[Note from 2017: This is part of a series of posts I wrote after suddenly discovering that religion can be questioned. I felt like I had broken into uncharted territories of thought and needed to reveal the way to the sad unenlightened. Drunk on this conviction, and still emotionally underdeveloped following a very introverted childhood, I proceeded to become the most condescending kind of atheist and also blindly wreak emotional havoc among the Christian parts of my family. Thankfully this was a phase. My current thoughts on religion are quite different, and at some point if I see fit to blog about them, you’ll be able to find them in the “religion” category here. I’m leaving the posts up as a window into that ugly time.]
The previous post was a real blitz. I don’t know if that was the right way to go at this, but that’s what I did anyhow, and it’s too late to change it. The dam has been broken, I guess.
Contrary to how it would seem, though, I didn’t come up with this stuff all at once. Here’s how this chronology played out. Before a few months ago, I never really did think about religion. I went to church, and that was that. I also went to school. Occasionally these two would create a slight conflict of interests, but I dealt with those by not thinking about them. Being taught about evolution, for example. I didn’t try to merge that with Christianity and the Bible’s history of the world. I just let them both be; I kept them in separate compartments. Whenever I came across something that criticized religion, I turned hot and red from something like embarrassment mixed with fear, and then turned the page and tried to forget about it. And I did. I erected a barrier in my head; on one side there was religion, and on the other real life and science, and I tapped into each when the time called for it. That sturdily built barrier lasted me for years.
This summer, I left the nest. Mom encouraged me not to let college change who I was as a person. She assured me that she would pray for me every day, and told me not to become just a part of the college – it seemed she saw college as a sort of Borg collective, where all ideas are supplanted, by those inculcated by professors. Now, I know she didn’t really see it that way. She knows, of course, that college is a place where you go to learn about stuff, not a mindless drone factory. But still, she saw me off that day in August as if it weren’t. So I got there. We’ve all read that story. I learned about calculus and Russian and English and disabilities. The barrier stayed up; no problem.
It didn’t break at once: it melted gradually, made of ice and finding itself in the spring thaw. I started wondering, if evolution and Christianity are compatible, just exactly how? And other things. I still stayed Christian, and made lots of attempts to restore my faith. One Tuesday, when I had lots of work to do, I went to a worship service (a great deal of it was singing); I started reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity; I looked at all sorts of apologetics. It wasn’t easy on me. I didn’t want anything to interfere with religion as I’d always known it, but I couldn’t avoid it. I tried to simply stop thinking about it, tried to turn my mind elsewhere and leave my thinking about religion just where it was. But it was too late for that; the ice had melted; I couldn’t escape from myself. Each day, from the beginning of the morning to the end of the day, I was thinking about religion. It actually got to paralyze me a bit in my day-to-day life; I became abstracted and my mind kept wandering away from class subjects. The harder I tried to scrabble out of the well of my psyche, the quicker I lost my handhold on the slick walls. This wasn’t losing religion, it was losing the ability to be complacent about it. But it jarred me anyhow, and I sank into a funk for a good while. I kept trying to reevaluate things so that I could still hold them. After I read Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth for class – an unexpectedly serious piece from him, pointing out a great many absurdities in the Christianity he had been taught, and especiall with that taught by the Bible – I fell into a hot swoon, and then tried to accommodate this new information. “I don’t have to believe in the entire Bible to believe in God, do I?” I wondered. “No – I can let that go, because it has some contradictions in it that I can’t work around, and sanctions lots of things that I can’t condone1, and instead I can see God in the wonderful aspects of day-to-day life, like love and music and nature.” I worked with that idea for a few days, but then realized that without the Bible, Christianity wouldn’t even exist, and so how is it possible to believe in the Christian God without believing in the Christian Bible? So I was back to square one. What I looked forward to each day was going to bed, a sweet eight-hour respite from my own thoughts. It’s terrifying to be held hostage by yourself, because the only possible escape I can think of is death. I hasten to add that in no way am I suicidal, at all, which is why I knew I had to find answers that would satisfy me, instead of madly running away from the questions.
Where did all this thought come from, why did it blossom into existence so suddenly? To some extent, I think it is possible to point the finger at my change in environment. Before I left, I was almost always in the company of my parents, devout Christians, and I was taken to church frequently. Then I went to Grinnell, which, according to a survey of college students across the country published in The 361 Best Colleges (one of two big compendiums of college information that I used last year), is twelfth-to-last for prominence of religion in students’ lives. (I found this out after registering there.) This meant that some of the best friends I now made were agnostic or atheist. We’ve already seen that my English teacher – an atheist – assigned me that Twain reading. However, no one ever actively tried to talk me out of Christianity. In this way, moving off to college simply acted as a catalyst, to get me started on applying critical thinking skills not only to the material realms of my life, but to religion as well. The more I applied these critical thinking skills, the less it seemed religion could work. “Tease out complexities,” Professor Savarese had advised me on my first paper, which was a simplistic and very poor close reading of a text we were reading. I doubt I’ll ever forget that exhortation; it works so well at getting a much deeper understanding of an issue. Instead of floating on my back in the ocean of religion, staring up at the sky and treating this water as an undistinguished whole that didn’t bear deeper reflection, I dove down and asked questions. I composed a whole list of them, actually, compiling them in a blog post that I left unpublished but kept adding to, called “Questions”. I extracted the questions that I’d kept crammed down deep down inside of me for my whole life, and found new ones, drawing from this inscrutable ocean. I snatched a few from the air, too, putting criticism to secularism as well: I’m an equal-opportunity questioner. I realized that I was asking more questions of Christianity, though, and that they seemed much tougher to resolve. If you’d like, I can publish that post and see what you think of them. They’re not easy questions. I plan to keep reading extensively about them and other things.
I started my serious reading when I got back home for Thanksgiving. I’d been looking forward to it for quite a while, because I wanted to pick up The Case for a Creator, which I figured would show me that Christianity is compatible with science after all. I tried not to approach it with an eye to tearing it down, but ultimately I realized that that was a euphemism for trying not to approach it critically, and that I couldn’t deny my nature in order to accept it unquestioningly. I read through it, finishing it in my dorm a few days later, and put it down feeling supremely frustrated with Lee Strobel, the author. The book was no good at all. Here’s what it is: Strobel tries to show how science doesn’t just leave room for God, but indeed points to Him. The most glaring problem is that Strobel only interviews scientists who are Christians. This is ostensibly because it “wouldn’t make sense to rule out any hypothesis at the outset” (28). However, notice that in limiting himself to scientists who are Christian, he DOES PRECISELY THAT. I really want to shout that, because it makes me mad. He refused from the very beginning to give secular science a chance to rebut, making the book fairly well useless. Beyond that very elemental error: he also interviews those with doctorates, but on subjects that they did not earn their doctorate in, and he leaves out key hypotheses that science has developed, attacking instead a straw man – science as he chose to see it. His entire chapter about evolution can be refuted by two words – “punctuated equilibrium” – which I learned in my high school biology class, and other science is similarly misrepresented. Secular science was always kept in the distance, an idea that he mentioned solely as something to let go of immediately, and again, he interviewed no secular scientists to see how they explain the hypotheses that he refuted. He dealt with straw men, knocking down caricatures of science and keeping the real science perpetually at bay. At the end I was left with no faith in Strobel’s ideas on the reconciliation of science with religion. So, I need to read different books.
Books! Why, I continually wonder, should my understanding of religion be contingent on reading all the right books? Why shouldn’t I be able to find the answers solely within myself? But whenever I look inside myself, I can’t seem to find any religion. Is this because there is none for me to find, or is it because my book learning from an early age in school has pushed it aside, and because I haven’t pursued a religious education to match pace with my secular education? I don’t know. Here’s something. I’ve prayed before. But I’ve never prayed just because I felt the need to; it’s always been out of a sense of obligation to the church or to some religious person or group. And every time I have – even from a very young age – I’ve always held at the same instant a doubt, the question of whether I was sincere. Every time I pray, even in the privacy of my own bedroom in the dark, I feel like a goof: like I’m saying words to myself, emitting a radio signal that travels only to the rest of my brain, and then peters out. Those who hold to the power of prayer will tell me that I’m wrong, that God hears me. I realize that other people can pray without the slightest hint of irony. If you’re one of these people, you’ll tell me you’ve felt God in you after your prayers. You’ve had a stirring in your soul. I can respect that. But remember, so did the pagan Native Americans – they drew incredible strength from their worship of animals and stars. There are tons of stories about these feats, one of which I just recently read in this month’s Adventure magazine, called “Running Away”. Myself, I’ve never had any experience analagous to these ones. Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve really tried to pray, but I’ve never been able to do it without coming away wondering if I’d just done anything. I’ve gone out into nature. Mom said to me once, “That’s where you find God, isn’t it?” I agreed. But when I’ve gone out into nature and tried to feel at one with God there, I’ve never been able to do it. I’ve wanted to, but I’ve never left the woods telling myself that I just had a real religious experience. I just enjoy nature for nature. Nature isn’t an analogy; it’s just nature. That’s what I’ve always come away with. Understand, none of this is for lack of trying or from a mental block. For eighteen years I was unquestioningly Christian, and, listening to Mom, tried many times to personally experience religion. Prayer, nature walks, church. I tried to make these things affect me deeply, personally, and religiously. I wanted them to. But they never did. It got to where I couldn’t enjoy nature as much, because my conditioning was telling me from the back of my head that, really, I ought to be experiencing some deep movement of my Christian soul. Nothing really happened. I’ve always thought it was strange that some people “felt” religion and others didn’t. Why should that be? Tack that onto my list of Questions.
I came back home for Christmas break, hoping to do some serious talking with someone religious about religion. I didn’t do much of that in Grinnell. I waited until I got home, because I wanted to talk with Mom. That basically brings us to yesterday. I broke the dam.
Mom’s been, predictably, crying a lot. It’s hard to argue against a person when she’s crying and making arguments straight from the heart, bypassing the brain and talking with pure emotion. However, Mom didn’t do exclusively that. She’s mainly been giving me evidence that Christianity is true. Miracles, for example; we listened to Duane Miller‘s2 recording. In that, Miller explains how he got sick with influenza, and the myelin lining in his vocal cords deteriorated such that he lost his voice entirely, and had to speak in a loud whisper. Then he puts on a recording of a service he was giving, and in the middle of it, as he’s preaching about healing powers, his voice comes right back. So how does that work, if not miraculously? I don’t know. It seems pretty real. But I still have lots of questions about miracles, even if we assume they’re true. She responded to my proof of the impossibility of the coexistence of Heaven and Hell by saying that she doesn’t know, that it’s a mystery, and that God will give us the answer in the end. I can see where she comes from with that, but it still leaves me unsatisfied. She’s telling me that God creates an area where everyone is without sadness and some people may experience a deep and pervasive sadness (such as the one Mom would definitely feel if loved ones of hers were in Hell), simultaneously. (She says she doesn’t believe we forget everyone – that we aren’t lobotomy patients there.) In mathematical terms, in heaven, P and not P are simultaneously true. That’s a logical impossibility, akin to saying that in Heaven, 1=2. Some things have to make sense even for God. If P and not P are simultaneously true, there’s nothing to stop Heaven from being a place where up is simultaneously down, someone is in one place and at the same time not there at all, and everything simultaneously exists and doesn’t exist. Since that can’t work, I subscribe to the view that, if Hell exists, it must necessarily be empty but for Satan, and God forgives everyone. In my Questions post, there are more reasons, in the form of questions, that I don’t think it’s logically possible to believe in a place of eternal damnation. I’ve heard (from Wikipedia, though) that this idea has some currency in religious circles. I don’t know much about it, though. In fact, I don’t know much about a lot of religious things. And I want to. That’s why I’m going to read the Bible, cover to cover. I need to at least know something about the Christianity that I keep taking about – the Christianity that I was raised with, and which Mom tells me, with the most extreme confidence that I think exists in this world, is the real truth. I can’t really make an informed decision about Christianity until I read its fundamental text. For now, the issue remains up in the air. I remain up in the air – I’m not even on the fence, I’m hovering above it, so don’t even bother to ask which way I’m leaning. Over the last few months, I’ve felt as if I were on a seesaw. Some days I’ve felt like atheism is a universal solvent that will melt everything in its path – dogma, old-time beliefs, mysteries that religion doesn’t deal with. Other days I’ve felt like Christ has to be the true, and I’m looking in the wrong places for the answers I can’t seem to find. Time will tell. But I can never rebuild the barrier, and I won’t stop short of truth, no matter where that takes me.
- Works cited:
- Junger, Sebastian. “Running Away.” Adventure December 2007/January 2008, p. 121.
- Strobel, Lee. The Case for a Creator. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2004.
(Now that I’m in academia, I feel the need to cite every reference. This probably means that I have no soul.)
From the aforementioned unpublished Questions post:
“Q: Why is it okay to ignore certain parts of the Bible, e.g. the ones that sanction the death penalty for extremely trifling crimes like working on the Sabbath (Exodus 3:52) and saying “Oh my God” (Leviticus 24: 10-16), and ban things like homosexuality and shrimp, and condone selling your daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), and stuff like that, but we have to scrupulously keep to the other stuff? Why aren’t we allowed to covet? Coveting is what the entire free-market system is based on. If you don’t covet, you’re a communist or a primitivist, probably, yet Christianity is practiced mainly by adherents of other forms of civilization. Do we have to honor our mother and father if they’re crack addicts or pedophiles? Should we just throw away the whole Old Testament for this reason, and stick with the less objectionable New Testament, which doesn’t have all this wrath and these arbitrary rules in it?” Note that I haven’t read the Bible all the way through, but I plan to. I’ll see if it’s possible for this stuff to work, but it doesn’t seem likely. However, for other questions that don’t seem answerable, go read the Twain that I linked to.
Note: I know everyone is going to want me to publish “Questions” now, but I think I’m going to let this stuff cool for a few days first. ↩
There’s a short recording on the link given, to his ministry, but for more background detail you’ll have to go to this website, about halfway down the page, where there are longer recordings with expository details. ↩
File under: religion