(Part 2) Part 3)
Several years ago I was coming back from Stephenville on Hwy 67 and listening to NPR. Some show, I can't recall which one, had an interview with Richard Dawkins, who I had nominally heard of before. It may have been about the time that he was coming out with his book "The God Delusion". I realized at that point that I had never actually heard an atheist speak at any length. Oh, I recalled Madelyn Murry O Hair as a strident and offensive woman in some sound clips on the teevee, but her manner turned me away from listening. So, on that long drive back from Stephenville, hearing Dawkins was sort of like examining a bug that wanders into your living room-you wonder what it is, whether it's a beneficial bug and how long it will take you to squash it or take it via the dustpan outside. What I'm trying to describe is that I was a little bit frightened of listening to him, felt like I was in the presence of aliens, because I had never heard an atheist speak at length before. It wasn't as if hearing some words transmitted into my ear Turned Me Atheist as if by magic. But I did wonder about what the contents of the book "The God Delusion" were.
I've spoken here before about my religious background. I was raised as a Southern Baptist, with what used to be, before a takeover of Southern Baptists in the 80's, a rich tradition of separation of church and state. I remember as a child asking my pastor about whether the days of creation were literally 7 days, and how it could be that Noah took every animal on earth into an ark of finite size; my pastor told me that I shouldn't be concerned about such questions, merely to have faith. At some point when I was a teenager, while I still believed in Jesus myself, I no longer believed that faith in Jesus was the only way to salvation. It didn't seem reasonable to me that a loving God would save those based on such arbitrary factors as where they were born, what their parents religion was, and whether they believed something different. Moreover, with Southern Baptists, God would consign you to everlasting torment in hellfire if you didn't worship only him. If God were a human, he would have been the worst kind of abuser, someone demanding obedience no matter what or else physically punishing those who challenged im, and I would have shunned such type of person. So while I still believed in Jesus, was baptized, "once saved always saved", my idea of the type of God he was morphed into one who would not insist that all who didn't blindly confess his name would roast forever.
That did leave a problem about social religion. I loved singing songs out of the Baptist Hymnal and probably can sing most if not all of them from memory without a hymnal in my hand. When my father passed away last year, my mother and I sang "Love Lifted Me" in his hospice room. My wrestling about church was whether it would be appropriate for me to attend only becuase I wanted to sing songs and be social. Could I, in other words, attend a church and disagree with what was taught, simply in order to sing? I never could get past that, because it seemed hypocritical in the worst degree. I'm sure there are plenty of hypocrites in the audience at a church, who attend for a variety of reasons that aren't pure, but I never could bring myself to be one of them.
I also saw plenty of examples of religious leaders who were laughing stocks. Take the guy who had the church in Carrollton that had people send prayer requests in, along with money; those prayer requests were found in bags in the dumpster. Or Billy Weber, who was pastor of a megachurch and was screwing the women who worked for him as administrative assistants. Or Oral Roberts, who told people that he saw a 900 foot tlal Jesus and that God was going to kill him if he didn't get X amount of money. Oh, I know there are apologists who will say "Men are sinners, blah blah blah". But all that points out to me is that a religion, any religion, has no special lock on being more pure, ethical or moral than the rest of us.
I got the book "The God Delusion" and read it. I remember being hesitant about reading it, and had I come across vile or pornographic language, I would have stopped reading immediately. But I have always believed that a questioning mind is a good thing that leads to education and an informed and well rounded mind. I already knew from history that the doctrines of early Christianity, including the trinity, were not settled until the time of Constantine. I also knew that the Bible had plenty of contradictions. I spent the next two years reading a wide variety of books about the Bible and about Jesus. I wanted to know two basic things, to begin with. Could one have faith in the Bible as THE Holy Book, and second, what evidence is out there that Jesus actually existed. Not going to go through the list of all the books I read, although I kept the local library pretty busy through interlibrary loans, but one of the first and best was "Misquoting Jesus", which showed definitively that the Bible has mistakes and thus is not error free or infallible. I also came to believe that the apostle Paul took the christian religion to a turn, essentially hijacked it, that the gospels had not intended.
Even then, i still considered myself a Christian who didn't believe in the authenticity of the Bible as a special book. The next rung of my research, however, convinced me that, while Jesus might have existed, there is zero evidence that isn't self-supporting using the Bible as reference, that he did. As you might imagine, that led to a raft of other questions that challenged assumptions I had had since a very young age. It was like removing scales from my eyes.
I'm still the same person I was before. I have a strong ethical sense of what is right and wrong. My personality is the same. I simply no longer believe that there was a man or god, Jesus, who died and rose from the dead as a sacrifice for all mankind. This has not caused a fear of death in me, but quite the opposite. If this life is all we have, then we need to make extra efforts NOW to be living good lives and do good things to others NOW instead of waiting for some future reward or penalty. As Ecclesiastes 9:5 says.
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
At the same time, I believe that others can have the faith they choose. The Southern Baptists are a strongly evangelical organization, meaning that they beileve that one shoudl actively turn others to Christ. They can believe that, just as I can choose to speak out about what I believe. Sometimes I think people are reluctant to want to have their religion spoken of, and I agree wth that if it's a private affair-but once someone brings their beliefs into the public sphere, anyone can challenge, discuss, argue with and dissect those beliefs. Religion that seeks to convert others cannot, be definition, be a hands-off affair. That includes any religion of any stripe, not just one of the many sects and divisions of christianity.