As someone who is not religious, I often struggle with how to describe my lack of religion. I have returned to The Bible Belt after being away for a decade, and it is not uncommon to be asked, "Where do you go to church?" In this region, stating "We don't attend church" is often interpreted as "We haven't been invited to church yet," and more inquiries about your brand of faith are likely to ensue. I'm not keen on labels, especially to describe my lack of participation in something ("non-stamp collector" comes to mind). But people like to put a label on things (and people). For lack of a better term, and because the shoe seems to fit, I will often refer to myself as a Secular Humanist. Only in the last few years have I settled on this descriptor. I am reluctant to label my lack of religious belief mostly because it implies a religious belief system. And while I do live according to a set of philosophies, or a code (we all do), it could not accurately be described as a faith or a religion. Faith is not involved in not accepting claims for which there is no evidence.
Semantics aside, as someone who grew up in a Christian family, and as someone who was voluntarily, and actively, involved with his church from kindergarten through high school graduation, I have been asked on several occasions, "What happened to make you angry at God?" (or some variation).
The answer is, quite simply, "Nothing." My parents were, and continue to be, loving, nurturing, wise, and incredibly supportive. My years in the Methodist Church include some of my best memories from childhood. We attended Sunday school and worship service every week. I was an active member of the church youth group, I performed music (solo, and as part of groups and choirs), and my childhood minister performed the duties at my marriage ceremony many years later.
If anything "went wrong," it was that I was dishonest about my beliefs. While I enjoyed the community aspects of the church (I met some of my favorite people there, and am still in touch with many), I can honestly say that, as hard as I tried, I never could believe the things that are required to be a true member of the church. For most of my time in the church, I counted myself as a doubting Christian, since I otherwise felt perfectly aligned with Christian ideals: compassion, charity, forgiveness, patience, humbleness, non-violence, etc. It wasn't until I truly thought about the actual requirements of Christianity that I realized that I wasn't sure I could even qualify as a doubting Christian. Although the beliefs of any major religious denomination require the understanding and affirmation of any number of doctrines, the basic beliefs of the Methodist church include:
- Triune God. God is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost).
- Scripture. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.
- Sin. While human beings were intended to bear the image of God, all humans are sinners for whom that image is distorted. Sin estranges us from God and corrupts human nature such that we cannot heal or save ourselves.
- Salvation through Jesus Christ. God's redeeming love is active to save sinners through Jesus' incarnate life and teachings, through his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence through history, and his promised return.
- Sacraments. The UMC recognizes only two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
- Free will. The UMC believes that people, while corrupted by sin, are free to make their own choices because of God's divine grace.
- Grace. The UMC believes that God gives unmerited favor freely to all people, though it may be resisted.
I'll go briefly through the beliefs one by one:
Triune God: It's difficult to believe in a holy spirit when there is no evidence supporting the existence of ghosts or souls. I also never bought the claims made about Jesus: that he was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, and that he rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. And the fact that I was never sold on the idea of a supreme supernatural being, you could say it was essentially a no-go straight out of the gate.
Scripture: I can accept that the writers of the Bible felt inspired by their God. But I also believe that The Bible is a cobbled-together collection of writings by many different individuals (some who are not who they claim to be), written to different audiences, at different times, to accomplish different goals. The Bible has also been edited again and again, and shaped by different people, for a variety of different reasons.
Sin: It's hard to believe in the concept of sin if you're not even sure there is a God. Without being certain of this, the reasonable assumption is that sin is likely a human construct. I prefer to approach morality in terms that do not require a supernatural element, and we know that a supernatural element is not required to guide us morally.
Salvation: I can't buy the salvation concept if I don't believe in the divinity of Jesus. Salvation, to me, is a fancy way to describe living an honorable life in which you aim to reduce suffering in the world. The theological concept of salvation is not required to do this.
Sacraments: I've taken part in Communion and I have been Baptized. Although I have taken part in the rituals and appreciate their metaphorical and aesthetic aspects, I never felt confident that anything was occurring other than what was actually occurring (eating wafers/drinking some juice, and putting water on a baby's head, respectively).
Free Will: I do agree that we have free will -- not because of the grace of a divine being, but because we evolved the capacity for willful self-regulation of behavior.
Grace: Again, not a concept that I could entertain, since it requires belief in a supernatural agency.
Many religious folks, after hearing my stances on the above, often state something like, "Well, see, that's what faith means! We all have doubts about these things!" To which, I usually respond, "I tried that for nearly 15 years, and I never felt any more convinced." I am pretty sure they would have a similar experience if they tried to maintain a relationship with the Egyptian sun god Ra.
Imagine that you are heterosexual (easy, if you're heterosexual). (You can reverse this thought experiment if you are not heterosexual.) You simply find yourself attracted to the opposite sex. Perhaps it was never a question. Perhaps it was as natural as whether you were right- or left-handed. Perhaps at some point in your life you were asked, or you asked yourself, whether or not you were capable of being homosexual. Granted, any heterosexual could try to be homosexual. For many, there would not be any internal dialog or struggle whatsoever -- they simply aren't, and couldn't be, homosexual. Not because they disapprove, but simply because they do not feel an attraction to the same sex. It simply was not something they could entertain because it is not who they are. (I realize that there are people who believe homosexuality is a choice, and a sin, and for those folks, you could use any other metaphor here that involves involuntary predisposition or aversion, of which there are many).
This is how I would describe my relationship with religion. For whatever reason, around the age that I developed the ability to think abstractly and engage in rational thought, I began having trouble entertaining any concepts that relied on the supernatural. This went for ghosts, ESP, fortune telling, magic, voodoo, etc. Even the most extraordinary claims had some natural explanation. Granted, there are still things that defy explanation, but this does not mean that the explanation exists outside of our natural laws and/or our universe. I tried for years to believe, to pray, to go about my life as if I prescribed to the tenets of the faith in which I was brought up. But at the end of the day, it felt as unnatural and as dishonest as altering my sexual orientation.
I will admit that my acceptance of my non-belief was followed by an emptiness, similar to that of losing a loved one. I realize that sounds over-dramatic, but I think it's important to note. (It is rare to hear former believers discuss the emotional impact of leaving religion behind.) I believe that many skeptics out there are afraid to accept their non-belief for the simple reason that it is a daunting and emotional transition for anyone who has grown up religious. It's not an insignificant transition, from believing in a loving God watching over us, and an eternal life of great joy where we are reunited with those we have lost, to accepting that this life is the only life we can count on, that we will only live on through our actions, through the wisdom we impart on our fellow humans, and in the memories of those who knew us. It feels like the safety net has been pulled out from under you, and that takes some getting used to.
I will also admit this: After coming to terms with my non-belief, and after that initial feeling of loss, it was as if a weight had been lifted. I imagine this is the case any time someone stops perpetuating something they do not feel right about, like leaving an unsatisfying job or ending an unhealthy relationship. I began to have greater appreciation for the world around me and I felt more grateful for the limited time that I have on this earth. I had more appreciation for the good things in my life, and I felt less disappointment when things did not turn out well. Occurrences no longer carried metaphysical baggage. Certainly, things occur for reasons, but the reasons are related to physical laws and conscious decisions and are not guided by the desires of a supernatural force. A person does not get cancer because they were a bad person. Cancer is the result of a confluence of factors pertaining to biology, genetics, environment, and diet, and not as payback for a life of sin. Earthquakes occur because the earth is still geographically alive, quaking and shifting to reach a more stable configuration, and not because God is angry or sending a message. A child dying in a horrible freak accident is likely due to physics and timing, and there is no meaning that we should ascribe to it. A child who dies a horrible death at a young age was not "called to Heaven." If that were true, the rape and murder of a child, for instance, would certainly be a horribly cruel way for a God to seek the services of a child. The removal of metaphysical meaning from horrible events does not make them any less painful. Nor does it stop us from wondering what could have been done to make things turn out differently. But I have seen too many people exacerbate suffering by entertaining metaphysical questions, or by infusing a tragedy with supernatural motive. I have found solace in the knowledge that, in most cases, horrible tragedies occur because of an unfortunate confluence of circumstances. We waste time and energy entertaining metaphysical questions -- time and energy that could better serve us in healing, aiding those who are suffering, or in helping others avoid the same horrible circumstances.
On the flip side, seemingly impossible positive occurrences are often simply the result of a fortunate confluence of circumstances. So-called "miracles" may provide us with hope, but often we place the credit in supernatural agency instead of the things that actually did result in a joyous outcome. A "miraculous" recovery from a "certain death sentence" is indeed wonderful. But we should credit modern diagnostic medical tools, the skillful hand of a surgeon, a well-trained medical staff, advanced vital signs monitoring, hundreds of years of medical knowledge and the modern electronic means of accessing oceans of medical data, our genetic makeup, the evolution of our immune system over millions of years -- the list would go on for paragraphs before we should entertain the idea that a supernatural force intervened and made a conscious decision to save a life. This does not mean that we should not bask in the joy of a wonderful outcome, or that we should not reflect on our good fortune. But a God is not required for any of this to occur. It is amazing enough that we are alive at a time in history when such recoveries are becoming more and more common, when cancers and AIDS are no longer death sentences, when transplants and stem cell therapies can renew failing organs. We are indeed fortunate.
No, there is no incident in my life that caused me to turn my back on God. At no point in my life did I become angry at God. How could we be angry at something that we aren't sure exists? I cannot say that I will never believe in a supernatural power, nor will I state that I am certain one does not exist. I certainly know that there are many unanswered questions about the cosmos, including how the cosmos came into existence (or if it even had a beginning). But what I do know is that the existing theological arguments for the existence of God, and the accompanying claims and dogma of the existing major religions, are not convincing to me. They leave me with more questions than answers, and none present a compelling argument for why I should believe in sentient forces that exist outside of our known natural laws and cosmos. In my view, if there is such a thing as a God, it is the natural laws of the cosmos and the countless mysteries of the cosmos we have yet to unravel.
If you were to come to me with a claim -- say, that my wife was cheating on me -- I would not take that claim at face value, and I would certainly doubt you and ask you for proof. If you told me that you didn't have any proof, but that you just felt it were true and that I should too, I would be a fool to go home and accuse my wife of cheating.
In no other area of our lives do we accept extraordinary claims, especially claims that have a major impact on the way we go about living our lives, without thoroughly examining the evidence and making an informed decision based on that evidence. I'm not angry at God. I just can't be sure he exists. And until I am convinced he does, and regardless of whether or not he does, I choose to focus on the things that I do know: That I am connected to every living thing on the earth, and that the choices I make while I am alive have an impact on the living things with which I share the earth. That I am only guaranteed one life, and the decisions that I make have consequences that affect my well-being, and the well-being of my family, my society, and beyond. That I am not guaranteed any reward for how I live this life, but that I should always act in ways that minimize or reduce the suffering of other living things, because this time around is my only chance to get it right. Do I get it wrong sometimes? Yes, I'm as imperfect as anyone else. But when I screw up, I make amends with those who were affected by my actions, and make an effort to improve.
So, at the end of the day, the way I approach life is not that different from the way I would approach it if I were religious. Not having a judgmental God or a fiery hell to worry about does not make me any more prone to do harm. Letting go of religion did not free me up to rob and kill with no fear of repercussion. The only difference is that I don't let my life be influenced by supernatural matters. I am quite confident that I live by the same morals and ethics as many of my religious brothers and sisters. There is no anger in this approach to life. Reveling in the beauty of life and the vast complexity of the cosmos is more than enough for me.
The British ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in a piece entitled, "To Be Read At My Funeral," wonderfully describes the sense of awe and humility derived from reveling in the grandeur of the known, physical world:
"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, 'the present century.' The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century's being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I."
Those who believe that humanists live a cold, bleak existence devoid of wonder, humility, or awe, have likely never taken the time to get to know one. Yes, perhaps we're defensive at times, due to the frustration of so often being misunderstood, or for assumptions made on our behalf in legislative halls and in our communities. But we all are looking for the same things: To minimize suffering, to be good stewards of our Earth, and to provide safe and free communities for our descendants, so that they may also grow to appreciate how lucky they are to experience life.