Monday, April 2, 2012

An Atheist's Testimony

I'm going to start writing things in longer form.  I'm not much for flowery prologue, so I hope this will suffice.  The following is a letter I recently wrote that I hope will explain where I am, and what I'm doing.  Blogs are narcissistic.  That's not lost on me.  I'm doing this for me, but perhaps you'll gain something from it.  Thanks for reading.

Dear Community of OneGeorgeFox,

Faith has always been a big deal to me.  Specifically, whether I had it or did not.

Beginning with my first philosophy assignment at George Fox, my faith started to leave me.  We were asked to write a two page persuasive essay entitled, “There is no God.”  As a freshman straight out of my mom’s house, I certainly DID believe in God, but I liked the mental exercise.  I put together what I thought was a pretty good, if flawed, argument against God’s existence.  I didn’t believe a word of it, but it was fun nonetheless.  The second assignment was the same, with the topic “No human has a soul.”  The final assignment was to write on the topic “Abortion is always wrong.”  Strangely, the topic I agreed with was most difficult to write.  My only weapon was the Bible.  And with my newly developing critical thinking skills, using the Bible as my sole item of evidence seemed weak.  These mental exercises allowed me to break out of the faith of my youth, and try to find what MY faith was.

By junior year, I was at odds with Christian culture.  Politically, I had changed my mind on almost everything.  I felt that the Bible was being used to divide people, with the only acceptable way to be a Christian being to vote Republican, anti-abortion, and anti-gay.  I wasn’t any of those things.  So much energy was spent debating what a Christian really was, and what, if any, actions or beliefs could expel a person from the heavenly roll sheet.

It was around this time that the school allowed a Christian Universalist, Thomas Talbott, to speak on campus.  He had written a book entitled “The Inescapable Love of God,” in which he expands on his belief that the Bible provides the framework for a faith in which everyone is ultimately united with God.  He spoke with passion about his belief that God would never, could never doom his creation to eternal hell.  I loved this perspective.  I had felt for some time that eternal damnation for a finite sin didn’t make any sense at all.  It seemed petty and cruel, and that wasn’t the God I had come to know.  For a few months, I really thought I had found the truth.

Like most things, contentment didn’t last.  The more comfortable I became with the idea that hell wasn’t real, the less the rest of Christianity seemed necessary.  If there’s no hell to be saved from, why do I need a savior?  And if I don’t need a savior, what’s the point of all these games I’d been playing in the name of Christianity?  Once hell was off the table, religion felt like a charade.  And slowly, in combination with a lot of reading about the arguments for and against the existence of God, I came to find I no longer had any faith at all.

It wasn’t until a few years after college that I was emotionally comfortable calling myself an atheist.  Atheism had so many assumptions built into it that didn’t apply to me.  People thought atheism meant I believe “there is no God.”  That wasn’t true.  Saying there isn’t a God is just as faith-based as believing God exists.  People thought I was mad at God and/or the church.  That wasn’t true either.  I had no problems with religion, so long as it wasn’t being used to hurt people.  The way I saw it (and still see it), there is a line separating knowledge and faith.  Those who choose to have faith are comfortable with the idea that not everything they believe can be proven or arrived at by conventional reason.  If it could be, it wouldn’t be faith.  For me, I simply choose not to step across that line.  If it takes faith to reach a conclusion, I can’t reach that conclusion.

Atheism has had its benefits.  I’m much less angry as an atheist.  There is no “us” and “them” anymore.  As a Christian I thought there were armies of people trying to destroy the good and decent beliefs that Christians were trying to advance.  Every issue had a right answer, a Christian answer.  Our team was righteous, their team was devious and mean.  As an atheist, I’m not tied to having to have the right answer to everything.  I can be friends with anyone, Christian or not.  There’s not a faith litmus test anymore.

Atheism also has its negatives.  For years I’ve thought that once I die, the lights turn off and it’s all over.  I’m terribly bothered by this.  It’s not that I worry about a negative after life, it’s that as a conscious being, I can’t fathom not having a consciousness.  Sometimes when I’m driving I’ll imagine what I would feel like right before hitting a vehicle head-on, knowing my consciousness is about to be over.  I imagine it would be terrifying.  I imagine my wife and daughter alone, and there‘s no spirit version of me out there watching over them.  I hate that feeling.

Over the last few weeks, something great has happened.  Through the OneGeorgeFox group, I’ve met and became re-acquainted with Christians who are not the kind of Christians I grew up knowing.  Their God does not think gays are an abomination.  Their God doesn’t have a theological litmus test that someone must pass to be included in their lives.  And I’ll bet a lot of them don’t even believe their God would send anyone to eternal hell.

The merits of a belief system can’t be judged by the actions of the believers in that faith.  That’s just common sense.  But as I struggle with my lack of belief in an afterlife, I’m coming to realize that I WANT to believe in an afterlife.  I don’t, but I really want to.  And what encourages me most is that the God being shown in the actions of these wonderful people is not a God that I dislike.  Their version of God is not being used to hurt people.  In fact, despite being shunned by a lot of important people in their lives, these people have found their acceptance primarily in their understanding of their God.  I can’t see any harm in that.

I was taught to live my life as a living witness of my faith.  Based on the actions of many, their God is pissed off, shunning everyone that doesn’t agree with all 857 essential doctrines.  I’m writing this long-winded diatribe because I want this group to know that their actions and good intentions are noticed.  You are presenting God in a way that is incredibly difficult to reject.  If I were to believe in God again, it would be a God that inspires these kinds of actions.

At the Jennifer Knapp meeting, I was talking to Kim Warrington, explaining that I hadn’t been back to campus since graduation, and that faith and I went our separate ways a long time ago.  I sensed that, much like I would have long ago, her mind was screaming “POUNCE! WITNESS!”  But she didn’t.  She simply said, distinctly and perfectly, “I’m glad you’re here.”  To me, that is faith put into fantastic action.

Intellectually, I can’t cross that line into faith.  But emotionally, I very much want to.  I doubt I’ll ever end up getting much past a simple belief in some kind of benevolent God, with some kind of positive afterlife, and even that will take a lot of time and a lot of work.  But for the first time in years, I want to give it the ‘ol college try.


  1. Ryan, I love your voice!! This is a blog I will for sure follow, consider me a fan.

  2. Love it, Ryan. It's like you reached into my brain.

  3. There is just so much here to address I don't know where to start so I guess I'll just start with "hello." So much of what you say is so familiar but then one should expect that most human beings share most thoughts. I am sorry you were taught a false understanding of god, jesus and faith. It is unfortunate we were all raised in a philosophically retarded culture, i.e modernity. I am fortunate to have a community of scholars and believers who have helped me understand these things, clarified and supported my faith. Everyone should have such treasure around them. It does come at the cost of being identified with jesus by those who hate him and being distrusted by those that prefer tradition and comfort to the biblical witness. Hope to interact with you sometime, perhaps at Gutenberg College's Summer Institute. You could google it. Logan, via aunt Debbie