[This post is in response to a comment by a pastor on my previous post; here’s the link to the comment].
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.
Like Miss Burke, Jesus existed for me as someone who taught, who loved students and promised wonderful rewards for good behavior. Miss Burke had one thing Jesus didn’t: she was a real, live person in my life, who showed up every day in my classroom, and melted my heart when she smiled at my drawings. I had indeed embellished my perceptions of her in my imagination and paid the price for it in a broken heart (puppy love version).
In previous blog posts, I’ve been clear about having a knowledge of Jesus, the Bible, and at least one version of Christianity, Seventh-day Adventism. However, as Christians are sometimes urged to do, I invested great emotion and time seeking more than just knowledge about Jesus, but also a relationship with him, as if he was real. As if he heard my prayers, even all my thoughts. As if he had the power to make that kind of a God–believer communication more than one-sided.
And I fully expected him to do just that. To make himself real to me, in obvious and faith-building ways, or even still, small, subtle yet undeniable ways. Or even just any unambiguous way. The longer I went with no obvious communication from God, I got good at lowering my expectations, lowering the bar for what could pass for the amazing all-powerful Jesus making himself real to me.
Constantly reminding myself that faith in Jesus has much more to do with that relationship than with any other way of experiencing religion, I poured my whole heart and soul into maintaining communion with the One I imagined had created me for just such a connection. The testimonies of those fortunate Christians who had successfully made contact with our Savior formed a tantalizing goal for me, and I presented such testimonies to my Bible classes in the hope that some of us, any of us, would have a similar good fortune. When evangelism or revival meetings came around, these ‘relational’ testimonies were frequent and occupied key places in the messages. It was obvious to any who paid attention that there were true Christians, who could say they were in a personal relationship with Jesus, and then there were all other Christians. The ‘good’ Christians were those seeking that relationship, and I counted myself among the good ones; the ‘better’ and ‘best’ Christians had it already.
I was as passionate and sincere about trying to make personal contact with Jesus as I knew how to be. When just memorizing his life and teachings from the Bible itself wasn’t producing results, I turned to EGW’s writings on Jesus. When Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ didn’t make Jesus seem any closer, I turned to popular Christian devotional writers, like E. M. Bounds, Charles Spurgeon, C. S. Lewis, and many others. I attended and lead out at worship services designed just for the purpose of getting Christians into a relationship with Jesus. Eventually, I abandoned my early doctrinal focus altogether and became fully focused on promoting this kind of ‘relational’ Christianity, even while it eluded me. As long as I could help others have it, that would be enough for me (once again, lowering the bar, you see).
After at least a decade and a half of pursuing it, no relationship emerged that was any different than one which was purely imaginary. Like many Christians do, I had trained myself to accept personal powerlessness, so the most frequent request I had in prayer was for strength, and wisdom, and patience, and other character traits I felt I lacked. One very low-bar way I could claim I had been answered by God was whenever I had personally experienced strength, or wisdom, or patience; I could thereby count that as evidence of God existing and moreover showing up in my life. Anything good that ever happened, whether it could have been luck, accident, or the result of my own good decisions, I had gotten into the habit of seeing it as God and me having a close relationship. It is pitiful when I reflect back on it, but it is, I think, an experience which many Christians are immersed in right now.
All part of the many sophisticated and elaborate ways people embellish their own perception of reality in order to justify irrational beliefs. My atheism is simply a natural end result of seeing how low the bar had been set; recognizing how little evidence there really was that Jesus was alive and active for me, or for anyone else; and then letting my life reflect those truths. Truth has always been important to me, not just being truthful, but that capital letter ‘Truth’ idea. I still feel a kind of dedication to seeking Truth, and I believe now that I’ve searched for Truth in Jesus thoroughly enough to satisfy myself that there isn’t any there.
UPDATE JANUARY 4, 2015:
The following is my reply to an old fellow church member who started a conversation with me about this post on my link to it on Google+. Remember when Google+ was a thing? I don’t either.
You say you’re sad for me. I don’t know why; please, don’t be! Read more of my autobiographical writings and you’ll hear the refrain repeatedly, that I’m much more at peace, and joyful, and content, and more free from depression and anxiety and guilt and shame, than ever I was while inside religion. I’m sad that you’re sad that I’m happy!
Freedom from religion has caused many ills to drop away from me and simultaneously added so much health, wellness, and richness to life. I guess if you want to lament my good fortune from envy, I get that. But please don’t bother hoping or praying that I give up my better condition in exchange for a return to the worse one. It’s wasted effort for you; it’s just not gonna happen.
I “never quite [got] it right,” you say. That’s insulting. Yes, I did. Of course, I did. Shame on you for stooping to insult. I let go and let god, I practiced the presence of Jesus, I asked WWJD, I surrendered, I fasted, I prayed the word, I claimed the promises, I answered the altar calls, I listened actively, I sought windows when doors closed, I counted my blessings, I used prayer lists, I journaled, I played the guitar leading others in worship, I sacrificed financially, I followed every dietary rule, I taught Sabbath School classes, I preached sermons, I taught Christianity to your church’s youth until your son (who I helped to get hired) stabbed me in the back and got me tossed out of my teaching post–exiled to Fresno, I bore that insult with grace and magnanimity, I forgave many so much, I sang, I worshiped, I cried tears and pondered verses and memorized every verse, text, slogan, prescription, maxim, and principle. And got nothing in response. For you to deny that, saying “I never quite got it right,” is the same as calling me a liar.
I hope you remember that I was the teacher your daughter Lori and her friend Alyssa came to after you attended your first Prayer Conference, and I was the teacher who helped AUA get connected with them. We even hosted one. You reference these events sometimes as if I wasn’t present for them.
You were there for some of those Prayer Conferences we attended, during which I did all the right things, for the right reasons, with correct motivations, in every way doing exactly what was expected in exchange for the elusive goal, “Jesus showing up in my life”. Your daughter, Lori, also did all the right things and got it exactly right, and yet got the same non-response from your god, and became an atheist long before I did.
And yet you say that I didn’t quite get it right! I don’t sit by and tolerate that kind of childish insult, any more than you should. I wrote in the blog post that I got it right, I tried getting any communication from God in every way he himself commanded it be done, and I got zero response. I tried for twenty-five years, Joanne; you tried for 45, you said. I gave up long after I should have. You can’t accept that, perhaps, but to accuse me (or others who’ve left) of the old “not trying hard enough” trope is a great way to get them to ignore everything else you have to say. My advice to you: Refrain from insulting the lost sheep you’re trying to win back. Condescension does not win souls to your worldview (at least not the kind of souls who reserve the right to think for themselves; but you probably don’t want those anyway).
This insult gets to the heart of the problem with attempts at communication between religious believers and their ex-religious friends & family. There just cannot be friendship when the ex-religious person gets treated with the condescending insult, “you didn’t do it right; please try harder…” Because you don’t know another person’s inner life, their private mental states, or their motivations. Because you can’t know that, and yet you say that you do, is insulting.
And even worse is how many contradictory biblical statements exist, teaching about how simple it all is, “even little children get it,” about the great lengths God went to just to make it easy to comprehend and accept the biblical Jesus into one’s life. Well you can’t have it both ways, can you? You cannot promise that a thing is not only possible, but necessary to eternal life, and actually simple enough for little children to do, and then get me to accept that a fully invested, mature adult can try her hardest and fail for 45 straight years!?! That’s doublespeak. That’s a con job. That’s a hustle. That’s how multi-level Amway-style marketers snag suckers for their downline (Just keep at it! Rah, rah, rah! You’ll get there! Year, after year, after year; $ after $$ after $$$ until they finally wake up: “I’ve been robbed!!!”). Sorry, Joanne, but rational, thinking people are rejecting this bullshit now. In DROVES. Why don’t you join us?
Regarding your personal testimony: I’m glad you seem to see how little there is to recommend believing in Jesus. I’m honestly even less interested after hearing how little he did for you to get your undying loyalty.
If I’ve got this calculated right, summing up the deal your “omnipotent, omniscient” Jesus got you to accept was:
* you get to be his spokesman
* you get to finance his professional spokespeople (at 10% of your income, minimum; more, if you want bigger bragging rights);
* you get to believe (against all appearances otherwise) that a good God is in total control of your life, this planet, even the universe.
That was what god got, in exchange for the following series of unfortunate events from you (any one or all of which he could have prevented you from experiencing)?
* incest and lifelong debilitating effects from childhood trauma
* 45 years of uncomfortable doubt
* a car accident
* neglectful parenting
* neglect of your spouse
* pain (emotional, physical, spiritual)
and you indicated that this is just a brief summary of the crap your god allowed you to experience, rather than prevent it from touching you.
(It’s funny how into ‘preventative health’ some Christians are, in the name of a god who never prevents any misery in the world, not even in their lives!)
It is impossible to distinguish between the perception that “god [is] working with you and controlling your life,” and the view that there is no real god at all, just you pretending he’s real. I can’t distinguish between those two possible explanations of all that happened in your life. Or in mine, or in the lives of the many who told me their stories, or in all those thousands of personal testimonies I heard over two and a half decades, and still occasionally hear. It’s much easier (and more honest, I believe) to go with the simpler, less fantasy-based explanation: humans created gods and duped their children into believing them.
Miracles. I don’t think an appeal to science is going to work here if you actually think that planets require divine intervention, or else they smash into each other (I’m just going by what you wrote). So, we’ll skip over miracles. Let it suffice that medical science and groupthink and placebo and cherry picking and confirmation bias are better explanations for what you call “miracles”.
Finally, I disagree with your statement that I “chose not to believe.” That’s rewriting my story, and that calls for a correction. Your current worldview (and my former one) denies a lot of evidence and censors lots of dissent in order to arrive at a false dichotomy: “you can either believe in the religion of the Bible, or you can believe in anything else–which means you believe in the religion of Satan.” (You never mentioned Satan, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you probably still believe in the old Fallen Angel.)
Being a false choice, that oversimplified, black/white fantasy is convenient for the maintaining of the charade; it’s the clasp that keeps the Christian blinders from falling off if you will. I did not, in fact, choose not to believe in Jesus anymore; his complete non-interaction/non-intervention with me or anyone I ever met over the course of 25 years of crying out to him for ANYTHING from him with my whole soul was the unclasping of the blinders–the belief just dropped away. I had no choice in the matter. I could no more continue the charade than one can unring a bell, after finally allowing myself an uncensored look at the evidence. When Dorothy looked behind the Wizard’s curtain and saw the sham of it all, she stopped believing in the Wizard of Oz.
I don’t know if you’ll ever have the experience of the blinders dropping off, of waking up from the delusion of religion. Until you do, though, you will continue to be mentally blocked by the programming Christianity must constantly flood your brain with; you won’t see past that false dichotomy. You are not permitted to see it.
That’s the great chasm that exists between church members and ex-members which forms a formidable barrier to any meaningful conversation, to any trusting relationship. It’s tough to connect with someone who has completely rejected everything you hold dear in life, someone who used to hold your God up as the Ultimate, but now despises every kind of falsehood spread by god-fearers, God-lovers, and all the ‘true believers’. I get that. And I thank you for taking the time to reach out.
All our best to you and your family, we wish you all health and wellness in the new year.
PS: I’m copying this conversation onto my blog, to document it where it will do the most good.