When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11 CEV)
I don’t recall the moment when the idea of god was presented to me. I was too young to give it any critical thought anyway.
My exposure and experience with the christian religion was not atypical in the least. As a child I attended a local Methodist Church where, along with many of my friends and schoolmates, we played, sang and began to believe in god together.
Dad wasn’t a church goer in the usual sense of the word and while Mom attended regularly, served on church boards and even taught Sunday school, she was never one to really push Jesus or god on my sister or me. I am grateful that Mom gave me lots of room to explore and, best of all, to question our religion, dogmas, doctrines and the bible itself.
At some point in my foundational religious formation I, and our membership confirmation class, was challenged to read selected books of the bible on a set schedule through the course of our education in Methodism and local church polity.
I still recall my very first biblical question concerning the consistency and authority of the bible. For someone of the age of seven or eight I thought that it was a significant question. Having begun my assigned bible reading I closely followed the story of Adam, of Eve and of their sons Cain and Abel.
Soon after Cain had killed his brother Abel the legend was that Cain took a wife, headed off to the Land of Wandering and had a son named Enoch. I astutely observed, however, that the story had not mentioned any other children of Adam and Eve except for Cain and Abel. My question to the minister was “Because the story doesn’t mention any other humans on Earth at the time, where did Cain’s wife come from?”
The Pastor thought about my question for a moment and then answered that because the bible traced the paternal lines no daughters of Adam and Eve were ever mentioned. Nonetheless, the only biblically plausible answer is that Cain married one of his sisters.
The Reverend’s answer at the time was sufficient to solve that apparent discrepancy in the text but it didn’t serve to pin my skepticism to the mat.
As I grew up religion didn’t hold a place of priority in my life. Up until the age of 14 or 15 I continued to join friends, family and classmates for church functions and holidays but never took an interest in any other components of a religious faith group or community.
At this point of my account, I remember participating in a Youth Sunday service wherein I had been selected to deliver the homily or the sermon. I clearly remember the title: “In God We Trust.” I’m sure that it was a homiletically disastrous bit which was bereft of any sort spiritual usefulness or significance. The people of my church sat patiently and kindly gave me their full attention but there is no doubt that they left that service completely uninspired.
It was shortly after that when I stopped attending church. I was at the age where Mom stopped attempting to compel me to go and, frankly, it was much more enjoyable to sit out on the deck with Dad on a Sunday morning while the chicken spun around on the rotisserie as the Detroit Tiger pre-game shows sounded through the speakers of our multi-band radio. Greater are these memories with my real father than that of any with the pretend daddy of the bible.
Beyond that period of time I remember few other events with the church. There was the senior class recognition Sunday and perhaps a good-bye of sorts when I left to serve in the U.S. Navy but my days of regular attendance had since passed.
In 1976 I enlisted in the United States Navy under the Delayed Entry Program or DEP for short. During the enlistment application process I was asked if I were a member of any youth clubs or civic leagues or had demonstrated any extra-curricular leadership within the community. I had never been, and still am not, a socially active or extraverted sort of person. I had three or four close friends and that was just the way that I liked it. I was never motivated or concerned about joining any school or civic service clubs. I was content to go home from school, play some ball, eat supper, cloister myself in my room to listen to music, play guitar or jam my nose in some books.
Nevertheless, to fill in some lines on an enlistment candidate bio card I wrote that I had participated in some activities at my church.
That was good enough for the U.S.N.
At that time it was customary for the Navy to select a few new recruits for leadership positions within their respective training divisions. Soon after I arrived at Recruit Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois I was called into the office of the company Chief Petty Officer where I received a temporary promotion to Petty Officer Third Class and designated as Recruit Company 232’s Religious Petty Officer (RPO).
Welcome to the ministry, sailor.
My duties were little more than serving as a liaison between the base Chaplain’s office and my training company. It was my responsibility to march recruits to and from services, should they choose to attend them, and ensure that all religious literature and communications were disseminated throughout my company.
I loathed that duty but carried it out with the professionalism and excellence as expected of a Michigan man. I didn’t want to attend services anymore than most of my shipmates. Not only that, I was terribly uncomfortable being a point man on religious affairs and concerns within my company. Damn the Navy anyway. The only benefit of that position was that I didn’t have to stick around and clean the barracks on Sunday mornings and I suspect that was the only reason why some of my shipmates marched to chapel by my cadence.
After I graduated basic training, I was promoted to Airman (E-3) for my work as company RPO, headed off to Lakehurst, New Jersey for more training and never set foot in a church again for years to come.
I had just settled into my rack after my 24 hour duty period as a crash, rescue and recovery crew leader at a naval shore installation in Virginia when I received one of those calls which changes life forever.
The first words out of Mom’s mouth were “Jay, your Dad is dead.”
I’ll spare the details except to say one of the world’s greatest men had passed away at the age of 62. Walter Terpenning Gunn is still a hero of mine. I loved and admired my Daddy more than he ever knew.
Those of you who’ve experience the shock and grief of such a tragedy surely know the emotional and mental devastation that such an event brings with it. It leaves you disoriented and vulnerable. And it was out of that shock, disorientation and vulnerability that I returned to a christian community that held out its arms to comfort and console my family and myself.
In the immediate days which followed Dad’s death the church gave our family seamless and comprehensive care and support. At that time I was in some desperate need of some perspective and meaning of everything that had occurred.
I never got to say good-bye to Dad. I never got to “I love you Dad” just one more time. I never got the chance to apologize to him for the times where I surely made his life difficult. I never got to tell him how proud and thankful of him that I truly was.
But, as embarrassed as I am now to have fallen for it, the church taught that there was a way to hang onto Dad emotionally and spiritually and that there was a hope of eternal life together.
And man did I fall for it.
The root and viability of religion is emotion. This is no less true for my own former religion. I believe that this is the reason why people continue to attend religious services. Churches, in particular, are very good at evoking emotions and creating emotional bonds between people in that community setting. The entire faith is predicated on an emotional attachment to a common idea and mental image of Jesus.
Throughout this region of the south spring and summer are the seasons for revival in many churches. My cynical side also tells me that these revivals are also intended to offset the diminished flow of offerings, gifts and tithes due to the exodus of the church goers heading off on vacation.
Nevertheless, without strong emotional bonds to the god idea, the corporate life of a community and religious culture, christianity would never remain viable. Christianity cannot survive when plunged into the wash of logic, dispassionate reason and scholarship.
In an article titled: “Flaws in Reasoning and Arguments: Confirmation Bias~Selective Use of Evidence to Support Our Beliefs” Austin Cline writes:
“The confirmation bias is perhaps worse than most because it actively keeps us from arriving at the truth and allows us to wallow in comforting falsehood and nonsense. This bias also tends to work closely with other biases and prejudices; the more emotionally involved we are with a belief the more likely it is that we will manage to ignore whatever facts or arguments might tend to undermine it.”
My god idea was bound together with my own emotions. Like millions of others, I languished under a confirmation bias concerning the god idea which was held in place by an emotional cementing to my past, my hurts, my fears and those whom I had trusted.
Few things, however, in the human experience can deaden or vacate emotion like depression can.
I never saw my clinical depression coming and I didn’t know what it was until I was diagnosed. All I knew was that I had changed. I wasn’t sure if it was for better or for worse but I was slowly becoming a different person.
If it can be said that there was ever a benefit to depression it is that when all emotions appear to die, when love has become abstract, when good and bad seem equal in estimation, it is much easier to dispassionately reason and re-examine relationships, oneself and ones beliefs.
Since their inception, my theistic ideas, that is, my beliefs about god, were all based on emotions. I willingly supported christian teachings and church speak which would affirm my feelings but somehow always ran counter to what I truly believed to be True.
I believed in a god so as not to disappoint others or separate myself from a community of people from whom I had found acceptance and support. My identity was that of a christian and christians believed in the god of Jesus.
To varying degrees I allowed certain people to exploit my feelings of guilt, of shame and of fear. Later I realized that the strength of religion is in its power to control people through whatever emotional hook can be set into the minds and lives of its adherents.
As my depression deepened the only things that I found moved the needle of my feelings were my trustworthy and constant comforters of music, sex, frequent and copious dosings of red wine with the occasional bowl of good weed (yes, I would like some Indica please).
All other things, including my religion, failed to restore the nubilous sense of happiness that I believed I had once possessed.
Throughout this darkness I sought solace and hope in the conception of god that had formulated in my mind for decades but found none.
While I won’t stray far into deeply personal and intimate matters, I will tell you that I took stock of my marriage and learned that it had become as thin and shallow as had the idea of god. I wasn’t happy in it. I no longer felt love for my wife and despite some efforts to work through this I knew that for all intents and purposes that our marriage of over twenty years was over. Our marriage had been grounded in certain religious tenets and I had been foolish enough to believe that those canons were sufficient to hold it together even with a lack of nurture. Apart from our daughters and our shared god idea there was nothing to hold it together.
I left the marriage long before it was over. In my wake, I left the mother of my daughters in pain and bewilderment. Even so, with the numbing effect of depression, I felt no remorse or regret. Depression stupefies not only ones own ability to feel anything but also desensitizes the sufferer to the feelings of others. Empathy and compassion simply become empty words.
By this time I had not only searched for light, life and relief in other religions and philosophies but found my own ideas about god less tenable than ever. As I read religious books and texts, including that of my own particular faith, I began to notice inconsistencies in logic, errors and contradictions. Unlike the questions of my youth I wasn’t finding satisfactory answers to these problems. The historical, geographical, anthropological and archeological inaccuracies indicated to me that something was wrong, very wrong, with every religious teaching that I had been exposed to.
Even so I pressed on.
Then came the moment.
I sat down at the dining room table and placed a bible in front of me. With all of the open mindedness and all of the open heartedness that I could give it, I decided that I would begin at the book of Genesis and read all the way through the bible in the hope that somewhere along the way everything that had melted away within me and around me would be rediscovered and recovered in that journey.
I was no stranger to the bible. I knew where things were located and had a good working knowledge of the book and its contents but I thought that somewhere along the way I must have missed the solution to this inner barrenness.
I began reading and I never got past Genesis chapter three.
As a child I was taught about the character of the judeo-christian idea of god. That is, god was all-powerful, all knowing, all wise, holy and present everywhere at every moment. I remember singing songs in that Methodist church about how god was loving and caring, merciful, redemptive and gracious.
Yet for the first time in my life, right there in that dining room, I saw the Truth about that idea of god.
According to the legend, Genesis chapter three describes what theologians call the fall of man. This means that this was the event where humanity fell out of favor and close fellowship with god and where sin, evil, sickness, curses and death sprang forth into the world.
Just as it happened to the little boy of seven or eight years old the questions leapt into the forefront of my mind.
The answers were obvious. This time it was without the benefit of clergy.
All of this was the contrivance of humans.
Perhaps it wasn’t the intent of the author but it was clear that the fall was a complete set up by the god character in the story.
An all knowing god knew what choice would be made by the man and the woman. The all knowing god knew what the consequences would be. The all powerful god, accountable to no one and mysterious to all, could have begun the story an entirely different way.
And yet, the god character allowed suffering, evil, death, violence and sickness to unfold without the slightest merciful or loving gesture of preemption. The bible teaches that this god character knows everything throughout eternity and had formulated a plan of redemption since before the foundation of the world was laid.
Why even put a tree in the garden in the first place? How can a good choice be made when the implications of death weren’t given to the humans? How could Adam and Eve know what death was when death hadn’t been manifest? Perhaps man had a free will but the fix was in even before he could make a choice which was best for him. The god character had not been completely forthright and had set up mankind in such a way as to fail. And fail they did. The god character made damn sure of it.
When I closed my eyes I recalled the plan of redemption taught to me by vacation bible school teachers where it is said that Jesus, god in the flesh, died for sinners, those separated from god because of the sin that Adam and Eve had committed. Jesus was the one to bear the punishment for that act of disobedience as well as for my own.
Why would god hold me guilty for something that I didn’t even do? Why couldn’t an all wise and all holy god simply have proclaimed a divine decree of forgiveness for mankind and then gotten to work to help man overcome the problem of ‘sin’ and evil in the world? Why the suffering? Why the blood? Why the damn whacky plan to commit suicide by Roman soldier?
There was only one answer to all of these questions.
I opened my eyes, exhaled and heard myself say “This is all bullshit. There is no god. There is no Jesus. All of this was made up.”
For the first time in a long time a wave of clarity washed over me. My own personhood began to reemerge. Immediately the world began to make better sense when I realized the difference between reality and the religious delusions.
I was free.
I was free but I didn’t have a clue where I was supposed to go from here.
The final resolution of the god idea came easy for me. It was everything else in my life which would prove to be difficult.
Leaving ones faith is not an easy decision. For many it is costly. In fact, I know many atheists, in the pulpit and in the pew, who simply cannot bear the cost of leaving their faith. I understand their position. I sympathize with their feelings of hypocrisy, of inauthenticity and the darkness and inner betrayal which comes with living a charade of faith.
For the first few months of liberation I found myself to be an extremely angry man. Even to this day my atheist anger flares on occasion. I wasn’t, and am not, angry at a god or, necessarily, at the people who are still bound and held captive in theism. How can I be angry at a fictitious character in a book? It would be as if I were pissed off at the Cat in the Hat. The only reason that I get angry at religious people is because that they are living their lives in a manner which is FAR short of where they could be if they weren’t bound by their god idea. Moreover, it is even more provocative when those sorts seek to impose their religious rules and worldview on an otherwise happy, moral and peaceful humanity. Live and let live. Live your life according to your own rules but give room for others to live their lives in the way that they choose to live it. Human peace, love, charity, compassion, sharing, selflessness and grace are all which are needed to bring about the world that we all desire.
My anger was and is, in part, directed at myself. I bought into the bullshit of the god idea and in that I had forsaken myself in order to be what I thought others wanted me to be. I betrayed myself. For a space of precious life I had denied myself the joys of life for the sake of the regard of others.
During the darkest days of the depression I remember looking into the mirror with shame and asking myself the question where had I gone? Where was Jay? Where had that kid from a small town in Michigan gone? Where did YOU go, man?
It had been a long, long time since I had been honest with myself and I was angry about that. That long time had been time wasted playing a role. I wanted to be accepted, comforted and loved and had found all of that in the community of christians but, for quite some time, couldn’t intellectually buy into the teachings of that community. Had I put my real self out there in that community I would have no longer been a part of that community. The expectations were too high and too stringent.
I just wanted to be me again. I wanted to know the uncomplicated joys of life again. Now, with the peaceful extinguishment of the god idea I had come full circle.
The best experiences of my life had nothing to do with the idea of god. The idea of god did nothing to improve the quality of my life. I can make a strong case that the god idea, in fact, robbed me of the joys of life and living the human experience to the fullest.
Now? Now I live life to its brutal, carnal, sweet, soft and realistic fullness.
I do not fear death. I didn’t know what it was to live before I became self aware and it is to that state that I, you, and all, will return when life as we experience is over. Those whom I have loved and have died are gone. They live no more. I am grateful for being able to share a portion of their lives and they of my own life.
Think damn it. Sober up.
How would you regard others if you knew that this is the only opportunity that you will ever have to see, touch, taste, hear or feel them?
Is there something that your god idea dictates that you cannot enjoy or experience? What does your own curiosity and desire tell you?
Yes, there are consequences to your actions but consider well the regrets of not experiencing something versus denying yourself the chance of experiencing it.
Your life is yours and yours alone. How will you live it?
Will you live it according to the rules of a religion and a god idea or on your own terms?
You only get this one shot at living here and now. Don’t waste it for the sake of a religious story, fable and legend.
This is what happened.
My life is better than it has ever been.
A godless life is one of infinite possibilities and pleasures.
May all peace and mortal and carnal joys be yours.