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.
Within five years of my baptism, I had married a pastor’s daughter, was the father of my own daughter, and had entered my religion degree program at the church’s most conservative college (then called simply Southern College, now called Southern Adventist University). Three years later, I was continuing my teaching career, standing before classrooms full of youth in an official church ministry capacity: Bible teacher, licensed to teach grades 7-12. My life had a trajectory; my role in the church gave me unlimited opportunities to model good citizenship and the character qualities of a member in good and regular standing. Mine was a Purpose-Driven Life.
In the Bible, in Ellen White’s writings, and in fellowship with like-minded fellow Adventists including especially the most Christian-like people I’ve ever met– my wife and her adoptive parents– I actively sought moral motivation. I wanted to be a better person, just like most of my fellow Christians were actively seeking to be. It’s one of the things Christians do.
However, I remember that I always received from all my spiritual sources something mixed in with the motivation, something that perhaps tainted it. I know that I always believed that my sinfulness was real, was permanent (until God would remove it at my resurrection), and that it was part of me– I believed in that Bible doctrine of the sinful nature.
I was damaged goods. I was broken. Yes, I was redeemable, and sometimes I actually managed to believe I was redeemed. But mostly, confirmation bias of my sinfulness created a feedback loop in my mind, so that every idle moment, every stray temptation, every minor cruelty or neglect or mistake or stumble always reminded me that I was never going to be good enough for the most important One in my life, my God. I had to have a substitute who was better than me, a mediator who would step between me and judgment, a Holy spirit-guide for my decisions and choices– because I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good. I could never be good by nature until some future time. Maybe I’m guessing now at why I couldn’t be truly good by nature while I was a Christian: it would have contradicted the teachings of the Book I’d wrapped myself in as a career and personal compass, the Bible.
Eventually, I stepped away from that high Christian post, came down from a life as a watchman on the walls of Zion, and became just another family guy in Orlando, Florida. I also joined a small but growing group of Americans who identify as “none” when it comes to religion, and the even smaller group who class themselves as non-religious, non-spiritual, non-believers in all gods. In other words, atheist. Which to me restates a negative: ‘no god’. I also became an official, dues-paying member of another organization whose positive, life-affirming and hopeful principles I could wholeheartedly support, the American Humanist Association.
Humanists have a little motto: Good Without God. I like that, and it describes my current ethical motivations. But as I started to say at the beginning of this, I now experience a more powerful and consistent motivation to be good, now that I’m without God (as it were). Now that I’m no longer deluded into believing that all my attempts at goodness are “filthy rags,” (Isaiah 64:6), I feel that morals and ethical values are more important to me than ever before. I read books about the topic, I listen to podcasts about it, scour philosophical writings for clues, discuss it with my ever-patient wife, and through it all, I am coming to the conclusion that like the Humanist motto, ‘Good Without God,’ it’s quite true that a secular, atheist, humanist person can perhaps even be Better Without God.
UPDATE: The Facebook friends I used to have occasionally commented on my posts. The following was posted by Larry Hallock, and is reproduced here with his permission; I thought it extended nicely the theme in this post:
Larry Hallock: Excellent blog post, Jim. That first paragraph says it all… I mean, I have had the same experience, and from what I’ve read, many others have said the same thing—life becomes so much richer, so much more meaningful and rewarding… the pieces of the puzzle finally fit… without the baggage, life just seems brighter. And it’s enormously better emotionally when you’re not constantly fretting, consciously or subconsciously, over whether or not you’ll get the promised supernatural help, or why it’s not there, or why you can’t understand, or whether you’re accurately reading the mental impressions from your god (any given thought could be a deceiving counterfeit from the bad god, Satan, so an enormous amount of resources, especially time, is required for constantly praying for the good god to come and fight off the bad god for you), and whether you’re pleasing the god by interpreting its “will” correctly and then carrying out whatever it is you think it wants, according to the minimum standards required for you to be brought back to life in order to go to the great fantasy land in the sky rather than being brought back to life in order to be killed again, only this time by torture. Life was never truly joyful for me, not in a deep, abiding sense, when I lived by all of that, compared to just living by what is good, loving, positive, constructive, kind, …the Golden Rule. It is invigorating to live according to your own skills, ingenuity, and creativity (being your own boss!) rather than always living every waking moment solely to please others, to say nothing of solely to please just one guy who makes enormous demands with deadly consequences if you don’t make the cut—and, all the while, he refuses to discuss any of it or talk to you, just sorta leaves you to guess at what’s wanted. Sorry, but at this point, I’ve started chuckling out loud, so I need to stop typing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
6 thoughts on “Good Without God, Better Without God”
Thanks for your reply, Alexander. Glad you are questioning; it's one of the most positive human traits I've found, questioning. My question for you is, have you found any convincing evidence yet that God (as you know him) exists?
As a Christian who was brought up Adventist, knowing about Southern and coming across this blog pretty much by chance, it is interesting to see your viewpoint. I respect it and it is actually inspiring to me to see you write honestly about where you came from and where you are now. I too, search for answers to the questions of who God really is. Questioning if I have decided to make him up as my imaginary friend or if there was some backing to the metaphysical possibility of a Deity. All in all I am no Theology major, nor do I quote the direct beliefs of the Adventist church, but isn't eternal torment not biblical? I was confused as to why it was mentioned like this. Your verse from Isaiah, however is truly a very common sermon I hear whenever I have sat down to listen to an Adventist Pastor preach. This is my hypothesis: We are Jesus, (made in his image or if we made him up in our mind) the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil helps us to decipher right from wrong even without a God being present in our lives. We are “dirty rags” compared to the power that Jesus (our minds) over sin (doing wrong). The bible says the greatest commandment is love, in humanitarianism, I also understand that love for everyone is the main focus. It seems to me as by denying the existence of God, you have understood the point the bible makes, made up or not, as you denied Jesus, you accepted the possibility to be Good by yourself. If we are Jesus because we created him and we do not separate these people as two separate entities, a nonbeliever can be just as “Christ-Like”(Good) as any one who believes in Christ. A lot of times, I find that Christianity itself is the evil to itself. So many depend on other's words and refuse to do any research to understand for themselves. Again, I enjoyed reading this blog as it sparked more philosophical questions I can now ask myself.Continue to do great things,Alexander Capo
Anonymous, you have me at a disadvantage, not knowing who you are. Maybe this is why people don't allow anonymous postings on their comments… Anyway, I have no memory of being in a place called College Heights (“Hights”?), I don't think we know each other. What I will agree with you on is that you misunderstand me. I've put a great deal of effort into each and every post on this little blog, and almost every one is my attempt to make Christians like you understand why atheists like me gave up being Christians. If you care to, I would appreciate your feedback on how it is I have not made clear why I left. Appeals to return, while they may feel obligatory on your part, fall on deaf ears. But if you have constructive criticism of my writing or cogent arguments to make against my logic, please feel free. I don't really need you to disclose who you are, either.It's your call!Cheers,Jim
Jesus is real and you know it ! I hope you and your wife find whatever it is your looking for. Remember College Hights ? Hope all are well and so very sorry you seem to not believe in Jesus. Or did I miss understand, if so please forgive . Your old friend,
Thank you, Pastor Renkema, for your kind thoughts. You have inspired me to write, which is one of the kindest things anyone can do for me. Watch my blog for a future post in which I answer your questions and concerns. Cheers.
I am extremely saddened that the gospel you heard and even preached was twisted in a way that it was burdensome to you. Jesus said his burden was light and yoke was easy. So what you rejected wasnt' Jesus or the gospel, it was a perversion of it. You wrote a good essay on why you aren't a Christian and somehow you managed to do it without mentioning Jesus. It makes me think you never understood or 'had' Jesus in the first place because if you did you would have most definitely mentioned rejecting him specifically. I hope that maybe you will not lump all forms of Christianity under one roof and maybe give other gospel accounts other than the gospel according to Ellen White a go. Most Christians reject her form of faith too, I know I do. Perhaps try CS Lewis or Bonhoeffer. What do you have to lose? If there is no God you lose nothing. If there is a God you could gain everything.
Comments are closed.