I am a second rate political mind, and certainly no theologian or philosopher, but because of the internet, I am entirely empowered to stream my thoughts into the public domain. Or rather, I am here to parrot much more brilliant people than myself.
I’m writing this – not because I feel that I have anything particularly unique to express – but because sometimes it just feels good to explain why I feel the way that I feel. No one has to make spiritual choices along the same lines that I have, and this isn’t meant to discredit the feelings or beliefs of others. Spirituality is a highly personal journey, and I am timing this as many of my religious friends and family are partaking in cultural-spiritual holidays which are important or even foundational to their religions. I greatly appreciate the way in which people I associate with use their religion as a tool for good. That being said, let me begin.
Growing up I was highly religious and highly devout. As a young child, some of my most vivid memories are associated with church. Being baptized (multiple times into multiple churches), working my way through the old testament, finishing the new testament, being converted to the LDS church, becoming a leader in our ward priesthood young men’s quorum etc. Through high school, I continued to go to church while most of my family did not – because it was something that I valued. My freshman year of college, I still tried to seek out a space where I could spiritually ‘be’ and ‘grow.’ But things started to change …
Underlying all of this was my slow acceptance of my sexuality. As someone who was religious and attracted to men, I had a deep struggle with combating my sexuality in order to please my god. I assumed that this was a challenge that all people had, that everyone was attracted to people of the same sex and had to ‘choose’ their sexuality (in my case, to be cured of my attraction through faith, and to ultimately become attracted to women). Thankfully, this didn’t work, despite my fervent effort and honest belief that it would!
Other things began to bother me. My high school seminary teacher questioned my choice to miss one seminary class a month for AP Chemistry lab in the middle of class. He said, “I’m concerned you are putting your worldly education before your Godly education.” My response was as snide as the occasion required, “I think Jesus wants me to go to AP Chem lab.” I left in the middle of class and never returned, and soon left the LDS faith while retaining my belief in the Christian god.
Part of my journey was realizing that my faith seemed to demand my misery, and so I questioned whether or not the pain of dogmatism was worth the promised payoff. I could not accept the gymnastics required to read out the condemnation of homosexuality in the bible (these interpretations require the reader to go to great length to accept a very narrow interpretation of history, and/or a suspect translation of the original text), thus something else was required.
I want to share a passage from The Brothers Karamazov that affected this journey deeply (and I’ll admit to only having read this chapter of the book). In it, Ivan tells a story to his brother Alyosha:
“One day a serf boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound. ‘Why is my favorite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw the stone that hurt the dog’s paw … Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up…’Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs … ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!”
Ivan then begins to exclaim about heaven and god:
“…I want to be there when everyone understands what it has all been for…But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer…If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have the children to do with it, tell me, please? … if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension…I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! … the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering…too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only that I must respectfully return him the ticket.”
Why do I share this? It is because I firmly believe that a god which allows the suffering of innocent people is not a god that I would like to follow. Gods throughout the ages have all required ritualistic sacrifices. Abraham, after he left his father’s idol selling business, was asked to sacrifice a son (and ultimately was not required to follow through), Noah was required to watch the sacrifice of a planet full of people, Moses was required to sacrifice the majority of his life wandering the desert. Like the gods of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and others … sacrifice in some capacity – some extreme capacity – has always been required. Is this really necessary for salvation, and if so, is it worth it?
Professor James Hardy in his essay Probable Evil tries to reconcile a good-enough god with a world in which unjustifiable evil exists. He asks why god does not intervene when a child is whipped to death with an electrical cord and points out that if he (the author) were to witness such an episode, there would be an expectation that he would intervene.
Certainly, things such as this, such as murder, acid attacks, sexual assault, etc. would all fall under the umbrella of unjustified evil. And if they are justified evil, what kind of god is it that would permit such a thing?
This introduces a central problem that I contended with as a religious person, why would god be held to a different moral standard than me? When cases of abuse, neglect, etc. exist in which it would cause me little harm to intervene exist, I am expected to perform that intervention. There is no such expectation of god – instead, god allows us to exercise our agency and judges us for eternity based on the choices that we make. This seems an unacceptably tragic outcome for victims of violence of any kind. If a ‘good-enough’ god exists, then they should intervene in cases such as this.
Many people are atheists or agnostic for many reasons. For years, I attached to myself the label of an agnostic because I believed that without 100 percent conclusive scientific evidence disproving god, any outcome was possible. There could be a god (or gods), but that wouldn’t necessarily mean that they were ‘good-enough.’ There could be no god. Over time, I have come to doubt the existence not only because science contradicts much of the popular orthodoxy of religion, but because of the reasons I have outlined here. If a good-enough god does not exist, I simply do not care if any god exists.
Sometimes I still struggle with this, which is why I say that I ‘choose’ atheism. I very much enjoy the idea of living forever surrounded by the people I care about, I don’t want my memories to fade, my loved ones to perish existentially … I love my life, and I can’t imagine that I would ever want to stop living it. Perhaps this is a character flaw, or some sort of psychological baggage that has associated itself with my experience of transitioning away from Christianity. But I do think that there is a very good thing for me which comes out of choosing atheism, and that is my outlook on the world:
If no god exists it feels imperative that we love each other with greater intensity; that we consider the effects of our actions on not just people, but on the world in which our friends, family, and posterity will inherit. If there is no god, the happenstance of you or I meeting is so much more beautiful; in an endless series of time, over millions of years, we so happened to exist at the same time. This is the only place and time that we have, and because I choose atheism, I will hold it close to my heart.
Thank you for reading my garbled musings,