How It Happened: My Deconversion Part 3

Links: Part 1 // Part 2

For most of 2009, I remained unsure of some of my beliefs. Doctrinally, I had a firm foundation — I knew what I believed and why. But when it came to the subject of who would be saved and who wouldn’t, I felt like I was at a loss. I had grown up seeing things in a rather black and white fashion. As I got older, I realized that there were many shades of gray when it came to what was right or wrong. For instance, there were some things that I believed would be wrong for me to do, but I acknowledged that they may be okay for someone else who didn’t fully understand what would be wrong about them. In other words, I paid great attention to things like the Parable of the Talents, which shows God expects more from those who are capable of more. So who was I to say what was right and what was wrong? Everyone’s on their own path and learns at their own speed.

However, I did know that some things were required for salvation. I mean, God certainly has some standards. And why all the passages about Hell and punishment, why the stern demeanor in the OT, if God’s love and mercy were going to trump all that? Obviously some people would be found unworthy. It initially seemed to me that if nothing else, belief in Jesus must be a prerequisite for salvation. But as I thought more about that, it didn’t seem to make much sense. After all, where and when a person is born has an awful lot to do with the religious beliefs they eventually hold. If belief in Jesus is a definite prerequisite, then it seems like there are still many people who will be lost through no real fault of their own. That didn’t seem just to me.

So maybe God judged more on the moral actions of each of us. Maybe the truly good people from all religions would be saved. But that runs counter to everything the Bible teaches. Why all the talk of faith, why the commands to spread the word, if those had nothing to do with salvation? Many things about the point of the gospel weren’t making sense to me.

So in 2009, I didn’t make many posts on this blog. I just didn’t know what to say. In 2006 and 2007, I wrote pretty strongly about some very big subjects. I didn’t leave a lot of room for variation on those things. I believed the Bible taught a particular thing, and that’s what I wrote about. So in 2009, I just didn’t feel strongly enough about anything to write down something definitive. And in March of that year, someone named Andrew wrote a comment on a blog post I had done at the end of 2006 that tried to rationalize the OT’s brutality with a loving, righteous God. He eviscerated my article. I didn’t bother replying to him, because I actually agreed with most of what he said. Here’s how he started off:

First, let me start with one of my favorite quotes:

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
~Voltaire

Now think of how many atrocities you could commit in the name of God based on the justification the author of this article gives. My favorite quote, justifying God committing genocide, is: “All of us will die…does it really matter how it happens?” It is truly scary to me to think that millions of people think this way. Throughout this article human life is completely devalued, making actions like murder and genocide “no big deal in the grand scheme of things.” This is, almost exactly, the thinking of Muslim terrorists when they flew planes into the World Trade Center. It’s the same product with different packaging.

You can read the rest here, if you like. In September of 2009, I listened to a podcast of NPR’s program Fresh Air. I’m a huge fan. And this particular episode played an interview with Forrest Church, a Unitarian minister who had just died. The interview was outstanding, and I recommend listening to it if you have time. But one part in particular resonated with me:

God doesn’t throw a three-year-old child out of a third story window or allow a drunken driver to kill a family crossing the street. This is not part of God’s plan. These are the accidents of life and death. And if God, for instance, is responsible for a tsunami that obliterates the lives of 100,000 people and leaves their families in tatters, then God’s a bastard. I cannot believe in such a God. For me, God is the life force, that which is greater than all and yet present in each. But God is not micromanaging this world.

That did not really line up with everything I had always believed. But it did made a lot of sense. His view of morality was so clear, that he could confidently say a God that would directly ravage people through horrible accidents and natural disasters was “a bastard.” That hit me like a sledgehammer. Not only because it was such a strong statement, but also because I realized he was right. Why equivocate on things like natural disasters and the brutality of the Old Testament? His statement showed me that we shouldn’t have to make excuses for things like that — they’re simply wrong. If any of us had the power to prevent the death of 138,000 people in a tsunami, we would have prevented it. If any of us could prevent a child from suffering from a freak accident, or a horrible disease, or malicious abuse, we would. Sadly, we are rarely in a position to affect those things. But the God of the Bible could prevent them if he wanted to. This is known as the problem of evil, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I had by no means lost my faith at this point — and I wasn’t ready to say that the Forrest Churches of the world were completely right — but I was steadily realizing that there were some real problems with what I believed, and I wasn’t sure what to do about them. We’ll get into that further in the next post.

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27 thoughts on “How It Happened: My Deconversion Part 3”

  1. Nate,

    The worst part of faith is this: recognizing everything you have said about God is true, and still knowing that He *is*. Sometimes, faith morphs from being a volitional choice into a real, well, b!tch. But, love is like that, and God is love, or so He said.

    The hardest thing for me to give up was my two dimensional Sunday-school appropriate God. God is very, very dangerous, very cruel and very beautiful, and if I believe and accept the good, I must also accept the bad. In His cruelty, God has made Himself all too real in my life several times, and so I can not deny that He is there.

    I appreciate your story, and I empathize. Sometimes I wish I could be an atheist. I would probably sleep better.

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  2. I totally get what you’re saying. I actually plan to do a post very soon on God (religion) and comfort — I don’t find that they’re always in direct correlation.

    Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Nate, I think you know what I’ll say, so I can be brief.

    I appreciate your sharing all this, and I empathise with where you were in your thinking back then. You were right that you needed to leave the form of faith that you grew up with. But I believe there are options and explanations that you may not have considered sufficiently. Belief in God, or not, is not a binary decision!

    I look forward to more. Best wishes.

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  4. Thanks unklee. 🙂 And just for the record, I agree that belief in God is not a binary decision (I like the way you worded that). I guess you could call me a “weak” atheist. I’m agnostic about the existence of God, I just don’t currently believe in any of the typical ones.

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  5. The problem of evil/ free will, both things I’d like to discuss a bit more in detail.
    However, I think it might be better to consider a different view of God. You seem to be after a god that you can completely understand, one that you can fit into a totally logical box. This, to me at least, is counterproductive. I don’t see the sense in a god that I view on the same intellectual/moral/philosophical level as myself. To me, that is the whole point of faith and worship. Believing, trusting in something that is higher, superior to me and my ways of thinking, that I should be conforming my ways to his, not trying to make him fit my understanding of how the world should work.

    It seems to me like you have taken a good look at the world, a study of the bible, and tried to reverse engineer god out of the two. The ‘math’ doesn’t work and so you have concluded that god must not exist.

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  6. Commenting mainly because so far your only comments so far have been from those who think you are mistaken. Your examination of such evidence as exists – earnestly seeking to find support for your faith, but thinking critically about genuine concerns, has been denigrated as ‘reverse engineering’.

    So I wish to balance out the comments by stating that I stand with you on all you have expressed so far. You also stand accused of strong atheism, whereas I read your stance as being, like mine, soft atheism. There may be a God (though I see no good evidence of such), but if there be a God, I would expect the contradictory and brutal concepts of it expressed by the people of more primitive times to be quite wide of the mark. This is about where Ingersoll stood.

    I am looking forward to more of your story. It is hard to disagree without being disagreeable. I hope I have not marred the courtesy and respect which has characterized the comments on your blog so far.

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  7. Have you actually attended a unitarian church yet? and if so how was your expierence?

    and to Unklee…can you please explain what you mean by, “Belief in God, or not, is not a binary decision!”

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  8. “Unklee…can you please explain what you mean by, “Belief in God, or not, is not a binary decision!””

    Simple belief or disbelief are not the only two options. For example (in the context of this discussion), one could disbelieve the Bible is inerrant but still believe, or disbelieve the Bible is inspired in a particular way that one imagines it ‘should be’ but still believe, or one could disbelieve the doctrines of a particular church and still believe in God.

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  9. One could also believe in “a god” without believing in any particular God.

    @ exrelayman — thanks for the comment! It’s nice to hear from some people that see things similarly. 🙂

    @ M Rodriguez — yes, I have been a Unitarian service. We went a couple of months ago, and I kind of enjoyed it. There was a wide assortment of people there, which was pretty cool. The service was very serene. The kinds of services I went to growing up were definitely traditional, and we only sang a capella. I was a little worried that the Unitarian church would have a more contemporary service with a lot of instruments, etc. I think I just would have felt uncomfortable with that. But they just used a piano. And when they did the offering, they just had some piano music as a background interlude. It was really nice. We even sang some of the same songs that I was used to, but a few of the lyrics were different. There was nothing that referenced Jesus, and any references to God gave the impression that it was a nebulous “god of the universe” kind of thing. The speaker that day was a rabbi who mostly spoke about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

    We haven’t been back, though we plan to go again at some point. I enjoyed it, but I don’t feel a real need for church services. At the beginning of my deconversion, I did feel that need, because I had gone to church at least 3 times a week my entire life. I felt a very noticeable void whenever those times rolled around on Sundays and Wednesdays. But that feeling went away fairly quickly. I may do a post on this soon to talk about it in more detail — thanks for asking!

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  10. @ Unklee
    Okay now I understand, thanks for clarifying. In context I would actually agree wity you

    @ Nate
    I’ve actually tried to talk my wife into visiting a UU Church. But she is very much against the idea.

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  11. The coolest thing about them is that they’re so accepting of everyone, so it’s a very welcoming environment. If she ever gave it a chance, she might like it. But the absence of certain Christian qualities that she’s used to seeing might not go over well. Hard to tell.

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  12. I have really appreciated your Deconversion series so far. This post in particular was very relatable. I was not raised in a religious household so when I began trying to understand the faith of my friends I went through this thought process. Really, what I like about your story so far is that is it a confirmation for my lack of belief. I am very happy to know I am not alone.

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  13. Hi Sierra, thanks for your comment! I finally realized that I hadn’t written about this and that it might be interesting to some people. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it!

    By the way, you have one of the coolest names I’ve ever seen! 🙂

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  14. A great story so far Nate, as I knew it would be. It is truly understandable how you got to where you are today in your belief. I would agree with you, throughout all the exchanges we’ve had so far, in that I wouldn’t categorize you as a “hard” atheist, but honestly questioning all that you’d once held as “right”. I applaud your search and am happy to walk with you along the way.

    I also must say I really like unklee’s quote, “Belief in God, or not, is not a binary decision.” That’s cool. I’m so gonna use that someday.

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  15. As others have said, I too have enjoyed these. You are a great storyteller man.

    I’m torn every time I read one. I find myself both saddened and relating to you at the same time. I see some of myself in your story no doubt, but I can’t help but keep returning to Jesus and the hope his message offers.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  16. “Now think of how many atrocities you could commit in the name of God based on the justification the author of this article gives. My favorite quote, justifying God committing genocide, is: “All of us will die…does it really matter how it happens?” It is truly scary to me to think that millions of people think this way. Throughout this article human life is completely devalued, making actions like murder and genocide “no big deal in the grand scheme of things.” This is, almost exactly, the thinking of Muslim terrorists when they flew planes into the World Trade Center. It’s the same product with different packaging.”

    I would like to address this chunk first, especially, “All of us will die…does it really matter how it happens?”, which is true but that doesn’t mean that we as humans have the right to pull the trigger on someone else’s life… but God does. Like Job says in the wake of the death of all his children “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” I’ve heard it said that God is the biggest mass murderer in the world if you count up all the atrocities in the Bible and/or all the people that have been killed in the name of God in “holy” wars such as the crusades. Correction: God has ended the life of everyone who has ever lived unless you count the people that were killed by another human, that’s why it’s called “murder” because someone took God’s job which is against the rules. If you believe in the Garden of Eden or even if you see it as just a helpful metaphor, God ended every ensuing life by denying access to the Tree of Life after the fall.

    “If any of us had the power to prevent the death of 138,000 people in a tsunami, we would have prevented it.”

    That of course is true, but I can guarantee all of those people would have been dead within 120 years even if they hadn’t been killed by the tsunami. God operates on eternal time, our lifespan is but a breath according to the Bible. Is that a long breath or a short breath?

    Much of this seems to me to come down to us thinking that our morals have trumped God’s morals. Unfortunately, if there is a God/god/goddess/gods and/or goddesses he/it/they make(s) the rules, not us.

    Once again, just my opinion, I don’t claim to speak for God.

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  17. Hi plasticpatrick, thanks for the comment. Your view sounds very similar to the one I used to hold. To me, this isn’t a matter of questioning God, but questioning what we’re told about God. If someone walked up to us today and began telling us all about the god that speaks to them, we would naturally be skeptical. But most of us accepted the Bible before we were old enough to be skeptical of it. So it’s easier for us to accept everything it says, even when there are parts that don’t make much sense to us. Hence, we excuse those places by saying that God’s ways are higher than our ways, etc.

    But if we could back up just a bit and look at all of it with fresh eyes, would we find it as believable? We don’t really know who wrote the Bible — what if they had no more information on God than the stranger that walks up to us today? I think these moral issues, like the ones above, are clues to the truthfulness of the Bible’s claims. It’s not that my morals are higher than God’s — it’s that God’s actions as portrayed in the Bible sometimes offend the morals that we all possess. Even in your own comment, you don’t deny that the Bible sometimes attributes horrible things to God. We have to cover for that by saying that God gave us life, so he can take it away. But would we accept that reasoning if a parent used that defense for murdering his child? Or we might say that how and when we die in this life is not as important as we might assume, because our real life is the next one. But none of us actually knows that the next one will even happen — or what it will be. So how can we be so confident in dismissing the only life we know for sure we have?

    I think it’s valid to question what the Bible tells us, since there are so many questions about its authenticity. And I think examining the morals attributed to God in the Bible is valid also. Christians often say that we wouldn’t even have morals without God — so if they came from God, why can’t we use them to examine the claims others make about him? If he invented morality, it seems he would wield it deftly. Instead, the Bible portrays him as a brutal savage — at least in places. That would be like the inventor of the can-opener opening all his cans with sharp rocks. It just raises a lot of questions.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I hope it helps explain my position a little better. I’m not questioning God so much as I’m questioning the Bible, and I hope that came through clearly. Thanks for chiming in!

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  18. Just now catching up on this and will probably spend the rest of the afternoon reading through these posts. WOW! I’m so glad I’m not alone in this world!
    I have wrestled long and hard in thinking about death & tragedy and how a so called loving god would allow this to happen. And then when I read through the Old Testament and get stuck in places like Exodus and Joshua, for instance, where this god tells the people to go in and kill them all…the innocent women and children as well; I can’t help but shake my head and wonder why.
    Now I’m going back to reading, thanks!

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  19. A great read and journey so far. I applaud your openness and honesty! Anything I’m adding is not meant to be an argument in itself, nor is it acknowledging other comments, as I am merely writing reflections as I go. If these comments provide seeds of thought, use them; if not, discard them.

    I have often wondered what it means to believe in Jesus. What does it mean to believe? Oftentimes, this word, when used in Christian circles, seems to imply a corresponding knowledge of tenets of faith, doctrine, theology, and so on. But this is knowledge and not faith. To put it another way, would a severely mentally-retarded person be incapable of belief because they can’t read the Bible, make a statement of faith, or even understand the concept of the word “believe”? Is it possible that our common understanding of this concept of having faith in Jesus Christ is flawed? Could it be that faith in Jesus, and of God, is outside of the workings of our human minds?

    In regards to the problem of evil you raise here, I do agree in general with C.S. Lewis as cited in your link (see “Turning the Tables”, 2.6 in the article). However, the discussion of this is far beyond a blog comment or even a blog post, so I’ll defer for now…

    Onward…

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  20. Nate, I’m really enjoying this series, and at the risk of posting an “preemptive” comment before completing it … I just wanted to say that one of the things I have discovered on my own deconstruction journey (not a deconstruction of my faith in Jesus, but a total deconstruction of my church-based belief system) is that the pagan god Janus more closely resembles what today’s Evangelicals worship. I do not believe this god is who Jesus portrays.

    For me, the key is understanding that men (albeit inspired) wrote the Bible. And while inspiration itself may be a controversial topic, I think it simply means that these men did the best they could to interpret what they believed they were hearing from God – NOT that God spoke and they transcribed.

    What not one church ever told me that has gone a long way in setting me free from the nonsense is that in Jesus’ day there was quite the controversy over which O.T. books were truly inspired and which were not. I have started paying attention to which books Jesus quoted from… Another thing that has helped is when I first heard someone explain how both Jesus and Paul took traditionally judgment-oriented Scriptures but quoted them from a perspective of non-violence. You could even say that both of them re-interpreted the Old Testament completely – through the lens of Jesus. This is what I am seeking to learn to do.

    Some books which may encourage you:
    “What the Bible Really Says about Hell”
    “Razing Hell”
    “Stricken By God?”

    A podcast which I have come to love:
    “Beyond the Box”

    Keep up the great work! I’m looking forward to completing your series and reading more from you.

    Grace and Peace,
    Judah First

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  21. Hi,
    I appreciate the honesty of discussion here. The topic of Joshua (and his ‘war crimes’) has been raised within the context of the whole concept of suffering. Now, suffering per se is a big subject, and I don’t have a strong background in philosophy to adequately describe all the alternative universes we get if we want no suffering but still want free will, etc etc. CSLewis has done some interesting work there, others have also. But back to Joshua. The Head of OT at Moore Bible College in Sydney is also a contact at my local church. He wrote this article on Joshua, and I’m hoping to one day get the time to raise the Ezekiel 26 judgement of Tyre with him.

    Note: the hyperbole of Hebrews writing about war described below may also have a role in describing God’s judgement against the Phoenician nation of Tyre. But I’m just guessing. I’ll see what Andrew says if he can stand me hassling him again! (I’ve been picking his brains on a few things lately).
    http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/holy-war-islamic-state-israel-old-testament

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  22. Hi Eclipse Now,

    The article you linked to is very interesting. I’d like to point out a couple of things that it doesn’t mention, though. For one, let’s assume the author’s claim is true that the phrases about utter destruction and annihilation in Joshua were hyperbole, similar to what other Canaanite nations used. First of all, to me, this illustrates just how similar the OT writings are to the very human writings that the nations around them were using. So it makes me even more skeptical that the Israelites’ writings were inspired by an actual deity. Secondly, there are other OT examples where they literally did mean utter annihilation of a people, including their infants. Both Moses and Saul are given these instructions at different times.

    Secondly, I’m not especially convinced by the “they deserved it” argument. If the Canaanites were depraved idolaters, perhaps things could have been different if God had interacted with them as directly as he supposedly did with the Israelites. For instance, no one expects a child like Tarzan to be as well-behaved as a kid from a loving home. Neglect will do that. Had God been more involved with all the other nations, maybe things wouldn’t have gotten so bad.

    Finally, you may be interested in the consensus of modern historians and archaeologists who study the region of Palestine. It’s my understanding that they don’t view the OT’s conquest narrative as historical. Personally, I’ve read one of Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman’s books on the subject, and it turns out that the archaeological evidence doesn’t support the conqeust at all. The article you referenced said this:

    archaeology suggests Jericho and Ai were military strongholds virtually empty of civilians

    Actually, neither site appears to have been inhabited during the time of the conquest.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua#Historicity

    The information out there is pretty fascinating — and it was incredibly shocking to me when I first started researching it. You may find it interesting, as well.

    And thanks for the comment!

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