TheWarfareIsMental (TWIM) reflects the mental warfare of an author, screenwriter, publisher and member of the Writer’s Guild of America. Family, friends, health, humor, art, music, science, faith, fun and knowledge are some of the things that are important to me.
I suppose the most logical starting point would be with the fact that I’m not an atheist, but you probably had that much figured out by now. It’s not because I think atheists can’t be moral, or because I think that atheists can’t lead happy, fulfilled, meaningful lives. It’s not because I think atheists secretly believe in God and are just lying to themselves, or because I think atheists are just mad at God. It’s not because I think atheism is un-American, or because I think all atheists are liberal commies, or because I’ve got axes to grind with science and evolution. It’s not because I was raised religious. It’s not because I was persuaded by intelligent design or Kalam or the ontological argument. These are all reasons I’ve actually heard people offer for their denial of atheism, and–excepting persuasion by argument–I would consider each of them wrong reasons.
No single word can accurately summarize my belief system, so I apologize to those who feel more comfortable with labels. Somebody might object: “But cl, if we don’t know what the other person believes, it’s easy to make all sorts of faulty assumptions!” I agree! That’s why I discourage assumptions, generally. It’s not the other person’s responsibility to explain each and every nuance of their particular belief system so we don’t mess up; it’s our responsibility to avoid making assumptions and ask the other person if they actually believe what we think they believe before judging them accordingly. Sure, the rational path requires more effort, but do we want to talk past each other indefinitely, or achieve some kind of common ground? Besides, even if somebody labels themselves Christian or Catholic or Buddhist or Sikh or Mormon or Atheist or Aquarian or whatever, so what? Faulty assumptions can be made just as easily with any, all, or none of those labels. That’s the primary reason I try to avoid them, but there are other reasons, too.
What if no single label fits a person squarely? What if somebody isn’t exactly sure what they believe, or if their belief system borrows from a range of religious, philosophical, and scientific ideas? Don’t get me wrong: labeling and classification are great for enabling categorical comparisons, but for me, the whole point of freethought is to think beyond categories.
Consider your average internet (a)theist discussion: Believer A shows up on atheist website B and leaves some comment C that falls anywhere between Cro-magnon man and Stephen Hawking on the intelligence scale. Atheist commenters D – Z then proceed to accost believer A anywhere from Bill Cosby to Sam Kinison on the respect scale, each according to their own ideas of what A’s belief system logically entails. The problem is, say we have at minimum an atheist who’s been sexually abused by a priest, an atheist who was once a passionate believer, and an 18-year-old atheist who argues like he’s reading The God Delusion for his first time while taking bong rips and watching South Park. Each of these three atheists are almost certain to have different interpretations of believer A’s position, not to mention different motivations for engaging believer A in the first place. How is this not a recipe for disaster?
I realize that explaining my distaste for labels doesn’t help the reader understand what I believe, so, what exactly do I believe?
Like the Theosophist, I believe that no religion is higher than truth. I believe there is an important difference between belief and knowledge, so you could say that agnosticism also has its place in my belief system. I agree with deists that the divine qualities are deducible from the world. I believe there is a most-high God ala the Bible, so in that sense, you might consider me a monotheist. Though I do not consider them worthy of worship, I also believe that an entire pantheon of lesser spiritual entities exists, which starts to sound something like polytheism, or more accurately, henotheism. Like many Buddhists, I believe that humans would generally do well to eliminate tanha, and I affirm the wisdom of the Holy Eightfold Path. I believe in an afterlife, and I believe that consciousness can exist without a material body. I believe in libertarian free will and that we can be held ultimately morally responsible for our choices. I reject the philosophies of materialism and epiphenomenalism. I believe that the Bible contains divine revelation, I believe that what the Bible describes as sin is real, and I believe in Jesus Christ crucified and risen by the power of God. I believe that salvation is a gift from God, attained only by grace. These last few affirmations are obviously basic Christian tenets. However, this is where I would echo my concern about labels.
Unlike most Christians, I believe the Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, not eternal torment. Unlike many Christians, I do not believe that those who’ve never heard of Jesus automatically go to hell. Unlike some Christians, I do not believe that everybody receives eternal life. Unlike many Christians, I accept the truths of many other religions and do not reject them categorically. Unlike many Christians, I am enthusiastic about and respectful of science. Unlike many Christians, I believe the church is guilty of a colossal failure with respect to its treatment of homosexuals. Unlike many Christians, I do not align myself with any political party. Hopefully now you understand why I’m hesitant to label myself a Christian.
Now that I’ve shared a bit of what I believe, I’d like to shift the focus to how I got there.
In my experience, most people acquire their religious beliefs from their parents or their culture, but neither my parents nor the culture I grew up in were religious. I recall that my grandmother attended an informal Bible study when I was young, but nobody in the family attended “Sunday church,” if you know what I mean. As far as I recall, my first visit to that kind of church came at the behest of a former girlfriend, and I’m really not sure why I went at all.
Her family attended what’s called a “Foursquare” church, and it all started one day when she invited me to check out the youth group. At the time, we were freshman in high school, and I had already developed that sense of independence typical of the age. Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly impressed with certain aspects of youth group! Still, as the “youth pastor” spoke, I couldn’t deny that some of what he said required no explaining and contained the ring of truth. There was no denying that despite great joys, ours is indeed a fallen world, and that each of us contribute to this condition through types of behavior the Bible denotes as sin.
I attended youth group with my girlfriend a few more times, but quickly tired. To me, the various side activities were distractions from the search for truth. I didn’t see the use in spending the night with 20 other kids whom I didn’t really know, wasting time on G-rated recreational activities just because we were all ostensibly of the same ideological creed. On the one hand, I knew I believed in some of what the youth pastor was telling me, but on the other, much of what I saw in church seemed to bear little import to life’s real questions. I didn’t want slumber parties locked in church with doughnuts and games; I wanted to know who I was, how I got here, and where I was going–and I wanted the answers to make sense.
After I expressed to my girlfriend that I had no further interest in youth group, she suggested that we start attending the regular Sunday service for adults. I agreed. At first glance, I liked “Sunday church” better, if nothing else because the “adult pastor” didn’t dumb down his messages. Don’t get me wrong, “adult” church has its own distractions like the revivals and the getaways and all that stuff, but in my experience, the conversation in grown-up church makes better effort at addressing life’s questions.
So, after a few months of procrastination, one Sunday morning, I ended up believing. By believing I mean used my volition to acknowledge and accept the fact that I was a sinner, and that nothing other than the grace of God could ever possibly hope to address that. I then used my volition to consciously acknowledge a need to accept Christ’s provision and conform to God’s will the best I knew how. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t fall backwards on the floor and start speaking in tongues. I’m not one of those people who was persuaded by a miracle. When I asked God to repair my wristwatch, nothing happened. Similarly, the next day, life was pretty normal.
And here we are.