I have addressed numerous subjects during my many months of blogging. One of those subjects is whether miracle testimonies or positive personal anecdotes prove the existence of God. I concluded that they do not, largely because of a thing that I haven’t mentioned a lot by name: confirmation bias. The website Science Daily describes confirmation bias (with regards to science and psychology) as a “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.”
A good example of confirmation bias would be when someone excitedly praises God when a parking space is open “for them” close to the front of the store. Various factors were involved in making that happen, all more to do with fortunate timing than anything else. If you want to bring the divine into it, you have to say that God (or a higher power) was personally responsible for the time the original parking space holder left home, the amount of time they spent in the store, and the exact time they pulled out to go home. God was also responsible for the actions that you took to get to the store at that exact moment. This would mean that God was somehow directly influencing even the smallest of peoples’ thoughts and actions- and doesn’t he/she/it have something better to do than to preside over who gets what parking space? More importantly, this muddles with the concept of free will and takes us into controversial predestination territory.
There is a website called The Odds Must Be Crazy that addresses the mathematical probability of various events. The purpose of the site is to express that certain things that we think of as “meant to be” or “synchronicities” aren’t as special as we think that they are. For example, if your friend calls you just as you’re thinking of them, you might think of this as an uncommon occurrence, but the probability of this happening is higher than you might expect. Or maybe you unexpectedly run into someone that you haven’t seen in years at a place where neither of you has ever been before, on the anniversary of when you first met. Or maybe- as I heard recently on the radio- you, your mom, and your grandma all end up having the same birthday. Is a higher power really responsible for these things, or are they more or less random chance?
It has been very hard to separate myself from the notion that “everything happens for a reason” and “some things are meant to be.” It is awfully unromantic to think that the universe began expanding inexplicably and is moving naturally towards entropy, with us existing as simply a consequence of this. We are very insignificant in the grand scheme of things, so it makes sense that we would try to draw significance from the finer details of life.
This brings me to my next point; is there an intelligent being that created the universe, and if there is, do we really have a duty to worship him/her/it? These were questions posed to me- more or less- by my younger brother, and these were some ideas that I had never considered. He also asked, if there really was a god who created everything, would he really be hyper-focused on such a relatively tiny part of his creation?
Again, we must envision the bigger picture here. Proponents of intelligent design propose that there is a god that created everything, and more often than not they describe this as the Judeo-Christian deity. Why would a god so advanced require animal sacrifice, and later on, a human sacrifice in order to forgive our sins? Why would God be concerned with our sins in this way? Why would He, being privy to our human frailties, require unconditional worship and devotion? Surely, we were created with more in mind than stroking the divine ego. Why if, in the end, belief was so important to Him, would He not reveal Himself more clearly to His creation?
Often times I am told not to ask why, but to simply accept the Bible is God’s word. My question would be, “On what basis?” There are plenty of purported “holy” texts that have preceded the Bible by centuries, and there are plenty that have come after that are said to amend it. Where is the starting point that will eventually lead us to the truth? Also, Christianity has yet to sufficiently explain how extreme human suffering fits into God’s loving plan for us and our planet.
So where does that leave me? When I started my journey away from Christianity, I still believed in God. I believed that “something” had to have made us. I later described this as the underlying life force of the universe. I believed that this being/entity could be contacted in meditation in order to receive guidance, but did not necessarily believe that the this being intervened on our behalf in the physical world. This helped me to resolve some of my misgivings about the apparent inconsistency of “divine intervention” in the world. As time went on, however, I began to feel frustrated at the thought of an intelligent god that existed but was unable to aid me or others in any practical way.
After my experience with that form of deism, I moved on to agnosticism. Maybe God was real, but there didn’t seem to be a concrete way to find out. Throwing out the idea of a higher power altogether did not quite appeal to me. Plus, the pity and/or disgust exhibited towards atheists from Christians was still something that I was keenly aware of. “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, 53:1) was something that I have heard quoted my entire life. I was also familiar with Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1, where he states the creation itself is a testament to the invisible God. To say that I did not believe in any god at all seemed so final, so defeatist, and so concrete. I was afraid to exhibit that kind of certainty about something that had seemed so uncertain to me.
Despite all of that, here we are. Here I am, not seeing any reason to believe that there is an overruling higher power, yet still unwilling to let go of some of the baggage of theism. When something fortunate happens, I am still tempted to believe that there is hidden agency or that there are unseen forces pulling the strings (even though that also requires believing that misfortune is divine as well). I also had my experiences with 12-step programs, where admitting powerlessness and surrendering to a higher power are touted as foundational steps towards recovery. This “God presence” seems to permeate every aspect of our society. To step outside of that understanding, I feared, would make me a pariah to people that I loved. I envisioned the looks of disbelief when I told people that I no longer believed in any sort of intelligent creator.
The question, however, isn’t about how I will be perceived, but rather what I perceive to be true. I ran into a man, almost a stranger, who told me that I was going to hell if I didn’t believe the story about Jesus. Those were his perceptions. When he had asked me why I didn’t believe anymore, I told him that it “just didn’t seem real to me” and I told him I had some doctrinal issues. He told me that that was unfortunate, that it really was real, and after that was when he told me that if I didn’t believe in Jesus I was going to hell. He told me that he was “just the messenger”, as if that would soften the blow a little bit. Needless to say, it did not.
There wasn’t time to continue the conversation with him, and he would never have been able to understand my point of view anyway. I just went away from that, marveling as I do nowadays at the ease with which Christians are able to express their beliefs in this country. You have beliefs that are wholly based on a lack of evidence, and yet they roll off the tongue as if they were established fact. Once upon a time, I felt the same way. I was sure that there really was a man who miraculously rose from the dead 2000 years ago, seated himself physically in heaven, and would someday return for his “spotless church.” Never mind that we have never seen any evidence of heaven when we peer into the vastness of space, or the fact that to pass through the atmosphere- and then also survive there- is a pretty farfetched idea. Of course, Jesus was God, and somehow being God makes you able to trump the laws of nature. Also, maybe we can’t see heaven because it’s not up but rather in another dimension? (No Christian has ever told me that, I am just hypothesizing.)
A lot of Christians say that it takes just as much- if not more- faith to believe that we all came from nothing and then evolved, than it takes to just believe the Bible. I would beg to differ. I think it takes a whole lot of blind faith to ignore mountains of archeological and scientific evidence and still insist that the earth is merely thousands of years old. Or to see the complexity of the universe and believe that an invisible man in the sky created it all with his words in only six days. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I feel that knowing that is what opens the door for more discovery and knowledge. Christianity claims to have this whole thing pegged down, and I just can’t accept those claims.
Ultimately, though, the purpose of my blog is not to discredit Christianity. It is simply a personal record of my journey from faith to disbelief. Even describing it like that- “faith to disbelief”- subtly supports the idea that belief in the idea of god is positive and a lack of belief in the idea of god is negative. Atheists are often isolated and judged based solely on their lack of belief in a deity, which is in many respects only one aspect of their lives. Atheism isn’t all about “disbelief” but it is also about the things that we do believe in. Many of us have faith in ourselves, in our friends and family, and of the ability of good to triumph over evil. The difference is that we do not depend on a higher power to bring about change in the world, but we allow the burden of responsibility to fall squarely on our own shoulders. It is a sobering position to be in, but we accept it because we believe that we have no other choice.
The next time I hear another story about guardian angels, miracle healings, “coincidences” (it’s always said with quotation marks), or Jesus helping someone find their car keys, I will again be reminded that confirmation bias allows people to interpret these events through the lens of whatever faith they ascribe to. If someone warns me about the possibility of hell, I will ask “Which one?” (also a great question if they urge you to believe in God.) The truth is that most of what religion has sought to explain can now be explained using our knowledge of biology, natural laws and how the universe operates. Every time someone tells me “God did this” I can ask, “Are you sure about that?” If your loved one was healed of cancer, are you sure that was God, or was it medical intervention? Are you aware of people that eschewed medicine in the name of God and died? If someone sent you money just when you needed it, are you sure that was God or was that just their intent meeting fortunate timing?
As I stated earlier, people take the pervasiveness of theism in our society (especially here in the U.S.) for granted. One of the most common things people say to encourage another person is, “I’ll be praying for you.” People often throw up the exclamations, “Oh my God” and “Thank God” regardless of their level of religiosity, because those ideas are so woven in to our culture. Natural disasters are legally called “acts of God”. God is everywhere and in everything, and like I said, stepping outside that narrative presents a lot of challenges. It hasn’t been easy for most people who have deconverted, and it hasn’t been easy for me, but I am ready to face the future with my eyes wide open.