Why I Am No Longer a Christian
Ruminations on a spiritual journey out of and into the material world

Part 4: A Way Out

By this point I could no longer consider myself a born-again evangelical Christian. But I could not get rid of the concept of God, and specifically of at least some form of the Christian God. I thought that God probably did not matter in a practical or day-to-day manner, or at least not much, but I could not (yet) deny the existence of a God of some sort. This was mainly because I could not see how something like human minds, or "souls" or whatever, could be a result purely of the material world. To say that it is all nothing but matter in motion would be such a diminishment of life. It would be a denial of the spiritual, emotional, thinking, feeling side of life, which I knew to exist, and to be the most important and significant part of life. I could not deny that existed. I could not possibly take a good look at life, at reality, and pretend that it was all just soulless matter in motion. There had to be more to it than that. There is more to it than that. To deny it would be like saying that no birds can fly; I’ve seen them fly, so the claim that it is all just soulless matter in motion just doesn’t fly. So I settled into a sort of deism, albeit an uncomfortable one since there was still the possibility that I was wrong in rejecting my previous beliefs and there could be dire consequences for such a rejection.

After graduation, marriage, and moving to a new city where I was in graduate school, my wife and I tried a couple of born-again type churches, but we just found the same lack of answers to our increasing questions. So we started going to an Episcopal church, quite theologically liberal, and one which a couple of years earlier I would have considered at best dangerously heretical and probably filled with false Christians. My wife grew up in an Episcopal church before becoming a born-againer in high school, so she was comfortable with the church and its theology. And I was much more comfortable with it than I had become with the evangelical churches, but even the Episcopal church was not able to give what could work for me as a meaningful reliable definition of the God I still thought must exist in some form but which I could not get any useful handle on.

But then in graduate school (studying philosophy), I read something, intended for a different point to a different audience, which helped answer this problem for me. In one of my classes, I was reading John Searle, who, in the course of making various points about the nature of mind in the context of various philosophical positions on the subject, made an observation that struck me, and made clear to me what should have already been obvious from what I had already learned previously. Like the incident that started my questions, this point that gave me a start on some answers is really a rather minor one, but it was that one extra piece of the puzzle that allowed me to see what, at least in general, the puzzle was a picture of. As an analogy to illustrate that mind can be a real emergent property of a brain rather than either just an illusion or epiphenomenon without having to resort to calling it an independently existing separate substance, Searle pointed out that water is just a bunch of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which individually are not wet, cannot be poured, cannot quench thirst, or any number of other things that water can do, yet water, which is not anything but those hydrogen and oxygen atoms, is generally considered to be rather real stuff, so why not the mind?

"Wow", I thought, connecting it to my personal religious concerns, and to other things I had been studying that semester. In this course and another I was taking, we were studying topics related to philosophy of mind, examining how minds work, how thinking and rationality work. And I was reading lots of medical research on brains and how they work, and what happens when they are damaged. All this augmented the knowledge of brain science I had previously acquired from various sources. I thought about what I knew about psychiatric medicines and how giving someone some drugs to alter the chemical composition of the brain can change one's personality, patterns of thinking, etc., i.e. it alters the mind. I have heard people on Prozac say that they are a different person when using the drug, and they mean that quite literally. I thought about how damage done to the brain e.g. in a car accident can damage the mind. Also, specific damage to a specific part of the brain causes similar damage to the minds of different people with similar injuries. How could anyone think, then, that when the brain is destroyed, the mind lives on somewhere without any ill effects? How could one avoid concluding that minds are products of brains, that the mind is an activity the brain performs?

It may indeed be the case (in fact, it is the case) that no one knows exactly how brains produce minds. But the evidence points, beyond any reasonable doubt, to the conclusion that minds are products of brains. In other words, it is physical brains which underlie minds. Minds are projects of matter. Now, I’m typically not one to reduce problems or issues to a simple either/or dichotomy, or to reduce complex disagreements to one fundamental issue. If there are two types of people in the world, one type which categorizes everyone into two types and another type which does not, I’m in the latter category. But this point about the relationship between mind and matter is, I think, a primary crux, if not the primary crux, of the disagreement between theists and atheists. Theists believe that mind is and must be fundamental to matter, that matter could not exist without a mind (or, a Mind, i.e. the mind of God) as its ground. Atheists do not think that must be the case; atheists think that matter is fundamental to mind. Typically, theists will react to this with incredulity, asking how the material universe can possibly exist on its own, or how mind can be fundamentally dependent on matter, how matter can give rise to mind. But an atheist can ask, with just as much incredulity, how can God think if he does not have a brain? How can God even exist if he is not made out of some sort of matter? If not knowing how is a problem for “materialists,” then “spiritualists” have precisely the same problem: they can no more answer how specifically mind undergirds matter than materialists can say how specifically matter undergirds mind. So it becomes a matter of the evidence: which way does the evidence point? Given all that is known so far about how brains and minds work and interact, and given the lack of any real evidence of minds that exist independently of brains, how can I conclude anything but that matter is fundamental to mind, that without matter, mind could not exist?

There are such things as real emergent properties. Even on the purely physical level, water, for example, is in one sense nothing but a bunch of H2O molecules, but it has properties and capabilities that those molecules do not have. How can such properties just arise out of elements that do not contain specifically these properties? Water is not just the molecules that comprise it; it is also the active interaction of those molecules with each other in a system we perceive as and call ‘water’, with its properties such as wetness being produced by that system. Atoms actively bond, or fail to bond, with one another in systematic ways, and the resulting molecules do the same with each other. Those interactions are only there potentially in individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but they are activated when those atoms and molecules are in conjunction with one another under certain conditions. That, I think, is where the commonly stated critique of what could be called "materialism" (the objection that “there is more to it than that”) falls short: it fails to recognize that physical things can do stuff, that matter interacts with itself, and it can do this because it has energy as an essential component of itself, it is energy in another form. This includes brains, and their neurons and synapses.

Now, this is where religious believers seem constantly to misunderstand my perspective. As a Christian, I had thought that there must be more to it all than matter in motion. I thought that to deny the reality of the spiritual realm was to ignore the most significant and important part of being human, or even to reject it completely, to pretend it isn’t there. A solely material world? There is obviously more to it than that. But a “materialist” most certainly need not ignore this or pretend it is not there. Call it 'spiritual', call it 'consciousness', call it 'subjectivity', it is something all humans are capable of, and increasingly so as they grow and mature. I do not say "all is physical" in the sense of denying the spiritual/conscious/subjective/whatever, and, in spite of what so many religious believers tend to think, I wonder whether anyone really says that. How could they? Just by thinking the thought one proves that thought exists; by making the effort to expound upon it one proves that one values thought. What I do say is that all this is the product of the physical. The mental, subjectivity, what is commonly labeled as the spiritual realm, in all its wonderfulness and centrality to being human, is part of what the physical is capable of. A mind is not some "thing," or some sort of separately existing spiritual "non-thing." 'Mind' is not a noun; it is a verb. Mind is an activity of a brain. Minding is something brains do. Minds are as real as baseball games, but they are no more separate from brains than baseball games are from the players, coaches, and umpires who play them. And, like the players playing a baseball game, the matter that performs this minding is in turn affected by the performance: the activity of minding results in changes and effects to the matter performing the activity that would not be the case for this matter if it were not minding. Just as baseball games make a difference to those playing them, minds make a difference in and to the material world. This realization is what led me to conclude that there is a lot more to this "matter in motion" stuff than I had previously realized. My spiritual journey had taken me back into the material world, and led me to realize that my "spirit" is a product of that material world, spirit is created out of that world. My spiritual journey, then, was both out of and into the material world. It led me to realize that the “more to it than that” is already all there in the “that.”

This was further confirmed by what I was learning about evolution, both (in brief) in these classes and (extensively) on my own outside of classes. I had not thought about that topic since before I began to have doubts about Christianity, i.e. back when I was a creationist and all I had read about the subject was written by creationists. I started reading about the real science of evolution, and realized how completely off base the creationists are, how very little they understand about evolution, and how very much they distorted evolution. I’m not going to put forth an explanation and defense of evolution here, since there is already plenty on this subject (see for example http://www.talkorigins.org/) and, as with any science, it takes some studying to get a handle on it. But I will say that, once you have studied the evidence, to claim that the evidence points to creationism and against evolution is as ridiculous as to claim that the Bible has no contradictions, errors, or absurdities. Again, you might as well base your arguments on the claim that no birds can fly. I’ve seen them fly, so I cannot take your arguments seriously. If the truth of Christianity is incompatible with the truth of evolution, then so much the worse for Christianity. Many Christians, however, recognize the reality of evolution and have found ways to accommodate it within their religious beliefs. If evangelical Christians and other creationist theists would do the same, I and others who recognize the reality of evolution could at least have the option of seriously considering their version of religion; as it is, I can no longer take the religion I so fervently used to believe seriously even if I wanted to try.

I have found that the Christianity I used to accept and believe can no longer account for, contain, embrace, my experiences and reality and life as I see it. It can consistently account for a wide range of phenomena, but I have found too much that does not fit. It cannot explain how believers in other religions can have the same experiences of abundance. It cannot explain how some believers in itself do not experience this sort of abundance. It does not account for how a morally perfect God would allow innocent infants to suffer horribly from a debilitating disease (at least not without discounting any meaning or point to this life and such occurrences in this life, yet it is supposed to be what provides this life with meaning). Many theists have proposed answers to this “Problem of Evil,” or “Problem of Pain,” the question of why bad things happen to good people, but when pushed, the answers invariably appeal to something along the lines of a “mystery of the faith,” or “God’s ways are not our ways,” or they change the meaning of ‘goodness’ or ‘moral perfection’ or other terms such that when applied to God it means something radically different from what it means in any other context. Responses such as these effectively admit that we cannot account for such things, at least not in theistic terms. I used to think that God was so obvious, and that nothing would make any sense without God. But, I found I had to admit, we theists kept having to resort to the mysteries of the faith and noting that God’s ways are not our ways. Did we really have answers, or just the faith (groundless hope?) that there were answers somewhere, even if we cannot understand them or do not have access to them? I used to believe, with all my heart, that Christianity (and my church’s version of it) was the only way to make sense of the world. But, as my mind was beginning to ask, why then are we still stuck with all these “mysteries of the faith”?

I have found that a naturalistic universe in which brains can evolve to produce minds does a much better job of accounting for all this: there is not some cosmic conscious reason (in the sense of a consciously intentional purpose) for such things as the suffering of innocents; rather, stuff just happens, and some of it happens to be harmful to us. No need to try to get a conscious God off the hook for the suffering of innocents. No need to appeal to mystery, for there is nothing mysterious behind the physical world; it’s all the physical world. The Bible is not the inspired word of a perfect God, thus it makes sense that Paul and James disagree on how faith, works, and salvation relate, the writers of Chronicles and Samuel have different takes on what happened, and the writers of the histories were just attempting to justify their barbaric treatment of their neighbors/enemies. Believers in a variety of religions, or in no religion at all, can find meaning and purpose and life-changing experiences, because humans are capable of finding or creating meaning and purpose and of growing and maturing. And physical brains can evolve to produce minds, minds which can experience and care about the world and other minds in it, and care enough to do good and great things to help themselves and others to flourish, and to find meaning, purpose, and a deep satisfaction in doing so. The "more to it than that" was already in the "that." I found it far easier to account for good in the world without God than to account for bad in the world with God. Thus, I am no longer a Christian, or even a theist: God has become an unnecessary hypothesis. 

My increasing understanding of “creation” was leaving increasingly less room for a theistic god who is involved in his creation, until there was no room at all. By now, the world I had gotten to know had grown far too large for my previous religious beliefs to encompass it, either on a personal level or a more general level. Not only did I have, on a personal level, the counterexamples of people finding satisfaction in religions other than mine or without the help of religion at all. More generally, the world itself was too vast for the small show of Christianity, especially in terms of biology and astronomy. From biology, I learned how wondrously amazing the human species is. But I also learned that we are far from uniquely so. Cats, canaries, cockroaches, and cactuses, along with tens of millions of other species past and present, are all just as wondrously amazing. As special as we are to ourselves and from our perspective, there is, objectively speaking, nothing all that special about us in comparison to other life forms. Sure, we have our unique qualities, but we are not unique in that: so many other species have so many unique qualities, too. And then from astronomy I learned how unimaginably vast the universe is. Our sun is but one star among a hundred billion in our galaxy, which itself is but one among a hundred billion galaxies dancing with one another in enormous clusters. As the physicist Richard Feynman observed, "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama." It’s not about you. It’s not about us. To think that we are a central concern to the universe strikes me as utterly, absurdly hubristic, as well as being just plain utterly absurd.

But still, one may object, why is this wondrous universe here? Without God there can be no ultimate answer to why things are the way they are. Where, for example, did the physical world come from? How did it get here? Why is it the way it is? Ultimately all I can resort to on my view is just to say that “well, that’s just the way things are, it’s just a brute, unexplainable fact, it just is.” Appealing to God is supposed to get around that problem, because God is the ultimate “why” behind everything. And even if it is a mystery to us, even if we do not understand the “why,” at least we have the “why,” whereas in a godless universe we do not even have a mysterious “why.”

But does God really provide an ultimate “why,” or does he just push the problem back one step? Where did God come from? How did he get here? He is self-existing, you say? Well, why couldn’t the physical universe be self-existing? What’s stopping it? Are there standards beyond the physical universe which make a self-existing physical universe impossible? Whence those standards? Why couldn’t the standards be such that they would allow a self-existing physical universe? What’s stopping them? Other meta-standards? Well, why couldn’t they …. And on and on. If God doesn’t need a “why” behind him, then why would the physical universe need a “why” behind it?

Ultimately, there can be no answer to the question of “why is there something rather than nothing.” To answer that question, you would have to appeal to something. But then the question can be asked of that something. The only other alternative is to have nothing to appeal to. God does not get around this difficulty. If God exists, he is something, and you can ask the same of this something: “Why God?” To say “God exists necessarily” is to appeal to some standard or set of standards according to which God’s existence is necessary, i.e. you are appealing to something beyond God to explain his necessity, and you could ask “why” of those standards. But, the theist responds, God is his own ground of his own necessity. All that response says is that if God exists, he exists necessarily. If he does not exist, however, there is nothing which necessitates his existence. Or, if God can be his own ground of his own necessity, why couldn’t the physical universe exist necessarily and be its own ground for its own necessity? What’s stopping it? Nothing! For something to be necessary, it must appeal to some external standard according to which it is necessary, something else must be necessitating it, otherwise its existence, including the conditions of its existence, is ultimately unconditional and entirely arbitrary.

Another way to put this is to say that reason alone cannot tell you what exists, in fact reason alone can do nothing. Pure formal logic is only about the structure of arguments, it says nothing about the content. Reason can tell you that if this set of premises is true, then these conclusions must follow. But then you still have to demonstrate the proof of these premises. If you use reason to do so, then those premises become conclusions to another argument based on another set of premises. If those premises are true, then the premises in your initial argument are true. But that is another ‘if’, another conditional. How do you demonstrate those premises are true? Either you have an endless regress of conditional arguments, or you have to appeal to a brute fact of existence, that something just is, no reason for it. Reason reveals its own limits. Reason can tell you the conclusions you can draw from the evidence, what worldview you can consistently get out of it, what interpretations are consistent and supportable by the evidence you have managed to gather and what interpretations are not consistent with reality, but it cannot ultimately determine what that existence is or say what it should be. Reality is not subject to a worldview; rather, worldviews are subject to reality. Reality determines reason, not vice-versa.

Whatever ultimately exists, then, is utterly unconditional, it is entirely arbitrary, there is and can be nothing necessitating or prohibiting its existence, nor anything regulating the character of its existence, i.e. there is no reason for or against it. It just is, a brute, ultimately arbitrary, fact. There is, then, ultimately nothing that would either necessitate or prohibit one form or another of the Christian God’s existence. Nor is there ultimately anything that would either necessitate or prohibit any other god(s), or a self-existing physical universe in which minds could evolve. The question of what ultimately exists and what its nature is thus cannot be solved solely through reason or a priori arguments. It is a matter of empirical fact, and can only be answered by appealing to, by examining and studying, whatever it is. If you examine reality and find a God, fine, God exists. If you find a physical universe in which minds can evolve and you find no objective evidence of a God existing anywhere outside of his believers’ minds, fine, you are in a godless universe.

Seeing no reliable objective evidence that a god exists outside of believers’ minds, I had to conclude that there is no good reason to believe that there is an objectively existing god, and that, despite my previous utter certainty that I had a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ the Creator of the Universe, it was all a product of my mind under the influence of parents and preachers and Sunday school teachers. I had to conclude that “God” is not anything “out there,” objectively existing, but is a mislabeling or misunderstanding of our highest and deepest subjective capacities. I certainly do not claim that the phenomena commonly referred to as “God” do not exist. My claim is that “God” is a serious mislabeling and misunderstanding of them. In a way, then, I still believe in God. I believe in the existence of experiences of what most people call experiences of God. They are deep, profound, powerfully moving experiences. But to call them experiences of God, or the gods, is a socially learned interpretation of these private, subjective experiences. I see and feel the evidence of the reality of these experiences. As evidence that God beliefs are socially learned interpretations of these experiences, it is obvious that the vast majority of people believe some form of the religion (or one of, or some combination of, the religions) they grew up with. There are conversions to totally different religious traditions, but they are relatively rare, and they go in all directions. Yes, Muslims have become Christians, but Christians have become Muslims, and both have become Buddhists, and Buddhists have become… Most conversions are to another form of the same religion, or, as with most born-again Christians, are a conscious and deliberate personal dedication and serious commitment to the religion one grew up with. But I see no reliable, testable, verifiable evidence of a conscious entity out there external to the experiencers’ minds that causes or induces these experiences. I think the experiences can be accounted for without resort to appealing to such an entity, so I see no reason to posit the existence of such an entity.

But how can most people be wrong about this? And how can I have the audacity to claim they are? Well, given that, as I pointed out earlier, at least most notions of God or the gods must be at least somewhat mistaken, it is not much of a stretch to make the claim that they all are. Besides, anyone who makes any claim at all about who or what God is has this same audacity to claim to know better than all those other people who believe differently. So I’m not really doing anything unusual in making such a claim. In fact, making such a claim is pretty much unavoidable if you are going to talk about God at all. You say most people are wrong; why can't I?

Often at some point in discussions I have with theists, they see that reason, logic, and evidence are not working for them, so they appeal to faith. They say I am approaching God in the wrong way. God, belief in him, and following him are a matter of faith. Hebrews 11:1 says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The Amplified Bible, which tries to include all the nuances of the original in its translation, puts this as “FAITH is the assurance (the confirmation, the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].” That is how we know God.

This used to sound profound to me. Now it sounds like groundless wish fulfillment. It does not work, for two reasons. First, faith in this sense can be used to “justify” belief in just about anything at all. It is a notoriously poor guide to truth. There are no correcting mechanisms for errors other than one’s own subjective feelings, which have demonstrated themselves to be far from reliable indicators of objective truth. On the other hand, only some beliefs can be supported sufficiently by evidence and reason; many are ruled out, and false beliefs can be reliably corrected. Using a combination of evidence and reason has shown itself to be far more effective as a means to come to far more reliable conclusions about reality. As the saying goes, "it is said that faith moves mountains, but experience shows that bulldozers are more effective."

Put a hundred scientists to work on a problem, and yes they may all start out with different hypotheses and discover, interpret, and reinterpret facts in different ways along the way, but they eventually come to a consensus on an answer, and the answer will be one we can effectively use. Scientists from all around the world, regardless of religious beliefs or cultural practices or even previous scientific conclusions were convinced by heliocentrism (Earth revolves around the Sun rather than vice-versa), by plate tectonics (continental plates float around, and this creating mountain chains and volcanoes), by evolution, etc etc, because of the evidence that they can all test and verify themselves. Put a hundred theologians to work on a question by using faith, however, and though they may all start out from the same religious perspective, you will end up with at least a hundred denominations, factions, and even new religions (all with their own denominations and factions), and there will be no objective, reliable way to decide between them.

Yes, what science tells us does keep changing. The weekly New York Times Science section, for example, always reports new discoveries and disputes and challenges and the like. But that is because scientists work at the edge of their knowledge. They do not keep going over the things they have already settled. Yes, science changes, but it changes by improving. What science tells us today is not what it said yesterday because it has more, better, and better understood evidence than it did yesterday. Science does not, and probably never will, give us perfect or perfectly reliable knowledge, but it is far more reliable than its competitors. It may not be what we ideally would want, but, as far as I can tell, it's the best we've actually got. Theology, on the other hand, typically tells us what our parents believed, often with some minor variations, occasionally with large variations, with conversions going in all sorts of directions, increasingly less consensus over time, and nothing to go on but subjective interpretations, what “feels” right to a particular believer. With those track records to compare, I'll go with science's evidence without certainty over religion's certainty without evidence.

A second reason resorting to faith to believe in God’s existence does not work is that this sense of ‘faith’ does not even make sense.  Faith is in something like a person’s character, not in a person’s existence, and even that faith is based on evidence. For example, I have faith in my wife, by which I mean that I believe her to be a trustworthy person whom I can rely on and depend on. I do not have faith that she exists. I know she exists. I also know how she has acted in the past, I know a lot about her character. And on the basis of that knowledge, I believe I can safely rely on her being dependable in the future. In the case of God, you cannot have faith that he exists. His existence would be a matter of knowledge. Faith would come into play only after the knowledge of his existence and character. If you want me to have faith in God, that can come only after I have knowledge first that he exists and then of his character. And that would require some sort of objective and publicly verifiable evidence. Subjective experiences which can be interpreted as being experiences of a divine presence in or around or somehow affecting me are too unreliable as evidence of objective reality. Without some means of objectively confirming those interpretations, I have nothing more than any other theist with a subjective experience interpreted according to some variation of some religious tradition.

A defense of faith that I have often heard is that we all have to have faith in some things. Faith of some sort is unavoidable. No one can absolutely prove everything one believes. And even, for example, the simple act of sitting in a chair, since we cannot know for sure that the chair will not break this time, is an act of faith. But that is an example of faith as going just a bit beyond the evidence, taking the evidence a little bit further but in the same direction. The chair has always worked before, it feels structurally sound as I pull it from the table, its legs are all there and still attached, and I see no evidence that it will no longer work as it has. So I conclude from that evidence that the chair will work. If you want to say I have faith in my conclusion from that evidence, fine, I have faith, a faith that takes the evidence a bit further in the direction it points. But faith in the existence of a god is faith that goes against the evidence. If there were evidence of God’s existence, faith in that existence would not be necessary, since we would know he exists. The very fact that faith in God’s existence is necessary to believe that God exists means that this faith is going against the evidence.

About the only thing I can think of that could be construed as evidence that, if taken a bit further in the direction it points, would point to God is the deep and profound subjective experiences typically labeled as being experiences of God. And I know what it is like to feel what is so commonly labeled “the divine,” and to label it as such, to believe it to be experiences of an objective reality beyond me. I know what it is like to believe that I am in communion with God Himself. I know what it is like to believe with all my heart that I am living daily in the presence of God. And I still have such deeply moving experiences now. Yet now my understanding of them is fundamentally different. Given all the different religious interpretations of these experiences, and given the lack of any objective evidence that there is some other conscious entity existing outside of our minds which causes these experiences, I can no longer interpret them as I used to. And that changes the experiences in fundamental ways. Changing my interpretation of those experiences, changing how I understand them, changed the way I experience them. The way I experience life is different. I still have those deep and profound subjective experiences; but to experience them as if they were experiences of God is utterly foreign to me now. Like many former theists I have talked with, my deconversion experience was like waking up from a vivid dream, a dream that felt so real to me while I was experiencing it, but then its dreamlike nature was obvious once I woke up, and I wondered how it felt so real when I was dreaming it. Like such a dream, it still felt somewhat real and compelling as I was still waking up, but the more awake I got, the less real and the more dreamlike it seemed. Now, it is like remembering such a dream in the late afternoon and thinking, "wow, that was a weird dream."

 

 

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