Part 1 God
As a writer I tend to see most things as some form of narrative. There’s a story in almost everything. It all began somewhere and ends somewhere. No one is born a killer or a plumber or a Christian. They were born into social and genetic circumstances, had some experiences, and ended up being who they are now.
For me, my story of my personal beliefs began with my Dad. He went to Bethany Methodist Church in South Tacoma. The pastor there was a personal friend of his. One of my earliest memories was watching a congregation engage in a responsive reading where the pastor said something and the entire congregation said something back. I was too young to read or understand what reading was so I thought that God was telling the entire congregation what to say. I wondered how that worked and I wondered why God was talking to everyone in the church except for me.
Years later we stopped going to that church. I’m not sure why. Throughout my adolescence we’d occasionally go to other Methodist churches. We were at St. Paul’s for a while. I found many of the people friendly and the free food enjoyable but I didn’t really connect with anything there. I was aware of the various Bible stories. Many of them seemed unlikely or possibly just metaphorical. While I might have called myself a Christian at the time, I don’t think I was a Believer in any real sense.
All of that changed when I was sixteen. As teenage boys often do, I met a pretty girl. She invited me to her church. I agreed to go with her. She was a Quaker. At the time, I looked like this:
I did not choose to dress up for the occasion. I pulled my 1983 Firebird into the gravel parking lot blasting Metallica with a ‘I dare you church people to attack me.’ attitude.
Instead of being greeted with scorn, derision, or even annoyance, I was met with friendly faces who were happy to engage me in conversation and that was even before they realized I had been invited by one of their members. The people at McKinley Hill Friends Church were living up to their ‘Friends’ title. This both surprised and intrigued me.
The pretty girl and I broke up after a couple of months, but I continued to go to the church. I was intrigued. Once I get interested in something, I tend get obsessive and being a Quaker was no different. I learned about their history, their pacifism, their lack of ceremony and proselytizing, and their talk of an ‘inner voice’. All of these things were attractive to me. I liked the idea of pacifism. I liked the idea that things like ceremony and ground being sacred was a bunch of hooey. And the fact that we were told to simply behave as a Quaker and not go out trying to convert people made me very comfortable. But the most attractive thing about being a Quaker was that we were told that we could hear the voice and will of God within ourselves. Our inner voice was the most important, most vital aspect of our religious belief. That voice was more important than anything the pastor might say. I liked that quite a bit.
Then one late evening in the early 1990s three of us from the Youth Group walked to a 7-11 late at night on the East Side while staying at our Joe’s house. Joe was our Youth Group Leader and one of the most laid back people I’ve ever met. We were attacked on our way home. One of us was knocked out. Another was hit with a bottle. I was unhurt thanks to the timely arrival of a police car. The four who attacked us ran off without getting much from us.
My two companions got checked out at the hospital and the rest of us met back at Joe’s. We prayed. Each of us said something about the incident and how we hoped our friends would be okay. And then the pretty girl who’d brought me to the Quaker Church in the first place prayed that the guys who attacked us would one day find Jesus. I didn’t say anything at the time, but it was then that I knew I had to leave the church.
From my point of view at the time the only way I wanted those four guys to ‘find Jesus’ was five seconds after someone killed them, preferably soon. At the same time I realized that from the point of view of being a Quaker, she was entirely correct and I was wrong.
Over the years I attended McKinley Hill Friends Church I had gone on a Mission Trip to Mexico, I’d gone to dozens of meetings and camps and Bible quiz competitions. I’d read my Bible and prayed. When I was in my first car accident, the first thing I did was get out and pray thanking God that no one was hurt. And yet, when someone was violent towards me and my friends, I could not possibly turn the other cheek. While Quaker beliefs are among the most flexible of all religions, not being a pacifist isn’t part of that flexibility.
I could have continued to go to hang out with my friends, but that wasn’t the purpose of going to church and I would feel like a fraud the whole time. So shortly after the attack, I left the church and only returned a few times after that to briefly say hello, but I wasn’t there to worship God. In fact, my inner voice had decided He was too much of a screw up to deserve to be worshiped.
Part 2 Faulty God
When I was a teenager I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I enjoyed arguing in favor of things I believed in and I’d heard that it paid well. During my time as a Quaker, I had thought of being a pastor because talking about whatever I want every Sunday as long as I related it to God sounded like a great job. So I suppose it wasn’t a surprise when that part of my theological studying on my own was finding unconventional ways of using belief systems.
For example, Quakers believe all ground is equally holy. This means that your local Starbucks is just as holy as your local church. However, my interpretation was that if I can make out with my girlfriend at Starbucks, I can make out with my girlfriend in church. This habit of turning things on their head resulted in my Faulty God Theory.
If God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, why do bad things happen to good people? Entire libraries of books have been written on this topic. And the answers are as various as the books. One of the more popular responses among believers is the great C.S. Lewis who famously said, ““Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Others said it was as simple as there not being any God at all. But as I entered my twenties I had another idea.
According to one of the earliest verses in the Bible, man was created in God’s image. This verse has often led to people depicting God as an old white guy. It’s also led to various faiths talking about us trying to be more God-like, treating the body as a temple and all of that. But to my mind at the time, it meant something else.
If we were created in God’s image and we screw things up all the time, then it makes sense that God screws up just as much as we do. What would happen if I was God? I may very well forget to pay attention to something like what the hell is going on in Madagascar. I might just be busy with other things. I might overlook that boat in a storm. I might assume that you’re not going to slip on the ice on those stairs you’ve gone down a thousand times. Why do bad things happen to good people? God fucks up.
As far as I can tell, no one else had come up with this idea. Maybe because it’s a terrifying thought. Maybe because none of us could likely create anything as complex as the entire universe even if we had the power to do so. Whatever the case, my one-person Church of the Flawed God worked well for me for a number of years.
A flawed God allows for every bit of turmoil we encounter in our daily lives. It even accounts for why he failed to make us immortal here on Earth. It was an all-purpose excuse for why the concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful God fails to deliver so often even for his most devoted followers. This allowed for my living in a universe where God existed and I still had a chance in Hell of getting to Heaven.
Years passed. I didn’t attend church. I didn’t often talk to people about my personal beliefs because most of the time, I feel like personal beliefs are just that and there’s no reason to share them. And like many people, I let my life continue on and really tried to ignore asking myself any of the big questions. Big questions are scary, especially if the absolute best answer you have is that the Almighty God is a buffoon like me.
Part 3 No God
The universe is big. See that image? That’s from ten years of data from the Hubble Space telescope. It’s from a tiny section of space that is essentially empty to the naked eye. Each of those lights in the image isn’t a star. It’s a galaxy. Each of those galaxies has billions of stars. Some of those stars have planets. And that’s just a tiny part of the sky.
Scientists estimate that the diameter of the universe is approximately 92 billion light years. This means that if you were going the speed of light, it would take 92 billion years to get from one end to the other. And even then you wouldn’t get there because the universe is expanding. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. So it we’re talking about traveling at the speed of light for twenty times as long as the Earth has existed.
As a guy who has always liked astronomy, when I’m asking the Big Questions, it’s important to remember the size the universe. Especially when all major religions seem to think that the Almighty God pay a LOT of attention on one tiny planet orbiting an average sized star in an average sized galaxy in an entirely unremarkable part of the universe.
Given the numbers involved there is undoubtedly intelligent life in the universe. Did God also send His Son there? If not, why not? And why, if the Greeks and the Romans and the Egyptians were so smart, how is it that they didn’t figure out who the One True God was? I mean if it’s so obvious, how did they fail so spectacularly and come up with all these other silly Gods? Come to think of it, why do otherwise intelligent people right in the here and now not clearly understand the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for all of our sins? Why isn’t everyone who has heard of this become Christian? Hell, with my Flawed God thing, was I even really a Christian anymore?
The Big Questions plagued me. My Flawed God Theory was itself flawed. If God’s just like us, He wouldn’t have made the universe so big. He wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of creating life just to put it in a tiny, tiny part of the universe. If Heaven or Hell are real places where real souls go, then given enough time, we should be able to go there using technology. We can go every other place in the Universe with the right equipment. We’ve even come up with theories about parallel universes to which we could theoretically travel or view given the proper technology. And yet, such a concept is absurd to both scientists and Believers.
Any method I could think of to verify the existence of God (flawed or otherwise) failed because it was not objective or repeatable. Using a telescope, I can show someone the rings of Saturn on a clear night. Regardless of the equipment I might have, I can’t show someone God.
I resisted. I didn’t want there to be no God. I’d rather have a screwed up God than no God at all. I started to notice that many of the people I enjoyed reading or watching happened to be atheists. I’m not talking about people like Richard Dawkins. I’m talking about people like Warren Ellis, Eddie Izzard, Patton Oswalt, and Penn Jillette.
I slowly began to accept that I didn’t really believe in God. My Flawed God Theory was really just a way of letting me continue to believe something because it made me feel better. While there had been times in my life where I genuinely felt as though God was calling upon me to do things and other times when good things happened that I attributed to God’s divine intervention, I had never experienced anything I felt couldn’t have just as easily been a combination of circumstances and luck.
Accepting that I was an atheist wasn’t easy. My Dad is still a Christian. (Lutheran now, last I checked.) Many friends are Christian. That pretty girl from all those years ago, I’m still friends with her and she’s still a Quaker. Many people I know, love, and respect are devout Christians. I have friends of other faiths as well. While I also have atheist friends, we are most definitely in the minority.
On a much more personal level though, being an atheist presents a much bigger problem: I’m not going to get to exist forever. As a Christian, even if I’m the worst guy in the world, I get to exist forever in Hell. But as an atheist when I die, that’s it. I stop existing just like every day before that day in December back in 1974. As a big fan of existing, this was a big damn deal.
Unfortunately as uncomfortable as being an atheist is, being uncomfortable isn’t a viable excuse to suddenly change my beliefs without compelling evidence.
Part 4 Christ-like Atheism
I’m not done. The search for good answers to Big Questions isn’t something I’ve completed. I don’t know that it’s something you complete.
Since accepting that I’m an atheist I’ve read dozens of atheist websites, articles, and books on the topic. Some very vocal, very famous atheists I barely agree with at all. Others seem to be on the same path as me and help in my search for answers. I find that my path aligns quite closely with Sam Harris though he and I don’t agree on everything. (His opinion on guns doesn’t really work for me for example.)
I’ve also managed to maintain friendships with those with different belief systems. This is something I’ve found many atheists have difficulty doing.
One of the reasons for this is that I’m not out to convert anyone. I’ve never been out to convert anyone. I’m happy to tell you what I believe and why I believe it, but I agree with Sting’s song, All This Time, “They go crazy in congregations. They only get better one by one.” My path is my path. It’s not yours and I’m not upset with you for not being on it. I’m not going to tell you that you’re on the wrong path any more than I’ll accept you telling me that I am.
I try to look at those with religious beliefs like live-action role players. My Dad is currently playing a game called Lutheranism. It has a rule book and ceremonies and gatherings and all sorts of things. Some other friends are Methodists or Jews or Mormons. Each has different rules and plays a different game. I used to play Quakerism. Eventually, much like actual role-playing games, I outgrew it and moved on and now I don’t play at all, but harbor no ill will towards those who do.
I’ve heard some people say that this is a condescending way to look at religion, but I contend that it’s no more condescending than proclaiming yours as the one true faith.
A while back I was talking with a Christian friend of mine. He’s very active in his church. His faith is part of who he is. He also owns guns, is pro-death penalty, is anti-abortion, and thinks homosexuals are an abomination. All of these things were true about me at one point or another in my life. Now none of them are. During one of our debates I mentioned to him that if someone were to ignore that he calls himself a Christian and I call myself an atheist and simply look at our opinion on these topics, one would be forced to admit that I am more Christ-like than he is. He agreed, but also acknowledged that neither of us is done answering those Big Questions.
– Jack Cameron