Coming of Age – Losing My Religion

16 August 2009 at 11:30 (Uncategorized)

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.

Morality
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.

Virtueless Faith
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.

Moving On
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.

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11 Comments

  1. Jennie said,

    very well done monototo.

  2. Kent said,

    Just curious — what do you think would have happened to your views had you not studied science?

  3. monototo said,

    Thanks Jennie.

    Kent, I’m not sure. The information available though the church was quite blinding for me, my extended family is faithful and letting go involved a lot of vulnerability. For quite some time I felt scared, I could see myself plummeting into an existential crisis. As a result, I was inert, so hopelessly dependant on the system, that I fought to protect it. Learning critical thinking definitely drove me onwards in the right direction, perhaps I wouldn’t have made it without it.

    Someone from an extremely similar background to me made it out about a year before me, while he was still in year 10. He’s not a scientist, he just thought it sounded like a fairy tale and laughed it off. I wish it’d been that easy for me.

    Conversely, in second year microbilogy, our prac supervisor was a creationist. Every week he’d guide our study of the natural selection taking place on our petri dishes. He was quite happy with what he admitted was cognitive dissonance. I’m unsure that even the best critical thinking stands a chance against such intellectual dishonesty.

  4. monototo said,

    I received an email saying I’d been unnecessarily harsh when I asserted that “people who have religious beliefs are either intellectually-dishonest, delusional, illogical or uneducated”.

    I wasn’t trying to be harsh, I just can’t think of a kinder way of putting it. I picked those words carefully and I can’t think of any other possible reasons someone would believe in gods. It is an honest opinion, and while I wasn’t trying to be rude, I don’t feel a great urge to be polite. No idea is sacred; any idea worth anything should be open for criticism. Especially if you indoctrinate little children. (Admittedly I did include some videos which are probably offensive, but that was for comedic relief and to break up the text)

    My previous worldview was dishonest, delusional, illogical and uneducated. In light of the evidence, I think those adjectives are well founded and I’ll stand by them. But I also meant it when I said that those adjectives aren’t necessarily bad. Delusions can provide escape: they allow the mind to explore and the imagination to run freely. The mind of a child is often as deluded as it is beautiful. Being illogical can also be a positive attribute: humans can behave irrationally and having freedom outside of logic may provide useful flexibility in the real world. Being uneducated is also not entirely bad: education is great, but it stifles your ability to see reality unfiltered by another schemata.

    But as I said, I’d prefer an honest, rational, logical, educated outlook.

  5. Ash said,

    Hey Monototo,

    Very impressive body of work here :)

    It really made me think that you have put a lot of thought into this and also made me realise how some people can just go through life and never put a second of thought into their faith.

    I found it really difficult to be a believer when something that felt so right to me and so natural (being gay) ment that i was destined to an after life burning in hell. Nobody who knew that they would be sentenced to an afterlife in hell would ever CHOOSE to be gay!!!! It is not a choice but something that you are born with and feels so right.

    xx

  6. monototo said,

    Thanks Ash, Yes, they’re a funny bunch. Sigh.

  7. Michael said,

    Hi Matthew,

    This is an interesting piece. You have been quite candid about your journey here and the paths you walked. I think it is often difficult to express deeply personal deliberation in such a public forum. I trust it has helped you on your onward journey.

    If I may, let me make a few small comments, not in the matter of rebuttal but merely to continue critical appraisal. First, as a doctor and someone who is highly educated in science and the field of evidence based medicine, I must say that the science expressed in this piece is poor. I understand this is a reflective piece but it lacks substance. The methodology is unclear, the research is superficial and the discussion is heavily biased. The conclusion seems rather emotive and doesn’t seem to add to the current literature. I understand these are your personal reflections but you have appealed to the realm of science throughout.

    May I suggest, if this decision is as critical to you as it seems, that in the style of ‘good science’ you would spend a little more time and effort in your research. It seems that your understanding of Christianity, especially with regards to its history and the Bible, is incredibly shallow. I would be the first to admit that my own understanding is far from scholarly but I consider myself informed. This is a nice piece by John Gray, a past Professor of Politics at Oxford, that I think is worth a read – http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/mar/15/society.

    Finally, as someone who works in the realm of ‘evidence based medicine’ on a daily basis, I am constantly disappointed by what it offers to me as a physician. Most of the ‘evidence’ for what I do is scratchy at best, based on studies done on healthy, ‘white’, populations. As the fields of pharmacogenomics and pharmacogenetics advance it seems more and more clear that one size does not fit all. The advances in science are exciting and I am pleased to work in a role where I see the constant change that comes from innovation and invention. However, this only makes me more acutely aware of how little we know. Science is a wonderful field, which enriches our lives but if we feel it elevates us to ‘god’ status, we are sorely mistaken. Our anthropocentrism and grand scale navel gazing only deny us the great wonder of mystery.

    I hope you can accept the ramblings of a dishonest intellectual ;)

    Kind Regards,

    Michael

    • monototo said,

      Thanks for the critique Michael, you are right, it was difficult to express but I’ve found it very beneficial. It’s most certainly a work in progress and I appreciate your feedback.

      You’re also correct that the science presented in this article is poor. I have an issue with “attacking” religion using science. At their core, religions make some claims which are unable to be tested by science. Therefore I did not set out to scientifically debunk the existence of gods, which is as plausible as disproving Russell’s teapot.

      Instead, this is a diary entry which was intended to document some of the questions and ideas which have helped to shape my current world view. Your suggestion intrigues me though, perhaps I will try to rewrite it with a formal scientific structure – detailing my methodology, removing the emotive pleas and referencing more reputable sources (and the bible). I need to think about this more, but it sounds like it could be worthwhile doing.

      However, I disagree with your claim that, as it stands, this article was produced following superficial research. For starters, I prayed and read about each issue but received no insight from on high – that seems like a fairly solid starting point. I’ve also talked to Christians and watched presentations by Thomas Sheehan and Robert Beckford. Sheehan’s lectures were quite fascinating, he is open about his bias and discusses the opposing views. I’ve linked to his Stanford lecture series (free through iTunes) and highly recommend the course, I can lend you a copy if you’re interested. I’ve also read Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller and over the last few years talked with preachers, my lecturers, tutors and then my psychologist and psychiatrist, all of whom upheld varying beliefs and non-beliefs. That said, I’m always open to new sources of information, if you have any recommendations I’m all ears!

      I’m interested to hear how you came to the conclusion that my understanding of Christianity, especially regarding its history and the Bible are incredibly shallow? I think the only statements I made regarding the history of the bible were that it has been changed over time and that the Gospels aren’t eye witness accounts. I don’t think either claim is unsubstantiated and Sheehan’s lectures address the topic in depth (I also provided several other links validating these claims). These claims are also substantiated in the editorial comments in my own NIV, in the comment before verse 9 of Mark 16 and the introduction to Matthew respectively. The only other statement I recall making regarding the history of Christianity and the bible was in relation to Luther and his reformation, which is common knowledge. Have I missed something? (BTW, I also don’t claim to be a bible historian by any stretch. However, I feel that I’ve spent enough hours reading, listening and studying that I can say that my understanding isn’t “incredibly shallow”).

      I enjoyed reading John Gray’s article. I often think similar things regarding the “new atheists”, they can be somewhat fanatic and abusive of concepts (such as evolution). However, I find it baffling that Gray could write something like “Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism… it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history… There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.

      Hitler has been quoted (mirror) saying, “I know perfectly well that in the scientific sense there is no such thing as race… I as a politician, need a conception which enables the order that has hitherto existed on a historical basis to be abolished, and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis, and for this purpose the conception of race serves me well.

      It wasn’t science that enabled Hitler to promote his hatred, it was the deliberate misrepresentation of science. Meanwhile, Hitler clearly utilised Christianity to fuel his campaign. Luther’s works were distributed by the Nazi’s to support German nationalism and Luther’s ideas regarding Jews receives a mention in Mein Kampf. Have you read ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ by Luther? Gut wrenching stuff which was never mentioned when I attended his fan club.

      But the crux of Gray’s essay seems to be arguing about whether society would be better without religion. I’m honestly not sure. I’m not campaigning here against religion, I don’t mind if people hold superstitious beliefs provided they don’t interfere with others. As I’ve said, I was merely attempting to document how and why I’ve arrived where I have.

      Your final paragraph talks about some of the short comings of science in the field. While it’s true that our scientific understanding is very limited, the benefits of prayer do not appear to be statistically significant, and substituting belief in place of medicine can result in easily avoidable tragedy. As corrupt as modern science may be (with interference from big-business, pharmaceuticals, politics, power, money…), it’s still the best framework that we have for understanding the universe and the literature suggests it continues to trump prayer. That said, I’m not asserting that science puts us on par with the gods, I’m far too much of a misanthropist and nihilist for that.

      Thank you for your ramblings, they aren’t merely accepted, they’re most appreciated :)

      “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” – 1 Peter 3:15

      • monototo said,

        I just remembered, the June ’09 edition (vol18 no. 6-7) of Science & Education contained some articles which could be relevant to this discussion and a good starting point for further reading. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to devote more time to the matter until December.

      • Michael said,

        Hi Matthew,

        Thanks for your reply. My apologies for my delayed response. It would be nice to catch up sometime and discuss some of this stuff further. Perhaps Kim and I could have you round for dinner sometime?

        Let us know.

        Cheers,

        Michael

        • monototo said,

          Thanks Michael, that would be good. I’ll contact Kim at the beginning of December to see if we can organise something.

          Regards, Matt.

          p.s. I just added an introduction (2nd paragraph) to my article in an attempt to improve readability. I should probably do a clean revision next time I’m tempted to tamper with the document.

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