It was either Christianity or atheism.
I studied the other major religions of the world while in college. Polytheism (the belief in multiple gods, as in Hinduism, Shintoism and Mormonism) made no sense. How can one ever know which god to appease? What if appeasing that god angers another god? I was already an anxious person. I didn’t need that kind of pressure. Plus, these gods seemed far too human in their whims and warring. If I was going to believe, then I needed to believe in something wholly Other, something that transcended all flaws.
Islam was out, too. The extreme predestinationism of the religion made me wonder how Allah could hold anyone responsible for anything. I also hated how women were treated. Judaism had some appealing aspects, but I couldn’t ignore Old Testament passages that quite explicitly pointed to Jesus fulfillment of the Messiah role.
I either had to fully embrace what I had been taught in my youth or reject it altogether.
After that logic and critical thinking class, I began to examine some of the statements my non-believing friends made. I wanted to know if their worldviews were internally consistent. Immediately I was confronted with a kind of moral relativism; you do what’s right for you, I’ll do what’s right for me and we’ll all get along.
What if, I asked my friends, it was right for someone to walk into the student union building where we all sat and start shooting people?
The quick consensus was that such an action would be wrong.
How could it be wrong?, I asked.
Because it hurts other people, and that’s wrong.
But why is it wrong?
My friends made a shift toward appealing to a higher, outside authority. It is wrong because the majority says it is wrong. But why is the majority right?, I pressed. What if the majority is wrong and this person who wants to kill people is right? Furthermore, who defines “right” and “wrong” in the first place? How do you have morality or ethics without using some religious code, usually a Judeo-Christian one? I really wanted to understand their position. I really wanted to see if this worked.
It didn’t. This moral relativism was just a thin cover for self-centeredness. I watched as one ran through a string of boyfriends and multiple abortions. She justified her cheating and the refusal to take responsibility for her actions – and then railed when she, in turn, was cheated on. My friends wanted to do what they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it, but they did not actually want others to have that same kind of freedom. This drew me back to the definitions of sin and selfishness.
In my science classes, I learned that we humans are, in a nutshell, nothing but a random collection of atoms. We are the result of chance mutations that happened to work. (Yet, in those same classes, we looked at case after case where mutations didn’t work. There wasn’t one positive example). There was nothing noble or unique about our existence. If this were true, I wondered, why then did humanity persist in trying to make our existence noble and unique? Why were we pressed to create art, to understand creation, to express our thoughts and feelings? Were we not at war with our own evolutionary makeup?
If we humans were nothing special, then why did school shootings matter? Why did anyone grieve at another’s passing? Moreover, if life really were about the survival of the fittest, why did we put forth so much effort in saving premature babies, to getting children with learning disabilities into special classes or providing care for the aging? Shouldn’t we let the process take its course?
Most interesting to me was the anger I saw in the atheists and agnostics I knew. I loved these people. We had great times together. Mention Jesus or God, however, and the fur flew. I wondered how they could be so mad at someone they didn’t believe existed.
Christianity is a force for evil, they said. Look at all the wars it has caused.
This got an incredulous look from me. I had been an avid lover of history for as long as I could remember and I could think of no war that was mandated by Christianity. Was God used as an excuse or as a rallying point in some wars? Yes. Did that mean that faith in God led directly to war? No.
There was a deeper consideration. If one does not believe that God exists, then faith is a moot point. Faith means nothing, for the Deity in which the faith has been placed is nothing. Therefore, the cause of war lay directly within humanity itself. Somehow, my friends did not agree with me. They wanted to blame some external “force,” mostly religion, sometimes politics. But was there anything actually external to humanity? Weren’t humans the ones behind, the ones making up, religion and politics?
I asked my friends if they thought that all the world’s problems would cease if nobody had faith in God. Many answered in the affirmative. Some were strangely quiet. You really think that nobody would ever be selfish, that no government would declare war on another, that everyone would be loving?, I asked.
Yes, the loud ones said. The others stayed quiet.
This was far too simplistic a view for me. Everything I knew of history, politics and psychology bore out the fundamentally flawed nature of man. Over and over again, I saw stories, myths, legends, even comic book themes of redemption. I saw humanity repeatedly crying out for something greater than itself to set the world to rights. The idea that we were progressing to some golden era where all evil would be eradicated seemed incredibly naive.
I noticed a fundamental arrogance in these interactions. Those who believed in God, particularly the God of Christianity, were stupid. If they would just open their eyes to reality, they would recant. They would stop being so weak. I wondered if my friends understood that they saw people they claimed to love as stupid. As idiots. As any number of insults.
I could not get past the lack of consistency. I began to interact with people online to see if, perhaps, I could find someone more “mature” in their atheism. The same level of anger and illogical circling became quickly apparent. One, however, surprised me in his honesty.
Politically, he was an anarchist, because his atheism led him to conclude that extreme individualism was correct. Nobody could define “right” and “wrong,” because “right” and “wrong” did not exist.
Philosophically, he was a nihilist, because his atheism had no room for giving life meaning. Meaning, he said, had to come from an outside source.
Most impressively, he told me that he did not want to believe in God. He told me that he would not worship God even if He were to appear in his room.
In one of our conversations, he asked me to provide evidence for God’s existence. I asked him to define what he meant by evidence. He couldn’t. Tentatively, I offered my thoughts on humanity’s consistent longing for meaning and redemption as fingerprints of the Divine upon our lives; perhaps we had these longings built into us as a way for God to call us back to Himself? He rejected that.
Back and forth we went. I offered him something. He rejected it. I noticed this pattern in other conversations and had to conclude that no evidence, not even God Himself appearing, would be good enough for anyone who had already determined not to believe. This didn’t make atheism intellectually superior, as many pronounced. This made it an emotionally based viewpoint.
Again, I loved these people. I had great relationships with them.
But I could not get on board.
For all posts in the How I Came to Faith series, go here.