Redated from 08/31/2009.
Most people who leave religion behind probably do so largely for emotional reasons. Some former Christians, like John W. Loftus, have been admirably candid about this.
I consider myself lucky to have left almost entirely for epistemic reasons. As readers of my deconversion story will recall, all of my emotions, dreams, hopes, and relationships were pulling me toward Christianity. Only reason and evidence pulled me – kicking and screaming – toward atheism.
I was not a sad Christian. I was not abused by priests. I was not turned off by Christian hypocrisy (or at least, I didn’t blame God for it). I loved being a Christian, especially during the last few years before my deconversion. That was the high point of my Christian life. I had found an experience of Christianity I felt to be authentic, loving, and noble. And then it all fell apart when I started studying Jesus and the philosophy of religion.
When I’m speaking with a Christian, she often doesn’t believe me when I tell her that I had, as a Christian, the exact same kinds of experiences with “God” as she has had. She thinks that if I had really felt his presence, I could never deny the veracity of those experiences. Well, I did feel1 God’s presence, and I do deny the veracity of those experiences. Why? Because I have overcome The Ultimate Bias. I was able to recognize that my inner experiences, no matter how strong and convincing, are no better evidence for Jesus than the Hindu’s strong inner experiences are for Vishnu, or the Muslim’s for Allah.
My Christian life had its ups and downs, but for now let me recount two of the high points, when I felt God’s presence strongly and was transformed by it in positive ways.
Falling in love with God
I was at a low point near the end of my teen years. I didn’t feel close to God, and I often didn’t want to do what I knew he wanted me to do. My dad, a pastor, recommended I read The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.
Chapter 9, “A Curriculum for Christlikeness,” slowly builds its way up to an answer to the question: How can a Christian experience the fullness and joy of life that God offers? This was the burning question at the core of my heart, and I could sense Willard was getting close to giving me the the answer. It was as if heaven was at the top of a short stairway, and I was climbing it, and nearly at the top.
My spiritual experience of reading that chapter is one of my most vivid memories.
There I was, sitting on my bed, legs folder under me, book in my lap, rocking back and forth with a big grin on my face. I was so excited I couldn’t hold still. I kept having to wipe my eyes because they filled with tears just knowing I was approaching the answer I wanted so badly.
Sometimes the spiritual power of the words washed over me with such intensity that I literally had to shut the book and hold still for 30 seconds with my eyes closed just to recover so that I could rip open the book again and continue. Other times I had to get up and walk around the house for a minute to calm down, just so I could run back to the book and read the next page.
And then it came. The answer. The way to experience the fullness and joy of life that God offers. That path to happiness and Christlikeness and communion with God.
Normally, being like Jesus is a daily struggle against our humanness. But Willard had found a way to live that fullness of Christian life with ease and joy. How? By falling head over heels in love with God. When you’re really in love with God, you do what he wants because you want to, because you’re so in love with him and his ways. When you really love someone, it is your pleasure to please them, and you hate to sadden them.
So how do you fall head over heels in love with God? Spiritual discipline. Training of the mind. You focus your thoughts on everything you love about God, everything he gives to you. You think about his goodness as much as possible – literally, every 30 seconds. You hum your favorite praise songs throughout the day.
I gave it a try, and it started to work. One moment in particular stands out. I was driving back home from work when I saw – directly in front of me, a curled leaf spinning beautifully in the air currents made by passing cars. It danced through the air and then shot up into the air as I drove right under it. It reminded me of my favorite scene from American Beauty, the one with the plastic bag dancing in the wind.
It hit me like a ton of feathers: this was God’s gift to me. Beauty – all throughout the world, every day – was a gift from God to me. On the drive home, I indulged in the beauty God had made for my pleasure. It was late autumn in Minnesota, and I’m particularly fond of naked trees. I thanked God for each and every one as I passed them on the highway.
I followed Willard’s advice, and over the next several months I fell in love with God. My parents noticed how much happier I had suddenly become – and also how much more helpful I was around the house! And my love for God never went away… until I found out He didn’t exist.
On my face before the Holy One
Things went so well over the next year that I started to feel like quite a success. The sin of pride was creeping in. God spoke to me2 about this with special force during a worship service at my church. I was still pretty shy at that time, but over the past year I had become more comfortable doing “charismatic” things during worship, such as raising my hands, and maybe even jumping up and down if I really felt the presence of God. But now I felt moved to do something that would not only glorify God, but would also push my mind away from pride and toward humility.
I decided that putting my body into a position of humility would probably help. Then I felt God calling me to kneel before the cross at the front of my church. But that would mean leaving my row and doing something unusual in front of 100 people – 100 people I knew, and would have to speak with sometime after. I stared at the cross for a good 10 minutes, asking God to help me move from my spot.
Finally, I just asked God for peace, and he gave it to me:3 My whole body relaxed. I took a deep breath, pushed my the anxiety out of my mind and instead focused on the goodness of God. I squeezed my way out of my row and walked up the center aisle. When I got to the front, I kneeled before the cross and lifted my hands.
But it wasn’t enough. I laid down on my face, arms outstretched before the cross, and worshiped my Savior.
There I was, lying face-down in front of 100 people like a fool. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to glorify God and humble myself. I praised God for all the beauty he gave me. I cried for joy the whole time. My whole body felt warm – almost like it was vibrating, but peacefully.
I don’t know how much time passed. I was only vaguely aware of the worship music. Maybe something like 15 minutes later I got up on my knees and looked around. Half the worship team had stopped playing and had also turned to kneel before the cross, arms raised in praise to God. A few other people had lined up before me, kneeling or prostrate before the cross. God was moving among us.
A reader wrote me:
People want hard core evidence before they commit to things 9 times out of ten. As for believing in Jesus and God, you just have to experience it for yourself. And Live it. That’s the truth. If all we have is testimony and scriptures and we start to believe we will see great things happen in our lives.
I know. I did experience it for myself. I did live it. I did believe, and I saw great things happen in my life.
It just isn’t true, is all I’m saying.
Next post: Reading Yudkowsky, part 15