When I was a religious extremist, I embraced every teaching of the Bible as if it could be none other than directly from the mind of a loving God to his lost children. One year of college, then one year of missionary service, only made me more extreme. Meeting and marrying my wife, having our first child, returning to the mission field, and then returning to college to complete my teaching degree were all life events which eroded away my extremism. By the time I was a seasoned teacher, I was religiously and politically liberal. I had become a moderate.
My definition of a religious moderate is one who ignores the bad ideas in their scriptures; extremists embrace the bad ideas. Some extremists move away from the bad ideas, and toward moderation like I did. This phenomenon is healthy for open discussion across political and religious boundaries and results in progress for international and ecumenical relations.
Miss Burke, my Kindergarten teacher, was young, pretty, caring toward me and all my friends, and best of all, single! (I always took my childhood crushes way too seriously.) Sadly, I left that school after third grade, and Miss Burke didn’t come with me to my new school. Adding insult to injury, she got married and lived in a house with the man who bested me in a home cloyingly close to where I had to walk to and from my new school. Every day, I had my wounded feelings revived as I mourned having loved and lost. (Waaaaaay too seriously…).
When my Kindergarten crush on Miss Burke dissolved, I never felt the need to publicly or privately ‘reject’ a relationship which had existed only inside my imagination. In the same way, I never felt the need to make any kind of announcement that I have rejected my relationship with Jesus. Which relationship, I figured out, was only in my imagination.
For whatever reason (I’m not sure I’m willing to guess), in the few years since I’ve come out atheist, I have experienced a motivation to behave ethically and morally far beyond that which two and a half decades of Christianity ever provided.
My denomination was the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was not your average pew-warmer, either. Within 18 months of my baptism at the tender age of 20, I had embarked on a year-long foreign missionary teaching assignment, been ordained a local elder in that mission’s church (at the ordination ceremony, when the pastor read to his church the biblical requirements of an elder, he literally skipped over the verse in 1 Timothy 3 which states that the elder must not be a recent convert; I swallowed hard and kept smiling), and had preached sermons and taught lessons more than many elderly members who had been Seventh-day Adventists all their lives.
I remember being convinced that the Seventh-day Adventist worldview was the only correct lens through which to judge all incoming information, including political information used to make voting decisions. For decades I perceived everything I read, heard, observed, learned, and discovered through that very narrow lens, also known as The Great Controversy:
An open letter to my former church, in which valuable advice on how to retain members is humbly offered.
The biggest problem facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church is arguably how easily they lose church members. They constantly praise one another for each new baptism, but chronically ignore established members who no longer attend.
Religion is a gateway drug. Well, drug, in the metaphorical sense, as in an anesthetic for critical, rational, logical, skeptical thinking. But it is a gateway also, in the sense that when you assent to the claims of a religion, you thereby make it much easier to assent to other dubious claims. Claims against which, if you hadn’t tied up your critical thinking and thrown it down in the basement, you would have had some defenses.
“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing this book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.” (Note 1, Chapter 1; emphasis mine)
I stood up and applauded when I read that. Well, mentally, anyway; I read most of the book in the break rooms at my job while I ate lunch, which means a literal standing ovation-of-one would’ve been awkward.