PSST! I wrote a whole book about doubt and the science of learning to love God again after losing your faith. It's called Finding God in the Waves. Click here to learn more.
A friend of mine is doing a project about belief and asked for this as part of his course work. I’ve been so busy writing the book that I haven’t blogged much, so I thought I’d toss this out for any who are interested.
WHY I STOPPED BELIEVING IN GOD
The dominant understandings of God in our world today are rooted in the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths. While Judaism, Christianity, Islam all presented new ideas and understandings at their inception, fundamentalist factions in all three have worked through history to preserve the “purity” of theology and resist new understandings about reality. So while the Enlightenment gave rise to modern science and philosophy, and new ways of measuring reality, Christendom held fast to a pre-enlightenment understanding of the world and, by extension, God.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist family. Most Baptists believe that the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God. Such a posture produces claims remarkably out of step with modernity. If you accept Biblical literalism, you must accept that the entire Universe was created in six days, that the earth was covered in a global flood, and that God commanded his followers to commit mass genocide with alarming regularity in the Old Testament. The problem for the believer is the empirical basis for the sciences: an ancient universe is based on verifiable physical evidence, while geology and anthropology discredit the flood account. The morality of the Old Testament God is more troubling to a person with modern sensibilities. That is to say nothing of the contradictions in the Bibles own narrative, of course. Even without science, a plain reading of scripture itself challenges the core precepts of fundamentalism. Genesis 1 and 2 alone are irreconcilably without considerable apologetic acrobatics.
Of course, there are progressive understandings of scripture. Unfortunately, Liberal Christianity is rife with its own contradictions. If God is all powerful and his plan for humanity is contained in scripture, why allow men to muck up that message in their words? Why is there such tremendous and senseless suffering and brutality in this life? Free will offers a poor excuse here. My children have will and agency, but I would not stand by while my oldest child beat my youngest–and I am not a God.
The arguments of skeptics are powerful. There is simply no evidence for the Gods described in Holy Books, and why would such a God cloak himself in secrecy? There is not a reliable piece of evidence today, nor in our history, that verifies and action of the supernatural.
Materialism and Naturalism adequately describe reality and the create no need for any god.
WHY I BELIEVE IN GOD AGAIN
Though I grieved for God, in time I came to peace with his absence. I adopted humanism as a personal philosophy, and I was comfortable using religious language and metaphor to comfort others. I continued to serve at my church and held my atheism in secret. I wasn’t ashamed, but I was concerned that others faith in God could be shaken if I went public with my transition. I like to be around people, and secularism offers few alternatives to the weekly gathering of a congregation. You don’t have to believe in God to enjoy seeing your friends, or discussing morality in the context of historical events. Without God, Sunday School can still be a good book club. Some of my best sermons and teachings were done as an atheist.
Still, it was tiring to live two lives. In my own mind and whenever I was on the Internet I was true to what I believed. I wore a mask whenever with my family, friends, and church. Even the most comfortable mask chafes in time. My wife could tell something was up, and ultimately drove me to a confession. It did not go well, and for the first time my marriage seemed at risk of failure. My wife told my mom, and my mom tried to win my back to the faith unsuccessfully. My wife and mother agreed to keep my unbelief secret, but they both said they were praying for God to reach me miraculously.
I flew to California for an event at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. While I was in California, I also attended a small conference with the pastor/author Rob Bell. Rob spoke enough about atheism at this conference to prompt me to speak out–I outed myself as an atheist. Rob responded graciously, and encouraged me to explore new ideas and understandings of God. On the evening of the following day, we took Communion and I had an intensely emotional experience.
Some hours later, around 2 or 3 in the morning, I had a mystical experience. God seemed to respond to my prayer at a key moment when the Pacific rushed up the shore and washed my feet at the moment I said the name Jesus. The coincidence was powerful, and I felt the presence of God in the same manner I did when I believed only with more power. In that moment, reality seemed to be a veil that was suddenly stretch thin, and i could just make out what was on the other side.
And then it was over. I went home confused. I felt the presence of God, but none of my questions were gone. The problem of evil and suffering in the world was no less pressing. Scripture was still riddled with contradictions. Science continued to do a better job explaining our Universe.
But I felt better when I prayed. It was like seeing an dear friend after years of separation. I didn’t have any understanding of who God was, or what the Bible meant. I can’t put into words how powerful it was to have God back in my life, whatever that meant.
I am drawn to certainty. I’ve learned to cope with it as I’ve matured, but if answers are available, I like to have them. I continued to pray, study the teachings of Jesus, and fellowship with Christians, but I remained an empiricist. I wondered what science has learned about God. I studied secular understandings of the history of God. I examined anthropology. I dove deep into what neuroscientists have to say about human brains experiencing God or prayer. What I learned surprised me.
- There is experimental support that shows humans are inherently prone toward dualism.
- Regular prayer and meditation affects brain function.
- Focus and memory are improved.
- Empathy and compassion are heightened.
- Anger and fear responses are lowered.
- Blood pressure is reduced.
- The likelihood of depression is lessened.
- People who believe in a loving God are less critical of self.
- People who attend church regularly show a marked improvement in happiness.
- Religious persons are more generous to charities than secularists.
Humans seemed to have evolved in a way that many parts of religious expression are healthy and beneficial, both to individuals and to society. Suddenly the pursuit of God seemed less of a fool’s errand. Brain scans show that believers who talk to God are engaging with something that is neurologically real.
I believe in God. God is our creator, and we are here by some means. I can’t make any claims at the level of most believers, but something caused the modern Universe to emerge from a singularity. But I am not a pantheist, because God is also personal. Human brains posses an enormous capacity to experience God. God is at least what made us and what we experience when we pray, worship, and serve.
God may be much more, but I don’t have any evidence to support that. I am an empiricist.
But I also have beautiful, profound experiences with God that I can not explain–specifically though my tradition of following the teachings of Jesus. I am a mystic.
We have been in too big a rush, and secularism risks tossing out the baby with the bathwater in its zeal for a post religious society. Unless human brains change remarkably, God will be with us for a long time indeed.