You Call Yourself a Christian? (Revised)

This is an edit of my original “coming out” as an Atheist several years ago. Since I have not posted for a while, it seemed appropriate as a sort of “reboot.”

It has become an all too familiar question—How can you call yourself a Christian and x? X is usually something that has positively nothing to do with the Christian religion or with overt behavior could classically be defined as “sin.” No, the “x” is usually something like “and vote for Barack Obama,” or accept that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has held up to immense scrutiny for a 150 years ,” or “propose that maybe removing well-trained, experienced soldiers from duty because they happen to be attracted to members of their own sex.” Of course, all of the above objections are inevitably tied to some conception of an absolute and perfect moral authority, presumably from God. However, this perfect and unchanging authority has proven to be remarkably pliable, not to mention contradictory. It has been used to justify slavery and inspire the abolitionist movement. It has been used to justify misogyny and to tear down racism, held tantamount to patriotism and as justification for civil (and not so civil) disobedience.

And that’s just in the last few centuries. Going back through history, the picture does not get any better. The Catholic Church has only been able to hold itself together by adopting new doctrine and practice every so often, calling into question the notion of a structure that is simultaneously infallible and in need of revision. The Protestants seem to have dispensed with even attempting to reconcile their doctrines, choosing instead to splinter at the slightest hint of disagreement, creating in excess of 30,000, yes, thirty thousand denominations, not counting all of the independent churches with no authority beyond their internal hierarchy. Christians with similar enough beliefs get along well enough at conferences, but it is clear that their respect for doctrines of other Christians, even Christians themselves is directly proportional to the level of agreement on certain points of doctrine, all the while disagreeing as to which doctrines are worth squabbling over–squabbling over squabbling, as it were.

The Hebrew Scriptures are revered as authoritative to the extent that a given passage reinforces a particular notion and ignored as “Old Covenant” when they do not serve the purpose, which, again, calls into question what absolute authority one is appealing to exactly when he claims that no Christian could possible think or say “x.” It only gets harder when one begins to search the doctrines of similar monotheistic religions to find wider disagreement still, despite all claiming to have access to the same universal truth.

All this got me thinking, why does God’s opinion always to match up with the person claiming to speak for him? It seems like something that could be settled objectively, scientifically. If there really is a will of God, why doesn’t anybody seem to be able to demonstrate that they know what it is? Even if it were subjective, like, say the statement that pizza is yummy, shouldn’t most people agree on most issues? Were that politics were so easy! What should we do? What God wants. All in favor? Aye! It’s Unanimous. Let’s go out for pizza and celebrate! But alas, it is not easy.

Likewise, if God inspires superior morality, would not his followers demonstrate superior morality, as defined by their own standards or that of society? It is a hypothesis that has been subjected to rigorous study and polling by believers and secularists alike, and there is no demonstrable, statistical difference between those who attend church regularly and those who do not. Christians are every bit as likely to have been divorced at least once, been drunk or used drugs, to have purchased or viewed pornography, committed adultery—you name it—as anyone else.

No matter what the scripture or doctrine is, people have a nasty tendency to either write scripture that they themselves agree with or, if scripture already exists, to point out the parts that resonate with what they are already thinking. You see, the scriptures do not change people, people change scriptures, either overtly, by writing new ones, or quietly and gradually, but shifting emphasis and attention to whatever point is salient at the time. The reason Ultimate Morality appears to be so elusive is because it is a phantom, held up as some kind of heavenly trump card, “if you disagree with x, you disagree with God, who is right by definition, meaning you are wrong.” This effectively ends all questioning, all exploration and all discussion. But truth cannot be established by fiat. It can only be discovered, which is why universities place so much emphasis on research.

Several years ago,  they day came when I could say with absolute confidence and perfect peace of mind that no one needs to ask how I can call myself a Christian and. . .? Nor did anyone have to substitute any trendy new phrase, like “Christ-Follower,” as if changing the words changes the reality.  I could finally say what I’d thought for quite some time,it just so happens that I’m not a Christian. I’m not “spiritual.” I’m not a “Christ-Follower,” a “seeker” a “believer” a “theist” or even agnostic. I am also not a “Bright,” or a “None,” or a “Darwinist” (which don’t exist, but the way). I could really do without the labels, and I’m not particularly fond of negative labeling—defining people by what they are not instead of by what they are. Nonetheless, I shall dispense with the rhetorical games going forward.

You may notice that the title of my blog changed and is now under the “tokenatheist” url. I am not anti-religious, merely irreligious. I think church is sometimes interesting and sometimes fun, and that spiritual organizations have a big role to play in our society. I am not about to tear them down. My kids like church and they will continue to be a part of a faith community so long as that is their desire. Their mother and I are doing just fine as an inter-“faith” couple. I’m inclined to think Romans 14:16 is pretty good advice for people of all cultures, religions and philosophies. Nonetheless, I grew tired of living in the closet, playing pretend, going through the motions when no part of me accepted the literal existence of any god, devil, angel, ghost, soul, afterlife or disembodied consciousness. I think the Universe is sufficiently wondrous all by itself and life is what we make of it. I also think religion has a place, at its symbols clearly resonate with people, the stories contained therein telling us as much about ourselves as we could hope to gain from psychology textbooks.

Skepticism, the notion that sometimes asking questions is the answer, has affected me in profoundly and positively, something akin, I’m sure, to the religious conversions others have gone through, when they have their own epiphany as to what ultimate truth is for them. I feel liberated. I no longer have to wonder why I don’t fit it any church, why I feel the need to attend a new one every couple of years or why I have always been more comfortable with skeptics than believers. I no longer have to worry about a bad day being a punishment from God or an attack from the Devil. I have found joy and peace and hope and happiness. I found the confidence to go back to college, something I had been unable to do for 14 years because of stress-related breakdowns, and not only pass and graduate, but excel, making Dean’s list or higher every single semester. Perhaps my atheism is a phase, but if so, it’s a pretty long-lived one. I prefer to think of it as the destination after a very long and arduous journey. In my case, it is science that has brought about a more abundant life, and seeing as how it is the only one that I will ever have, I intend to live it to the full. If that means taking an unpopular path, so be it. At least I’ll sleep better, knowing I have the courage of my convictions. My private and public personas will be in agreement. I will continue to seek out ultimate truth, wherever it leads. I encourage everyone do to the same.

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Posted on May 15, 2013, in Who What Why Wednesday and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this post. I am new to your blog, and I hope you will write more often. I was born and raised a Fundamentalist, became concerned about so many “interpretations” of multiple “versions” of the Bible, and therefore I left Protestantism behind and became a Catholic. One church, one interpretation, one core set of doctrines. That is what is good for me on my faith journey. I have many questions as a believer, though. How is it that the same God who allowed slavery & the killing of innocents in war, become a man and then die for our sins? It’s like the God of the OT is prone to anger, while the God of the NT is all love. My husband believes that when God became a man, he understood better just how hard it is to be human, and thus, became “softer”. I doubt I will ever understand this dichotomy. But I continue to be a believer because my belief in a God who loves me so much that he would die for me, is a love I also cannot comprehend. I absolutely understand why an atheist would read the Bible and say WTF, man?

    • Token Atheist

      Thank you for stopping by. Sometimes I think that if I ever did come back to believing, I might be drawn to Catholic or Anglican/Episcopalian theology for the tradition and stability of it all. Of course, the other side of the coin is that such systems of belief maintain stability by having fewer people make the decisions, creating a priestly class that the rest of us simply accept or reject.

      Regarding the apparent change in God’s personality between the old and new testaments, I have read some interesting takes on it over the years. In his book “Beside Still Waters,” Gregg Easterbrook makes the case that God is also on a journey, trying and failing to get through to us by varying means, from wrath to compassion over the course of centuries. I find that intriguing, if God doesn’t know how to best reach us, if he is at all confused about the right course of action, then is he any more worthy of worship than any of us? Are his actions right because he did them or is there some moral standard apart from God that even he must adhere to? Could an omniscient being plausibly lack empathy until he experienced hurt for himself? Why can’t an omnipotent being come up with a better system of communication than vague scripture? The more I ponder it the more it seems that the simplest explanation is that either there is no God. The personalities ascribed to him say more about us that they do about him. Vengeful nomadic tribes describe a vengeful God, while those living in one place describe a peaceful, forgiving one.

  2. Hi Jason, I have been reading Alise’s blog for some time now, but did not know you also blogged until I saw your upcoming joint post on Rachel Held Evans site. Most of my blog roll are written by evangelicals turned agnostic or atheist. You seem to be one of the few to still be attending church (I am inferring, maybe I am wrong?) and have successfully negotiated your deconversion within your marriage. You have now been promoted to person on the internet most like me, so I hope to see you posting more.

    I am curious if you “came out” to your parents, in-laws, and siblings? I know your families may have totally different faith traditions but odds are good if you and Alise come from evangelical or fundamentalist faiths yourselves, that is probably the faith you were raised in. If you did come out to your family, how has that gone?

    My wife knows I am no longer a Christian and we are good, though we do not talk about it much. I am a PK and I know sharing this with my parents would absolutely devastate them. On the other hand, I feel deceitful and hypocritical by not doing so. The same applies to my own children.

    I would be very interested in reading posts about how you have handled this in your own life.

  3. Token Atheist

    Thank you for coming by. I don’t attend church regularly, but I do go for special occasions, and I have no animosity toward Christians or Christianity as a whole. I do like some of the music and I wish there were more places that had group singing like that every week. I even wound up filling in for a drummer on a praise team a couple of months ago. It wasn’ t planned, of course; I was there to see Alise speak and the drummer didn’t make it.
    I never had sit-down coming out conversions with any relatives or friends. My brother asked a lot of questions as he sensed that I was losing my faith, but I wasn’t “out” then so I sidestepped some of them. Most people found out from social media. There have been a couple of uncomfortable moments, but for the most part I feel that I am respected.
    I am starting a series based on questions I get, so I hope to give a more in-depth account of my de-conversion over the coming weeks.

  4. What new doctrine has the Catholic Church adopted? Thanks for answering.

  5. Just curious. How has your non-attending regularly affected your wife’s involvement in her church? If it has had an impact on her, how do you feel about that since you began your marriage as a “couple” who attended church and were able to develop friendships and a social network based on that couple aspect, but now she goes alone and that probably changed the dynamics of how she interacts with those at church, yes? If for some reason she had to find another church to attend, would you attend at least occassionally in the beginning since most churches are geared towards making things revolve around the idea of a husband & wife as a couple?

    Also, you have children, so I assume that if they are not yet teens she can do the typical evangelical “plug into church” via them thing, but since so much of most church life revolves around the “intact nuclear family” with all members being involved, how do you and your wife handle things like small groups–does she go alone to a group that is primarily a couples group where she is not part of a pair nor a single nor a widow, so she is sort of the odd duck, or does she primarily interact with women-ony groups now that you are not attending? Have the two of you given much thought to how you will handle her church involvement as your children move beyond the typical evangelical church programs designed to be attractive to families with young kids?

    • TA asked me to weigh in on this one. The church that I’m involved with now doesn’t have any kind of small group system going on, so it’s not been an issue for me in the past year. But at my previous church, that was one of the difficult things – not being able to hook up with a small group. I attended a women’s study for a while, but the truth is, I like to hear different perspectives rather than all female, so that just never really worked for me very well. And the others all felt weird. I’m not single, but I would attend as a single, which just felt strange.

      I’m involved in church music, and I can’t see that changing regardless of what happens with our children. Right now, some of them attend church with their grandparents, but even that is up to them. I’m not saying that things can never change, but church attendance and involvement is important to me, so I will likely continue in that.

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