My son told me he’s an atheist (part 6)

rejection-handIt was really starting to hit me how much I had chosen over the years to ignore and/or reject arguments merely because I didn’t like them. I had been very closed minded. I was now asking myself, “Why? Why did I do that?”. A few years earlier, I wasn’t even aware of terms like confirmation bias or cognitive dissonance.

My faith had been a significant part of me since the age of 14, so even in the face of strong scientific evidence, I compartmentalized and concluded that somehow, God would make sense of it all. That’s what faith is all about, right? But with each day, I was wondering more often if my oldest son was right and I was wrong.

The majority of my previous exploration was tied to origins and the sciences. I hadn’t spent significant time since my college days to consider the many criticisms of the Bible. But now I had reached the point where I was willing to think more openly about Biblical issues.

Free Will Argument – Where did Evil Come From?

free-will

A fair and simple definition of “free will” is the ability to make choices that are unconstrained by anyone. I enjoyed theological discussion with Christian friends over the years, and this was a puzzler. Acknowledging the existence of free will is how theologians get God off the hook for being the source of evil. As a Christian, I understood that for mankind to truly have free will, it meant that evil had to be a possible result.

But what about free will in heaven? Like all Christians, I would ponder about life after death where there’s no sin and no tears (Rev. 21 & 22). The problem though is this means Christians don’t have free will in heaven because logically speaking, you can’t have a heaven without sin unless you also have the loss of free will. God would have to strip away our free will, otherwise, like Satan, we might rebel later.

During my college days, I learned that the topic of evil’s origin is called theodicy, and that theologians routinely considered it the most difficult puzzle in Christianity. There are entire books and studies devoted to the topic of free will vs. determinism but it was becoming clearer to me that there’s a significant conflict with what the Bible teaches regarding God (who is both omnipotent and omniscient), and man who is supposed to have free will. God’s omniscience means that every action we will ever perform is known by God before we make our choices. The Bible says that “our names were written in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundations of the world” [before creation]. Under a Biblical view, free will is an illusion because our choices cannot differ from the ones that God already made for us. You can get a headache when pondering whether God merely fore-knew our choices vs. God manipulating the circumstances of life to ensure His good pleasure… But, how can mankind have real free will if God knows our future choices?

Someone else put it this way: “If God is all knowing and he loves us, why would he even place the tree of good and evil in the garden? He obviously knew what would happen if he did so therefore it is God’s fault that we sinned. He didn’t have to put that tree there. If we can’t eat from it then it serves no purpose in the garden except to tempt us. He could say that it’s a test but an all-knowing God doesn’t need to perform the test to know what will happen.”

Compounding the issue, it was clear to me that the Bible taught that all things happened according to God’s will, which even included the famous example of Job being tempted by Satan, but only after God suggested it by saying to Satan, “Have you considered Job?”

job-boils-sufferingI want to take a quick detour there. In Job chapter 2, Satan (whom the Bible says “roams the earth, seeking whom he may devour”) was called to God’s presence for a chit-chat, and shortly thereafter, God asks Satan what he’s been up to, which of course, since God is omniscient He should know (right?), but perhaps He wanted Satan to verbalize it. Satan responds, “I’ve been roaming throughout the earth…” [and we can safely conclude, he was looking for someone to devour]. God then asks, “Have you considered Job?” (Job 2:3).

Wow. The first time I caught the impact of God just offering up Job to Satan like a dog’s chew toy — it was rather startling to me. I was quite familiar with the rest of the story wherein Job suffers horribly which includes losing his children and then later his health. And it’s always bothered me how often collateral characters are slaughtered or killed with little or no care, as in the case of Job’s kids. It’s a theme oft repeated in the Bible. Job’s wife was not physically harmed but she certainly suffered greatly in losing her children. The latter is a common example of the Bible’s sexism. A woman’s suffering is not considered – – only Job (a man), is viewed as important. But was even Job important? God offered him up to Satan like a little fly to have his wings pulled off and played with.

Another passage that always troubled me is Romans chapter 9, where it declares that “God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and he hardens [changes their will] whom He wants to harden.” Or Psalm 115, “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases.”Angry_God

Those were but a few verses on the subject, and it was clear that the God of the Bible is in total control. And thus, if God created human beings knowing that He would have to torture them for all eternity because they behaved exactly the way He knew they would, logically that is pretty damn evil.

Obviously, that was an incompatible conclusion to my Christian faith. So I rationalized it away with “God’s ways are mysterious“. I wasn’t ready to accept what it all meant.

hand-pickingGod Chooses Who is Saved

Another related and controversial doctrine from the Bible regards “election of the saints”. It’s the teaching of God choosing who will or won’t be saved while others are condemned for all eternity. The Old Testament teaches that the nation of Israel (the Jews) are His chosen people. Deut. 7:6 says, “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” Jesus also told his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you.” (John 15:16). And in the NT, it is clear that He “chose before the foundations of the world” who would be “written in the Lamb’s book of life“. Many people have attempted to re-interpret this teaching to mean that God merely foreknew who would choose Him, but an honest reading of the passages made it clear that God does the choosing (see also Deut. 7:6, 14:2; Psalm 105:43; Psalm 135:4; John 15; John 17:9; Romans 9:14; Ephes. 1:4; 1 Peter 1). I was familiar with the Calvinists and Presbyterians who acknowledged this view of God, but I was often surprised by how few Christians were aware of the doctrine. A common reaction among many is, “I don’t want to talk about that”.

hell-lake-of-fireHell

The doctrine of hell and eternal damnation has always been a tough pill to swallow. But I hadn’t considered before how significant the lack of harmony in the Bible was, particularly between the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). In the OT, the word Sheol is often mentioned. Occasionally it gets translated as “hell” but the better translations stick to the the proper word, “grave”. When someone dies, they go to the grave. There’s really no mention to an afterlife in the Old Testament. One would logically think that the Old Testament would be filled with passages about heaven and hell. Isn’t that an important topic? Good luck finding them.

In the NT, the references to hell are frequent but often obscure. The word Gehenna is used which was a place for trash. Other verses described the fate of unbelievers as a place of darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the word Gehenna (hell) isn’t used. However, that familiar term “unquenchable fire” was tied to Gehenna where trash and refuse were disposed of. I had learned in college that during those primitive times, a fire was always going at Gehenna in order to burn up refuse. How odd then that it was Jesus, meek and mild, who spoke of hell in the gospels — a place for “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). In the book of Revelation, we get the extra nasty picture of a lake of fire that the devil and non-Christians are cast into.

While the teaching of hell in the Bible is at times convoluted, it begged the question for me as to why a loving God who is omniscient (all-knowing) would create human beings that He knew would reject Him, and then torment and/or eternally let them suffer? Considered rationally and logically, it is utterly grotesque.

A Violent God?

elisha-8-bears-maul-youthsAs a student of the Bible, I knew that the Old Testament contained story after story of a very angry, capricious, and jealous God who drowned millions in a world-wide flood; who rained burning sulfur on a city; who killed all of the firstborn children of Egypt; who consumed those that complained with fire; and who swallowed up people in a chasm of the earth. Those stories bothered me, but it troubled me even more that He commanded his own people to murder other tribes and nations – – including women, children and livestock! (Deut. 13). Genocide happened many times in the OT. It also troubled me that God sent two female bears to maul and kill 42 young boys who mocked a prophet’s bald head. [1]

Those were a few examples of the 150+ occurrences of God killing the people He created (see a full list if desired). As a Christian, I had accepted that this was true and that I should be grateful that God was now more gracious and merciful. But now, these stories were really bothering me. I also had a nagging question about why a loving Heavenly Father would request human sacrifice?! Why would God ask his servant Abraham to demonstrate his faith by plunging a knife into his son? (Genesis 22). What kind of nonsense was that?! If anyone today said that God had commanded them to demonstrate their faith by killing their only child, they would be evaluated for serious mental health issues. [Related,  there’s the case of Deanna Laney who crushed the heads of her sons, because she in fact believed God had told her to].

But, but, but…

Even after considering all of that, I still couldn’t fully let go of my faith. The Bible, after-all has some interesting self-defense mechanisms inside to keep people from thinking critically about it all. We are told that any doubts are of the devil, and we are taught that unbelievers will suffer the most terrifying consequence imaginable if we don’t repent. Of course, the punishment isn’t just a few years or a few decades. It’s for all eternity. This gave me a reason to consider Pascal’s Wager, but embracing faith as a “just in case” sort of thing truly fell apart under review.

Religion_distribution

Religions of the World

While contemplating it all, my thoughts kept returning to the people of different faiths: Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Muslims and Hindus. Is a person’s chosen belief system simply a matter of geography? (It would seem so). It certainly did appear to me that a person’s country of origin dictated their religion a majority of the time. I also couldn’t shake the thought that Muslims often demonstrated far greater dedication to their faith; and Mormons often demonstrated better morality and conduct. The atrocities from past Christian church history kept coming to mind too.

In my own personal experience in church service for 30+ years, I repeatedly saw Christians who demonstrated some of the WORST behavior among human beings. Of course, many were very kind and generous but I found a significant number to be some of the most judgmental, intolerant, hateful and ungrateful people in the world. I came to realize that religious belief didn’t make a big impact on moral behavior. Two related examples I discovered regarded divorce rate comparisons for Christians vs. non-Christians (nearly identical), and the viewing of pornography which is often higher among conservatives (2).

2011044341Cults and De-Conversion

Around this time of my life, I had great interest in the stories of people who grew up in a cult but eventually escaped. I was starting to wonder if my own faith had parallels? I saw how those who escaped a cult went through difficult periods of de-programming. After escape, they felt that their world no longer made sense for a period of time. What I found striking is that even though the teachings of various cults is horrific and false, these members were extremely reluctant to walk away from it. I asked myself, “why?”. Why would it be so difficult for someone to let go of blatantly false beliefs? And yet this was true of every religion I examined. We believe what we are raised with. I chuckled how many of us believed in a magical fat man who dressed in a red & white suit and delivered toys to billions of people in one night. It seems that we are creatures who love the idea of supernatural wonders, even though science shows us it’s illogical. We seem deeply motivated to believe what we want to be true, regardless of reality.

Well, by the fall of 2013, my faith barely had a pulse but I wasn’t ready to give myself a label like atheist. I had warmed to the idea of being called an agnostic though. I continued to hold onto the possibility that there might be some significant evidence or argument that could restore my faith, so I continued to read and to collect notes and thoughts. My two-column document kept growing. Unfortunately, the column I devoted for “reasons why I don’t believe” was far longer.

>>>> Click here to read the conclusion to my story <<<<

[1] In regard to the story in 2 Kings 2 with Elisha, some would say that perhaps the boys were young men rather than young lads, or that the importance of Elisha as God’s prophet who wrote scripture was at stake. But come on… the God who created the universe couldn’t just humiliate the young boys in some manner? He had to kill them by being ripped apart by bears?? That doesn’t sound like a God who has much creative wisdom in dealing with issues.

[2] A second article is here.

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