Monday, July 14, 2014

Why Some Smart People have Faith

I've been told a number of times by different ministers that all Christians have doubts once in awhile. I've always had doubts, even back when I did not question the existence of God, as a child, I wondered about certain things, such as who created God, or why do we pray if God's will is going to prevail regardless of what we ask him for.

The resolution to these doubts, according to Christian ministers, is simply to pray to God to strengthen your faith. But God gave us free will, right? So if he can strengthen our faith, then why couldn't he just give us faith and be done with it? Again, more doubts. But, yes, I believed. I believed throughout all my childhood and most of my adult life. But I don't believe now. What changed?

One of the things that kept me believing was my recognition that there are many, many highly intelligent people, even some scientists, that also believe. I figured that if these people, who are more highly educated than I, could believe in the Christian god, then who am I to argue with them. And yet, the doubts continued.

Mostly, I just ignored them. I was never in favor of the conservative side of Christianity. It was repulsive to me. I had gone to a revival or two as a teenager and all that did was serve to drive me away from that sort of thing. I didn't attend any church from the time I was in college until my father died in 1992, well except for that one time my girlfriend (who would later be my wife) forced me to go to a Pentecostal church. It was horrible.

Throughout all the '90s and until about 2003, I attended the First Christian Church in Edinburgh. It was affiliated with Disciples of Christ. The two primary ministers that were there during the time I attended were both very intelligent and extremely well spoken. I loved learning about the bible from them. I even attended a few bible studies sessions. Both of them were seminary graduates and so they knew all about the history of the bible and they could read the bible in its original languages - Greek and Hebrew.

But all this bible study brought on even more serious questions. I spoke at length with the last full-time minister the church had, Steve Defields-Gambrel. I remember once, during lunch, I confessed that my main problem is that I didn't know anything at all about God, but that I felt I knew as much as anyone else does. He just replied, "That's it!" I was correct. Nobody knows anything at all about God; they only think they do, and they are all too willing to tell everyone they meet. They think they know about God because their information comes from one of two sources: the bible, or from other people who got it from the bible themselves. But what if the bible got it wrong? For example, there are things in the bible that are demonstrably wrong, such as insects do not have four legs and the earth is not the shape of a coin. If it can be wrong in some areas, maybe it's all wrong.

Steve preached from the bible, of course, but he believed it all to be metaphor. I once asked him what would his reaction be if somehow it was ever proven that Jesus had never been resurrected in body. He said, "That wouldn't make any difference to me." He said it didn't matter whether or not the Resurrection was real or whether it was metaphor, the meaning is still there.

Shortly thereafter I started reading everything I could find about the history of the bible and about the historical Jesus. There isn't much, outside the bible, about Jesus. Thankfully, there are tricks to learning about a historical person or event from limited information. Bart Ehrman, an evangelical preacher turned agnostic bible expert and professor of theology in North Carolina, describes these methods of determining what's true and what's false in a historical setting very well. It's how we know pretty much everything that's in a history textbook prior to the invention of video.

After reading and studying both sides I began my slow progress toward apostasy. But what still bothered me is how so many highly intelligent people could still believe in the bible. So I did some more research on that topic. As it turns out there really is an inverse correlation between a person's education level and their religious faith: The more educated one is, the less likely they are to be a believer. But there were still lots of highly-educated believers. Why?

I've heard a number of possible explanations. But I think the real reason is probably a mix of things. For one thing, human beings are natural agency detectors. That's why we see pictures in clouds or faces on toast. It used to be evolutionarily advantageous. After all, it would be far better for our ancestors to think they see the face of a lion that turns out to be shadows than to think they see shadows that turn out to be a lion. I think mainly, however, people's brains are born with a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. The part of their brains that allows them to believe in ancient superstitions is kept cognitively separate from the more rational parts of the brain that they use to make important decisions.

That might also explain why I believed until late into my 40s. Although I didn't attend church until I was almost 40, I still was at least a nominal Christian. I just simply kept the reasons why on the back burner, without thinking much about it. And, because, as I said, really smart people sometimes believe. But I was no slouch when it comes to education. I do have a master's degree in science education, so one would think that I would have come to my apostasy much earlier. But it wasn't until I started studying about my religion, the bible, and the historical Jesus that I finally cut the strings to my faith. That part of my brain which had compartmentalized it was allowed to open up. It didn't happen in one day, but when it was finally complete, it was as though I was let out of a locked box that had been trapping me. I thought I was happy as a believer, but it was too confusing, as it turns out. It didn't make sense. And now I know why.

Religion is an invention of humans. It originally helped us to develop into civilized societies, because all religions have rules. The rules are supposedly handed down from whatever supernatural being the religious adherents believe in. But in comparing these religions, they are all very common in a few aspects. Most importantly, they believe in a supernatural being that most would call God, or in multiple such beings. And their most devout adherents always have personal stories that seem to justify and strengthen their belief. Whenever they come across a fact or facts that seem to suggest an inconsistency in their faith, such as why is there so much evil or suffering in the world if God is supposed to be completely loving, cognitive dissonance reduction sets in and they make up excuses for their god to tell themselves. That's why you always hear things like, "The Lord works in mysterious ways," or "It's all part of God's divine plan" during funerals.

Cognitive dissonance reduction is a powerful force and simply knowing it exists is not enough to cure it. A compartmentalized brain is difficult to crack open, which explains why seemingly intelligent people believe in gods. And even knowing that adherents to other religions don't believe in your god any more than you believe in there's seems never to stimulate deeper thought into the possibility that maybe both gods are imaginary. But for whatever reason, I was able to break the spell of Christianity. Maybe it was because I had never had any powerful personal experiences that I could have attributed to God. Maybe it was because I had always harbored serious doubts. But I think mostly it is because I explored those doubts with an open mind by talking to my pastors and then by reading secular books about religion, God, and the bible.

I can now claim to be an atheist, even though I do not discount the possibility that a god might exist. What I know for sure, though, is that if a god does exist, he/she/it is certainly not God, as introduced in the bible. I've heard it said that the best way to become an atheist is to read the bible, all of it, with an open mind instead of reading it as a devotional endeavor. A good and omnipotent god could never allow some of those things to happen.

And now, I try to spread the word against fundamentalist Christianity all I can. I can coexist just fine with most mainline protestants who accept what science has proven and who support the separation of church and state. They usually cause me little concern other than the fact that I disagree with their beliefs. But fundamentalist Christianity, to me, is more like a cult. Fundamentalism of all faiths is one of the biggest threats to progress in the world today and it must be blocked at every conceivable turn.

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