I 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.
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.