While I was growing up I considered myself to be a dedicated Christian. I attended a conservative Lutheran church which appeared privately opposed to abortion and homosexuality, but appreciative of a scientific setting and a historically accurate study of the bible. I didn’t feel my beliefs were radical, but that they were righteous and following Christ’s teachings wasn’t just the path to salvation but also an exemplary way to live your life.
This article attempts to describe my recent spiritual journey. It starts several years ago when I began to feel some discord between the morality of the bible and my own moral compass. These issues were difficult to investigate because I was heavily invested in my biblical-beliefs. I tried to repress my doubts but soon ran into more difficulties; this time being unable to reconcile my religious upbringing with my budding understanding of the natural world. I also became aware of works by Christian and secular historians who questioned the historical accuracy of the bible. Finally while studying with a Jehovah’s Witness I became increasingly sceptical of the methods and integrity of the Protestant churches.
I really started critically analysing my beliefs the year after I finished high school. At the time I was definitely a believer, witnessing to my unsaved friends and colleagues, attending church and bible studies, praying and finding strength in my faith.
Towards the end of the year it became an increasing struggle to reconcile some of the things in the bible with my own moral compass. It began with some issues I had with certain teachings in the old book which I thought sounded nationalistic, racist or homophobic. Such narrow-mindedness sounded more like the product of feuding desert tribes rather than the wisdom of a benevolent creator. It seemed plausible that ancient communities could harbour such ideas — discrimination is not unheard of among humans. While the new testament is an improvement it started to unsettle me that Jesus didn’t speak out about issues such as slavery (1,2,3), woman’s rights(1,2) or racism. It didn’t seem befitting that the prince of peace would take such a lousy stance on these human rights issues.
Then, for almost a year I called off my search. I had too much riding on it. There had been times while I was growing up that I was presented with what I considered irrefutable evidence that god existed. I’d felt the holy spirit, I knew of the deep spiritual energy that can come during worship and the serenity and peace of mind that can come during prayer or quite times of reflection. I had also been given books, attended camps, and received an education which confirmed that the bible’s recount of the life of Jesus was historically accurate and scientifically agreeable.
A Scientific Tangent
Sometime after I began my hiatus I started studying science at uni. As I studied I started pondering new questions that the bible didn’t cover. For example, if life is sacred, how should we treat viruses? Are they even alive (it’s debated among biologists and depends on your definition of living). It’s now possible to completely map out every component of a virus, draw a model of all of the molecules and talk about how it functions. They’re nothing more than a bunch of atoms, and outside of a cell they don’t appear to be alive. You could argue that outside of a cell a virus has more in common with how a rock functions than how a living cell functions. So, are they sacred?
In the field of nanotechnology there are scientists who are using viruses as a scaffold on which they imbed their own customised tools. Is that ethical? What if they were to build their own “virus” from the ground up? They’re already using molecular self-assembly to create their own biological machinery, what line do they have to cross before they’ve created life?
The argument can be broken down further if we consider the humble prion. It’s nothing more than a simple protein, a string of amino-acids. Yet, when put in the right place it can cause devastating disease. It seemed clear to me that an independent string of amino-acids that happens to have a biological function shouldn’t be classified as alive and it doesn’t have a soul. But it’s a dangerous precedent. At what point is life deemed significantly sophisticated that it becomes sacred and gets a soul?
In hindsight, it’s obvious: souls are simply in the realm of the make-believe. This revelation doesn’t make someone amoral, outside the shelter of the church exist great works by philosophers and ethicists. In bioethics we were encouraged to consider a reverence for life in all of its forms. Albert Schweitzer talked about giving recognition to the awe felt when life begins and the importance of respecting each organism’s inherent will to live. Life is extraordinary, we should treat it as such.
There were plenty of other scientific topics which helped me to start thinking differently. Genomics, speciation, ethical animal treatment, transgender/intergender, abiogenesis, the symbiotic origin of mitochondria, and the developmental, genetic(2) and physical evidence supporting evolution are all interesting subjects which are addressed very poorly in the bible. For most of the questions that I was asking I was able to defend my faith. For example, my first thought regarding god’s purpose for prions (which only seem to cause illness) is still that prions either didn’t exist or weren’t harmful before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. Similarly, I’d always been able to reconcile evolution with my faith by telling myself “god could’ve put all of the pieces in place on earth and then overseen evolution”. Every time I made such allowances, my faith felt more and more like intellectual dishonesty.
I’ve just given an overview of some of the issues that made me unsubscribe, however once I started looking for opinions independently from the church I found there were vast differences to what I’d learnt in sunday school. I’d been indoctrinated to believe that the bible’s canon was a heavily guarded document which remained unchanged over time and that the teachings of “the church” were supported by biblical historians. I still have friends who believe that the Gospels are eye witness accounts written by the disciples. These views are simply not supported by the majority of academics (iTunes link).
Perhaps though, one of the best exercises I undertook in critically analysing my former beliefs took place well after I became an agnostic atheist. Early one Saturday morning I answered a knock on the door from a friendly Jehovah’s Witness. I gave him the time of day, and as a result ended up studying with him over several months. I attended his Kingdom Hall on several occasions, visited his home, shared meals, but most of the time we just read the bible and debated theology.
The JWs are an interesting bunch, they’ve more or less repeated Luther’s process of deconstructing the dogma and getting back to the original meaning of the texts. I appreciate the honesty and scriptural backing to their approach. Of course there are also aspects to their group that I wasn’t so fond of; they are ‘more cultish’ than the other denominations in that all members are expected to pull their beliefs into line with the established teachings and they’re discouraged from having friendships outside of their community.
Anyway, it was a powerful experience, many of the traditions were different and I found myself questioning some things I’d always considered normal. For example, the songs they played in their services were fairly mellow. This made me reflect on the hillsongs played at my former church (that I still find myself humming from time to time). I recalled the incessant drone and the manner in which Lutherans repeat the chorus, repeat the chorus, repeat the chorus, repeat the last line, repeat the last line, repeat-repeat-repeat. When combined with the liturgy of droning in unison, the creed and other groupthink during the service, it’s hardly a discreet attempt at brainwashing. From the outside, there are aspects to the way the service is conducted which appears to assist the faithful in having a heightened emotional response. This behaviour is even more blatant in Pentecostal churches and sickening in the documentary Jesus Camp.
The other attribute that I appreciated in the JW’s was their attempt to practice what they preach. They spent their time going door to door because it was written in the bible. Some members worked part time so that they could dedicate more of their life to ‘storing up riches in heaven’ rather than gathering mere earthly possessions. I could see they were making an effort.
Conversely, I get the impression that there are very few Christians with faith strong enough that they’re willing to put their lifestyle on the line. I cannot reconcile their affluence with the lifestyle promoted by Jesus. In Matthew 19:16-28 Jesus instructs them:
“…go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me… I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” He goes further in Luke 14:26-27,33 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
If you truly believed Christ was God you wouldn’t ignore his message. Go then and give your possessions to the poor and dedicate your whole life to him. I think the truth is that many people don’t follow through on these teachings because their faith is nothing more than a comfortable paradigm which helps them understand existence. While it is not something they honestly and literally believe, it remains the cornerstone of their worldview.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – 1 Corinthians 13:11
These days faith is a very strange concept. Why would I want to trust something without seeking evidence? Why would I believe something which wasn’t supported by evidence? I don’t think my faith was ever really “taken on faith”, and it’s evident in the ministry. The church always tries to support their teachings with some form of evidence. But whenever you seek to rationally support faith it isn’t really faith, its (bad) science. Ultimately, people who have religious beliefs are either intellectually-dishonest, delusional, illogical or uneducated. These attributes aren’t necessarily bad, but I prefer to strive for an honest, rational, logical, educated outlook. Scientific belief is founded on an evolving body of knowledge which changes based on independently verifiable and repeatable results obtained using the scientific method.