Monthly Archives: February 2009

coming home

Last week I was in Chicago for the AAAS Annual Meeting.  It was inspiring and enlightening and mind-expanding, and will give me a lot to blog about in the coming days.  You can read about some of the fascinating research on the Findings blog, and I’ll give my commentary as soon as I get myself together and catch up with work.

I had been looking forward to the meeting for a long time, and it was as wonderful as I’d expected.  I also had great visits with a handful of college friends, and enjoyed taking in things I can’t get at home like art and music.  But I’ll tell you a secret: a major reason why I was looking forward to my trip to Chicago so much was because I was looking forward to coming home afterward.

Coming home is simply one of the greatest things in the world.  It’s one of the things I have wished for the most: to arrive somewhere and feel that this was my final destination.  To have a place where I am present without effort, where both the past and the future come to rest at a place that is mine.

There are no fireworks for me here, nothing spectacular or extraordinary, no mountaintop moments.  There is simply a steady peace in my daily life, a quietness and calm contentment.  And that quiet peace is absolutely thrilling.  It gives me a wild, crazy joy that feels like being in love.  I feel at home under this piece of sky.

I am discovering over and over, to great surprise, that it is possible to find what you’re looking for.

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biblical archaeology and thermodynamics

At Wheaton, among the battery of required bible and theology classes, everyone has to take one course on the Old Testament and one course on the New Testament.  I fulfilled this requirement by taking courses in biblical archaeology instead of the regular biblical literature and interpretation courses.  The OT and NT archaeology classes weren’t nearly as popular as the default classes, probably because they were so freaking hard.  But I also learned a lot more things that remain applicable to an atheist than I would have learned in the regular bible classes.  And I really, really appreciate hard, demanding classes where students are forced to make leaps themselves instead of being hand-held every step of the way.  So when my professor said “write me an exegesis paper” without telling us what he meant, I felt like I was back at my first college, giving a presentation on quantum theory in my first week of physics class.  A lot of the classes I took at my first college were like that, and that kind of intellectual masochism is the closest I’ve ever come to a drug addiction.  It makes me wake up in a cold sweat and want to vomit, but at the same time it feels sooo good.  Man, do I miss that stuff.

In those archaeology classes, my professors stressed the importance of archaeology thus: Jesus only makes sense in the context of first century Palestine.  Christianity only makes sense in the context of Judaism.  So in order to make sense of the bible, we have to know what life was like for Jews in first century Palestine.  This thought came to my mind recently because in my view, one of the biggest barriers to Christian-atheist dialogue is that Christians are forever stuck within their own system.  Within the closed system of Christianity’s antecedent assumptions, the religion makes perfect sense.  Theism makes perfect sense.  Everything in the bible either makes perfect sense, or is easily transposed into something that does.  Orthodox doctrine is a complex set of permutations that make perfect sense.  But it takes a leap of *something* to get within the closed system– whether that something is faith, evidence, emotion, upbringing, or simply a desire to be in the system.  According to the archaeology professors, that’s as it should be.  So my first question is: are Christians aware of this?  And if they are, why do the vast majority of Christians, including every Christian apologist I’ve heard and read, talk to atheists about Christianity with the assumption that we’re in the system?

This was a major factor in my becoming an atheist.  I became aware of the fact that I couldn’t really answer any questions about my faith without referring back to the closed system.  That wasn’t okay for me.  Even though I liked my own position in the system, even though I knew that I could be satisfied living in that snowglobe, I was not okay with the fact that there was no way I could explain the system to someone living outside of it.  If the system couldn’t be open and accessible to everyone, I didn’t want to be in it.

The closed system is illustrative of the parochial nature of Christianity.  All religions and all gods are parochial, but Christianity really goes out of the way to insist that it is not.  The bible seems to progress from parochial superiority in the Old Testament to a complete denial of parochialism in the New Testament.  Christians would probably call it the revealing of the universality of God.  If I were a Christian I would probably say that Christianity is both universal and parochial; that it has to be rooted in a specific time and place because of the nature of the incarnation.  Then, jumping ahead, my final argument would be: C.S. Lewis’s essay Religion and Rocketry, Q.E.D.  That essay is pretty interesting.  It was one of my favorites when I was a Christian, and now that I’m no longer blinded by the infallibility of C.S. Lewis, I should like to discuss it in detail sometime.  It does not, of course, answer the question of the closed system, being written from within and with all of the assumptions of that system.

Does anyone actually know what I’m trying to say in this post?  And if you do, could you please tell me?  I have only succeeded in confusing myself.

a peaceful afternoon

I have a South-facing window, where I am sitting right now, wearing sunglasses against the fierce glare of a rare cloudless day.  South is where the sun is, and it’s also where the water is.  I live on the coast, and beyond my window is a small enclosed harbor lined with rows of snow-covered boats.  The water in the harbor is still and frozen and dotted with chunks of ice, but beyond is the sea.  Today there is only a fresh breeze (which I mean colloquially, not according to the Beaufort Scale), and the sea is a sparkling, shimmering surface.  If stars could be shattered like glass and skipped like stones, if angels could dance on the pinpoints of light, it would look like this sea shimmering under this sun.

In the other direction is a small mountain ridge with a few stocky peaks rising from snow-covered shoulders.  Their white is outlined in sharp relief against the bluebird sky, though it’s becoming cast in shadow as the sun descends.  On one slope, two dark shapes dart across the white backdrop.  Are they on the mountain or before it?  Are they skiers or birds?  The combination of blinding white snow and glare from the sun are robbing my depth perception.

White puffs rise and fall like whispers from these peaks as the snow is touched by the wind.  I don’t know why I find this so mesmerizingly beautiful.  The windblown snow only dances around the tops of the peaks, sometimes dislodging more snow that tumbles in roughly-hewn shapes down the slope.

As the sun turns from a bright glaring bulb to a shrouded gassy orb and its light filters through the atmosphere at an increasingly shallow angle, the horizon flashes through a myriad of colors that no palette and color wheel can ever fathom.  In passing, a few rays of light also filter through the pilothouse windows of the silent waiting fleet in the harbor.  At dusk, the harbor lights will come on to create its own twinkling city beneath the stars.  I will take a walk to the end of the harbor to stand and bask for a few minutes in the frozen air, but I can’t decide when is my favorite point in the sun’s journey to the horizon.

doubt, part 2

The third kind of doubt I’ve experienced is emotional doubt.  Strictly speaking, this shouldn’t really be classified as doubt, but something that makes you want to doubt.  An example of a Christian equivalent might be: getting fed up with the church, or the hypocrisy of Christians, or the rules.

A couple of weeks ago I experienced emotional doubt for the first time since becoming an atheist.  I was alone in my apartment one night, watching a quasi-creepy movie.  It was dark, and I was kind of lonely, and I was suddenly arrested by an intense fear of dying.  This would have been just a momentary lapse of reason, but it was the first pang of fear that I’ve felt for myself in awhile, so it affected me deeply.  Normally, I think about death fairly often, and I’m okay with the prospect of ceasing to exist.  But that night, it just terrified me.  I didn’t want to think that I would ever die.  It frightened me enough that I began to wish fervently that there was such a thing as heaven.

I ran through this whole monologue in my head: I really wish that I don’t ever have to die.  Right now, I wish that I believed in heaven.  I wish I believed that there was a God here to hold my hand in moments like this when I’m scared.  I think that if I wanted to, I could make myself believe in heaven.  I could make myself believe in God, and then I wouldn’t ever have to be terrified of dying.  Wouldn’t that be great?  But at the end of the day, I will die.  And my soul will either cease to exist, or go to heaven (or hell).  And God either definitely does exist or definitely doesn’t exist.  No matter what I make myself believe, only one thing can be true.  And as it stands right now, the truth as I believe it and as I know it is that there is no God or heaven.

It is a powerful thing to face those moments, to stare into the prospect of death, into the face of chaos and purposelessness, and consider the fear and the starkness of what I believe to be true: that, in reality, there’s nowhere to go but down.  To be terrified by that truth and not back down is, I think, one of the most honest and raw kinds of spiritual experience possible for an atheist.

Emotional doubt, or the appeal to emotion, is extremely, extremely compelling.  To be fair, it was partly responsible for my deconversion, in that being fed up with the church and the way Christianity was practiced made me consider my intellectual doubts more seriously than I otherwise would have.  But I also had emotional doubts toward atheism, which was the reason why deconversion was so hard for me.  As fed up as I was with Christians in general and with Wheaton and my church in particular, they were also the only home I’d ever had. I knew that Christianity could provide everything that I really wanted for myself in life.

For me, emotions play a big role within religion or within atheism.  But the decision to follow or not follow a religion is first and foremost about truth.  That’s not the case for everybody; for a lot of people, religion is much more about guidance or comfort or relationship or mystery.  And that’s okay.  People are different.  What’s not okay is when people assume that their reasons for being compelled by religion should apply to everyone else.

Sometimes I still wish God existed.  Often, I wish there was a grand scheme behind everything.  I think most people do, given the pervasiveness of religion throughout history.  I also wish there were unicorns and mermaids.  Especially mermaids.  But my life isn’t any less full because they don’t exist.  And now, part of the joy of living in a world without them is dreaming of them and dealing with life without them.