I grew up a devout Christian. I prayed daily. I studied the Bible. I sang the praises of Jesus. I sacrificed my own plans to serve God, and tried my best to follow his commands. I loved God and felt his presence in my life. God answered some of my prayers. He healed a few people I knew – in ways medical science could not explain. He lifted me out of a late-teenage depression and gave me compassion for those starving around the world. I made trips to China and England to help build schools and share the good news of Jesus.
There were some things about my Christian faith that confused me, but I trusted that I would understand when I got to heaven – or perhaps I would never understand, because God is so far beyond human reason.
I didn’t understand why he would allow the Bible to say so many contradictory, awful, or silly things. Did my loving God really command that rape victims must marry their rapists? What kind of “cultural context” could make that a loving thing to command? Did he really demand that we not wear clothes made of two different kinds of cloths? All the pastors I knew chose which verses still ‘counted’ and which ones didn’t, but the only criteria they ever used for doing so was what God told them. The weird thing was that God told each pastor a different thing than the next. But why put the bad or silly verses in there in the first place? And why would God allow so much confusion? If he was all-powerful, surely he could communicate to his pastors more clearly.
And what about hell? How could a loving God send people to eternal torture just because they had never heard of him? What about all those billions of people in China and India? What about young children? Did they really deserve to go to hell? Maybe people who had never heard of Jesus got a “free pass” to heaven, but then we should have stopped evangelizing right then and there. After all, most people who heard about Jesus didn’t convert right away, so our painstaking evangelism could have been sending millions of people to hell who otherwise would have gone to heaven.
What was the point of prayer? Jesus says clearly many times that prayer has power to change things, but much of the time it did nothing. It seemed totally random which prayers God wanted to answer, and which ones he didn’t. Why did he answer the prayers of my congregation for a new church building or deliverance from depression, but not answer the desperate prayers of millions of faithful believers pointlessly starving to death around the world?
When I came to realize that the evidence for evolution was just too strong to deny, this brought up all new problems. Why would God allow mankind to evolve for millions of years of soulless, brutal existence only to imbue them with a soul at a certain time, and then show up a few thousand years later to change the whole plan with Jesus? And if all the Bible stories about creation were myths, why did he allow so many believers to take them literally? And why, when Jesus came, did he simply repeat some moral aphorisms that had already been given by people before him (the golden rule, “obey God,” etc.) instead of revealing something simple that could have saved billions of lives, like the germ theory of disease or the importance of sanitation?
Truth be told, there were thousands of things like this that didn’t make any sense. But I didn’t think about them much. They were all part of the awesome “mystery” of God. What mattered was that I had experienced God myself, and I wanted to love everybody like Jesus did. Besides, didn’t everybody believe in God? I didn’t know any atheists, and I thought they were maybe 0.5% of the population on earth. Radicals. Everybody knew they were wrong.
If anything, maybe Buddhists or Muslims were right. But that couldn’t be; I had experienced Jesus so I knew he was real. I had experienced him for over a decade, and so had almost everyone I knew. It simply wasn’t possible that all this was a mass delusion. No way. Not possible.
I don’t recall thinking: “Wait a minute. There are people just like me who have experienced Krishna or Allah or Shiva personally, and are certain of their experiences. Everyone they know believes as they do. And yet I think they are suffering a mass delusion. Why should I think I’m not the one who is deluded? After all, I haven’t actually studied the evidence or arguments about religion – I’m just trusting the one I was born into because it feels right, and because everyone around me confirms it.”
But such serious doubts would come later, when I started to study the evidence for the Historical Jesus, and the arguments for theism in general. The more I studied, when reading both Christians and atheists, the more I found the case for Christianity to be dishearteningly weak.
I started to get scared. My best friend in the whole world, the focus of my entire life, was fading into the mists of myth and superstition. My foundation for living was crumbling beneath my feet, and I had nothing to replace it with.
I did everything I could to spare my faith. I read the very smartest Christian philosophers. I read them way more than the atheists. But all their arguments relied on double standards and twisted logic. What the atheists said made clear, simple sense. I begged God every night to show himself to me, but he didn’t.
On the way to a movie, I told my dad (a pastor) that I couldn’t find any good reasons to believe in God anymore. We sat in the cinema but I don’t think either of us could watch the movie. On the way home my dad just sobbed. “I’m praying for you, son,” he said. “I love you so much!” I sobbed, too.
I had been told that without God, there is no meaning in life, no morality, no purpose. So I thought my life was over. It had all been a sham. Even now that I knew it was a fairy tale, I wanted to take a pill that would make me believe it again. At least I would have a reason to live, a reason to help others. And I would have hope that my life wouldn’t be snuffed out by death. A world without God might be true, but it was unbearable.
I kept looking for God. Maybe he was out there somewhere, but nobody had correctly identified him. Surely, he wasn’t anything like Yahweh or Allah or Shiva. But maybe he was more complex, more surprising, and more noble than those gods. For several weeks I prayed, “God, I don’t know if you exist or if you can hear me or if you care. But I just want you to know that I really want to know the real you, if you want to be known. I’m ready to know you as you really are, whoever you are.”
But the more studying I did, the more I realized there was no reason to believe in any gods. And so I decided to look up what others had said about how to live without God.
I should have realized this earlier, but of course there are millions of people throughout history who have lived happy, fulfilled, meaningful, moral lives without God. In fact, many of the most important scientists and philosophers of the last century were atheists, as are the two greatest philanthropists of all time (Bill Gates and Warren Buffet). After that, it didn’t take me long to figure out how to be happy, fulfilled, purposeful, and moral without God.
In fact, I quickly felt even more fulfilled than I ever had as a Christian, even though I’d had some pretty high highs as a believer. Now I could embrace reality for whatever it was, and I didn’t have to juggle a thousand conflicting beliefs that didn’t add up. I could just follow the evidence wherever it led.
I tell you all this, believer, because I want you to know that I get it. I haven’t had your exact experiences, and I never believed exactly as you do, but I get it. I know what’s it like to be a believer. I know what it’s like to experience God and love him with all my heart. I know what it’s like to know that I know that I know that God is real. I know what it’s like to glance over the arguments for theism and feel them to be plausible, and to glance over the arguments for atheism and feel them to be flawed. They felt that way to me, too, until one very important thing happened.
An atheist on the internet pointed out that I literally believed I had a magical invisible friend who could grant me wishes.
Of course, I preferred to describe my belief in other terms, but I had to admit that was literally what I believed.
I thought, “Woah. Woah, there. Maybe, just maybe, I might be wrong about this.”
I didn’t lose my faith right then and there. In fact, I didn’t even feel threatened at that point. But I looked at the arguments differently. I read the atheist arguments as if there might be something to them, and I read the Christian arguments as if there might be a problem somewhere.
I hadn’t even realized that I wasn’t evaluating the arguments fairly. In fact, I thought I had been! But I hadn’t, and I realized it now. When I looked at the arguments with the real understanding that they could both be flawed, I found the atheist arguments much more persuasive, and I lost my faith.
I say all this, believer, to point out that when you’re deluded you don’t know that you’re deluded. It doesn’t feel like you’re deluded, it doesn’t look like you’re deluded, and even the arguments seem to back you up! I’ve been on both sides of a delusion, and I can tell you that being deluded doesn’t feel at all like you’re deluded.
So what I ask of you is this: Try to rattle your own faith. Shake it up. Cause as much doubt as you can. Read what the best of the opposition has to say, and take it seriously. Describe your own faith in the most contentious terms possible (e.g., “an invisible friend who grants me wishes”) and recognize that this is, though not how you would put it, still literally true about what you believe.
Why? Because if you’re caught in a delusion, this might be the only way to wrestle free of it! What a better life awaits if you can step outside the delusion and engage the real you in the real world!
And if it’s not a delusion, if you really do have good reasons for the worldview you hold, then all these challenges will only clarify your worldview and reveal the good reasons there are for believing it. After all, it’s not like rattling your faith about gravity and reading those who say gravity isn’t real is going to ultimately cause you to lose your faith in gravity. The only thing that will happen is that you’ll understand gravity better and exactly what evidence supports it.
If you agree with me that to either (1) deliver yourself from a delusion or (2) clarify and reinforce your understanding of ultimate truth is a win-win situation, then I have some suggestions. If you’d like to shake up your faith and test your own mind for delusions, I recommend you read just a bit of the opposition.
As you might expect, the best of the opposition are not the most popular. You do not need to read Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris.
The easiest place to start is perhaps Guy Harrison’s 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God. Two other great books are Dan Barker’s Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists and John Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. A good book that explains how even really smart people can come to believe in magic and undead guys who walk through walls and fly off into the sky and all that is Bruce Hood’s SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable.
These books are definitely worth the money, but some great content is also online. See the ‘atheism’ section of Greta Christina’s ‘best posts’ page. See Austin Cline’s atheism site. Read the articles on the Secular Web. Listen to atheist podcast Reasonable Doubts.
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