Eyes Wide Open

Like most people, I was brought-up to believe in God — not in an overly devout way, but more as a cultural assumption.  But my nominal belief in God had little to do with how I lived my life, or even how I saw it.

Ironically, it was those who took their religious faith most seriously that made me question the assumptions being made.  If you’re going to believe in sky fairies and demons, you should accept the whole package, and that meant denying some of the remarkable discoveries of science, allowing my intellect and reason to wither and die, and ignoring the violence and harm done, presently and throughout history, in the name of gods — I couldn’t do that.  I did for many years but I can no longer.  This, then, is the story of how I lost my religion and came to my senses.

The blind leading the blind

In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.
(Gedanken und Einfälle, Heinrich Heine)

I used to (as recently as 2014) attend the weekly Catholic roundtable at my local parish.  Every Wednesday, about 20 parishioners and one of our priests would gather in the parish hall, sit in a circle, and discuss some current event in light of the faith.  I began to notice something troubling — my fellow Catholics were not thinking, they were not grappling with faith and how to apply it in the modern world, they were just there to ask the priest what to think/believe about some issue or event in the news or in their lives.  We weren’t really discussing anything — sure, we were talking, but when Father chimed-in, all discussion ceased.

Now, I hasten to emphasize that Father was a kind and thoughtful man; his heart was in the right place.  I begrudge him not.  And I do not doubt his sincerity. But let’s be honest — what did he have to offer any of us?  He’d never been in any kind of intimate, long-term relationship, let alone experienced the ups and downs of child rearing; he’d never struggled to pay the bills and make ends meet; and never won love then lost it, or struggled to keep its fire burning after the hearth had grown cold from dullness and routine. Yet when he spoke, the room fell silent, and everyone nodded in subservient agreement, hanging on his every word.

What do I believe and why?

Belief is the wound that knowledge heals.
(Ursula K. Le Guin)

From a young age, I wanted to go to seminary and become a priest.  I loved going to church.  The theater of it drew me in.  But what did I believe?  And what did I claim to believe?  The Christian faith is not monolithic just like the Bible is not just one book; you may say, “well duh, there’s Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Baptists, and so on.”  Over 1,000 denominations identify as Christian.  But that is not what I mean by saying Christianity is not monolithic; nobody, I think, believes it all — from a talking snake to feeding thousands with just five loaves and fishes right on through to the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

But what did I believe?  I know I accepted evolution, but I hadn’t really thought about how that contradicted Genesis.  Without giving it much thought, I think I just figured God interacted with the process of natural selection somehow, maybe like William Paley’s teleological argument for the existence of God — the watchmaker.  But I didn’t let cognitive dissonance discourage me.  I think I always approached it as “what’s the important takeaway?”  I was always convinced I had a good reason to believe, even though I was not conscious of that reason.  Or really even conscious of what exactly I believed.

But objectively?  Talking snakes?  Burning shrubbery?  An exodus that even Israeli archeologists and historians have concluded never happened — if you took the number of people liberated from enslavement in Egypt according to the Bible and lined them up side-by-side, they would form a continuous line from Egypt to Jerusalem!  And it took them 40 years to find their way?  Are you kidding?  Ridiculous stories deserve ridicule, by definition.  Fast-forward to the New Testament.  Jugs of water turned into wine?  Walking on water?  Raising the dead?  Zombies marching on Jerusalem during the crucifixion of Jesus? It’s all there.  People's beliefs, whether they actually believe it, or are just acting as though they believe it, inform actions and those actions have consequences for them and the rest of us as well.  So if you’ll believe that virgins get pregnant without intercourse, you’ll believe that two men having sex is as wrong as eating shrimp.  Lot’s of people love Red Lobster restaurants, so they are clearly exercising some kind of judgement as to what they believe, and what is outdated, ancient superstition they can ignore.  The question becomes:  which parts of the Bible should you believe and which parts can you ignore?  More importantly, how do you decide?

When I got ‘sick,’ and by that euphemism I mean when my non-functioning immune system left me with one foot in the grave, I had a resurgence of religious zeal.  I was scared out of my mind.  I went to confession for the first time in 17 years, received the sacrament of the Last Rites of the Catholic Church, and took communion.  I found all this very comforting; but on reflection (years later), it was only comforting because it was familiar.  Facing the uncertainty of death, I clung to what was a known quantity — my religion.  I had a better than average understanding of it having been to seminary.  I bought into the sermons, bought into the culture, and just assumed that so many people couldn’t be so wrong for so long.  However, years later at my parish here in Palm Springs, it started to unravel as I separated good feelings of familiarity, friendship, and community from an objective analysis of what I believe and why.

I don’t believe any of it!

Let’s just grant the possibility that there is a Creator God, who’s omniscient, who occasionally authors books. And he’s gonna give us a book – the most useful book. He’s a loving God, he’s a compassionate God, and he’s gonna give us a guide to life. He’s got a scribe, the scribe’s gonna write it down. What’s gonna be in that book? I mean just think of how good a book would be if it were authored by an omniscient deity. I mean, there is not a single line in the Bible or the Koran that could not have been authored by a first century person. There is not one reference to anything – there are pages and pages about how to sacrifice animals, and keep slaves, and who to kill and why. There’s nothing about electricity, there’s nothing about DNA, there’s nothing about infectious disease, the principles of infectious disease. There’s nothing particularly useful, and there’s a lot of iron age barbarism in there, and superstition. This is not a candidate book.
(Sam Harris)

Social anthropologists have identified approximately 3,000 deities over the course of recorded history, many strikingly similar to one another.

One of the the sun god Ra's sons was the savior Osiris, who, along with his wife, Isis, became two of the most popular gods ever to be conceived by the human mind; they were worshipped in one form or another over a period of millennia, and entire cultures were established around them, including a huge amount of art and literature, as well as massive and magnificent edifices and sanctuaries and shrines. Like today's supposed apparitions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, ancient gods such as Osiris and Isis often appeared to their followers, centuries and millennia prior to the Christian or “common era.”

Osiris...was successively god of the Nile, a life-giver, a sun-god, god of justice and love, and finally a resurrected god who ruled in the afterlife.... The most popular legend about Osiris is one of a resurrected god. He was killed by Set, the god of darkness... Osiris was then resurrected and went to live on high. Osiris became the first of a long line of resurrected deities — Tammuz, Mithras, Balder, Christ. Every spring the life of Osiris was re-enacted at Abydos in a stirring passion play, dating back to the eighteenth or nineteenth century before Christ. This play is the earliest record in history of drama.
(Religions of the World, Gerald L. Berry)

Osiris is thus a very old god, whose worship dated to thousands of years before the common era and who was one of the most powerful gods ever created by the minds of humanity.  Over the years, he took on the attributes of countless other gods and became the “king of kings” and “lord of lords,” as he was called in Egyptian texts; roughly around 1300 BCE, Osiris’ epithets included, “the king of eternity,” “the lord of everlastingness,” “the firstborn son of the womb of Nut,” “begotten of Seb,” “the prince of gods and men,” “the god of gods,” “the king of kings,” “the lord of lords,” and “the prince of princes.”  At Osiris’ birth a voice proclaimed, "The ruler of all the earth is born.”

As can be seen, Jesus Christ’s exalted, divine status is entirely unoriginal, as Osiris long pre-dates Christ's purported advent.

Moreover, every plot twist in the life of Jesus was borrowed from an existing middle-eastern or mediterranean religion of the day, including the virgin birth, a star appearing in the east, the newborn infant being worshipped by kings, miraculous works and healing the sick, being fated to die, rising from the dead, and ascending in glory to claim dominion over the world.

And the storyline wasn’t limited to religious figures.  Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and even Pythagoras were all said to be born of virgin mothers and been resurrected after death!  The same is true of most if not all of the Caesars.  You’d think the Gospel writers might have hidden their plagiarism a little better, what with the whole divine inspiration thing.  Or at least come up with some original material.

To me, it seems easy to account for these ideas concerning gods and devils. They are a perfectly natural production. Man has created them all, and under the same circumstances would create them again. Man has not only created all these gods, but he has created them out of the materials by which he has been surrounded. Generally he has modeled them after himself, and has given them hands, heads, feet, eyes, ears. and organs of speech. Each nation made its gods and devils speak its language not only, but put in their mouths the same mistakes in history, geography, astronomy, and in all matters of fact, generally made by the people. No god was ever in advance of the nation that created him. The negroes represented their deities with black skins and curly hair. The Mongolian gave to his a yellow complexion and dark almond-shaped eyes. The Jews ware not allowed to paint theirs, or we should have seen Jehovah with a full beard, an oval face, and an aquiline nose. Zeus was a perfect Greek, and Jove looked as though a member of the Roman senate. The gods of Egypt had the patient face and placid look of the loving people who made them. The gods of northern countries were represented warmly clad in robes of fur; those of the tropics were naked. The gods of India were often mounted upon elephants; those of some islanders were great swimmers, and the deities of the Arctic zone were passionately fond of whale's blubber. Nearly all people have carved or painted representations of their gods, and these representations were, by the lower classes, generally treated as the real gods, and to these images and idols they addressed prayers and offered sacrifice.
(The Gods, Robert Green Ingersoll)

The noted humanist Andrew Mueller has pointed out that pledging yourself to any particular religion “is no more or less weird than choosing to believe that the world is rhombus-shaped, and borne through the cosmos in the pincers of two enormous green lobsters called Esmerelda and Keith.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d never really believed any of it.  I bought into the “big points” because they made me feel like a part of something, like I belonged.  Catholicism gave me an identity.  But I did not want to live by the teachings of Jesus.  I loved the Catholic Mass for the vestments and the drama/movement of it, not because of a deep appreciation for the “mysteries” it supposedly reenacted/celebrated.  It was a weekly show you didn’t need tickets for.  I was not devout.  I didn’t care about Jesus or the apostles or the saints.  I never believed in hell or wanted to “save my soul” (or anybody else’s for that matter).  I was going along with the stories because they were the price of admission.  They were the vocabulary that needed to be learned.

Every Spring, a sentient rabbit without opposable thumbs breaks into your house and leaves chocolate replicas of itself and brightly colored eggs strewn about for no reason.  As we get older, we come to see this as a harmless lie we tell children (along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy) that is their first introduction to the cultural indoctrination of ritual (seeking-out hidden eggs, leaving milk and cookies for the fat man wearing red velvet that broke into the house overnight, expecting a fairy to leave money under your pillow while you were sleeping in exchange for your teeth that fell out — teeth s/he would have what use for?…creepy!)  These stories “prime the pump,” so to speak, for the child to accept an unseen agency, and he or she is conditioned (brainwashed?) to suspend disbelief and regard as fact something without supporting evidence — belief in the irrational is rewarded with candy, presents, and money, things a child associates with good, things a child wants.  Moreover, the idea of an omniscient being who rewards acceptable/conforming behavior and punishes disobedience is baked in at this point, and children are conditioned to await his imminent arrival:

He sees you when you're sleepin’
He knows when you're awake

He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Oh! You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I'm telling you why
 — Santa Claus is comin' to town

(Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, John Coots/Haven Gillespie)

Waitaminute… this just makes no sense

So…God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.
(Michael Shermer)

To paraphrase Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell — most people, when they say they believe in god, actually believe in believing in god.  It seems a harmless cultural phenomenon until you consider that throughout history, lives have been lost because those people over there do not believe what these people over here believe, and suffering has resulted from the unquestioning belief in the “rightness” of one's side, unsullied by rational and critical thought and scornful of challenges or opinions to the contrary.

I started with the Bible.  The Bible is a collection of books, written by many different authors over many hundreds of years, and is supposedly the divinely inspired “Word of God” from which we understand his will, yet it is just as likely to be interpreted differently by different people or be misunderstood as any other text.  People often draw different conclusions about a biblical passage and some base harmful attitudes and actions (and laws) on their understanding.  If the Bible really is the Word of God, he chose a method of communication so imprecise as to inspire even its most sincere readers to disagree over it.  This revealed to me an irreconcilable flaw in the nature of God’s supposed revelation of himself.

Also, we talk about the Bible as one thing; in reality, there are actually several different Bibles: the Jewish Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, which (with its books arranged in a different order) is either the whole or part (depending on which denomination of Christians we’re talking about) of a Christian Old Testament, which comprises the bulk but not the entirety of Christian Bibles, which also include a New Testament.

Setting aside the structure of the Bible, let’s focus on content.  Of the six hundred thirteen specific laws found in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, how many are about abortion (none); and with regard to the one or two that might (or then again, might not) have to do with homosexuality, why do they get so much attention when there are so many laws explicitly and unequivocally laid-out which we never hear anything about — condemning adultery, dictating food choices, obsessed with clothing and hygiene, and so on?  Seems a lot of selective reading is going on.  Why would an omniscient, omnipotent being (a god) allow such imprecision in his primary mode of communication?

The god described in the Bible is a personification of evil — vindictive, spiteful, and violent — and hardly worthy of praise or obedience.  Here are my top five favorites from season one of The Bible, a.k.a. The Old Testament, as an example of this abusive bully:

  1. 42 boys are ripped to shreds by two bears for picking on a grown man and making fun of his bald spot

    From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

    (2 Kings 2:23-24)
  2. Really big hailstones thrown down by God from Heaven are way more effective at killing people than swords, dontchaknow?

    As they fled before Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the Lord hurled large hailstones down on them, and more of them died from the hail than were killed by the swords of the Israelites.
    (Joshua 10:11)
  3. God gets really pissed-off because someone accidentally touched the pretty box they keep the commandments in

    When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
(2 Samuel 6:6-7)
  4. Don’t like the food?  Nothing to drink?  How about poisonous snakes?  You like snakes?  Ha-ha…that’ll teach ya’ to whine!

    …they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
    (Numbers 21:5-6)
  5. But the all-time, greatest, hands-down biggest do-over — The Flood

    That time God flooded the entire Earth with water, drowning everything (except the fish I suppose) is probably the most famous story in the Old Testament, told in the Book of Genesis chapters 6 through 8, though for the last time, Joan of Arc was not Noah’s wife!  Think about what this story is actually saying:  if you’ve got regrets, commit genocide!  This is a god who could definitely use that anger management seminar at the Hilton by the airport.

    …The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”

    (Genesis 6:6-7)

But without God and the “good book,” where will we get our morals?

The Bible is a blueprint of in-group morality, complete with instructions for genocide, enslavement of out-groups, and world domination. But the Bible is not evil by virtue of its objectives or even its glorification of murder, cruelty, and rape. Many ancient works do that—The Iliad, the Icelandic Sagas, the tales of the ancient Syrians and the inscriptions of the ancient Mayans, for example. But no one is selling The Iliad as a foundation for morality. Therein lies the problem. The Bible is sold, and bought, as a guide to how people should live their lives. And it is, by far, the world’s all-time best seller.
(John Hartung)

One can be a devotee of a given book and adjust one’s understanding of it based on its historical context or the lens through which it is read in the present. However, claiming the Bible to be the communication of an all-knowing being transmitting his will makes it different — by definition it cannot be subject to interpretations or improved upon at a later date; our understanding of it is either tied to a literal reading of the text, or we must concede its author could not foresee an improved interpretation to be made in the future.  The clearest example of this is the biblical treatment of slavery, with the biblical understanding of women running a very close second.  Since the Bible is the source of claims to God’s existence, and since it contains mores that are grotesque and flat out illegal by today’s most conservative standards, I was left with no choice but to conclude such claims to be human in origin.

There are roughly 1.3 billion people in India, most of them Hindu and therefore polytheists.  That’s only slightly more than the number of monotheistic Catholics (1.2 billion) the world over (as of 2018).  If you are praying to the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, Catholic teaching holds that God created the circumstances of people in India’s ignorance of revelation and then he created the penalty for this ignorance which is an eternity spent being punished in hell.  This vision of life and death has absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability.  To suggest otherwise is offensive.

There is strong evidence that homosexuality is genetic.  It has been observed and documented in over 450 species of animals worldwide according to Bruce Bagemihl in Biological Exuberance:  Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity published in 1999; that number should put to rest the silly idea that homosexuality is a choice, or are we to believe that two male penguins — one of the species in whom same-sex behavior has been documented — “decided” to forego the ladies (which would ascribe to them a consciousness and free will)?  Humans increase that number by one, and it would seem by some religious accounts that a creator-god created some living things to be in perpetual disharmony (or opposition) to their species.  If we add the concept of sin into the equation, this creator-god created gays and lesbians to sin.  If you advance the notion of a creator-god, this calls his omnipotence (power) and omnibenevolence (goodness) into question.  I realize that in the Christian worldview all men and women bear the stain of original sin and are “sinners” in need of salvation, but homosexuality is not like covetousness that can be overcome with effort and, a believer would say, with something called “God’s grace” — so God created beings he is incapable of “saving?”  Help me out here — I’m just trying to understand the design specifications of the homosexual who, it seems, is designed for the purposes of damnation.  This is not a very good (in both senses of that word) god!

I’d go into condom usage to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS and the manifest hypocrisy of firing gay teachers while allowing their divorced and remarried heterosexual colleagues to keep their jobs when both homosexual sex and remarriage after divorce are forbidden by the Catholic Church, but we haven’t the time here.

Faith is the ultimate in moral narcissism; God is good — I got that job I wanted, I feel so loved in a community at church, I prayed and the bank reduced my mortgage.  But when you ask why he allowed the Nazis to kill six million Jews, around two-thirds (66%) of Europe's Jewish population, there is a double standard — we are told his ways are mysterious.  Do you really think those Jews in the camps weren’t praying their asses off for deliverance from their sadistic captors?  If he didn’t help them, he was either unable or unwilling — meaning he’s either impotent or didn’t care.  But a sports player thanks him for scoring the wining point.  Not only does that trivialize the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, but it paints an obscene picture of this so-called god if he is more inclined to help Tim Tebow than his “chosen people.”

What about “cultural" religion for the sake of community?  I find the argument that “moderate” religion does no harm and is actually useful unconvincing at the least and disingenuous at the worst because it lends credibility to scriptural literalism by claiming to believe in the very same gods and supposedly divinely-inspired texts that are exalted by fundamentalists.  If not for moderate religion, the absurdity of fundamentalists’ anachronistic beliefs would be much more obvious; but those beliefs are not as easy to identify as absurd when billions of people worship the same god and revere the same scripture.  The result is that fundamentalist beliefs are seen not as ridiculous, but as merely unorthodox or incorrect interpretations of something widely regarded as correct on the whole.  I don’t deny that there are nuggets of truth and beauty to be found in the scriptures of the major religions.  But just as with a cable television package, the real gems are bundled together with a lot of garbage, from misogyny to homophobia.

So I quit — I have opened my eyes and deconverted

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past, or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.
(Why I Am Not a Christian, Bertrand Russell)

To not believe in God is negative atheism, while to believe God does not exist is positive atheism.  Many have pointed-out what a con religion is to make belief in deities dependent on accepting the flimsy evidence available; for ex-Catholics like myself, if you lived 2000 years ago, there was evidence galore — according to scripture you couldn’t walk down the street without tripping over a miracle.  But apparently God got tired of helping us along.  One visit to a middle-eastern backwater is all humanity gets.  If that wasn’t enough to convince you, you lose.

It is said that without religion, we have nothing to live for.  Actually, without religion, and specifically one of religion’s afterlives, we have nothing to die for and everything to live for, because our reward is on this side of the grave.

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