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.