Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The god I want to believe in

When I first drifted into agnosticism, I dreaded that God would damn me for not believing in him. I don't worry about that now.

I want God to be real, and I want to relate to him. I look for God carefully, but I don't see him. Not at all that I think that I'm saved by any of my own virtues, but if God would damn me for not believing that he exists when that's not what I have honestly seen or experienced, I don't find that God to be worth bothering with.

To believe that God is the sort of god that you want him to be, simply because that's how you want him to be, that is the height of intellectual dishonesty. Our ideas about who God actually is, our beliefs, ought to be grounded in experiences and evidence.

However, if one doesn't think God is real, and one wants to bother to look for God, why waste one's time on an unappealing notion of god? If God is real and ugly, why would one care, except to know how to stick one's thumb in his eye?

The difference here is the difference between hypothesis and conclusion. People who believe that God is real have their understanding of what God is like constrained by how they go about knowing God in the first place. People who don't think God is real are free to look for whatever sort of god they feel like looking for. This is sensible: looking-for and living-under are two different things.

I have some friends who are fellow doubters, but they're stuck in their search for God. I know people who can't believe in a god who would sanction genocide. I know people who can't bring themselves to believe in a god who would chose to save some and damn others, and leave them with no choice in the matter. I know people who are troubled that God would leave our capacity to relate to him up to our own choice, and are gripped with anxiety over not-choosing God and being damned.

We don't need these worries.

If God is real, I suppose he'd be so complicated that he could be good and seem bad in some ways. At the same time, if traditional theology isn't airtight and if the scriptures aren't infallible, forcing one's self to accept a notion of God tainted by human meanness is unnecessarily difficult. The hard work of filtering these things out ought to be left to believers who need a hobby. (I would suggest getting a pet rabbit, though, it's very soothing.)

If you want to believe in God, but don't, put your effort into believing in a God that's worth believing in, a good god, a loving god, a personal god, a challenging god. Don't worry about the things you've heard about God that you are horrified by; accepting them is no prerequisite to relating to God. At least, the god I want to believe in wouldn't reject you for misunderstanding him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Jericho and babies

I have a friend who's an atheist. He took a class on the history of genocide and started thinking about the Bible stories about the Israelites invading Canaan. God punished them when they didn't practice total war. My friend was worried that there was something insidious about Christianity that was leading to violence, and the Christian fundamentalist support for the war in Iraq troubled him.

In Sunday school, sometimes we'd get up and march around the room seven times to reenact Joshua and the battle of Jericho. Maybe we'd knock down some blocks or something. Curiously, we didn't then hit baby dolls with plastic swords and set the carpet on fire as part of this play. Joshua and the battle of Jericho isn't a good children's story; if it were made into a movie, no good Christian parent would let their child watch it.

When I was a believing Christian, I had to come up with confusing defenses, reconciliations of barbarism with the notion of a loving God. The conservative way of dealing with stories like this is to do systematic theology to figure out that God is just and sometimes that justice means destroying entire ethnicities, unpleasant as that may be. The liberal way of dealing with stories like this is to question whether they're really stories about God, or mere byproducts of a racist violent society. As a Christian agnostic, I don't need to deal with the stories, I'm under no obligation to be consistent.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Doubting bad faith

Oodles of Christians think that people who aren't believers are undereducated or deluded. When they deal with people outside the church, they often treat non-believers as if they are intellectually dishonest; it's assumed that non-believers don't believe in God because they don't want to: they don't want someone bigger than them, they don't want someone more powerful, they don't want someone that they would be dependent on.

I'm sure there are people who don't believe in God for dishonest reasons. Most people who don't believe in God probably disbelieve for terrible, vile reasons. (Of course, by the same token, I'm sure that a lot of impostor believers find it trivial to claim to think something, but are terrified by authentic belief in God. Wheat and tares.)

It's dangerous and condescending to assume that all non-believers are inauthentic. Some people who don't believe that God exists truly want to believe, it's just impossible.

Other authentic doubters are cautiously avoiding bad faith, or ardently fighting it.

I suppose that my first atheist friend was Luc. I had met other atheists before, but Luc was the first one that I had a lot of deep conversations with. He wasn't just a non-believer, he saw American Christianity as a basically dangerous force, one that was destroying Palestinians.

Luc did more to inspire me to read the Bible than any Christian ever has. I grew up with daily Bible reading as a pretty good measure of whether one was serious about Christianity. The virtues of study were touted to me. With all that pressure, I found the Bible intolerably boring to read.

Luc, though, had clearly read the Bible cover-to-cover a few times, and could quote not just the famous verses that I had memorized in Vacation Bible School, but verses like the weird one in Exodus about how bad it is to cause a woman to miscarry.

Luc knew the Bible better than I did because he cared about the Palestinians. He saw that a lot of Christians in America were supporting Israel because that was what someone told them that God wants them to do. They would ignore violence against and starvation of civilians, even women and children, as a result. Instead, they would wrongly accept this inhumanity as God's will. (Please, please, don't mention Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles to me.)

This is bad faith: to not ask hard questions, fearing the answer. Bad faith isn't necessarily about spirituality. I used to frequently overdraw on my debit card because I didn't check my bank balance because I was afraid it would be too low. It was lower after the overdraft fees. That was bad faith.

Luc was angry at sweet praying grandmas who give candy to kids at church, but who would support violence. Luc obsessed over the Bible because he figured that arguing with Christians who were ignoring violence was the best thing he could do to help kids in the Middle East. I'm sure he would have liked believers to give up on theism altogether, but he would have been content with believers pondering questions of right and wrong. Do grandmas really want kids to die?

I don't know that Luc was a perfectly authentic doubter. I'm sure he had frail reasons for non-belief, too. Even so, he picked at a problem that he saw as urgent and diabolical. Luc helped me, a believing Christian at the time, to see and care about a major issue of injustice in the world. (Honestly, I haven't done anything practical to help Palestinians, but I would have gone for years without even caring about the violence in the Middle East if not for him, and his atheism contributed to his sensitivity to that problem.)

Actually, I'm pretty sure that Luc was a rather inauthentic doubter. The believers that were blindly pro-Israel made the mistake of following an impostor Christianity, but Luc made the mistake of giving up on belief because of his disdain for that same impostor.

Believers need atheists like Luc, because sharp atheists notice hypocrisy and confusion that would otherwise be ignored. Instead, people like Luc get chased away because they're talked-down to and dismissed as deluded; it's assumed they're arrogant—to say there is no God! Luc, and atheists like him, need Christians, too, Christians with open minds and thick skin (a lot of these atheists are arrogant). Maybe Christians can give their atheist friends a better God to not believe in.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Coming out

At the end of March I stayed at a friend's cabin in the middle of the woods in Virginia. The cabin is in a summer vacation village at a spring. Winter had just ended, though, so I was the only one around.

I brought a crate of books. I've been behind on my reading schedule since February; I started reading Pride and Prejudice then, and didn't finish it until July. I intended to read a book or three that weekend, but instead I made it through about six pages. The rest of the time, I was writing and thinking about writing, and feeling what I want to write about.

Well, I did spend some time running around the woods in my pajamas trying to help some Mennonites figure out the plumbing system for the village. It was like playing Myst, turning valves at random.

I've grown up in Christianity, all of my closest friends are deeply devout, and when I started into agnosticism two years ago, I was afraid of how my thoughts and feelings would affect these relationships. I often cushioned my speech, I wouldn't say, "God isn't real," I would say "God doesn't seem real to me."—I downplayed my feelings by relativizing them. I was always careful to say how much I really wanted to believe.

I was most cautious about my doubts when talking with the people who depend on me, who look up to me. I thought, "My friend is in a tough enough situation. Should I shake his faith by telling him that I don't believe that God exists? That would be cruel!"

Alone at the cabin, it became apparent to me that I had an unnecessarily taut tension between the face I had as a "good Christian who is a little liberal and has doubts sometimes" and my true feelings as an agnostic who loves Jesus.

I'm glad that I have friends who have vacation homes, especially when they let me borrow them. In the house I live at, I perpetually am behind on washing dishes and pulling weeds. I break things faster than I fix them. How could I ever take care of twice as much house?

Immediately after returning from the cabin, I started having tough conversations. I told my mentors and my Sunday school class and my parents about my doubt with as much honesty and stubbornness as I could muster.

One day, I got a call from a friend who was having a crisis. He called to ask for spiritual advice. I'd not told him at all that I have doubt, I'd never told him. I could not continue pretending to be a believing Christian around him. I said, "I have to be honest with you: I don't believe that God exists."

He said, "I have doubts, too."