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If you do not believe the Christian story, you are doomed. It does not matter how hard you tried to believe it, or how much research you put into the process. At the end of the day, it is impossible to please god without faith. What seals your fait is that there is no way to get the faith you lack. There is no prayer you can pray, no book you can read, no sermon you can hear, no service you can attend that will get you from faithlessness to faith.
I am a skeptic, no, an atheist who is reasonably convinced that the Christian god does not exist. I could be wrong. I don’t mind being wrong. I have no stake in the matter. I don’t need to be right about this to be a happy and fulfilled human being. If it turns out there is a god, I will figure out what to do next and do it. I’m a writer. It would be the story of the century. It is all upside for me.
Some have accused me of being insincere. I am learning to tune those people out. The first 40 years of my life was devoted to knowing and serving this god. Christians use the accusation of insincerity as a defense mechanism. If they can convince themselves that the atheist is not sincere or genuine, then they have a justification for why god does not make himself known to them.
They don’t have to contemplate our doomed condition. It is our fault. We chose this condition. We may not have chosen to disbelieve. But we chose to stay in that condition. We chose to avoid the things that might have had an effect on our hearts. Ultimately, god is the one who changes hearts. And he acts on the people who are sincerely open to him and accepting of his methods. If we remain unbelievers, it is because god knew our hearts and left us in that condition. And if god has judged us, then the Christian doesn’t have to think about it.
Nothing will convince the Christian that the atheist is sincere. There is no amount of searching the atheist can do that will ever be enough. Sufficient search would end in sufficient results. So an unbeliever simply has not put in the right amount of time doing the right things with the proper resources while exhibiting the correct frame of heart and mind.
This is the game Christians play. They pretend to know things about us they cannot possibly know. They are certain we haven’t encountered the right information. If we only knew what they know, read what they read, heard and seen what they heard and saw, we would be convinced as they are. They don’t know why we haven’t heard the still, small voice, but it is somehow our fault for drowning it out. They don’t know exactly how it is we quenched the spirit. They only know that we did.
While I am certain that Christians who think like this are as sincere as they can be, I am equally convinced we have to let their opinions stop having an effect on our psyche. They have disqualified themselves from rational discourse on the matter. They have become judges of our hearts as opposed to honest interlocutors seeking the truth. We ave to stop playing their game of trying to prove our sincerity as if they were the proper arbiters of such things. They most certainly are not.
Instead, if there is a god that wants to be found. And if we want to find him, we have to take the matter into our own hands. We have to determine the parameters of what is possible and reasonable. Before exploring what an honest search for god looks like, I want to lay out my case for why I don’t believe Christian suggestions are appropriate or effective:
Equally broken, equally fixed
The first thing the Christian has to explain to me is why they are able to encounter god and I am not. We are all the same kind of broken. Making a point that no group has an advantage over the other, Paul quotes the following:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
This is a bleak view of humanity. I vehemently disagree with it. But it is the Christian view. So how did they get past all that to seek god in the first place? What special dispensation of faith did they get that I didn’t? If Paul is right, no one should have the slightest motivation to seek god, let alone find him. The spark must come from god.
However, if god provides this spark, he must provide it equally to everyone. Yet something seems very much unequal as some seem to have it while others do not. Some people take to the fix while others don’t. All the Christian can say to this is that god gave everyone the same spark of faith. And we all used our free will differently. But this does nothing to explain why some develop faith in god while others with the same spark do not.
Free will is waived around like a magic wand. It is intended to explain everything while providing an actual explanation for nothing. What exactly did I do wrong with my free will? What did you choose to do that I did not? I contend that I did not choose not to believe. In my case, I chose to believe, and did all that I could to hold on to belief. So if god appears to others but not to me, I declare that the game is unfairly rigged.
Lowest common denominator
Equality is an important theme to me. That is why seeking god has to be accessible to all, in the same way for all. The simplest person who will be held account for her actions should be able to discover god. I should be able to discover god in the same way.
For it to be fair, it cannot be one set of criteria for one person and a different set for someone else. If one person receives a clear and convincing sign, then we all should. Either we should all magically be convinced by the same sign, or we should each receive a sign that is convincing to us.
I am rather suspicious of demands to do academic research into questionable matters that flummox the most ambitious scholars of every generation. The simple goat herder Jesus encountered on the hillside didn’t have to go through that. The vast majority of believers who ever lived didn’t have to go through that. So it seems unfair to demand it of me today. Why should most people get the easy test but I get the hard one? I don’t buy it.
I should be called on to do more to earn my faith than the simplest believer who has experienced god. Requiring more of me is favoritism. The only thing the Christian can say is that god varies the level of difficulty for each individual based on his own perfect reasons. If it is harder for me, then it should be. This is not a satisfactory explanation. I have no idea why Christians would be satisfied with it. I’m not.
Open and shut case
Based on various conversion stories, some people were open to god and received confirmation right away. While others were closed and stubborn. The latter group still encountered god because he was persistent, often accommodating their request for signs. Paul was not open to Jesus at all. But god insisted on Paul knowing the truth.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether a person is open to god or closed to him since many who self-reported as being closed were still pursued by god. I can only conclude that the Christian’s requirement that we be open in some way is bogus. It is certainly unfair to require I be more open to god than others who encountered him. If god reveals himself to one closed person and not all, then it means he has his favorites. How does one get into that category?
Time after time
The last factor I will address on the subject of why the Christian suggestions don’t work for me is time. Specifically, it takes almost no time for some people to come to a knowledge of god and a lifetime for others. This seems inherently unfair to me. One person finds god the first place he looks. While another person never finds god after a lifetime of frustrated seeking.
How much time should a person reasonably set aside for the search? Consider a man who tells his wife he wants to take all the savings along with a month from work to go to some cave in the Holy Lands and discover god. He can only take a month because that is all the time work will allow, and is as far as the money will go. She reluctantly agrees. After a month, he comes back and reports that he did not discover god, but wants to take another month because he needs to be sure. She is well within her rights to tell him no. He needs to go back to work and make an income.
Some Christians found god right away. What they say to others who did not find god so readily is that they need to take another month off work, then another, then another. To end the search and return to your old life is proof that you were never worthy of the search in the first place. I believe this is unreasonable.
Miracles are always an important part of the conversion story for Christians. At some point along the way, they are going to try and convince you that the truth of Christianity has already been demonstrated with some miracle or other. And that is yet another place where it breaks down for me. It is a disconnect that most Christians don’t even see after I point it out to them. They were convinced by a miracle the personally experienced. And they expect me to be convinced by their story.
Let’s break this down: god performed a miracle for them during their time of doubt. And they are believers today because of that experience. They knew about the experiences reported by others. But they still had their own doubts that could not be set aside by any means other than personal experience. They got it. Instead of understanding our doubts, they inundated us with stories of miracle and of their own experiences, experiences we have been denied.
I am beyond the point where stories can help me. I have seen too many of them exposed as false. Further, I have no way to distinguish the clever frauds from potentially legitimate stories. That avenue of faith is ruined for me. But I see no reason why anyone should believe on the basis of stories when god could provide everyone with their own convincing experience.
Finding god is harder than finding Nemo. After putting in a certain amount of time and effort into searching for god, one gets the distinct impression that god does not want to be found. This takes us to a problem commonly known as the hiddenness of god. At this point, the wheels come completely off the Christian bus.
On the one hand, they tell us that god is discoverable and wants to be found by a true seeker. On the other hand, they have a whole set of apologetics for why god is keeping us from finding him. The way I see it, if god does not want to be found, there is nothing I can do to find him. I just as well give up. No book I read, no pilgrimage on which I embark, no prayer I pray, no sacrifice I make will bring me any closer to finding god.
It is like the people of the ancient story who tried to build a tower to heaven. They were ultimately rebuffed because god does not want to be found by people using their best human efforts. That would be like summoning god as if he were a minor spirit who could be conjured by the machinations of a wizard. He apparently does not respond well to such efforts.
So I suppose the first question I need to ask is does god even want to be found by such as me. I don’t know the answer to this question. And I don’t know how to discover the answer to the question. Does it make sense to pray to a god you don’t believe in? I suppose it is no different than calling out to someone you don’t believe is there. If I wake up in the middle of the night after hearing a noise in the house, I might get up and call out asking if anyone is there. I don’t believe that anyone is there. But on the off chance that they are, perhaps they will answer.
Praying to god is just me speaking into the void in the event that someone is there just waiting to be asked. I don’t feel comfortable describing this as prayer. I am not praying to a potential intruder when I ask if anyone is there. It should be sufficient to just say something like, “God, are you there?” How many times should I ask before it is okay to stop asking the void if anyone is there? I don’t know the answer to that.
Another way to look for god is by going to church assemblies. After all, where two or three are gathered in his name, there, he will be. That’s from the Bible. So why not search for god where he says he will be? The problem is that I spent yers in church going two to three times a week, and sometimes more. I never really encountered him there in any meaningful way. I attended a variety of denominations in case he was more particular about where he showed up.
The bible is said to be his word. So in some mysterious way, he speaks through the Bible. No one can say with any certainty how that happens or how we are supposed to interpret it. But perhaps I can encounter him by reading his words rather than the words of scholars. The challenge for me is that I have read the Bible many times and know it better than most Christians. I am told by Christians that I shouldn’t judge god by the Old Testament scriptures where he dealt with humans directly. Rather, I should concentrate on the gospels despite there being a major rift in New Testament scholarship regarding how one reads and interprets those passages. Even so, should I give the Bible another read through just to be thorough?
The only other thing that comes to mind is if I just pretend to believe in god – fake it till I make it. Perhaps that is the way god works. Perhaps I can generate faith by approximating it. I don’t know what that would actually mean or how I am actually supposed to do it. I am at a loss as to how to proceed.
Conclusion: Other gods
There is one thing that disturbs me in this whole process of searching for god. I am putting out a lot of effort to find a single god when there are so many others for which I could be looking. Shouldn’t I be equally open to finding Hindu gods, the Muslim god, Satan? Frankly, I would be just as happy finding any god? But I rather suspect that the Christian would frown on me putting effort into finding other gods. They might suggest that seeking other gods is the reason their god remains hidden to me.
I can’t let that bother me. I am on a sincere quest to find god in whatever form he appears. I have no reason to believe there is only one god to be found. And I am open and eager to find them all. Why should I believe that failure to find one means there are none to find?
Finally, there must be some reasonable limits to the search. I will not kill a chicken and dance naked on the 50 yard line at the Super Bowl. I will not take a pilgrimage to anywhere, or take a vow of silence. There are things I will not read simply because I can’t. There are languages I don’t speak, and a level of academia that is frankly over my head.
There also has to be a reasonable amount of time placed on a search. While I will always welcome the eventuality that some god will make himself or herself known to me, I cannot actively search beyond a certain point. As always, I welcome the suggestions from whomever has a direct line to god, any god.
And that’s the view from the skeptic.