God, Cigarettes and Sadness

scan0008I felt like I had lost my best friend.  Some of my friends had told me they had felt the same way when they went through it.  It didn’t stop me though.  I knew what I had to do and there comes a point where enough is enough. I rolled down the window and felt the instant blast of the desert heat somewhere between Baker, CA and the Nevada border on the way to Las Vegas with my band mates and simply threw my cigarettes out.  I hadn’t planned it, but I had reached bottom. I had been waking up with my throat hurting, raw and gritty.  I had fears that I was surely headed towards one of those tricorder-looking things that smokers have to hold up to their throats to talk after they’ve had their vocal chords removed.   I had had other such tantrum moments where I tried to quit but this one stuck and I have not inhaled anything since May 4, 1990.  For a while it truly was like mourning.

“God, please forgive me while I work through this, while I work through these irritating but persistent sticky questions that have a direct impact on whether you can even really exist or not.” 

Dismissing faith was not unlike losing a best friend all over again.  I had practice.  This prayer was sincere and I did pray it, even as I knew it was also completely absurd right at that moment.  If God isn’t real, then there is no there there, and if God is real, I felt I probably needed to be terrified.  Religious fear is powerful.  He was slipping away at an intellectual level (and that is significant because the bible makes a great number of claims about the world and time-space events that should be verifiable), not at an emotional level (I was not bitter, disenchanted, or anything like that).

The sense of attachment to all things Christian, including the fear of the consequences of heresy and apostasy was still potent.  There comes a time though when you have to do what you have to do and in the same way I realized that cigarettes were not any kind of friend at all, neither was a God I had to fear while sincerely working through difficult questions and doubts. For the first time I was able to look that fear right back in the face and cut myself some slack anyway, even if God could not.  I was still afraid and still felt like I had lost some kind of tether – to something, I’m not sure what – but a tether, a lifeline, an anchor, or perhaps a best friend. Any number of metaphors might work.

When I consider the reactions to my dismissal of faith, I first have to remember my own reaction, and it was a reaction.  I was very much an observer of my own process as much as a participant.  None of it was easy.  I was eventually able to consider the idea that, “I may just be an unbeliever,” (although I felt then that I could never adopt the label of “atheist”).  What was it like to be an unbeliever, maybe an atheist whether I wanted to be one or not, as outrageous an idea as that sounded?  What would that mean? What are the implications for my friends, family and especially my children, for those who knew me as the guy in Undercover, an outspoken Christian songwriter, performer, producer and evangelist who had led altar calls and worship from the stage, started a bible study and became the figurehead for a Christian record label?  What would that mean for my eternal fate and destiny, an excruciating question because it can never be answered definitively, enough to drive many to avoid the question altogether?

My identity had been so wrapped up in my faith that I now felt dissociated, without a rooted sense of recognizable self, even though in a strange way I felt I was more myself than I had been in years.  I had no context for what life would be like without religious belief anymore than I had a context for a daily routine without cigarettes.  Smokers and former smokers know what I mean. Former believers know what I mean too. Many people simply live on in their dissonance between what they feel they need to believe and what we know makes sense because they cannot imagine a context or an identity without faith. Richard Dawkins, hinted at this when he was asked if he had any friends who are believers.  He answered, “I’m friendly with some bishops and vicars who kind of believe in something and enjoy the music and the stained glass.”

Of course religion runs much deeper than cigarettes and this helps me understand the surprising reactions of others to my dismissal of faith. The range of those reactions, too many to list here, and their intensity never ceases to amaze me.   I keep a collection of the more interesting ones.  There is one that keeps coming up in different forms much more than any other, from the somewhat reasonable and generous to the more judgmental, and that’s the one I want to focus on – not so much to answer, but to try to understand it.

So many artists from earlier days in the Christian scene who have since abandoned or radically altered their former belief system tend to be far more bitter and antagonistic towards Christians who have “stayed the course,” for lack of a better phrase, and I appreciate your gentleness and civility in being the opposing side to the discussion, though I confess you’ll have to forgive me for being saddened at where your journey has thus far led you. I still appreciate you, and your body of work that was such a source of inspiration to us as young adults.
But for me, to think of anyone being without the Jesus of Scripture as a living Presence in their lives is not just sad, it is a tragedy. And for someone to have once known that Presence and not know it any longer… can you see how I would think that is not just a tragedy, but a horrific tragedy?  As someone who appreciates reason, Ojo, I think you’ll see the reasonableness of this: If the Jesus Story as recorded by Scripture is true, and you reject it, your story is a tragedy. If the Jesus Story is false, and I embrace it, that too is a tragedy… esp. because truth in my life was the mainspring behind my intense search for (or subverting of) belief in God.
I would no sooner read leftist propaganda from the Huffington Post than you would Truth from God’s Word. Still can’t believe I’m talking to “Ojo” from Undercover. (name withheld) had warned me, but It’s just very sad to me. I’m pretty sure you won’t want me to, but I’m going to make it a point to pray that God will soften your heart and draw you back to Himself. You obviously have a dysfunctional relationship with your Father (whose gifts and callings are without repentance).”
They were once the favorite band of my 86 y/o mother. When I let her read some of Ojoes [sic] essays about atheism and agnostism [sic], she broke down and cried.

And so it goes. There are simply too many people who have this response to call it an anomaly.  But notice that while they all express sadness, nobody explains why they are sad, what they are actually sad for.  I have asked and asked without result.  I can only come up with a few possibilities.

I’m OK
First is the belief that I have been harmed somehow. But I have not lost a limb or been diagnosed with cancer, I have not lost a loved one (recently) or anything like that. Most people don’t realize what they’re really suggesting is that I am, contrary to my own assessment of my own life, somehow worse off as a result of my journey! What is there to be saddened about? I’ve said many times that my life is better in every way since I have left orthodoxy – every single way, including a deeper sense of meaning in this life. Some religious people just cannot bring themselves to imagine that possibility, because of what that would mean. But for me it’s absolutely true. In what sense has my life been harmed, or is now being squandered, or wasted?

My Eternal Soul
Second is the possibility that the sadness is not about my life here, but about other-worldly stuff like forgiveness of sins, life or torment in the hereafter, spiritual warfare, relationships with heavenly hosts of one kind or another, basically all things which, once alleged, end the conversation. As Delos McKown says, “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike,” and there is just nowhere to go with all that stuff. If the supernatural has no observable effect on the natural world, then why even talk about it?   Even still though, what would there be to possibly be sad about?

The angle the second comment above seems to be making is an over-simplified variation of Pascal’s wager.  If the Jesus story of the Bible is true and I do not accept it, it is a tragedy (for some reason, presumably eternal damnation), just as it would be for him if it was not true.  Life is wasted in either case.  But the same could be said of any of the world’s religions!  If the Allah story of the Quran is true, is it not also a tragedy as well for those who do not believe it?  Or if the Jesus story of the Westboro Baptists is true, is that also a tragedy for those who do not embrace it?  Most American Christians have no problem dismissing these out of hand, but are genuinely dismayed when their own Jesus story and all that goes with it are similarly dismissed. I understand that everyone thinks only their own religion is unequivocally true and the others heretical or worse, but none are any more convincing than another on the merits.

Again I have to ask though, where is the cause for sadness?  Is it because I will be going to hell?  If so, the conversation ends there.  Hell exists only in the realm of faith.  Even conceding the point, why so sad that I am going to hell but not equally or even more sad that certainly members of one’s own family, certain friends, or billions of the world’s children of God are going there too?  Why not then live in perpetual and infinite sadness?

Sad For God’s Sake
Perhaps this sadness is on behalf of Jesus. Some have suggested that to move away from Orthodoxy is to break the heart of God. There is no need for sadness! To any living, loving deities that may exist, Jesus, any, I am a resounding and unequivocal “Yes!” I call out to love, cry out with open arms for any way I can know and relate as intimately as I can! I hold no ill will or malice against any possible benevolent deity and mean no harm to love. Even physicist and renowned atheist Victor Stenger writes that the honest unbeliever must acknowledge the possibility of God’s existence if real evidence ever shows up.  Heaven has kept its secrets well, so while I am open, I am left in the absence of any evidence to stumble along on my own, doing the best I can imperfectly with what I have at my disposal. I simply will not and cannot just take on faith what I know is not true or what I even suspect is not true, what we have learned is not true.  If there is “sin” it is that, the denial of my conscience, my heart, and my intellect.

I Have Abandoned The Community
Instead, maybe the most likely and also the most dangerous explanation for sadness might be the idea that I am no longer “part of the team.”  All that stuff I mentioned earlier, a founder of Undercover, Christian songwriter, performer, producer and evangelist who had led altar calls and worship from the stage, bible study leader and Christian record label figurehead and owner, has now all been tossed aside apparently; or not.

My band has been my closest community and in many ways it still is.  It has been the platform and chronicle for so much of my personal journey as an artist and a man.  Some of the music I’ve written, especially in the early years is immature, but lots of it still has deep meaning for me.  The band, the music, the songs and concerts have been meaningful for our audience as well, a sort of rite of passage for us all and the basis of magnificent relationships with many people.  How many great artists have I been able to produce, providing a channel for their music and their own voices!  What grounds are there to be sad about any of this, and what is there to be sad about, exactly?

Is my dismissal of faith sad because I am no longer actively working to fulfill my part of the Great Commission and build the kingdom of God?  If so, is life really that utilitarian?  Is that the source of meaning for a human life? Is it like a sporting event where once people cheered but now they mourn because this is somehow a hit to the team; one of the starters has been traded? In what way is my life now as a father, a musician and a professor any less useful in real and observable ways to the lives I come in contact with?

Let’s look at it another way.  What does it really mean to not be “part of the team” anyway?  What team am I no longer part of that requires sadness? If it means I no longer share the same beliefs and the worldview that comes with them, then you’ve got me there. Is that really a reason to be sad?  In what observable way does this have any negative impact at all?

Instead, how about the idea that “the team” consists of all human beings and that our highest mission and calling is to learn and practice love and kindness to all?  What if that was the over-arching taxonomy by which we classify people and the measure of their lives rather than by their profession of faith? Wouldn’t sadness vanish instantly?  Does faith prevent this worldview?

Are love and kindness exclusively realized or perhaps fully realized only by believers exclusively through their faith and creed?  Are you able to entertain the idea that there are people who hold wildly different views than yours or no supernatural views at all and still enjoy the exact same status before your God as you, perhaps even a higher status?  If not, please ponder what that means for a moment, especially regarding the way you esteem others and ultimately treat them.

So you see, I have asked myself many questions trying to understand the idea that somehow because I am no longer a Christian that there is a reasonable basis for sadness that is rooted in some kind of virtuous fortitude. This is not about me.  Most of these people do not know me or the intimate circumstances of my life.  It is about their own worldviews and outlooks on humanity and the way their own faiths respond, and that is what my questions here are meant to explore. The answers have more to say about the mourners and their beliefs than it does the disposition of my life and soul.

It is not easy taking a hard look at our own beliefs.  Changing them is even harder.  It’s like losing a best friend. There is no need to be sad.  Rejoice!  For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy! We can grow past the obstacles that religion so often throws in our paths. We can know some things about the world and not worry about what it does to our doctrine. We can transcend ideological positions and the requirement for correct beliefs and thought policing, becoming better human beings, more loving and less divisive. We can learn to see the connectedness of all peoples of any creed or station.  We can know the fullness of the human experience and realize our full potential, unfettered and unencumbered with having to run things through a religious filter!

Our identity depends on our beliefs.  We struggle for context when we consider our own doubts and what it might mean if our doubts have teeth.  Coming to terms with that would indeed be much harder than redefining a life without cigarettes. Smokers, former smokers and former believers know what I mean.  I wrote this a while ago, certainly nothing to be sad about at all:

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.

Have I missed other possibilities?  If you are one who has the same reaction of sadness to others leaving the faith, what is it exactly that you are sad about?

UPDATE – 9/10/13:  I did receive one thoughtful reply that fell outside the possibilities I outlined here, at least in part.  I will reproduce and answer it and link to it here when I am finished.

This post initially appeared on my friend Andrew’s blog, Hackman’s Musings.

25 thoughts on “God, Cigarettes and Sadness

      • What if my truth doesn’t require me to love deeper and allows me to harm others? Is it any less valid?

      • You seemed to imply that only a truth that required or motivated one towards love and kindness would be a legitimate “truth”.

      • I don’t think I implied that at all. The original post thanked me for affecting his life with the truth, and then supposed to play a guessing game with me by asking about the nature of “truth” he was talking about that I may have been involved with for him. I would not personally willingly be involved in any kind of “truth” that does not somehow result in love or does harm to others.

        Again, though, replacing the word “valid” with “legitimate” still doesn’t clear your question up for me. What does that mean? There are certainly people whose mission is to cause harm. It’s all too real.

    • I guess my question is “is any one man’s (or womans) truth equal to any other?” If, in your belief system there isn’t one ultimate truth, can any other belief system be justified? Can 2+2=5? I ask this not to antagonize, but to seriously understand a non-christian’s belief system. And why offer discourse on truth if you think it’s all relative? It seems like a waste of mental energy unless you are in some sense trying to proselytize the christian towards agnosticism. Otherwise it seems you would care less. If I was an atheist, I would care less about any religious thought. It would all be a waste of time to me.

      • You assume a lot that I never said and that most atheists I know don’t believe. First, I do believe that there are truths and values. I’m not sure what you mean by “ultimate” but I presume you mean a god of sorts, and it’s true, I don’t have any reason to believe that an ultimate truth exists. And who says that “truth” should be the domain of religion?! I have every right to discourse on it as a human being interested in it.

        The highest good for me is the maximizing of well-being and the minimizing of harm of all sentient creatures. That doesn’t sound very relative to me, although as our knowledge grows, what we are able to show is harmful is certain to change to some degree at the margins. Surely some belief systems are more harmful than others and so your assertion or suggestion that all belief systems are or should be equal, or in your words, “any other belief system be justified,” doesn’t hold. A belief system that says we should throw battery acid in the face of young girls who go to school is one example of a more damaging belief system than one that protests soldiers’ funerals for example, although both are harmful. Why would I care any less about humanity or all life as a result of rejecting evangelical christianity’s objective claims? The well-being of conscious creatures seems a very lofty goal indeed, one I imagine Jesus supported. The institutions are made for man, after all, not man for the institutions.

        To some degree silly religious debate is a waste of time, and I would agree with you there. I am very happy to have my Sundays back. But to the extent that my sense of meaning (and if we are to accept Victor Frankl’s work on meaning, all of humanity’s) is derived from love and work, and to the extent that there are belief systems that get in the middle of all that, then yes, I will have plenty to say about how those belief systems might impede the well-being of sentient beings. You seem to be making the mistake of thinking that people have to believe in God for a sense of love, morals, truth, and of course that’s an outrageous claim. I am not trying to proselytize anyone and really don’t care what people want to believe. The minute it begins causing or advocating harm to others is when I start getting more vocal. And it’s my right, my prerogative, and indeed my obligation as a human being to do so.

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, Joe. This paragraph speaks volumes:

    “Instead, how about the idea that “the team” consists of all human beings and that our highest mission and calling is to learn and practice love and kindness to all? What if that was the over-arching taxonomy by which we classify people and the measure of their lives rather than by their profession of faith? Wouldn’t sadness vanish instantly? Does faith prevent this worldview?”

    I think you might have expressed one of the better articulations of my own thoughts on the teachings of Jesus. It’s all about love. No, faith most certainly does not prevent that worldview (or, in my opinion, it shouldn’t if it is a true faith…but I’m not one to judge that on an individual basis).

  2. Thank you for being true to yourself and your consciousness. I loved your music as a teen and I have been going through much of the same process of figuring out what I actually believe instead of what I was forced to believe through the mechanism of fear. I am not afraid 95% of the time and am steadily improving that percentage.

    Thank you for being open and honest about your realizations. I do believe in some sort of higher power, but I do not believe that she needs or expects our devotion to be complete. What kind of egomaniac god would create us and then expect our wholehearted faith in him in order to save us from eternal fire?. If that was the case, is it true then that I have more love for humanity than god?

    The hard part for me is being able to share my lack of faith with family and friends who would then feel the need to “save my soul”. My own mother feels so strongly about her religion that she told me that “if I died and went to hell (for not believing) she would wish that I was never born”. It is really sad and tragic to see them waste their lives in worry and fear so needlessly. I for one want to live in joy and peace knowing that if there is a god, she would not want us to waste our life in worry and fear.

    Peace to you Ojo!

  3. Ojo,

    I applaud you for being so open with the changes in your beliefs related to God and religion. I used to chase you guys around to see every show that I could, I’ve lost count of how many times I saw you. That God Rules sticker was on the car for a long, long time. I was an avid Christian and believer, and each concert I went to “spoke” to me in a variety of ways.

    Now I’ve also (gradually) reached the intellectual conclusion that I no longer believe in the existence of a higher power. It’s not necessarily where I intended to end up, but every time I’ve delved into the topic of my belief in God, I’ve inescapably moved farther away from such a belief. After reaching this conclusion, I happened across your blog and have been interested to read some of your commentary.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I appreciate the way that you’ve explored some of these challenging topics. After having such a negative view of atheists for all of these years, it was rather odd one day to wake up and find that I’m one of them.


    PS: For what it’s worth, regardless, I still like most of those Undercover songs…

  4. I appreciate the courage it takes to be this honest. I have been finding myself in a similar position: I don’t have confidence in religion, but I still find myself believing in a Creator. I guess that “watchmaker’s principle” sticks with me.

    But I find that religion is at best, a well-intended attempt by people to explain the inexplicable, and at worst, it’s an ill-intended means to control others. But I’ve discovered that not believing in man-made religions doesn’t mean I have to be an unbeliever… this would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    It’s unnerving to let go of the trappings of religion, to be sure. Like you said, it’s so intimidating that most folks would rather just take their religion at face value and stop there. But that would also entail accepting the limitations those religions have, removing self-discovery, which is the most important part of such a personal journey.

    Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for writing!

  5. Ojo,

    I’ve spent a good portion of this morning thinking about your blog post. While never writing you an e-mail expressing my sentiments, I admit to feeling sadness upon first finding out you no longer were a believer. However, my own sadness is much simpler than all of the reasons you listed.

    When “Branded” dropped in 1986, I was a 15 year old teen who was still reeling from the divorce of my parents in the past year. I’ll never forget locking myself in my bedroom and listening to that album over and over and over. It was my sanctuary and songs like “Cry Myself to Sleep” and “Come Away With Me” calmed my spirit and made me feel a little less alone. It was the only tangible evidence that I had for God’s existence at that time, yet it got me through.

    I guess reading that you have moved on from the beliefs that were at least partially (I assume) responsible for writing those songs, made those raw moments from my youth feel less valid for some reason. In a way, it’s a selfish sadness…

    I’m grateful for your honesty and still grateful for those songs…


  6. You obviously have so much to offer as an artist (genuine sentiment …). … Reading your blog impacts me as strongly now as your music did when I was younger … Honestly, the way you express yourself both in song and in writing is just beautiful … … But the beauty of the Gospel is that it goes beyond our own understanding and intellect … What kind of a God would it be that we could cccompletely understand? Love u brother … Praying for you ….

    • Before Ojo responds: ——“insert snide but sincere sounding comment full of circular reasoning here”. He ‘s a Bertrand Russell wannabe.

      • Sorry Danny, but I’m thinking you don’t understand what the word snide means (comments were genuine, nothing but respect and appreciation for ojo’s art .. Both written and musically….. Absolutely love it, even if I don’t always agree with it …). ….. And also don’t think you understand Bertrand Russell … He and I couldn’t be further apart …. But good effort at being condescending … Mr. Taylor, I’m out of this conversation. But my prior comment stands, love you and praying for you.

      • You misunderstood. I was meaning Ojo. I didn’t mean to imply that you were anything like BR. I like Ojo’s music as well, but his whole ” why I’m not a christian” thing sounds eerily familiar to a certain philosopher who is a hero to the anti-theist.

  7. I’ve never listened to any Christian music other than the hymns of my old Lutheran church, some Bach, and Gregorian chants. Nearly all contemporary music was considered “worldly,” and thus something a true believer wouldn’t want to partake in, and that includes Christian pop.

    But if your music is as good as your writing, Ojo, then it must have been quality stuff. You articulate the struggle and the sense of loss very well, both on the part of the ex-Christian and those still in the fold who mourn what he used to be in their eyes.

  8. your honesty about your journey has always made me feel a part of that journey, rather than a mere spectator. thank you.

    greg (the coffee-stained letter person)

  9. I’m so glad I found your page. You have articulated what has been escaping my own words for a long time.
    I grew up in church, and on Undercover (still have my God Rules LP) and all the Christian bands of the 80’s and 90’s. I had a similar unwinding of beliefs that started when I was 14 (now 36). Having grown up in church, Christianity was the filter through which I saw the world. It gave everything context, and when something didn’t make sense, it was easy to dismiss on faith because that’s what people around me did. Even through periods of outright denial of God in my early 20’s, I still couldn’t shed that filter.
    In recent years, I have been able to start to make sense of a world without that filter. It is hard, way harder than quitting smoking. It is in many ways disturbing and crushing to comprehend that everything you thought you knew might be wrong. It might be right too, but I don’t know. And maybe it’s ok not to know.
    Thanks Ojo.

  10. Pingback: Warned For The Last Time | Ojo Taylor

  11. Pingback: Warned For The Last Time | Ojo Taylor

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