What a tragedy, I think… meanwhile, the world is getting more and more crass and perverted and hard-to-reach. And what are the theologians busy doing? Wasting time, wasting money, diverting energy and funds from the number one priority, and often confusing people.

So this question remains, and weighs heavy on my mind: If you took Ockham’s razor and applied it to the academic disciplines of philosophy and theology, would anything remain? If the most salvific (what a stupid made-up theological term, eh?) way to express the Gospel and the most impressive and meaningful way to answer philosophical questions is the SIMPLEST way, then why bother with most of the pompous, technical, boring output of these twin disciplines? Wouldn’t Ockham’s razor cut away 99% of what philosophers and theologians have produced?

If there is a heaven, and any human is lucky enough to make it there, I wonder how many of its citizens will give testimonials of gratitude for the theologians and philosophers who helped them get there?


Sorry if I bored you.

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