Where i’m coming from

I recently came across this letter that i wrote to God in January 2006 in one of my attempts to rekindle my faith. I think it had been one of my new years resolutions that year to go to church and read my bible and be A Good Christian again.

It’s clear how confused i was, and how much i wanted to believe, even though i had so many doubts. Nothing made sense to me, but i was somehow sure there was some kind of a god or spirit out there, and i obviously really cared about not offending that being.

I want to post it now, so that you can see where i’ve come from, and why i’m so much happier now that i’ve given up worrying about all this stuff!

Hello God. I’ve been missing you. You know I spent last year pretty much ignoring you, or just being indifferent towards you. I was confused and didn’t know what I believed, so I just chose to ignore you and religion most of the time. And then I was thinking, there’s something missing in my life, and I made a wild guess that perhaps it was you. Well I’ve got so much to be thankful for, and I really have a good life: I’ve got a job that I enjoy (most of the time) and pays me well, I live in a beautiful city and have pretty much everything I need, plus a wonderful partner to share it all with. So if everything’s so good, why do I feel so sad and empty a lot of the time? Is it that ‘God-shaped hole’ that people talk about?

So I thought I’d go back to church again, I’d read my Bible again, I’d pray again. And I mean proper prayers, not my indifferent sort of prayers where I didn’t really care whether you were listening or not. I thought it was time I started up a proper friendship with you again and got to know you like I knew you when I was little. Only I’m not sure whether I ever did, or whether I was just convincing myself. It’s hard to know for certain, you see.

And now I find, you’re not where I left you. You’ve gone somewhere else and I can’t find you where I thought you’d be. Well to tell the truth, I can’t go back to where I used to be. I’ve changed. My childhood beliefs were all based on what other people had told me, and me taking their word for it. I can’t do that anymore, God. Different people say different things, and I don’t know who to believe. Who’s right, who’s wrong? Or is it all relative? Maybe everyone’s right, in their own way. Maybe it’s only with the combination of every belief that we get the full picture. I suspect that any individual view is probably a distorted picture of you …

Can we ever know you completely, or are you un-knowable and un-fathomable? Are you external, somewhere up there looking over us, or are you internal, the still small voice in my heart? Maybe you’re my sub-conscience, or maybe my super-conscience? Are you one God, are you a trinity, or are you many? Could you be different things to different people? Is it up to everyone to find their own truth? Is the truth within us, or can we only access you in one way? Did Jesus have all the answers, or was Mohammed right? Did the Buddha really find enlightenment? Is Jesus really the only way to the Father, like he said?

What if I don’t believe in heaven? Can I still be a Christian if I find that reincarnation seems a more probable theory? Or maybe we’re just deluding ourselves, and we just die and that’s it, game over. Well, that seems unlikely, I like to think that some part of us lives on … but hey, can I just say I don’t know? Shall we just wait and see? Do I have to have any particular belief?

Will I ever know the truth with absolute certainty? Or do I just have to have ‘faith’? What if blind faith just isn’t cutting it for me at the moment? Can’t I find some answers somewhere? Yet if I do, how can I know that I can trust those answers?

Is the Bible as meaningful to us today as it was when it was written? Should it be updated and re-interpreted to fit today’s world, or does it remain the same for all eternity? Do you have a new word to bring to us today, or is the new word actually just the old word, heard in a new way?

Is there such a thing as a Holy Spirit? Does the Holy Spirit fill me? Has it ever done, or did I just imagine it? Could it have been wishful thinking, getting carried away in the excitement and emotion? If someone prays for the Holy Spirit to fill me, and it doesn’t feel like anything is happening, is that my fault? Am I too cynical, is that what’s preventing me from coming near to you? It’s hard to trust you when I’m feeling so uncertain.

Do you love me at all times, or are there times when you can’t bear to look at me because I’m so sinful? Do I have to earn your favour? Do I have to repent and receive forginevess? Will I be cut off from your love until I do that? Or can I come just as I am to worship you?

Will you help me to be a better person? I don’t really like myself very much at the moment. I want to be a better person, and I’ll do my best to change and become more loving, more tolerating more accepting … and less STRESSED!!! I’d really appreciate your help, if you’d like to help me. But you’ll have to speak a bit louder, God, cos at the moment I honestly just feel like I’m talking to myself. Still, I’m here and I’m willing for you to take me, break me and re-make me, if that’s what you want to do. It’s okay with me.

I’ll try to listen more carefully. Maybe I’m saying “Quiet Lord, thy servant is speaking” when I should be saying “Speak Lord, thy servant is listening”. I’ll make an effort, I promise. We’ll have some quiet time together today, how’s that?

Just let me know, yeah? Just give me a sign or something. Or until you do, I’ll just keep going to church and doing the things that I think might awaken me to you again. At least I know that I want to know you again. Last night I was crying because it felt like you’d abandoned me. But then I thought that’s a good thing – at least I’m showing some sort of emotion, which I guess is better than indifference. I’m coming back to you, God, and I hope you’ll find me.

With love,
aimee
January 2006

I can tell that i was heavily influenced by Sara Groves at that time, an artist who i still appreciate. I had also clearly been reading some of the “Conversations With God” books by Neale Donald Walsch books. I’ve no idea why i found reincarnation particularly plausible just then!

Needless to say, i never did really find God again, although i tried hard a few times after this. I even decided at one point to deliberately suspend all rational belief in order to have the blind faith that i thought i needed. It’s funny what cognitive dissonance can do to us, isn’t it?

This explains why i am so passionate about science, reasoning and rational thought these days. That is the place i find true comfort; that’s where things make sense to me.

For more about my current thoughts and beliefs, see:

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The human brain and its tendency to believe irrational things

The last two interviews on the Angry Atheist podcast have got me thinking a lot about whether the human brain is predisposed to believe in religion, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, etc.

Firstly Craig James, author of The Religion Virus, talked about religion in terms of evolution, explaining how religions have adapted and progressed, and the strongest strains survive because of their ability to take hold in our brains. Our brains are the ecosphere in which these ideas live. Craig explained that the ideas that survive are the ones that appeal to us (someone is looking out for us, you’ll get to meet your dead relatives in heaven and be happy forever) as well as things that people are afraid of (fear of making God angry, eternity in hell, for example).

It made me start to wonder: what has atheism really got to offer? There’s no attractive warm fluffy appeal or fear factor to make it stick in people’s head. I guess it only really appeals on an intellectual level. Craig mentioned that most people don’t tend to continue to believe something once they realise that it’s not right, which could be an advantage for atheism. It also means that the anti-gay churches are going to struggle in the future as more and more people are realising that homophobia is not right. Those churches will either need to adapt or die.

The other interview was with DPRJones, youtube broadcaster and host of The Magic Sandwich chat show. Part of what DPRJones talked about was the question of why people buy into religion. A lot of it comes down to how we are brought up, which is interesting, but more interesting for me is the connection to the evolution of the human brain.

Homo Sapiens are very good communicators, and we understand that the evolution of large frontal lobes has something to do with that. DPRJones points out that we have the advantage of being able to imagine conversations with people before we have them. We can also imagine conversations with people who are dead, or don’t even exist. 50% of 4-year-olds have an imaginary friend who they talk to. It’s no wonder that, when children are told there is a God they can’t see who cares about them, they accept it without question. DPRJones also mentioned that 9-year-olds questioned about dead animals mostly had the notion that the animal, while it no longer needs food or drink, still has desires of some sort. It seems natural for us to believe in life continuing after death.

I’ve read similar ideas before. Richard Dawkins explains some elements of religion as a by-products of evolution. For example, most of us are inclined to obey authority. It is an evolutionary advantage for us, when told not to do dangerous things, to obey. Disobedience sometimes causes death. This evolutionary advantage “misfires” when we feel we must please and obey a God, much like moths who fly towards artificial lights because they evolved to navigate by the light of the moon.

These things help me to understand why i so naturally believed that Christianity was right, and why some of my beliefs continue to persist unnecessarily. If something goes wrong, my first thought is still to wonder if i’m being “punished” by God for some wrongdoing, until i remember that it’s an irrational thing to believe and then i feel liberated to find a solution to the problem.

Sometimes i still wonder though, whether i am really any better off now as a non-believer than i was as a believer. I still suffer the common faults in human thought patterns. I am not free of confirmation bias, of self-consistency bias, of herd mentality, of assuming that i am right. Isn’t it funny that everyone, no matter what they believe, thinks that they are right? Even when writing this post, i’ve had to try to stop myself from implying that atheism is the obvious conclusion to logical thought. I can picture myself ten years ago and know that i definitely would not have agreed!

I don’t think i believe in anything irrational now, but i only need to follow the patterns of the human psyche and extrapolate to realise that i probably do. It scares me that i have no idea what those things are.

Quick update on my coming out

I mentioned it on twitter, but for the benefit of those who didn’t see …

I traveled to visit my parents today. It was a bit of a surprise for them, heheh! I said i had something to tell them.

I sat down with my dad and stepmum and told them i am an atheist. I explained pretty much the entire contents of my letter that i wrote earlier (that was my preparation to decide what i wanted to say).

They took it extremely well. They listened calmly and kindly. They did not try to change my mind. The only cringeworthy bit was my dad saying, “Even if you don’t believe in God, God still believes in you!”

They both seemed to appreciate my honesty in telling them, and agreed that it’s better that i should admit my lack of belief, rather than try to force myself to believe something that doesn’t make sense to me.

I was even asked, “So what is humanism?” and i think i answered it well.

I have a new respect for my parents, and a sense of relief in myself. Suddenly being an atheist doesn’t seem like a big thing anymore. It’s not something i have to hide or feel ashamed of. It just a word that describes something about me.

I think this will change how i view my non-belief. It’s as if … previously i was christian by default and constantly fighting that: “No! No! I’m not a christian! I am an atheist!” Somehow i feel i can go forwards from this point accepting that my atheism is normal for me.

Thanks to everyone who has given me support and encouragement in this!

A letter to my dad

Dear Dad,

I like to think we’ve always been a pretty honest family; we tend to share our thoughts and feelings with each other and don’t keep much hidden. I’m not very good at keeping secrets; i prefer to talk about things, even if i know those things aren’t what you want to hear, or if those things could cause us pain.

I’ve been keeping a secret from you for a few years, and i don’t want to anymore. I think you might have guessed, or suspected. You know i don’t go to church anymore, and you know i love to learn about science. We don’t tend to talk a lot about religion anymore. Maybe i avoid the subject when it comes up, or maybe you don’t ask because you think you might not want to hear my answer.

I am an atheist. I don’t know for a fact that God doesn’t exist – for all i know maybe there is a God. I will happily say i don’t know. However, with the lack of any reasonable evidence i have concluded that, even though i don’t know for sure, i believe it’s unlikely. Hence i don’t believe in God. I certainly do not believe in a God who takes an ongoing interest in human life on planet Earth, a God who can be offended by what we do, a God who is perfect and omnipotent but is unable to forgive sin without sending a son to be brutally murdered.

The stories of Christianity stopped making sense to me long before i gave up my faith. I actually stopped believing in the devil years before i stopped believing in God. Looking back at them now, they seem like curious mystical stories, almost as unbelievable to me as any of the mythological stories of other religions. The only reason Christian stories have any resonance with me now is because i was brought up to believe them. I believed them because you did, and it was unfathomable to me that you could be wrong.

I want you to know that i am happy in my unbelief. I have found comfort in science, in fact, logic and reason. I have found explanations that do away with the need for a God to explain the things we can’t understand. God of the gaps has shrunk and become so small as the gaps have been replaced by science that i am happy to do away with God altogether. Even though there are things i still don’t know, like “What caused the big bang?” I am happy to say “I don’t know”. I don’t need to conclude that “God did it!” and anyway that would still leave me with further questions. If the universe needed a creator, and God was that creator, then God must have needed a creator too. You’ll tell me that God was outside of time and has always existed, but that’s not a good enough answer. I would rather stick to “I don’t know”.

There are things about church that i miss. I miss collective worship. I went back to church at one point for the music; i loved the feeling of singing together, and the moving effect of music. I tried to join the band there but they wouldn’t let me because they sensed my doubt.

I miss the feeling of community. As a Christian you automatically have friends who care for you and look out for you. I missed it so much that i created my own community: i started a Humanist group in Winchester. I have made good friends who meet on a monthly basis for tea and a chat. We keep in touch through email and text message, and on twitter. We meet up individually for coffee and have meals at each others houses sometimes. We recognise that morality doesn’t just come from religion, nor from law. I believe most human beings are basically good people automatically, capable of making up their own minds about what is right and wrong.

I guess i’m telling you this because i want you to be proud of me for who i am. I haven’t told you for so long because i am afraid of your disappointment. I told myself that you didn’t need to know, that it would just upset you, that it would cause you to waste your time praying for me to be converted back. But these were just excuses.

If your faith is as strong as i think it is, you will believe that i am going to end up in hell and it is your responsibility to do everything you can to save me. That’s hard, i know. I wish you could just let me take my own responsibility for that, but i know you can’t. I appreciate that you love me so much that you’ll want to save me from what you perceive as my certain doom. I can’t expect you not to try.

My personal belief is that when i die the most likely thing that happens is that i will simply cease to exist and have no consciousness. That doesn’t upset me at all, just as it doesn’t upset me that i had no consciousness before my birth. All it does is makes me more eager to enjoy this one life that by some remarkable fluke of probability i have the pleasure of experiencing. It leads me to want to make the world a better place than it currently is. I would love to leave this world better than i found it, and i know i only have a limited time in which to make my mark.

These days, i’m just being true to myself. I believe in things that make sense to me. I can’t force myself to believe there is a God and an afterlife when i think it’s very unlikely. I tried that for a while – i tried to take on trust the things that other people told me, but it didn’t work for long. In the end it just made my beliefs more shaky, so that once i doubted one thing, the rest just came tumbling down.

I love you and i respect you and i hope we remain close as a family, maybe becoming closer than before now that i have been able to be honest with you.

aimee xxx