Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My friend Mike is going to hell

Belief in God rendered me a sort of Christian nihilist by high school. I reckoned that, since God is all-powerful, he doesn't need me for any big projects, he just seems to like having me around. Also, I thought that evangelism was the most important thing a Christian could do; maybe I thought it's the only important thing anyone could do. What could be more heroic than saving someone from an eternity of suffering and offering them an afterlife of happiness and union with God? Compared to that, building bridges or baking bread seemed void. Firemen and soldiers and bone marrow donors can save lives, but they can't give infinite life and happiness. Well, neither can we, it's the Holy Spirit that does the converting, I believed, but Christians are somehow involved in the process.

At various points in my childhood, I was a member of Pioneer Clubs, which is sort of like Boy and Girl Scouts, except, in addition to earning patches for knot tying, there are patches for various Christian things like Bible memorization and service and so on. One time, the homework involved sharing the gospel with two people that week. I was homeschooled from age six to thirteen, so my only non-Christian friend was Katie, my neighbor six doors down. She said she was a Christian, however she believed in evolution.

I started going to public school in eighth grade. On the first day, I challenged my social studies teacher when she talked about something in human history happening ten thousand years ago. That night, I voluntarily wrote a paper disproving radiometric dating. She told me that it was well-written but, "I question your sources." (My main source was The Collapse of Evolution.)

Because I wore my socks half-way up my shins and I tucked in my shirt, I was excluded by most of the other students, so I didn't have much of a chance to share the gospel with them except for that one time that we had to write compare-and-contrast essays. I wrote about Ehud and Samson, because they killed people with swords. I was thirteen. All the other boys in my class wanted to hear more about these stories.

In high school, my closest classmate was Mike. We rode the bus together, and were in most of the same classes. For most of the year, I thought he was a fellow conservative Christian, because he was a young earth creationist. Eventually, I found out that he's a Jehovah's Witness. I told Mom right as I came home, and she immediately pulled out a map-folded chart comparing different religions and cults; it had categories for things like how old they were, what their holy books are, how many gods are involved. She pointed to the category about the divinity of Christ in the Jehovah's Witness column; it said that they think that Jesus is divine, but he's not God God, he's not the Big Kahuna.

I already knew Jehovah's Witnesses were part of a cult, but they just came off to me as annoying people who knock on peoples' doors. I was afraid, now, though, because I knew and trusted Mike; maybe there's something to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Mom showed me a chapter about JW's in a book on cults; I read it, taking notes on a napkin, so I'd be ready to debate Mike. (Mom always referred to Jehovah's Witnesses as JW's.)

We rented a couple of videos, too, from the local Christian bookstore. I learned how Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions because the Bible prohibits the eating of blood; on the video, this fact was paired with an image of a corpse on a stretcher. I also learned that the translators of the New World Translation claimed the aid of "spirit messengers". The Jehovah's Witnesses shun people who leave the cult; what would happen if Mike were to become a Christian? Would his family divorce him?

I remember lying in bed, singing Christian praise songs quietly, so I could fall asleep. I recited Bible verses as I walked up the big hill to the bus stop in the cold the next morning.

Mike and I talked some the next day, and the day after that, and more, throughout the school year, and neither one of us converted the other. I'm thinking now about how I felt when I first found out that Mike is a Jehovah's Witness, and why. I was overwhelmingly afraid.

I wasn't afraid for Mike, that he would go to hell. I wasn't afraid of what would happen to my relationships with people that mattered to me, I wasn't afraid that I would lose Mike's friendship by staying a theologically orthodox Christian, or that I would lose my family by becoming a Jehovah's Witness. I was afraid that I would become a Jehovah's Witness and that God would damn me, or that I'd stay a Christian and the JW's were right and their Jehovah would damn me.

I had idealized evangelism into this valiant activity, and I still thought the same way about it, but, in retrospect, I didn't feel heroic. I wasn't motivated out of some sort of love or compassion for my friend. I was afraid that God was out to get me. If I were to become a Jehovah's Witness and be wrong, Yahweh would damn me for denying his union with his Son. On the other hand, in the New Testament, Christians are commanded to not eat blood. Had I eaten blood? I thought so, there was something red that came out of our steak when we cooked it. Is that blood? Gross!

Maybe my family and I were apostates, along with the rest of the church. The Trinity had always struck me as a difficult doctrine; maybe Jesus and the Holy Spirit really are subordinate to Jehovah, and it's idolatry to worship them as God.

At the same time, I had nihilistic, fatalistic thoughts: God's will would be done, regardless of what I did, because I was just a speck compared to him. I didn't feel nihilistic, though; I did the ordinary things a kid would do, I played with Legos and read books and played hide-and-go-seek-tag with my neighbors. I liked God, I didn't have bad feelings about God, I wasn't normally afraid of him or anything.

Growing up, I thought that anyone who wasn't a true Christian was going to hell forever, that's what I was taught. As a believing Christian, I mostly evangelized for my own benefit, in one way or another. I'd "evangelize" because I like arguing, I like proving people wrong, or I'd talk with people from diverse points of view out of an idle sense of interest.

I was more talking to myself, a lot of the time, trying to reassure myself that my beliefs were correct and good to hold on to. I think I care more about holding on to the beliefs that I have than about finding out what's actually true; they're my beliefs, they feel familiar. If I were to live in Portland, I'd own my own bicycle rather than sharing the communal bikes, because I'd feel attached to my bike.

I would evangelize out of a sense of obligation, it was something people told me to do, there were Bible verses telling me to do it, Jesus mandated that I go forth and make disciples. I didn't share the gospel nearly as much as I could have, though. I thought I was a bad person because I wasn't excited about evangelism. If I really thought it could have made a difference for the fate of someone's immortal soul, I should have taken it more seriously. Am I a cold, uncaring slob because I don't cry myself to sleep thinking about what would happen to my non-Christian friends when they died? Am I lazy because I wouldn't go door-to-door, like Mike would? I mostly have Christian friends because I find them easier to get along with; is it selfish of me to not do more to befriend some non-believers? I would have guilty thoughts like that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Desert island doubt

One time, at the dinner table, I challenged my Dad to pretend to be an evolutionist, and I would prove him wrong with my solid creationist rhetoric. I think I was eight at the time.

I was always very confident that God exists; not just that, but I was, since my earliest years, absolutely certain of all the most important Christian doctrines, creation, the incarnation, atonement, salvation by grace alone, and so on. I think I prayed the sinner's prayer at age four or five.

One time, when I was about four, before we sang "The B-I-B-L-E", Miss Natalie asked us Sunday school kids, "Who wrote the Bible?" Most of the kids said, "God" or "Jesus". I said, "Holy men who were taught by the Holy Spirit," I'd memorized that line in the children's catechism.

Dad declined my challenge to a duel. He knew that I was sure, at age eight, that I could bring the most ardent evolutionist to his knees with my knowledge of creation science, and he didn't want to indulge my fantasy.


Another time, I had read a book about whales. It said that whales have tiny leg bones, signs that their ancestors were land-dwelling. I told my brother that this was making me reconsider evolution, maybe there's something to it. This was a terrifying thought to me, because if evolution is true then the Bible is false and Christianity is a sham, and I didn't want to know how terrible it would be to be an atheist. The crushing meaninglessness would probably lead me to suicide.

My brother ratted me out to our parents. Dad talked with me about this, and gave me some good reasons to trust the Bible and not worry about tiny leg bones in whales. I felt reassured.

Kids tell ghost stories not because they think the ghost stories are true, but because they know they're not. Whenever I would hear a ghost story, I would feel scared, and then find a way to not be scared, I would find some courage in myself, and then forget about the story because it's not true and I never really thought it was. The point, for me, was in feeling brave.

I think I told my brother about the leg bones in the whales because I was a little scared and I wanted him to be a little scared, too, but neither he nor I wanted to lose our faith, and so I don't think whale leg bones could have led to our apostasy.

I don't think that my dad was trying to indoctrinate me or anything, it's not like he needed to squelch any doubt in the family; he just didn't want me to be too scared.

There are lots of books that purport to provide good reasons to believe in God, but I don't see a lot of nonbelievers reading them and converting to Christianity. It's mostly Christians that read these books and that are persuaded by their arguments.


One day, when I was twelve, I got very worried. I doubted that I could know for sure that God is honest. I believed the Bible to be absolutely, authentically, the word of God, I was certain that God exists. I just wondered how we could know for sure that God loves us and isn't putting on this whole universe as a prank for us.

I was very scared. I slept poorly that night. I was distracted the next day. Through this, I didn't tell anyone about what I was thinking, what was troubling me.

I finally felt relief when two thoughts came to mind for me. One was that people lie when they don't have much power, or are afraid of losing it. Little kids lie all the time. The Lewinsky scandal was going on around then, and I thought of how Bill Clinton was obviously lying about the matter, because he was afraid that he would lose his job, or at least look bad, and he was threatened, so he told a lie, a kind of dumb one. But God, even a malevolent God, wouldn't need to lie.

The other thought I had was that when God speaks, he says how things will be, for sure. He wants light, he says, "Let there be light." I believed, at the time, that the tiniest motions of atoms were governed by God; if God were a liar, the universe would be a mass of conversion, gravity might go up instead of down on alternate Tuesdays or the sun might turn green if God were in a bad mood, or ducks might fly north in the winter.

Most of the time that I hear about people doubting, it's either because they get some new information about God or because something tough is going on for them, personally, and they can't find meaning in that situation. For me, this worry about whether God's a liar doesn't fit in either category, I was just wandering around the house in my socks and it came to me.

I think my doubt was a different sort of doubt, the sort one could have while marooned on a desert island. I could have figured out how to live well enough on the island, going fishing and gathering coconuts, I'd have a nice bamboo hut, and I'd go swimming in the sunny afternoons. And then, one evening, while having a pleasant supper of mangoes and bananas, with no forewarning, I'd think, "Maybe God's a liar", or, "How do I know God's moral intuition is sound? Just because he's big doesn't mean he's right." or, "If all human reasoning is folly before God, how do I know that my belief in God isn't folly itself?"

In books on apologetics, I see a lot of material talking about evidence that God exists or defenses against arguments like the problem of evil or various theological nitpicks like apparent contradictions in the scriptures. I see less material addressing these blunt desert-island doubts.

One time, in college, a friend was worried about how he could know that God is honest, and I told him about my doubting when I was twelve and the two ideas that made me decide I could trust God. That comforted him, he felt better, so much so that he told a lot of people what I'd said.

And now, I think that what I told myself to get over that bit of doubt is a little fishy. Just because God doesn't need to lie to get his way doesn't mean he wouldn't lie just because he felt like it. Also, if God were to tell lies, nature would be no more disordered than he would want it to be. He could make it look as orderly as it is as a ruse. I feel bad about having given a leaky reassurance to my friend.

I doubted a fair amount when I was a teenager, but it was truly a fake doubt. I would set up something to doubt about, and I'd find a good-enough-for-me way to get over the doubt, and that made me feel even more confident in my belief in God. That one desert island doubt, the one about whether God is a liar, it sticks so clearly in my mind because, all the other times, doubt didn't feel nearly as difficult. I know that I avoided many difficult doubts because I truly wanted to believe and I didn't know if I might stumble across a doubt that had no resolution.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

See God see stars

When I talk with Christians about how I don't think God exists, many find my unbelief unbelievable. I don't just mean that they disagree with my reasoning or with my intellectual understanding of the world. They don't respond to my unbelief with language like, "You think the earth is flat?" or "You think the sky is orange?"; it's more like, "You don't like cake?" or "You like the sound of nails on a chalkboard?" as if there's something malfunctioning in my feelings about the cosmos.

Last week, I was talking with an acquaintance, a believing Christian. She said that she couldn't understand how I think that God's existence is not obvious; she said, "When I look at the stars, I see God."

"When I look at the stars, I see stars." I replied.

Believing Christians find so many benefits from their practice that they see movement from belief to unbelief as leading to great loss. I used to think this, myself, I was very uncomfortable with my unbelief, and mourned.

I think part of the problem is seeing Christianity as a package bound together by belief. This is faulty. I don't need belief that God exists to experience the love of a community, or to sing songs, or to have a sense of morality, or to be happy.

Now, I think, "If God doesn't exist, I've lost nothing but thoughts since I stopped believing." (That's not quite true, some people think a little less of me, and I thought less of myself for a long time.)

My understanding of nature isn't the same as when I was a believer; for me, nature was an occasion for worship. Worship is more difficult for me now. Even so, if the world seemed beautiful to me as a believer, why shouldn't it still fill me with wonder, now?

This summer, I was having a bad time. I have bipolar disorder, but I didn't know that, then, and I was trying an antidepressant for anxiety. Antidepressants without mood stabilizers can cause terrible problems for people with bipolar disorder. So, I was feeling depressed, I was in distress, I couldn't concentrate. I had been depressed before, but I think this might have been the worst depression I have ever felt; it was unrelenting for weeks.


Some very nice friends took me to Chincoteague for vacation; I'm grateful to them for this. I couldn't just sit in a beach chair and watch the waves, I couldn't relax, feeling the way I did. Instead, I walked among the dunes and wound up in a marshy area by mistake. I went to the nature center and picked up a horseshoe crab in the touch tank. All the while, I was counting my breaths, in on one, out on two, in on three, out on four, all the way up to ten, when I'd go back to one. I couldn't have happy thoughts about people or myself or ideas or stories or culture, I was too afflicted for that. All I could do was count and look at things.

At first, I felt a little bad for my friends who had taken me on this vacation; here I was, on vacation, and depressed, and not enjoying the good time they were giving to me. Then, I wondered how much pain I would have felt if I had stayed home. I think that that vacation was one of the best ever for me, not that I was the happiest ever, but because the beauty of the place made a difference to me when I most needed something beautiful to appreciate.

From Chincoteague

I swam out past the breakers, and I lay on my back and floated on the waves. The sun was high in the sky. If I stayed out too long, my whole front side would get sunburned, I have very pale skin, but I didn't worry about sunburn. The waves took me up and down and I breathed very slowly and counted my breaths. I didn't feel happy, I couldn't, physically, at that point, but I was comforted by the rhythm of the ocean, even if saltwater washed up my nose sometimes.

Later, this summer, I experienced a hypomanic episode; most of this was painful, too. Depression and mania aren't simply opposites. Most of the time, that I was hypomanic, I wasn't happy, I was obsessive and bordering on psychotic; this episode lasted for about two months. Of these, being hypomanic was only a happy thing for about three of those days.

On the first of the good days, I drank the most delicious iced mocha I've ever had. I had had lunch at Panera, and had an apple left over from lunch. I worked late in the lab that night, but started feeling hyper and got up, around ten o'clock, and took a walk around campus, and I ate that apple as I walked. When I had nibbled it down to the core, I threw the core into the woods. I know this sounds silly now, but to me, then, that was a profound thing, that this apple which came from nature was returned to it.

I walked past the pond up to a high hill on campus and lay down on the grass and looked up at the sky. I live in Baltimore and rarely see stars at night; it never gets dark here, the sky just fades to a dull red. My university is just outside the beltway, though, and it was a clear night, and I looked up at the stars and thought about how far away they are. What would happen if gravity stopped working? Would I float towards them? I thought about how the light entering my eyes had departed those stars decades ago. Every atom that makes my body was formed from the fusion reactions that happen in stars, so we're connected across this great distance. Maybe there are people that live on planets around these stars, and maybe we don't know about them, and they don't know about us, but we're made out of the same sort of matter, and so we're connected.

I was feeling unstable, but, lying on the ground that night, I felt safe. The earth is a tiny rock in space, but it's my rock and it's not about to disappear. The grass was dewey and the ground was cold. I thought about how billions of people live here. Some of the air I'm breathing in now was exhaled by other people before, some from thousands of years ago on the other side of the earth. When I buy things, a lot of them come from Asia, and even though I've only spent a couple of weeks in Asia, my life would be different if I didn't have this contact with people in Asia. I thought about how politics here affect people in Africa, how in villages there, there are some young men named Bill Clinton and some little boys named George Bush and some babies named Barack Obama.

I know that these thoughts of wonder about nature and the world and connection happened when I was in a strange place, psychologically, they sound like stoner thoughts to me, now. I don't feel that sense of wonder with the same intensity as I did that night, but, ever since then, I've found stars to be very beautiful. Even though the universe is mostly empty and cold and silent, there are these little spots where interesting things happen, and stars remind me that meaningful things can happen in the middle of bleakness.

The stars and the oceans are charitable to me; they don't demand any sort of belief from me. They don't even demand that I know anything before experiencing them. When I was a small child, I went to the ocean and played in the sand. Sometimes, my dad would take me to the observatory, I looked at stars, and I saw Jupiter through a telescope, and I didn't need to understand anything about them to like them. Now that I've received some sort of an education, my appreciation of them has increased, but less because I know facts about them and more because I see how connected I am to them.

Halfway through this hypomanic period, I got a pet rabbit, Spots Regina Leonora Bandita Cookies 'n Cream Skeptical Empiricism Obama. I think that just having a small furry animal around makes me into a gentler person. (If nothing else, I'm eating healthier; I keep a lot of salad on hand for her, and she shares with me.) I walk near the pond on campus as much as I can, sometimes two or three times a day, and I think that these walks make me a little more tranquil. The weather makes me more cheerful, and not just "good weather"; even rainy days make me cheerful. I like the idea that things can fall from the sky or not on any given day.

When people get drunk, they find it helpful to put a hand on a tabletop, just to feel stability and know which way is up. I know that nature is real, and that knowing happens on a very basic level. As I've lost some thoughts about God, I've gained more of an appreciation of nature, I've needed to. When I'm not sure what's meaningful or beautiful, or how to live my life, it helps to see things that I know are real, for sure.