The Solace of Nonbelief

October 25, 2008 at 9:04 pm 30 comments

Several months ago, someone I love dearly, Frank, underwent major surgery. Given his advanced age (he’s 83) and general poor health, there were some doubts as to whether he would survive the surgery. He did survive and has spent the intervening months in a nursing home, where he has been receiving physical therapy. In a recent meeting with his therapist, Frank and his wife were informed that he will likely be an invalid for the rest of his life.

My emotional response throughout Frank’s illness and rehab has been sorrow. Every time I visit Frank and see him in his wheelchair or bed, I can’t help contrasting that man with the younger man who cheered as I played softball, the man who joyfully wandered around a zoo with my young children, the man who drove 4,000 miles across North America to visit my family. I feel overwhelming sorrow that most of Frank’s days will now be spent in the confines of a nursing home. A man who has traveled around the world now finds that a wheelchair journey down the hall is a major event that draws upon all of his physical resources. How can that thought not make me sad?

The emotion that I have not felt throughout Frank’s ordeal is anger. At what or whom would I be angry? There is no god to blame for not intervening in Frank’s life and healing him. There is no god to implore for mercy, no god to whom I may inquire what Frank could possibly have done to deserve this fate after decades of faithful, loving service to his god. This is a sharp contrast to the anguish and anger I felt 25 years ago when I was a Christian and my Christian father was dying of cancer. My siblings and I were called to my father’s bedside about three weeks before he died. We spent two days visiting with him and my mother in the hospital in which he later died. When we said goodbye, we knew it was the last time we would ever say those words to each other.

A couple of days later, I woke up on a Sunday morning and thought, “I don’t want to go to church today. I’m not in the mood to worship.” Since I was the pianist, however, there was no way that my absence from the service would have gone unnoticed (and playing for the services was part of my job). So, I went to church. Since the band accompanied the first song, I was able expected to sing with the congregation. The song was entitled, God is Love. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I literally could not sing those words. At that moment, I didn’t believe that God was love. I didn’t want to worship him. I was livid with God for allowing my father, who was only 57 years old, to suffer the pain and indignity of death from cancer. I was angry at him for not answering our prayers.

I eventually got over my anger and continued living and believing as a Christian for another 24 years after Dad died. But, I never forgot that my belief in God did not provide consolation in my time of greatest grief. Now, 25 years later, as someone I love is facing the torment of a protracted illness, I don’t look to God for solace. My knowledge that the god of Christianity is false enables me to face Frank’s illness with, in addition to sorrow, a determination to do whatever lies within my power to help him and his wife. My knowledge that the god of Christianity is false allows me not to waste time and energy praying for healing that, if it comes at all, will only come by human agency. My knowledge that the god of Christianity is false frees me from the confusion and anger that arise from unanswered prayers, from the concern that the god that Frank worships has elected, for mysterious reasons that are beyond human understanding, not to intervene in his life and perform a miracle of healing. I just know that Frank’s illness is an aspect of life that must be endured, just as many aspects of life are enjoyed to their fullest extent.

There is no one to blame for what has happened to Frank, and there is no one to beseech for his healing. Knowing these things has given me greater solace in a time of sorrow than Christian faith ever did.

– the chaplain

Entry filed under: thechaplain. Tags: , , , .

The Psychology of Apologetics: Definitions (or, Flapping Your Arms With a Pure Heart) The Psychology of Apologetics: Ethics and Morality

30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. orDover  |  October 25, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    Take that, all you Christians who say that without faith in God you can’t handle life’s difficulties and sorrows.

  • 2. jmamos  |  October 25, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    >I never forgot that my belief in God did not provide consolation in my time of greatest grief.

    Very well put. One concept that Christians do not have is that of true loss. Everything is supposed to work out for good. It sounds nice, but it just doesn’t describe the world we live in. It forces them to live in denial of tragedy or in conflict with their beliefs.

  • 3. ED  |  October 27, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Christianity not only fails to provide solace in times of trouble, it in many cases causes anguish. My mother, who is 82 years old is wrestling with alzheimers. The other day she, in one of her moments of lucidity, told me that she had been in the yard praying. Through a flood of tears she told me that she promised god that she would be “good” if he would restore her mind. This has been the most “godly” woman I have ever known. I have never heard an unkind word or course word purse her lips in my life. And yet, there is this nagging subconscious torment that she is being punished because she has failed to meet gods expectations.

    Or my father with dementia, also 82, who recently, with tear filled eyes , told me that he “hoped” he would be “saved”. What turmoil and silent fear these people have lived with. Unfortunately they are not unusual.
    All I could do is tell my parents how proud I was of them and how I KNEW that they were going to make it to heaven.

    I am so fortunate to have grown beyond those superstitions and to be able to rest in the knowledge that when I die, I will spend an eternity in dreamless sleep, or to put it another way, “when I die I shall rot.”

  • 4. stellar1  |  October 27, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    I have been considering the “solace” of non belief lately as well. In fact, I find I am often struck by how much more peaceful and joyful my life is as an agnostic than it ever was as a christian.

    Over the last three years since my deconversion, I have had a couple of interesting moments in which a dire circumstance provoked the knee-jerk reaction to beseech a god for help or solace. It took me all of five seconds to re-adjust my thinking, but I found it disconcerting to rely on my own wherewithal to navigate the extreme situations.

    It would be nice to pretend there is something out there bigger, smarter and more powerful than humans to handle our problems that seem bigger than us – like a parent dying from cancer (I’ve been there too). However, what good does it do to pretend? It doesn’t change the circumstance. All it does is give a false sense of security where common sense would have provided a far better response.

    Thanks for the post.

  • 5. freestyleroadtrip  |  October 28, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    I’ve been reading along on the de-con blog for awhile now but have not made my presence known. In brief, was raised in a Nazarene pastor’s home. I am the first in my entire family to pursue a career outside “the church.” I have examined atheism and agnosticism and have found them lacking. I remain a Christian, but it looks a lot different than that of my family. It is enough different that they think I am lost. One brief example is along the lines of the chaplain’s post. I don’t really expect God to remove my pain and provide solace in times of trouble.So in the spirit of genuinely seeking to understand, how do you so passionately know that “the god of Christianity is false?”

    And thanks in general for the stimulating thought.

  • 6. Ubi Dubium  |  October 29, 2008 at 12:32 am

    freestyleroadtrip

    So in the spirit of genuinely seeking to understand, how do you so passionately know that “the god of Christianity is false?”

    I don’t “passionately know”. But I have no reason to think that it’s true, so I don’t. I also have no reason to believe in Thor, Zeus, or the Easter Bunny, so I don’t believe in them either. Just because it’s not possible to prove something is false to a 100% certainty does not mean that it has a high enough likelihood of being correct to base your life on it. “Possible” does not equal “probable”.

  • 7. Joan Ball  |  October 29, 2008 at 10:10 am

    My 65 year old mother and 67 year old father both died this past April, twenty days apart. She had been battling cancer and he had a stroke and died within five days, never regaining consciousness. He went first, so she spent the last weeks of her life having lost her husband of 46 years. As I reflect on this post and these comments and ask myself whether or not I felt solace because of my faith (I am a Christian believer from a secular family) I realize that rather than give solace, my faith reoriented me from thinking about my need for solace and allowed me to focus more on the experience of my parents, my siblings and my kids than how I felt. Don’t get me wrong…I was very sad. But, surprisingly, given my lifelong inclination toward most things being all about me, I was compelled to become a support where support was needed and a peacemaker where tensions were running high. I am sure some people can act that way in this kind of a situation, but I was not one of them.

    Now, the fact that I was compelled to act this way does not mean I always did it or did it well. But it was a paradigm shift that made a very painful situation somehow less devastating. Maybe that was my solace.

    Now that they are gone, I am completely willing to grieve deeply. Maybe as I do so I will tap into some other feelings that I have not yet encountered…but I will cross that bridge when I come to it. This may or may not be the experience of other Christians but it was mine. Just another perspective…

  • 8. BigHouse  |  October 29, 2008 at 10:25 am

    I have examined atheism and agnosticism and have found them lacking. I remain a Christian, but it looks a lot different than that of my family. It is enough different that they think I am lost.

    A veritable man without a country, eh free? I hope you find the site helpful to you in your journey.

    I’d like to echo ubi’s sentiments and add that your inclusion of the word “passionately” is indicative of where you come from. I think athesim/agnosticism is hard for Christian’s to understand because they come from the mindset of emotion and faith and being on someone’s “side”. They don’t attempt to understand whether or not god exists through reason and evidence examination.

    In an opposite but similar vein, I wouldn’t attempt to appreciate art using math or geometry.

  • 9. LeoPardus  |  October 29, 2008 at 11:04 am

    freestyleroadtrip:

    In answer to your question I’ve written some articles on this site that would comprise a fairly thorough response.

    Click on ‘Archive’ at the top of the page and search for the articles, “A personal relationship with Jesus” and the three articles with, “Reasons I can no longer believe” in the title.

  • 10. Luke  |  October 29, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    the two constants as i see in life are change and death. everything changes and everything dies. what keeps me Christian is a future hope of reuniting with my loved ones. death is not the end.

    but that is my future hope. as to who gets in or what that life will look like, i can’t say nor is it for me to say.

    i feel for your story and see the logic in your stance. i decry the church who wouldn’t give you time off to deal with your grief as that is utterly selfish and sure as hell didn’t help you.

  • 11. BigHouse  |  October 29, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Key word there, Luke, is “hope”. One can hope for anythingm true or otherwise…

  • 12. freestyleroadtrip  |  October 29, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Big House. Thanks for your encouragement. But I would say that I have spent hours attempting “…to understand whether or not god exists through reason and evidence examination.” I have poured over books and websites from both sides. From Dawkins to Collins. And I think that belief in God is entirely rational and probably even more so than non-belief. I have read some on this website about Christians bringing the same old arguments to the table but haven’t had the time yet to explore the website thoroughly enough to find out what the de-con readers feel are those same old arguments. I hope that I am not among “the same old arguments.”

    LeoPardus. Thanks for the pointer. I will examine what you have suggested.

    Ubi Dubium. It seems to me that believing only in something that can be proven leaves one open to possibly missing quite a bit of truth. Where does your own personal judgment come into play when examining and comparing Santa Claus and God? The level of evidence for the existence of those two seems widely different.

    Joan Ball. Love your explanation.

    Luke. Have you read much of NT Wright? He has a lot to say about the future hope of a Christian that you might really like.

  • 13. Luke  |  October 29, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    NT Wright is okay in some spots but can get a little too apologetical. his stance on LGBTQ issues leaves much to be desired too. but other than that, he’s right on in the “future hope”.

    as a good buddy of mine expresses his beliefs, he’s a hopeful agnostic. i tend to fall in a similar catagory but will be perfectly fine if this is all there is. life is pretty kick ass much of the time! despite all the harshness of the world there is true beauty.

  • 14. ED  |  October 29, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    ” what keeps me Christian is a future hope of reuniting with my loved ones. death is not the end.”
    The “good news” is only good news when you understand the bad news. The bad new is the same book that tells me I will be reunited with my loved ones, also tells me that billions of souls will experience eternal torment and torture and that many will say “Lord, Lord” in that day who will be sent out “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Narrow is the way, ect., ect…

    One of Dr. R.C. Sproul’s professors used to say that when we get our “Glorified “body and our understanding is complete, “we will be able to see our mother languishing in hell and give god glory for his justice.” That is horrific.

  • 15. Luke  |  October 29, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Ed, completely agreed! hell is horrific and goes against my universalist leanings. if we get tons of chances through our lives, who’s to say they stop after death? well, people who want you to go to their church and collect your $ do! so let’s instill fear as fear is a much better motivating factor than love.

    i try not to use fear from the pulpit nor in these conversations here. it is simply not helpful and counter to the church’s message.

    From Hunting the Divine Fox, pp. 132-133

    What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business — and that, of course, is the church’s real job. She (that is, the church) is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can’t turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what’s right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice.

    But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. Then the church becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right and Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure garbage for the church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism.

  • 16. freestyleroadtrip  |  October 29, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Ed, I agree completely that this is horrific. I used to buy into that line of Christian thought completely but have radically changed in the last 2 years. While I would not yet label myself a universalist, it certainly makes sense to me to consider why God may not give us an opportunity to know him after death. I know of nothing in the Christian bible that necessitates choosing him before death. I am completely comfortable with saying that I do not know where I stand on the whole issue of hell. It is part of me rethinking my entire reason for belief in God and what Christianity really is meant to be.

  • 17. orDover  |  October 29, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    I have poured over books and websites from both sides. From Dawkins to Collins. And I think that belief in God is entirely rational and probably even more so than non-belief.

    I’ve heard a few people make that claim, but they can never really back it up.

    Even the most devout of pastors tend to admit that faith in God is essentially irrational and without substantive proof.

  • 18. freestyleroadtrip  |  October 29, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    orDover. I’m not sure what you need for someone to back it up for you. I would be happy to discuss it with you, but I what I imagine happening is you telling me that I have the same old arguments that you believe have no merit and are full of holes. So what is the point in me trying to back it up to you? I disagree, after looking at all the evidence I can find, that faith in a god is essentially irrational. Of course, it cannot be proven that god exists and never will be something that is proven, unless of course you find yourself in front of him someday. That should be proof at that point. But for now, all I have is evidence that points to god’s existence. I believe it is solid. You do not. So again, what’s the point in me trying to back it up to you?

  • 19. TitforTat  |  October 29, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    freestyleroadtrip

    I think you are right in thinking that its rational to think that their is a creator of sorts behind all that we see. The irrational part comes when you see it as only a Christian God, Hebrew God, Muslim God…etc.

  • 20. TitforTat  |  October 29, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    but will be perfectly fine if this is all there is.(Luke)

    Its not like your going to know the difference if thats true ;)

  • 21. VorJack  |  October 29, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    “The irrational part comes when you see it as only a Christian God, Hebrew God, Muslim God…etc.”

    It would seem best to even avoid the word “God” in this case, since it is such a loaded word. It carries tremendous cultural baggage.

    If we’re going to state something created the universe, but that this is all we know about it, it would seem best to be incredibly general. It could be an entity, or entities, or even a blind force.

  • 22. Josh  |  October 29, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    “I have examined atheism and agnosticism and have found them lacking. I remain a Christian, but it looks a lot different than that of my family. It is enough different that they think I am lost.”

    When I first started my deconversion process, I went through a period very similar to this where my dad basically denounced everything I was teaching (I was only moderate in my Christian perspective: doubting inerrancy). This tipped me off to a serious problem.

    If my dad had the Holy Spirit, how could he be so arrogant as to think that he had a firmer grasp on the truth than his own son who had studied so much more than he had? I began to notice that the involvement of the Holy Spirit is basically an illusion generated by the believer’s consistent categorizing of certain emotions, experiences, or behaviors as fruit of the spirit (as Paul did). In this process the ‘truth’ gets blurred behind all the judging of people’s actions – whether one realizes it or not. Christianity does not just teach love, it defines love. By defining love, Christianity becomes a judge as to what is loving. If a person buys this, they become an autonomous individual who by nature carefully analyzes everyone else for behavior that does not conform to what he views as loving.

    For my dad, it did not matter how much study or research I had done. Because I was not teaching the “truth” I was obviously not exhibiting the Holy Spirit in my life (a Spirit filled person teaches the truth). This gave him the right to denounce what I was saying with barely a bat of his eye or a moments pause to think it through. He could dismiss what I said without a care at all for the hell I was going through in struggling with my doubts. It was awful.

  • 23. freestyleroadtrip  |  October 29, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    TitforTat. I wholeheartedly agree that most the evidence can say is that there is a creator. Believing then in Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism involves a completely different set of interrogations.

    Josh. That sounds hellish and the very arrogance of which you speak is what has led me to a completely different Christianity than what I once knew. This is probably not the right forum for describing that so I will hold. But I have come to realize that there probably is something that is absolute truth but that none of us really knows quite what it is, Christian or not.

    I would like to say that I am impressed by the respect that is shown on this website for people like me. It is very freeing to be able to discuss in an educated fashion doubts and questions without being told that I am going to hell.

  • 24. orDover  |  October 29, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree that most the evidence can say is that there is a creator.

    Just real quick, can you give me ONE piece of “evidence” that isn’t just an argument from ignorance?

  • 25. freestyleroadtrip  |  October 29, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Let me first correct my syntax error. I meant that phrase to says this: “I wholeheartedly agree that THE most the evidence can say is that there is a creator.” Probably doesn’t significantly change the meaning.

    orDover. In my opinion, I think the Anthropic Principle is a fairly strong argument. I understand that it is not proof. And I understand that other theories such as that of multiverse theory stand in its way. But it is a reasonable reading of that evidence.

  • 26. Richard  |  October 29, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    I just know that Frank’s illness is an aspect of life that must be endured, just as many aspects of life are enjoyed to their fullest extent.

    chaplain – I like this line from your post. It reminds me of a philosopher I like, Robert Solomon, a Nietzsche scholar. He wrote that from an existentialist perspective, suffering has meaning just because suffering is a part of life, and life has meaning. I have never heard a better theodicy!

    freestyleroadtrip – I, for one, very much appreciate the “tone” of your approach to Christian belief. Although I am an atheist-leaning agnostic,and thus disagree with your conclusions, I can enthusiastically agree with you that it is reasonable to believe, and it is also reasonable not to believe. I think so much misery and ill-will is generated by insisting, in effect, “all reasonable people will agree with me.” Its like my last article (“flapping your arms…”) — its easy, and a mistake, to define a “reasonable assesment of the evidence” as “when you reach the same conclusion I do”.

    If more people would recognize the bedrock but difficult truth here — that reasonable people differ — we would live in a much better world.

    Welcome to the site!

  • 27. TitforTat  |  October 29, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Richard
    ” I can enthusiastically agree with you that it is reasonable to believe, and it is also reasonable not to believe”

    I think this is the most reasonable thing I have heard on here. Kudos.

  • 28. Josh  |  October 30, 2008 at 12:48 am

    “I would like to say that I am impressed by the respect that is shown on this website for people like me. It is very freeing to be able to discuss in an educated fashion doubts and questions without being told that I am going to hell.”

    Thanks for you comments – it was “hellish”. Thankfully I am recovering but it has been difficult :) It is good to know that there are Christians who make an effort to understand – and for that I applaud you :)

    If possible I would love discussing your perspective on Christianity in more depth sometime – particularly your view of Scripture. I am often intrigued by those who ground their faith in truth that they believe rests outside of the Bible. This is something that I did not grow up with and am now trying to understand a little more.

  • 29. truthwalker  |  October 30, 2008 at 5:57 am

    Beautiful.

  • 30. freestyleroadtrip  |  October 30, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Josh. I would love to enter into that conversation with you. I don’t know that highjacking this post to discuss my Christianity is probably what the de-conversion community wants on their website. But maybe they do. Maybe it would be a great discussion for all. I am certain that I would learn something from getting their perspective. Another option would be using my personal blog, which I believe you can reach by clicking on my name. I have a recent post, “…that strange same old place again…” that may be a good place for this discussion to take place. I use my blog mostly as an online journal to just share my thoughts and see what others think of my thoughts. And I have recently considered posting on the reasons for my belief. So let’s have that dicussion wherever it is most appropriate.

    Richard. Thanks for your gracious validation of my reading of the evidence. I have been tired of being “beat up” by a Christianity that is elitist and bent on telling everyone that they are wrong. This is not the example that Christ set for us. I am so fed up with it that my wife and I recently took our kids out of a Christian school because of that very type of indoctrination and put them in our neighborhood public school. We have all felt an oppression lift with this change. As I have said before, my Christianity is much different than it was 2 years ago as I focus on ways to included others, ways to learn from others no matter what their beliefs, ways to show kindness and mercy and grace. It is amazing and tragic to me that mainstream evangelical Christianity is so elitist, so us and them. I’m sick of that.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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