I have learned in the last decade that giving up god is a little like coming out—you’re never quite done. I had thought I was pretty clear with myself and those around me where I stood, but I find as I enter into the task of becoming churchwarden at Holy Trinity (a story for another day), that I am often having to come out and explain myself again.
The season of Lent started today (at midnight or sundown yesterday, depending on how you like to measure the calendar). This is Ash Wednesday, a day on which Christians remind themselves that we are born from the earth and to earth we return. For Christians it is tied to death and resurrection and the idea that we were created by god and belong to god.
Lent has traditionally marked a time of reflection for Christians—40 days where something is given up in an effort to be more mindful in faith. Historically, fasting was common. In Europe, in the middle ages, this made a certain sense, since it was a pretty lean time at the end of winter anyway—may as well make virtue of necessity. It has morphed over time into a different kind of fast: giving up chocolate, TV, watermelon. Others have turned it into a time of taking on something new: bible study, prayer, a new volunteer project.
For me, this year, it has marked a re-engagement with the church. Something I thought was behind me. The reasons for that choice are complex and I’ll write about them another day (or days), but the tl;dr is that community is important and we (society as a whole) need more and stronger intentional communities, not fewer. My work will focus on figuring out how to be the community that the wider populace needs and wants, letting go of what’s not important. But what is important? What is distraction and barrier? Questions for another day.
There are personal consequences to my decision to take on this task. I had, about 6 years ago, after a long and painful process of reading, reflection, discernment and even prayer, come to a place where I could no longer believe in a god. (Or not a personified, activist or compassionate one anyway—nebulous life forces and connections don’t feel like a ‘god’ to me.) I was prepared at that time to talk about it and did with some people some times. After some struggle, I decided to call myself an athiest, because I didn’t feel unsure. I was, and remain, annoyed by many who call themselves athiests such as Richard Dawkins, because, frankly, they’re pricks about it. In addition, the position that religion is inherently the root of all evil is just as absurd as the Christian doctrine of original sin. Ideology that fails to recognise the worth and humanity of all people is a horror. This certainly includes many (or even most) religious ideology, but religion is a human construct like so many and is too often bent to terrible aims, but so have capitalism, communism, and even activism. The problem is the people. This will also have to wait for another day and another essay.
So, why don’t I believe in god anymore? I am happy to discuss how we live together and in the world. I think these are actually the important questions of any religion. If some folks believe there is a god who desires us to be good to each other, I have no issue with that basic idea.
I do have an issue with a judging, punitive god with a list of rules to be broken and sinners to be punished. I have an issue with the war god of so much of the early biblical texts. I have an issue with the insecure god who needs constant ego boosts from worshippers. But none of those things are what led me from belief.
In my early twenties, when, like so many, I was drifting out of the church, I found a group of Christians who saw things differently. They showed me a god of justice, who cared for everything and everyone and would help us make the world a just place. I joined that group and followed that god for the next 20 years. In many ways I still follow that god, just without the god.
So why am I picking at this scab? Because it seems I have no choice. Since I agreed to be a churchwarden, I have had to describe my vision of where we need to go—of how to reach out to those who don’t want church anymore. I have had a many conversations which force me to not only articulate that vision, but why I think it’s important and how I came to it. I have also been told by a few that they don’t believe me when I say I’m an athiest.
Because I think too much, when someone says that, I feel the need to ask myself if they are right. I start that process by wondering if it even matters to me. Can I just go back to believing in a god that takes no direct action in the world, but is somehow all-loving and hungers and thirsts for justice in the world? You know, I’d like to, but I can’t. I find that I sometimes even get angry now when I try to imagine it. Since the existence, or not, of god is unprovable, and scripture of no more or less relevance1 as a proof than one of Mary Oliver’s beautiful poems, the tragedy of Hamlet, or my more dramatic dreams, I’m pushed into a guess and test mode of examining the plausibility and/or palatability of god.
Let’s start with the basics that are often ascribed to god and try them out in various combinations: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving. It’s tempting to say—like fast, cheap, and good—that you can only pick two, but this is god we’re talking about here, so let’s start with all three and go from there. We then have to hold that image of god up against the result in our world and see what we can conclude about god from that result.
All-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving god: Who’s doing ok in the world? Well the rich are doing all right. They get good health care, clean water, healthy children. Good on them. Not only that, they get to run the show and make life miserable, mostly passively, but sometimes actively, for everyone who isn’t like them. You’d think a god that had the full trinity of knowledge, power and compassion would get involved and rebalance things a bit. This clearly doesn’t and hasn’t happened. If we argue that god chooses not to meddle in our affairs because we have to choose for ourselves, then that’s a limit on power and we’ll deal with it below. My assessment: this god is either a jerk, or doesn’t exist. I choose the latter.
Prayer-activated only, but still all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving god: Claims that god responds to prayer by healing those prayed for, or helping them get a job or win a game, or save their starving children, are anectodal only. Meaningful research does not bear this out. If god does respond to prayer, then statistical evidence would suggest that god strongly favours the rich. Or maybe the poor and oppressed just suck at praying. Maybe they’re not praying for the right stuff. My assessment: this god is also a jerk, or doesn’t exist. I choose the latter.
All-powerful and all-loving god, short on knowledge: I’ve never heard anyone advocate for this version, but I’m trying to be complete in my permutations here. The result of this god looks a lot like the last one. This god either doesn’t know what’s going on, or only pays attention to the wealthy. It’s probably more fun to watch people go to concerts than watch them scrounge dodgy food from dumpsters. My assessment: this god is either ignorant of what’s going on, doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist. The last seems most palatable.
All-knowing and all-powerful god, short on love: I think without the all-loving part, most folks don’t want a piece of this god. When held against our current world it could work, because this one just doesn’t care. Plausible (except for a distinct shortage of unexplainable events), but who wants them? Nobody wants to hang around with someone who only cares about themselves. My assessment: this god is definitely a prick, or doesn’t exist. I’m sticking with non-existant.
All-knowing and all-loving, short on power: This god wants to do something, but can’t. Either god is powerless to act or won’t because of the “Prime Directive” which protects our free will. Frankly, I find this depressing. Apart from not being much use to humanity, this god is caught in some kind of Stockholm syndrome with us—forced to watch the horrors small and large that we perpetrate on each other, but unable to do anything about it. Watching children starve, or forced to be soldiers and kill their former friends and families can’t be a lot of fun.
This suffering god idea fits pretty well with some aspects of Christianity. There is no doubt that being crucified is a bad way to die. I guess that some people find the idea of a god suffering when they suffer helpful. I might once have done so myself. But, when another human tells me they understand my suffering and want to be with me in it, I have a hope that they can help me out of it in some material way, even if it’s just physical contact. The knowledge that an indescribable being who can’t or won’t act to improve my situation is suffering with me, doesn’t help me much anymore. My assessment: I find this god more palatable than the above, but not very useful.
All-knowing god, short on power and love: This god is only tuned in to watch entertaining new content. This god is free of having to care and can watch us with detachment. My assessment: this god doesn’t care about me, so why should I care about them?
All-loving god, short on knowledge and power: Kinda similar to all-knowing, all-loving above, just not quite so depressing. My assessment: Palatable, but not very useful.
In the end, I’m not left with something that fits the facts on the ground and that I can relate to in any way.2
- Why reject scripture as proof? Everyone already does, it’s just a matter of which scriptures. Adherents of Freya, Herne and Athena are thin on the ground these days. The “faithful” mostly only uphold their own scriptures as truth and reject everyone else’s. At best, it’s self-referential and that’s never been a very good proof of anything. ↩
- Got another god that I’ve missed? Fill me in. I’m not opposed to believing in a god, but can’t seem to find one that is both plausible and palatable. I would love to be uplifted. Negotiating the work of making the world better without god is a lot more work than it was when I believed. Feel free to educate me. Spare me your threats of damnation though—I have no time for a god who gets followers by fear or violence. ↩