My New Labels: Atheist and Secular Humanist

Now that I’m done my three-part series on The End of my Faith Story, I want to make my next post about my current belief system. I considered calling it Answering 7 Questions about Atheism. Then I thought that that sounded too much like clickbait and also a cop out way to format a blog post (check back in a month and maybe that’ll be what I’ve resorted to). But I do want to answer some of the questions I’ve been getting from others about what has replaced my former belief in God. In this post I’ll just jump right into the deep end and describe my current beliefs/understandings as they are now. Clearly, all of this only represents my own opinion, but to save space I did not start every sentence with “I think…”

Believing in God is unreasonable and unnecessary.

Believing in God is unreasonable because prayer doesn’t work and miracles never happen. Very few people that I know claim that God has any actual, measurable effect on the physical world around us. When these claims are made, and God steps into the realm of natural science, then scientific inquiry can be applied to these claims. The result in these cases is always the same: there is no evidence that God exists.

For this reason, the Gods of moderate religions live beyond the reach of any method of testing or science. This protects Gods from any claim of evidence that there is no God, and it also gives free reign to make any non-testable claim about God such as “God lives deep within all of us and guides us in ways we can never understand”. This is the type of God that I used to believe in.

Humans have believed in a God that drags the Sun across the sky and a God that makes the wind blow. But none of these things need a God to explain them. Anyone proposing that they know something about a specific God, such as Vishnu, must not only provide evidence for that claim but also treat all similar evidence for other Gods similarly. For example, the evidence in support of a specific God is often that there is an old text that describes the God and that during prayer, dreams or meditation that God has revealed themselves to an individual or a group of people. In order for these reasons to be used to support the existence of a specific God it would need to be accompanied by reasons why the same type of evidence should not be used to support the existence of other Gods.

Alternatively, this could be explained with Polytheism. However, Polytheism is not very tenable because many Gods claim to be the one and only supreme God making them incompatible with other such Gods. Also, Polytheism or “many faces of the same God” is often used as a hand waving explanation to just rationalize the existence of other religions, but allow people to continue worshiping their own God within the confined comfort zone of their own traditions. Polytheism is hypocritical when used as a reason to be Monotheist.

The most reasonable understanding of religion is that it is an expression of human needs for structure, belonging and meaning in life. Ancient texts are a poor basis for understanding anything inside or outside of the physical universe. Even the deepest and most intense experiences of the supernatural are compatible with a biological explanation of the mind. Religion should be studied through psychology, sociology, neurology, biology and history but not through theology.

Belief in God is unnecessary. There is no need to have a belief in a specific God to be moral. We know this because there are many different groups of moral people that all believe in different Gods. There is also no need to believe in any God at all to be moral. We know this because there are many people who are both godless and moral.

Godless morality is very simple. Humans – and animals (often to a lesser extent) – are moral agents. Moral agents deserve and owe each other respect and consideration. The consequences of our actions and inactions on others can be observed and thus we can judge our actions by their likely impacts. The basis of this morality is a human decision that we should be moral and that the experience of other people matters to us.

This is a sufficient basis to develop a thorough and compassionate morality. We do not need to invoke any Gods into our morality in order to live in thriving and ethical communities in our modern society. There is no reason to be moral other than our own human reasoning. The term that best describes my thinking about morality and meaning in life is Secular Humanism (sometimes shortened to just capital ‘H’ Humanism).

Many religious people use a basis for morality that is very similar to the one that I described, but with some added emphasis from a deity. In practice, I find that my moral thinking is mostly similar to that of religious people. There is also much similarity between the moral thinking between different religions (even more so when looking only at modern, moderate religions). In everyday life and in my relationships with friends and family I prefer to stay mostly focussed on what we have in common. This is because (1) we agree on most things and (2) we agree on the most important things (do: respect others, don’t: murder and steal, etc). However, during conversations with interested people over coffee or beer the conversation is usually most fruitful when discussing differences of opinion.

When asked about my religion or worldview I’ll usually say that I’m an Atheist and a Secular Humanist. Saying that I’m an Atheist is an extremely simple statement. It only says I have no belief in God(s), but nothing else. This is also why people rarely describe themselves as just being Theists. The religious usually identify themselves more specifically and say that they are a member of the Bektashi Order, a Hasidic Jew or a Neo-Calvinist. Similarly, I identify myself as a Secular Humanist.

However, it’s important for me to also say that I am an Atheist. Because even though it is a very simple statement that communicates very little information, it is also extremely clear and generally well understood by most people. It quickly conveys that I’m not religious and have no belief in supernatural beings. This is important because the term Secular Humanist is less clear, and not used as commonly. Without opening my identity with ‘Atheist’, it tends to suggest that Secular Humanism is a religion or that I am some type of religious humanist. Obviously, if someone thinks that being an Atheist means that I worship the Devil and draw pentagrams on my floors then they are bringing a lot of baggage and misconceptions with them. The best way to counteract misconceptions is to just use words accurately, consistently and honestly.

With both of the labels that I use for myself, I strongly identify with the meaning that is attributed to the words (there are no gods and humans should give meaning to their own lives), but I’m not necessarily committed to the use of the specific words (Atheism and Secular Humanism). Attempts to organize the godless community are aptly compared to herding cats. There are many different groups, movements and labels that are constantly being invented and reinvented. In fact, I’m probably contributing to this constant flux of semantics with this blog post. I’m sure someone feels that I’ve improperly defined or used certain words, thus (rightly or wrongly) I’ve contributed in an extremely tiny way to changing their meaning.

Since labels, categories and names are part of communication we shouldn’t be afraid of using them. We should just understand their uses and limitations. After years of having a religious label that really did not work for me, I’m happy to now write my own ‘worldview’ name tag.

Hello

CRD

The End Of My Faith Story – Part Three

Once I started to think of religion as a human construction to fulfill human needs (community, belonging and meaning), it was very hard to go back. My remaining Christian self started to ask my new Agnostic (but not yet Atheist) self hypothetical questions. For instance: If religion was all just made up in the minds of humans, how does that explain the shared experience of the Holy Spirit or the overwhelming devotion of my ancestors to conscientious objection to military service?

To answer self-questions like these, I relied on that tenuous frenemy of liberal religion: science (psychology, in this case). Having known many psych majors in university, I had heard unending retellings of fascinating lectures about the human mind’s ability to deceive itself (later I would learn much more about these concepts myself as I became interested in skepticism). It’s clear to me that the human mind has been shown to have many methods of self deception which are capable of explaining the human experience of religion (I’m skipping the details of my reasoning and quality citations for brevity).

But there is a shortcut around a long conversation about how science can or cannot be used to explain religion, and that is: other religions. Even when I was a Christian I never was particularly “spiritual”. My religion was not based spiritualism or supernatural powers in general, it was always specifically about the Anabaptist Christian faith. And nothing was more challenging to my own faith than coming to terms with the existence of so many other devout followers of other Gods and other religions throughout history.

This led me to a thought experiment. Part of me was still a little bit worried that God was very real and very furious that I was no longer believing in him. So I wondered what I would say if I died, and was being judged by God. My answer was this:

            “God, how could I have known? How could I have known that you were the one true God? I know that you gave us the Bible and that my parents taught me to believe in you, but there are so many other books and so many other parents out there. Should I just have assumed that I was born into the right kind of religion but billions of others were not? Certainly, if you are going to judge me for not believing in you then you can tell me how I could have known”

Generally, I did not feel “mad at God” during the process of leaving religion. But one line of thinking got me pretty close at times; a small part of me has always really wanted the God of my childhood to be real. I wanted to live my whole life with that loving, forgiving, comforting God that would never leave me or forsake me. But religion left me. I felt (and I still feel) that I honestly, and wholeheartedly tried to believe in God. I thought about it long and hard for years, I talked to other religious people, I read the Bible and I went to Church long after most of my friends stopped going. I grew up and started asking adult questions about my childhood religion. And ultimately, that’s when my God left me. But of course, now that I understand there to be no God, there really is no reason to be mad because there is no God to be mad at.

I was well along my journey away from religion when life happened and I moved to a different city. Since I could no longer attend the Church that I had attended since I was a child, I felt I needed to go “Church shopping”. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was even trying, because at that point I had basically already come to my “how could I have known?” conclusion.

I was being driven by the very last of the momentum of my Christian self identity. Eventually, I did find that next Church to attend. Although by that time I had also decided that I should probably try deliberately not attending Church for the first time in my life. Maybe this sounds as if I was just being stubborn and shielding myself from “how the spirit moves me”. But for me, choosing not to go to Church was an important step in being more honest about my identity. And that was basically the end of my faith story.

During this three-part story about the end of my faith I have tried to focus on how and why I came to not being a Christian anymore. This garbled inner monologue that is my blog will continue with the stuff that is filling the spaces in my head previously occupied by my religion. Among other things, this will be a work in progress of my amateur, non-academic and non-religious moral reasoning. Again, thank you very much for coming along this far with me. I appreciate your comments, questions and suggestions for topics of this blog. Now I want to tell you the epilogue of my faith story.

A while ago I had the misfortune of coming down with appendicitis. I remember distinctly that one nurse described it as “a real messy appy”. I spent several days in hospital and two weeks at home recovering from the surgery. It was disheartening, a little bit frightening and sometimes it was painful as hell. Thankfully, I had good medical care and good family and friends to help me through it.

I was already done with religion at the time that I got appendicitis. It’s not even that I had left the door to religion open a crack. That door was solidly closed before I went into the hospital. But I guess when you’re on a gurney with tubes coming out of you and you’re in blinding pain, it makes you desperate. So I reopened that door to give prayer another chance. I’m not sure if I was trying to show myself that prayer was useless or if I was genuinely trying to find relief (remember, blinding pain). For whatever reason, I prayed for relief. I didn’t pray for forgiveness or for any of the people that I loved. I just prayed that my pain would go away. But I didn’t get very far into my prayer before I began to feel really silly for talking to myself. So I stopped mid sentence. And that was the last time I ever prayed.

CRD

The End Of My Faith Story – Part Two

As a young adult I continued to genuinely participate in Church life. I led a youth group to a Church conference, I prayed regularly and I even tried to find a Church to attend while I was away at university. My formerly staunch conservative views on evangelism and homosexuality had moderated. It seemed as though I was settling on a more sustainable, but less intense type of Christianity for myself.

One winter weekend I was invited to go to a friend’s cottage. The other people going were among my closest friends and they were also my most Christian friends. It’s not that I expected it to feel like a spiritual retreat, but I thought it might be in some way different than the time that I spent with “secular people” (such as my high school friends or friends from work).

We went up to the cottage on Friday night, poured some drinks, played cards, threw snowballs – it was a great time. On Saturday morning we all went outside for a walk on the frozen lake. After a while everyone else had gone inside. Since I was already wearing the obligatory single pair of old snow shoes (that are at every cottage I’ve ever been too) I stayed out a bit longer. I found myself standing alone on a frozen lake. Looking back at the cottage I saw an idyllic scene. The cottage was set back in the woods along the shoreline. Gentle snow fell in the midday winter sun. Wood smoke wafted out of the chimney between the frosted pines. It was a classic scene of beauty and tranquility in nature.

My upbringing told me that this was the right time to have a God moment. Silence and peacefulness in nature was an opportunity to recharge my soul. So I prayed. I opened my heart to God and invited him to fill my soul with an experience more wholesome than the boisterous, sangria stained crude humour of the night before.

But God didn’t say anything. This was mostly normal as I didn’t actually hear voices in my head when I prayed. But this time it felt like no one was there. Not that God was there and silent. It felt like there was no God anywhere. It also made me feel like the time I was spending with my friends at the cottage wasn’t even a gift from God. It now felt like it just was what it was. Weekends away are fun and having close friends to spend time with is very fulfilling and relaxing. But these things weren’t of God. They were just great human experiences. Suddenly I felt like I understood my secular friends much better.

My reflection standing alone on the frozen lake was all my own and no God was there to experience it with me. And it didn’t feel lonely or sad. It felt very realistic and sort of freeing. It felt great.

A few days after I got home I asked a pastor in my church to have coffee with me. I wanted to talk about the challenge to my faith that happened over the weekend. It was nice to have someone to talk to about this, but my pastor didn’t seem to worried about it, and didn’t really try to encourage my faith. So I drifted a little bit more.

I always really enjoyed the social connections that I made at Church. At times we had a fairly active young adult group. It was basically just a social group. There was pressure from some older people in the church for us to meet regularly during the Sunday School hour and to have some type of Bible study or regular faith-oriented events. But mostly the group just seemed happy to go out for Thai food and play board games on an extremely casual basis. It was with this experience in my twenties that I really began to understand church as fulfilling very ubiquitous human needs.

It became so obvious to me that what made churchgoers most happy was just being with other people. Eating together, singing together, families getting to know one another. There was worship and prayer too, but the basis of the enjoyment of church came from making connections, being around like minded people and having the Church be a part of your identity. It was being part of something bigger than yourself.

Even as I was realizing that the Church was based on these non-religious human feelings, I remained actively participating in church life. I guess I felt it was worth taking communion and sitting through sermons just to have coffee with my friends afterwards. However, my drift from Christianity continued. Soon after, I first started to become uncomfortable with my identity as a person of faith. It began with me being very uncomfortable with leading other people in their faith.

When I was praying aloud in a group or in some type of worship leading position it would feel ok at the time. Although I would often wonder if I was actually helping other people worship, given that I had such serious doubts about religion. And even if this is what they wanted to hear, I wasn’t sure that I was ok perpetuating this belief system. Comforting my adult self with prayer seemed harmless, but I began to feel very concerned about my participation in the indoctrination of children. My drift from faith continued.

One day at work one of my colleagues was in my office and we were talking about our weekends and procrastinating. I forget the details of the lead up, but she said something about death and felt she needed to “knock on wood“. She knocked on my desk, but realized it was not real wood and quickly looked around for some real wood. The two of us looked around my office, and eventually (at my suggestion), she settled on the door frame as real enough wood to knock on. After she left, I thought to myself about how absolutely ridiculous that charade was.

I didn’t think that she was truly superstitious, she was just incorporating the knock-on-wood action into the way she communicates with other people. It’s symbolic of not wanting to “tempt fate” regardless of whether or not you think there is a fate to be tempted. I thought it so strange that at one point we both had to stop talking and look around the room for some real wood to touch. At that moment I decided that I was not going to do that again. It felt silly and I knew it had no effect on the real world in any way. The final thought I had about it was “Ok, Clark. Back to work. Enough of that nonsense.”

But then I had another thought that seemed to come out of nowhere: “How is God different?”

And immediately I realized that this was going to be a problematic thought. I tried to ignore it for the rest of the day at work, but while walking home it came back with a vengeance. I tried to reason some way of shielding my religion from the same critical thinking that I had applied to a simple superstition earlier in the day. My reasons included that my religion was more complicated than knocking wood, and that my religion was shared very deeply with many people closer to me.

But all of this rationalizing was only temporary and ineffective protection for my religion. A few days later I decided that religion was a large, complicated and culturally and historically integrated superstition. Just a big superstition.

I’m sure that if at this point I had had more direct exposure to Atheism or Secular Humanism I would have been receptive to leaving religion sooner. It was only the inertia and comfort of being surrounded by the Church community that kept up my Christian identity. My faith was running on fumes.

CRD

The End Of My Faith Story – Part One

I was brought up in a liberal Christian family. Not fundamental, but definitely Christian. When I was a child my family spent several years working overseas with a religious service organization. We prayed as a family before every meal. Prayer was also part of my parents tucking me in to bed at ­night. My Church placed a strong focus on peace, love, service and forgiveness. Music and singing were a big part of worship, although I always was by far the least musically talented person in my family. Greed, lust and violence were the corrupting sins that I was warned about.

I was in urban public schools for all twelve grades, so I was exposed to many people from other cultures and religions. Although almost all of my closest school friends were self-identified “CNE Christians” (non-practicing Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter).

When asked about my faith by my school friends. I would always tell them what I believed. There was never any doubt in my mind about what I would say, but it was always excruciatingly awkward trying to say “Yeah, I believe in Jesus.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I could feel the air getting sucked out of the room and eyes turning towards me. On the inside I would desperately pray to God that everyone would just let it go so I wouldn’t have to talk about that anymore.

I never tried to convince anyone I knew to be a Christian, probably because it seemed hopeless. Actively promoting my faith (outside of Church) was never part of who I was, but I feel that I was consistently honest with anyone that ever asked about it. I knew life would have been easier if I had at least played down my Christianity some of the time. But I just couldn’t bring myself to be less than 100% honest about my faith, even though that probably would have helped with my shaky social life at school. I was pretty sure that God was listening to everything I ever said. Being less than honest about the fact that I went to church every week, prayed and genuinely loved Jesus with all my heart would be denying Jesus. And that would have made me a bad Christian.

I went to several different summer camps throughout childhood. All were Christian, and some were more evangelical than others. At camp I experienced the warm fuzzies of sensing God when I was in nature and singing around a campfire. It also encouraged my faith – in the same way my Church did – by exposing me to more Christian adults. It normalized Christianity for me. In the same way that high school made me feel that Christianity was weird and sometimes isolating.

Sometimes I was a stubborn hardass of a Christian and for some reason more conservative than my parents. I didn’t necessarily show these things on the outside very much, although I did explore them thoroughly in my head and with some close friends. The two key topics where this conservative part of me came out were homosexuality and evangelism. During my teen years my church started to deal with homosexuality. I’ll skip over the details, but basically after some processing most people in my church were ready to accept homosexuality within our church. I was not.

I’m not really sure what influences I may have had that made me so different from the close church community around me. Maybe it was just my way of being a counter-cultural teenager. My reasoning was basically that (1) there is a lot of biblical evidence that God did not want us to be homosexuals and (2) God made man and woman to be together and make children (a basic biological and anatomical argument). The argument in support of homosexuality that I found most frustrating was “who are we to judge” (if gay people love each other and Jesus, how can that be wrong?). This made sense in a way, except that we didn’t seem to accept that non-judgemental attitude in other cases. If two people loved each other and loved Jesus and just wanted to screw around and smoke pot, we did not accept that very well. I thought that homosexuality was like any other bodily desires we have (such as lust or greed). They were feelings of our bodies that we’re all born with and are tasked by God to control.

Evangelism was another topic on which I seemed to disagree with almost everyone else I knew. To me it was clear that according to the Bible we were supposed to evangelize and spread the word of God. It was crystal clear that Jesus wanted all Christians to tell all non-Christians about God because Jesus told us in no uncertain terms that “I am the way the truth and the life, no comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But with evangelism, as with a conservatice stance on homosexuality, I kind of felt that my fellow church goers just sort of chickened out and decided that evangelism was hard and awkward and destroyed friendships. The approach that we usually ended up taking was to show everyone we are Christians by our love (John 13:35), and be inclusive at all costs.

Getting into heaven was pretty important to me. So how could you love someone without telling them how to get into heaven? Who cares if they’re Muslim or Hindu or Atheist? There is only one God and one way to “come to the Father”, so let’s go tell everyone that because we love them! I did not accept that creating community and welcoming others into our Church was all the evangelism that we were called to do. I was worried about my soul and the souls of those I loved. And if we loved someone how could we not tell them about Jesus to help them get to heaven?

Alas, this was not how my church operated. It was frustrating for me, but at the same time I also understood the obvious fact that by accepting homosexuals and not evangelizing we were friendlier and more welcoming, and everyone was happier. But I had a strong nagging feeling that we were disobeying God and taking shortcuts.

In retrospect, I look back on these two points and think it so glaringly clear that our Church was primarily making decisions based on how our actions affected other people, and then secondarily using the Bible as needed to support our choices. The underlying systems of making decisions were utilitarianism, humanism and consequentialism. My Church described this process as “uncovering the will of God” and “letting the spirit reveal itself to us”. Now that I’ve left the church I agree very much with these methods of making decisions (utilitarianism, humanism and consequentialism). Over time these non-religious methods of decision making would became more and more important to me.

CRD

Introduction

Hello, internet.

This is my first blog post.

I’ve decided to start a blog to write about my transition from being a Christian to being a Secular Humanist and Atheist. Christianity has been a big part of my life for a long time, and in some ways it still is part of my life. I come from a very liberal brand of Christianity. The church that my family was a part of was not fundamentalist, hateful or sexist. In fact, it took pride in its liberalism and modernity.

Our church had a tradition that before becoming baptized (as an adult) the baptizee would share their faith story. The idea was to speak about how you decided to make a mature commitment to Jesus Christ. It was a way of telling the congregation more about yourself and your faith perspective. It was also a way of publicly declaring your intentions to be a Christian.

This blog is the opposite of that. This is the end of my faith story. And while I’m not sharing it in a church I still want to share it publicly, and with the people that are important to me. Hence this blog. In the next few blog posts I will share the story of how and why I left my faith. I’ll also talk about experiences of being non-religious, and discuss religion, secularism and ethics.

I also have some thoughts on what this blog will not be. This blog will not be a tirade against fundamentalism or the religious right. There are two reasons for this: (1) If you want to read about the evils of evangelical conservatism in America then there are more than enough other people talking about these important issues. And: (2) That’s not my story. I live in Canada. My former church family is not conservative or evangelical. Discussing moderate religion makes for a discussion that is more interesting and more relevant to me and the people that I know.

Since I was a Christian for many years, and participated actively in church life, I assume that many people that know me assume that I’m a Christian. There is no standard procedure for leaving a religion, but I think that it’s important for me to make some effort to communicate this to other people. Being misidentified as something that you’re not is an uncomfortable feeling, and more so when it’s by friends and family. Because I previously actively identified myself as Christian, it’s completely understandable that others still see me that way. So for now I’ll try writing this blog and bringing it to the attention of some people that I know well.

I have already told some people in person that I’ve left Christianity. I would summarize people’s responses as: sad, confused, supportive and indifferent. I care about what other people think of my story and I always like talking about ethics, secularism and religion in society. I invite you to respond to the content of this blog by leaving a comment here, sending me an email or in any other way that you like. And for those who are indifferent (if any of you are still reading this), I recommend checking out XKCD or Sporcle as alternative internet pastimes.

Thanks for reading.

Clark Decker

clarkrdecker@gmail.com