“Why Do You Write If You Don’t Believe?”

I get lots of great questions by email and public comments on various threads. I received this one, on why I bother to write when I don’t hold religious beliefs anymore, from a good friend in a comment to another essay As I began answering, I felt this also should probably receive its own post. Here’s the entire question, quoted verbatim:

What perplexes me though, is why bother discussing Christianity in particular or any other religious system when you state quite clearly that Christians often lean on “faith” rather than reason. Knowing this, why feel compelled to defend your position, or persuade them differently?

Why make it a mission in a sense to discuss the views of people who want to believe in God, when you have turned to free thought reasoning and being agnostic? It’s like continuing to talk about an x-wife or former girlfriend for years and years after the relationship has ended. People do it, but there is no freedom in it.

I can only imagine (since I do likewise), that you have spent an enormous amount of brain energy contemplating and reasoning through everything you have discussed in this blog post. You spent hours writing it out, being selective in your wording, examples and illustrations. But I am perplexed why any of it was worth your time and efforts if you no longer believe any of it, and those who believe it are going to continue believing it. Seems you would be more successful discussing closer to where your at with people who are where your at.

Great questions. Thanks for asking. On the fly, I can list a few reasons why I write this stuff. There are probably other reasons, but here are the biggest ones, I think. I wrote this in one sitting, and I might add to it later, or modify it if I think I can more accurately express my thinking or if something else comes to mind.

1 ) People ask me what I believe and why. I figure they’re due an answer. They then begin to ask about and challenge my assumptions. I expand on that too.

2 ) I would like to help people. I have been on the evangelical Christian side of things and I know the secret doubts, double binds, paradoxes, inconsistencies and fears that believers harbor. I want to give a voice to those and to let people know and SEE that it’s ok to doubt, question and even reject beliefs, dogma and sacred cows where appropriate.

3 ) Religion is not harmless. Fewer than 40% of Americans accept evolution as factual and that statistic is directly related to church attendance and level of education. Here’s the link. Be sure to check out the “Related Items” on the right hand side. These beliefs are held by people who want to sit on school boards and decide what goes into science texts. I believe that’s contrary to good science, that it will harm us economically in the future by not giving children a solid foundation in science (thus harming them also and handicapping them in a competitive job market) and that it must be proactively opposed.

4 ) Religion is not harmless. To the degree to which people believe that things like homosexuality and same sex marriage are “sins” they will reflect that belief in their voting choices and they will teach it in the pulpit. They do so as a matter of faith, without scientific objectivity at all to substantiate the idea that same sex marriage is harmful (and this is only one of many examples, but I believe it is one of the greatest civil rights questions of our day) and with no justification other than scripture and religious authority. I believe such views are discriminatory and must be proactively opposed.

5 ) I too am interested in the world and universe I live in. If I lived in say, India, perhaps my writing might be directed more towards Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims. But I live here, and as much of the ongoing conversation is religious, and takes place in the public forum I would like to be part of the conversation. Keep in mind also that religion is not harmless. Presidential candidate Rick Perry explicitly says “‘Christian values’ should be given supremacy over other religions in guiding the U.S. government.” Michele Bachman, whether she was truly joking or not said that the earthquake and hurricane in Virginia were sent by God so that we would “get the message.” This is all part of the world I live in and I have something to say about it.

6 ) There are dear friends of mine who have encouraged me, with a good deal of resistance on my part initially, to talk about what I believe and tell my story. In fact there are some friends who have been stern with me on that and felt I actually had a moral obligation to do so after years of promoting evangelical fundamentalism. I ignored all this at first until getting a Facebook account, when it became impossible NOT to talk about.  I think my friends might have a point.

7 ) I want to help people. I get lots of email, not publicly visible of course, from people who are very grateful that I am writing what I write. It strengthens them, gives them hope, welcomes them back into the human race. People who do not believe in God are often seen as immoral, evil, lawless, receive death threats because of their unbelief, cannot yet be elected to high office, etc.). Now, I am not an atheist, but such views are outrageous and must be assertively opposed. Even people who want to continue to believe are grateful that I and many others are giving voice to their inner thoughts, doubts and fears.

When I used to attend Calvary Chapel, there were (and probably still are) a number of the pastors that liked this little line; “Some tell me my religion is a crutch. No, it’s not a crutch, it’s a whole stretcher!” There are some people whose lives will truly fall apart, implode without their religion. I’ve seen that over and over. It’s the new wine in old wineskins thing – some people will just burst. It seems especially true where people have histories of addictions and mental illnesses of various sorts. Some established and popular Christian musicians even appeal to those illnesses and addictions in their message offering Jesus as “the only cure.” I feel for such people. I am tempted to say that people in that category should not read posts such as mine, but there’s another side of me that thinks they absolutely should, that whether they agree with me or not, they should continue moving into health independent of their worldview. I do not want to see people suffer. I do want them to know that they don’t need theological crutches or stretchers to be whole and healthy. There are better courses of treatment.

8 ) I write because I believe that the kind of faith you refer to in your question, the kind that’s on the other end of a continuum with “reason” is not necessarily a good thing especially when it gets in the way of understanding the world as it really is. When I talk about “the world as it really is,” I am talking about versions of reality that are supported by testable, replicable, verifiable results (see the point above on science and evolution, for example). For everything that is not, I hold that it’s most reasonable to be agnostic rather than selling out to articles of faith.

I also want to show people, especially people who believe there is no alternative, that there is in fact a very robust, beautiful and whole alternative to faith. For me that alternative has made all the difference in my life. I am happier, things make much more sense, I feel I have a better moral foundation, I feel life is much more meaningful, I love more fully and deeply. Now there are people who will reject this outright and stick with faith. That’s fine. There are others who will see it as a breath of fresh air. My goal is not to destroy people’s beliefs. I am simply saying, “I don’t see that the emperor is wearing any clothes,” because I’ve changed the way I evaluate claims made about the world we live in. I no longer do so based only on faith or religious authority.

Let’s be clear about one thing; I am not on a mission to de-convert people, but having said that, not all people will continue to believe! This is borne out in the numbers, and while the ultra-religious will see this simply as part of the great apostasy foretold in scripture (which has been posited over and over again throughout the ages in a dizzying number of ways – check the link – enough to render it meaningless to me), I see it only as holding faith’s feet to the fire. If anyone, any faith, any authority wants to take their transcendent, ecstatic religious experiences and their theologies and extrapolate them, making objective claims about facts and the world we live in, then they will have to support those claims as we would expect support for any other claims. Rome no longer rules the world and the days of deference to religious authority are over.

We trust cardiologists to render us unconscious, rip our chests open with saws and knives, actually stop our hearts, cut away at arteries and all kinds of other stuff because we trust their training, what they know, the studying and research they’ve done, the clinical trials of the practices, procedures and technologies they use and the drugs they prescribe, and the past results of similar procedures. We do not trust them because of their theology or what their faith tells them.

9 ) I write because I am on my own journey, my own quest to understand my world and writing it down is my way of journaling it. I don’t see it as defending my position, but as sharing, explaining and clarifying (even to myself) what I believe. I’m happy to do so.

27 thoughts on ““Why Do You Write If You Don’t Believe?”

  1. Agreed. I have had a number of people ask why I continue to talk about things I no longer believe in. It is just as you said, it gives people who are questioning permission to speak. I spent years quietly wrestling with my questions, convinced I was alone. It was at a bible study when someone put forth a statement which questioned orthodoxy that I realized I was not the only one. It was empowering. One of the great things about all of this social media is that voices can no longer be snuffed out.

    I also write and speak because I am still on a journey of discovery. This is a process, not an ending.

  2. Thanks, Joe! As an individual struggling to make sense of a family crisis that occurred over two years ago and the almost complete lack of support from a pastor and staff of a church I was involved in for twenty years; I have certainly been open to different perspectives. Thanks for inspiring thoughtful discussion and honest questioning of the status quo.

  3. Someone wrote a comment anonymously with some specific and thoughtful replies to my points. I am however, not inclined to post anonymous posts. If the author would like to reconsider, I’d be happy to post the comment. I put my own name to my thoughts and take the consequences (see the Facebook thread where I posted the link to this article for example) and I expect everyone else to. I also expect all comments to be respectful and not hateful or abusive. Thank you.

    The anonymous comment included this:
    “I write anonymously, because if someone broaches certain topics and believes in certain ways people get hateful. Holding a conservative viewpoint in a public forum invites hate that is hard to believe.”

    By the way… other groups suffer as much hate at the hands of religious conservatives too, so we’re all in this boat together. Cheers!

    • well…it’s your blog (and I love it), but my view is, if the points are valid and it isn’t a troll, I would certainly publish the reply. I’m personally much more interested in the conversation itself, and even/often anonymous comments can add to and enrich a discussion. not to mention you’ve got me insanely curious about it now! ;-)

  4. OK, sorry to keep doing this, but this is the only way I can reply to the anonymous poster since he/she has not left me an email address. I am satisfied that there is decent reason for remaining anonymous. I am willing to post your original message or an edited one if you prefer, but you must at least identify yourself to me personally and confidentially. I will not disclose it, but I am fundamentally opposed to providing a platform for opinions without responsibility. If that is acceptable, email me at facebook or somewhere else. I will, as I said, retain your confidentiality. If not, thank you for the second note, your explanation and kind comments.

  5. Joe, I’ve been listening/reading your words for over 27 years now. I don’t always agree with, nor understand, your point of view, but I am so grateful you make the effort to put thoughts into words. That is not an easy task, and I certainly struggle putting my thoughts to words. Thank you for your honesty and beauty. You are truly remarkable,

    Peace!

  6. Hi Joe,

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspectives on an ongoing basis. I appreciate it, as I’ve long held to the idea that if one’s beliefs aren’t subjected to intense scrutiny then they’re not worth much. Because of this, I’ve made it a point in my education to study all beliefs and lifestyles with an open mind; and a point in my relationships to cultivate friendships with people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds with whom I can share and often debate points of view, thought, and belief.

    Seeing your evolution over the past 25+ years has mirrored the journey that so many of us have taken, though we all end up in different places. Just wanted to say that I, for one, appreciate you sharing your journey. If we all would share like this, without judgment, perhaps there would be more understanding, which would benefit us all.

    Steve

  7. while I agree with what you have stated Joe, and I have actually found deeper faith in Judaism than I ever found in christianity. Now, before you say anything in response, I recognize that you may view that as another “religion” and therefor precisely what you were talking about. The thing I love about Judaism is, that it shares a faith and belief in G-d, but ALSO it is a religion of great debate. There are NO correct answers, no ONE way to believe. The old saying is “Ask a 3 Jews a question, and you’ll get 14 answers”. There are in fact just as many atheistic Jews as religious ones.

    The ONLY point that I would dispute is this……I don’t trust a cardiologist to put me to sleep…that’s why G-d made anesthesiologists!

    Grace and Peace

    Lion

  8. ” I am talking about versions of reality that are supported by testable, replicable, verifiable results.” This sort of begs the question. The whole evolutionary narrative is dependent on an idea/ideas neither testable, replicable or verifiable by the scientific method. It’s the classic bait and switch. By defining terms so widely, the word “evolution” then carries multiple definitions and is used freely to mean “natural selection”, “change”, “spontaneous abiogenesis”, “macroevolution”, “mankind evolved from an apelike ancestor” , etc. “Evolution” is truly the sacred cow of acadamia. To say or imply that no one with a brain opposes it is not honest.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jason. Evolution is absolutely testable in many, many ways. Lots of papers and books have documented this, even in the laboratory where bacteria can be observed evolving because they go through eons and many many generations in a matter of weeks. I suggest you read books by the evangelical christians Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins for starters. Jerry Coyne’s book is great as well.

  9. “Evolution is absolutely testable in many, many ways. Lots of papers and books have documented this, even in the laboratory where bacteria can be observed evolving because they go through eons and many many generations in a matter of weeks.”

    Thanks for the reply. This kind of logic proves my point though. It’s still….bacteria. And that’s the point. To say after eons of time, amoeba can turn into a human being, you are entering a realm outside of testable empirical evidence. It’s an extrapolation that is unprovable yet assumed by today’s definition of science (naturalsim, materialism). I am familiar with Coyne, Collins and Miller, but find their positions wanting, scientifically and biblically speaking.

    • You said “The whole evolutionary narrative is dependent on an idea/ideas neither testable, replicable or verifiable by the scientific method.” My comment, bacteria or not, was meant to show that it is in fact testable and replicable. There are many, many such studies. Even the Christian and evangelical Christian scientists at that know better. Good luck with your biblical science and thanks for the comment.

  10. That’s the crux of the issue. To say that a bacteria can “evolve” is completely different than saying that because of that, therefore, a single celled organism can then also “evolve” say, the human brain over millions of years. This goes back to my original point about the definition of the word “evolution”. It has a very fluid and wide ranging definition which allows a Darwinist to say, “Anyone who denies evolution is anti-science, it’s observed in the labratory.” Why? Because not only does his definition of the word evolution involve the bacteria or fruit fly scenario, it also means “mankind evolved over millions of years from an apelike ancestor.” This is the objection. I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that there are competing ideaologies at play and it’s possible for people to look at the evidence through different lenses so to speak and interpret that evidence so. Unfortunately, if one says, “Wait, the complexity of life is so mind blowing, it’s not possible that this happened by chance” it’s labeled “religion” and therefore marginalized by the gatekeepers of acadamia. Anyways…thank you for engaging me. I do own some Undercover cds and have been a fan of your production work over the years. I stumbled upon your blog here and found it quite interesting. Take care…I may visit time to time. :)

  11. …so when I say that evolution depends on ideas that are not testable, I’m speaking in terms of big picture, single celled organism to humanity evolution. This was the impetus to Stephen Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, the evidence for gradualism was so lacking, a new hypothesis was proposed. Have a happy new year sir.

    • Even the big picture is testable. Predictions have been made about types of animal fossils that should be found in specific strata and found they have been. But even outside fossils, genetics also confirms evolution and is testable and replicable. Whether anyone accepts it or not, we do share a good chunk of genetic material with bacteria and most other life forms too. But really, I have little appetite for arguing it and the earlier comment about Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, the guy who oversaw the sequencing of the human genome and Ken Miller being found scientifically wanting (and they are both devout christians) highlighted to me that we will not have much common scientific basis on which to dialogue. They are expert as the experts get. It’s a settled matter in the academy, just not in the church. Thank you for visiting and I wish you a happy new year as well.

      • My comment on Collins was an overstatement. I do recognize his brilliant scientific contributions regarding the human genome etc. I disagree with his theological conclusions. As far as whether the “big picture” is testable, we will have to agree to disagree. It was good “chatting”!

  12. I grew up in church. A number of my Christian “friends” have turned their backs on me because I no longer believe what they do. These are people that I’ve known since being only weeks old. It breaks my heart, but I don’t have any choice but to be who – and what – I am. Honest with myself.

    Thanks for your words. It’s easy to think I’m alone in this. Good to be reminded that other “backsliders” like me exist.

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