A few days ago someone posed the question to me that even if I write about the Bible from a secular point of view, I’m still spiritual, right? Do I still believe in some connection with God?
I grew up in the United Church of Canada, and I even started university to become a minister. However, at this point in my life, I’d have to say no, I don’t believe in God.
As I think about it, I picture people talking about God. And in the past, we’d have conversation where anytime I might explain why I didn’t believe in God they would explain that they don’t believe in that idea of God either, but some other idea of God until eventually it just comes to I’m not understanding the right idea of God. But the chain of rejected ideas of gods reminds me of this line I have read online: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
If all other images of God fall short, why should the last be real? I hear the counter-argument in my mind. God is beyond our understanding, so all images are short, all ideas and arguments fall short of understanding him. So even if the ideas of God believed in now fall short, they are still attempts at understanding that unknowable divine. As human constructions I find images of the divine fascinating. I love to study religion – just not to believe it.
For me, the whole issue of God and prayer are joined together. Prayer can’t be a matter of asking God to change his mind, because an omnipresent being wouldn’t need that. Prayer being something where we sent out magic energy to others counters the idea of a just God, because it is unjust to those unable to get their voices heard, their stories known, but who says God has to be just? Still, the studies on prayer have not been convincing an the idea of a God that intervenes in the physical world poses other problems like the question why this God allows bad things to happen overall or how he makes decisions on what to intervene on.
Growing up in the United Church of Canada, I was told it was a matter of changing myself, and opening myself to the universe and being able to accept what comes, and during the times when I haven’t been mentally ill, that made sense. The prayer of relinquishment, of letting go, made sense to me. I could relax and meditate and feel this sense of joy that I could attribute to some connection with the divine. I could believe that I was sending off good energy to other people in praying for them.
But then I experienced mental illness and a loss of control over my own mind. During pregnancy and following the birth of each child the situation in my mind became worse. My brain could not produce the sensation of happiness, no matter how much I might pray or meditate. Chemicals control things. I had accepted that prayer and God do not change the physical world but that they could help change our thoughts and how we deal with that world, but mental illness showed me even my thoughts were controlled by a physical world into which God does not tamper. The state of my minds and my thoughts cannot be a sign of my… my connection or lack of connection with God. If being in a good place mentally is a sign of living a prayerful good-with-god life, well, I’m hopeless.
I know the counter arguments to that too. Some might say that the mental illness is God is testing me and that I need to have faith anyway. The sun doesn’t cease to exist just when we can’t see it, so why would God cease to exist just because mental illness prevents me from feeling anything? I know too the argument that if I believed in God my mental illness would go away. Or that God is punishing me for my disbelief. I’ve heard all that.
Let’s take the idea that God is here but I cannot sense him in any way… that my mental illness basically makes me God-blind, unable to feel or connect with him as I used to think I did in my childhood. God becomes like a neutrino or dark matter, something with no relevance to life. He might be here, but what does it matter? The myths and stories, the rituals and prayers…. I cannot believe he would need that from us.
And I take a long-range look at things. I explore different eras of history. I look back at the ancient Akkadian prayer to the night diviner and I feel a sense of sympathy for the person who would have recited it, standing next to the lamb he was about to search for answers. I can understand the longing for gods, the longing for answers. I take inspiration in the religious journeys of others… ancient and modern… I can feel inspired by their devotion to causes, to justice, to loving others, searching for answers. I can understand that many people believe they experience God and in many ways, I feel happy for them in that.
However, I can’t help wondering to what extent they are deceiving themselves. I know I have deceived myself at times. Many times. I know I believed some things to be utterly true and later discovered them to be false. Having lived that experience of belief and disbelief, I find it hard to know what I will believe later. Sometimes I wonder if that is a weakness or a flaw in myself, and other times I see it as a good thing. I accept new evidence. I question previously held beliefs. I’m willing to admit that I’ve been wrong before and am likely to be wrong again.
Many modern Christians would say that their religion is disconnected from all the bad-points of Christian history. The crusades were a mistake, a political thing, a whatever. The inquisition doesn’t truly represent Christianity. And I can understand that, in a way. But in a way I can’t, because I also see the people at all those points in time genuinely acting out of their faith. I don’t think they were all hypocrites ignoring their faith or being bad despite their faith. They were acting from within their faith and often from love, in the same way that many of the people wishing now for a rapture believe that the end times are a part of God’s loving perfect plan. Within the constructs of their religious beliefs, it makes sense.
Humans are capable of creating such mental constructs! And if all these different faiths were there, each believing they were right, how can we believe the modern conceptions are anything special or better? I grew up with the idea that religion is humans attempts to reach God, and that our ideas sort of evolve and improve, but what if they don’t? What if it is just new delusions along the way?
I don’t believe in God. I wouldn’t know which God to start with!
I realize how horrifying this whole post might sound to people, and even more so for those who know I teach class on the Bible to people. I teach secular classes, looking at the Biblical scholarship about the Bible. When were certain parts likely written? What different arguments can we identify in the Bible? I don’t teach religion.
When I teach my classes, I am definitely cautious about what I say, not wanting to harm others belief in God (though most of my students are probably agnostic or atheist). But I think, a belief in God should be based on reality, right? If knowing the history of the Bible and reading it carefully prevents a belief in God…. then I guess that’s that.
I try to believe that the historical and literary-criticism of the Bible is compatible with having a faith in God, even though I know for me it hasn’t. I learned about it while studying to become a minister, after all. But for me it hasn’t been. Maybe for others it still is. Many of my favourite authors believe in God even while writing about the history of the Bible. For some of the wonderful people I know it is possible.
For myself, I love the Bible, and I love the history, the way in which humans have struggled with all sorts of questions. I love seeing how their beliefs have changed and grown. I love learning more about it.
I want to embed a few videos here. These are not ones I’ve made. They’re available on YouTube, and you can click to watch them there. These have been meaningful to me as I move towards disbelief.