The Immortal Soul

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The idea that the essence of a person is non-physical and survives the death of the body is a truly ancient one. Early conceptualisations of the soul included the idea that bodies contained a “breath of life”. Some viewed the soul as a force that enlivens and drives a body. What’s interesting about the problem of the soul in history is not so much that people have recognised this thing named “soul” and sought to describe it but rather have sought explanations for how human beings work and labelled various descriptions as “the soul.” It may be that questions about self-awareness, conscious thought and imagination have been answered with recourse to supernatural explanations in the absence of better accounts. The soul has become quite an influential idea. It’s a convenient means by which everything that makes you who you are can escape death. With the idea of an immortal soul we can envision life or lives after death and begin to construct a picture of where we go, what it’s like and what we need to do in life in order to get there.

If we take our definition of the soul to be “an immaterial part of a person that contains the essence of who they are and survives the death of the body”, what evidence is there to support a belief in it? Well, some people make bold claims on behalf of science, saying that there is evidence for the existence of the soul but these claims should probably be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. The fact is that if there was solid scientific evidence for the soul we would all know about it, it would be enormous news and the real world implications would be huge. The problem here is that we are looking at the soul as if it’s a thing with features like personality, memory and feelings rather than as an explanation for these things as they occur in human beings. Is your personality immaterial? Are your memories immortal? Can your feelings persist beyond death? Some people will claim yes to all of these, providing pretty dodgy evidence if any. Yet we know that chemical changes in the body can alter mood, personality and the ability to access and create memories. Anyone who has known a loved one suffering dementia will be aware of how damage to the brain can fundamentally alter personality and recollection. Unfortunates who have suffered acquired brain injuries have permanently lost aspects of who they were. The immortal soul is simply not a very good explanation. Who we are is very much physical and far from immortal.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that what we believe matters because our beliefs have real world implications. In the case of the soul the consequence can be a devaluing of the body and a devaluing of life. Some people might be less inclined to sacrifice themselves for religious or political reasons if it were not for their belief in an immortal soul. It makes it easier to stomach human suffering and profound inequality without taking direct tangible action if you can believe it’s just a temporary part of an immortal existence. Some find solace in the idea that they will be reunited with loved ones when they die or at least that their loved ones persist. In a sense it feels like a harmless idea that because it brings comfort shouldn’t be contradicted. I’m not convinced that it is harmless though. It slots in with other unfounded beliefs and explanations of the world and can act as a cornerstone that props these beliefs up. For example I’ve known several people who genuinely believed that humans can be possessed by spirits or demons. Others I’ve known believed that the soul can become detached from their body and lost. For some the soul is a means by which people can carry their culpability beyond death. It’s a belief that can give people a feeling that justice cannot be escaped. It’s also a means by which our behaviour and expectations can be influenced. If you happen to believe that your essence will escape death then you might want some assurances about how you’ll be spending eternity and there are plenty who are willing to provide conditional assurances.

We need to recognise that the concept of an immortal soul is an outdated attempt to understand and describe difficult human features like personality, imagination and memory. The soul is a wrong answer where much better answers are available. Accepting that we are all physical, fragile and vulnerable should broaden our compassion. Proceeding on the basis that we probably don’t persist beyond death should cause us to value life. Rather than believing that wrongs will be righted in the here-after, let’s take responsibility for righting them in the here and now.

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Reflecting on Believing

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“I can believe whatever I want.”

While this may be true to some degree, it probably feels truer than it really is. There are things that are so at odds with our understanding of the world that you would reject them without thinking, although they may be technically believable. There are propositions that clash with many of your already dearly held beliefs so that to believe them would prove extremely difficult. Some beliefs might clash with others you hold but can coexist so long as they aren’t considered too deeply or forced to brush up against each other too frequently. Some may be deeply considered and supplant previously held beliefs. Others slot in naturally and compliment your existing beliefs. You might not even realise you acquired them. So perhaps we can’t choose what to believe in all cases but we can certainly exercise some agency. We have the ability to identify and reflect critically on our beliefs and decide if they are useful and reasonable.

“What I believe doesn’t matter to anyone else, it’s my business. You believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want.”

We should be free to evaluate propositions to see if we believe them and we aught to be able to ask questions in an environment that is free from coercion. That said, your beliefs hold real world consequences, not just for you but for others around you too. Beliefs can be powerful and life-determining. I’m reminded of Yeonmi Park who fled North Korea. Even in the safety of South Korea she wouldn’t allow herself to think negative thoughts of the North Korean regime because she believed that Kim Jong-un could read her mind and would punish her. What you believe impacts on the decisions you make and how you behave. If you believe for example that the combined MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine could give your children autism then you might decide not to vaccinate them. If there is a significant causal link between MMR and autism (there isn’t) you may have lowered their risk of having autism but not diminished their risk of having some pretty nasty illnesses. If enough people believe in the vaccine/autism link then conditions are ripe for an epidemic. There is a difficult balance to be struck between freedom to believe as we wish and challenging beliefs that are potentially harmful.

“We may not all believe the same things but you should respect my beliefs.”

This begs the question, why? Generally the word “respect” is used to mean “admire” or “honour” and I wonder if those expressing this opinion genuinely reciprocate. I think we should be respectful of people and respect ideas/beliefs that merit our respect but we should not expect any particular beliefs to be respected automatically. This should be true of all beliefs including those that are religious or about the supernatural more generally. Problems can emerge however while evaluating each other’s beliefs that can cause dialogue to shut down. For example, asymmetries in what people consider to be persuasive evidence can make discussion around beliefs very challenging. Let’s say I was involved in an air traffic accident and as a result I believe that air travel is so dangerous it should be banned. You could show me all the statistics in the world about how safe air travel is compared to travelling by car but in my mind the emotional weight of my experience will trump the stats. Some beliefs are more intertwined with our identity than others and the more those beliefs feel like a part of who we are the more any questioning of them feels like a personal attack. The answer to these challenges may be to find common ground where we’re able to agree on standards of evidence and build trust so that we are comfortable with asking each other questions. I think if I felt uncomfortable with any of my beliefs being earnestly and politely questioned, I would take it as a red flag, as a sign that I need to consider this belief more closely.

Free Will by Sam Harris

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The idea that humans have free will figures quite prominently in philosophical, psychological and religious thought. Free will is sometimes provided as an answer to why people do things that are considered evil or bad. We choose to commit a crime as much as we choose to help someone in need. We understand that one person’s free will can impinge on another’s and that the time and place of your birth has a massive impact on your freedom to exercise your will. Our self-determination, albeit within the constraints of our environment, makes us personally responsible for our actions and their consequences, in the eyes of most people. However, this only seems to be the case once we reach a crucial point in childhood. We aren’t born responsible or with free will. If a young child breaks something in a shop, the parent takes responsibility even if the child intended to break the item and the parent has no direct control over the child’s actions. Is the point at which we become personally responsible the same as when we can control our impulses, understand the consequences of our behaviour and develop an awareness of how others view us? Is it the acquisition of “knowledge of good and evil”, the understanding of what it means to be a good or bad member of society, that imbues us with free will and makes us responsible for ourselves?

A few weeks ago I read a book (pamphlet!) by Sam Harris on the topic of free will. The main claim of the book is that free will is an illusion. People are the product of biology, environment and experiences, none of which are authored by the individual. We don’t choose where or when we will be born.The breadth and variety in the curriculum of our educational system, if we have access to one at all, is essentially beyond our control while we are in it. We have no say over the quality of our upbringing or what is valued by our culture. Harris argues that consciousness furnishes us with an illusion of free will. We feel that we are making decisions, weighing options and acting accordingly but where does our intentionality come from? If I normally drink coffee in the morning but one day decide to have tea because I fancy it, what motivated that decision? Do you decide what you’ll think before you think it? Harris points to processes that operate below the level of consciousness but argues that even if you view the mind and body as separate and believe that your intentionality is motivated by your soul, you still have no insight into that preconscious decision making. If you are making finalised decisions before they reach your consciousness, in what sense are you able to exercise free will?

The book raises some interesting points particularly around the degree to which we are responsible for our actions. If an animal attacks a person we don’t usually blame the animal. It is the intent of a person that warrants blame and the more free they were to choose an alternate course, the more blameworthy they are. Harris argues that in the example of a killer, mitigating factors such as the circumstances, upbringing or wellness mediates how accountable we judge a person to be. If someone who is otherwise a good person commits a crime because a brain tumour has had a personality-altering effect on them, we would probably not blame them, we would want to help them. If, as Harris suggests, our intentionality is not something we consciously control, then are we really responsible for our behaviour? Should transgressors be punished or reformed?

I’m willing to travel quite a long way with the arguments Harris puts forward about free will but I’m still not sold on the idea that free will is an illusion. There are certainly constrains – environmental, biological, psychological, cultural and societal – on our free will and it may be that we feel freer than we really are but could free will really be an illusion? The reason I’m skeptical is that Harris only seems to consider scenarios that support his contention. He appears to suggest that free will should be a purely conscious activity and that intention-oriented behaviour is unidirectional:

unconscious decision > awareness > action

I suspect the reality is more complex. Consider this scenario: I’m watching television and a family member switches it off. Some unconscious processing takes place, my mood changes, I’m angry and I realise that I am going to insult them. I’m aware of my cultural and social norms and have a model for intentionally transgressing in this specific way. I turn to open my mouth and see they are upset. My mood changes, some subconscious processing takes place, I realise that insulting is the wrong action for this context. I might rapidly visualise the consequence of my insult. I manage to snatch back the words before they can leave my mouth and instead ask “what’s wrong?”. There are elements of this scenario that happen fast like shifts in emotion and interpreting facial expressions. Some that might happen a little slower like selecting and retrieving response models and visualisation. There are rapid back and forths between different brain functions, some of which may be available consciously and others not. There’s also a thread of intentionality that is subject to conscious and unconscious influence. My point is that we can recognise that people are not completely free to do as they wish and they may not be fully aware of their limitations but they still have and exercise agency.

 

Evidence-based Faith part 2

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In my last post (Evidence-based Faith part 1) I started exploring holy books as a kind of evidence that can underpin religious faith. I thought about some of the questions I might ask if I wanted to know if I could put my trust and confidence in scriptures. It seemed to me that the written word isn’t a good way to precisely communicate the will, intent and values of a supernatural entity, but it occurred to me that perhaps that isn’t really what holy books are about. Maybe they serve as a record of religious experiences, from which the general framework of a religion emerges. I have found that when I ask religious people why they believe they often tell me about an experience in which they found evidence supporting their beliefs.

It isn’t very difficult to find examples of religious experiences online and I would like to paraphrase a few of them here. Before I do though I ought to point out that what these experiences mean to those who had them and the exact detail of the experiences themselves would have been very difficult to capture accurately in writing. Something is often lost (or added) in the articulation of the experience and in paraphrasing I am again blunting the description. Additionally, the English speaking web from which I sourced these recounts has some fairly pronounced cultural biases. Lastly, those who choose to share their experience online may be more inclined towards particular beliefs or experiences.

In 2006 a middle-age Christian woman was involved in a head-on collision during her commute to work. She suffered serious injuries and had to be cut from her car by emergency services. She was airlifted to hospital where she spent the first couple of weeks in and out of consciousness and heavily medicated. During this time she saw her mother, with angels standing behind her.

“The most amazing thing was, I died. I bled out during the initial surgery (and I’ve had thirty-six). I was given over 100 units of blood and had two trauma surgeons working on me. When my heart would stop, they would revive me.”

Shortly after arriving in hospital, her church pastor and other members of her church came. When her husband arrived, he prayed with the pastor and…

“…something hit him. Out loud, he proclaimed that I was not going to die in a hospital. God was going to perform a miracle. And He did.”

At some point during this time her heart stopped again and she saw Jesus, who told her to go back (to her living body). She survived the accident and shared her experience 8 years later.

In 2009 a person who had lost their mother to cancer 5 years earlier and had been suffering from depression, admitted themselves to hospital. They felt as though they had lost everything except their faith in God and they cried and prayed and pleaded with God for relief. The person sat on a bed and played a song on the guitar they had played for their mother when she was ill. They began to feel an energy and hear “heavenly music”.

“I got to the part of the song where it says “and a man shall leave his mother” and the Heavenly music and very strong energy left my body at an incredible rate. I knew right then and there that I had released my mother into Heaven.”

In this recount of the experience the person explains that it happened at the same date and time that their mother had passed away 5 years earlier and that their watch stopped on that time (09:18).

This last experience happened to a recently and unhappily married 22 year old woman. She and her husband were fighting and their argument became physical when her husband choked her until she lost consciousness. She described an almost crippling fear and heartbreak but decided to forgive him. During a subsequent argument her husband again choked her unconscious…

“…As I was gaining conscience I could feel the most indescribable feeling of warmth and safety not only was that feeling running threw me but around me. It seemed I was in a vary big room that was well lit not to bright, not to dark… I couldn’t see the walls or nothing but it was kind of hard to take my eyes of the four figures that were with me, couldn’t see many details just remember the feeling of love and safety, oh and what ever was with me was really really tall.”

When she regained consciousness she described what she had experienced. She wasn’t sure what to make of the experience but wrote that she has some theories.

If you’re curious I’d encourage you to search online and read a few more. Something that strikes me about the three I’ve described here is how emotional they are. Struggling to survive an horrific car crash, trying to cope with depression and loss and finding feelings of love and safety in an extremely abusive relationship. Powerful emotional experiences can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives. They can also serve to reaffirm our deeply held convictions. I’m sensitive to the fact that religious experiences mean a lot to those who experience them and I don’t believe that questioning a religious experience need in any way devalue the experience. My task here is to consider what questions could be asked about a religious experience to assess its suitability for underpinning a person’s religious faith:

  • Do similar religious experiences indicate similar conclusions? For example, if the woman from the first story had been a Hindu, would she have still concluded a miracle had been performed by the Christian god? Or if she had been an atheist, would she have said she was saved solely by the hard work of the emergency services?
  • Does the conclusion that is reached follow logically from the experience? For example, in the second story is there anything about the experience of playing a song, hearing music and feeling a powerful sensation on the 5th anniversary of their mother’s passing that suggests she was released to heaven through that experience (or that heaven exists)?
  • Are there natural explanations for an experience? In the case of the third story for example, a combination of emotional and physical trauma, with a lack of oxygen and consciousness could explain the cause of the experience.

Ultimately, the cause of a person’s religious experience can be explained by natural phenomena but the “meaning” or “reason” thought to be inherent therein is generally open to interpretation. People strive to make sense or their experiences, particularly those that are personally uncommon and powerfully emotional. In my view, religious experiences are too easily interpreted to fit with any set of beliefs for them to be considered a solid basis for faith. Those who believe in spirits will take their religious experiences to be evidence for spirits and the same is true of those who believe in gods, angels or other supernatural entities. The difficulty with religious experiences is that they are so subjective. However, where religious faith has a direct impact on the natural world, as it does with faith healing for example, the claim can be assessed. So perhaps the place to look for strong evidence for religious faith is not in the experiences but in the miracles.

Evidence-based Faith part 1

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What is faith, in the religious sense of the word? Although what faith means may be varied and nuanced between different religions, denominations and individual believers, faith can be broadly defined as: trusting and having confidence in religious authority, which might include religious leaders, holy books and supernatural entities. Faith is seen by some to be an important component of religion. It’s often considered virtuous to place your trust in religious authorities. Faith is also frequently talked about as though it’s the opposite of evidence. “Blind faith” as a way of describing beliefs held without evidence is in my view nothing more than rhetoric. The idea that someone puts their trust in and has confidence in religious authority without evidence strikes me as false. The faithful must have some ideas about their god for example and perhaps its character, values or its will. These ideas are unlikely to have arisen independently in people and so it seems to me that the faithful must base their faith in evidence. This evidence is constitutive of their beliefs. Perhaps they were told about their religion by parents. Maybe they were read passages from a holy book by a religious leader. Some may not consider this evidence to be strong or convincing, but it’s evidence nonetheless. I don’t currently have any religious faith but this notion of evidence-based faith has got me thinking. What sorts of questions could I ask to find out if I could or should have the kind of faith defined above?

Many religions are based on holy books from which the faithful draw their religious knowledge. These books are generally sacred texts, which are held by some to be accurate and true. But is a holy book a reliable source of information? After all, language doesn’t withstand the passage of time very well. It has a tendency to change and meanings shift quite rapidly. This was even more the case before languages became standardised for printing. Meaning is easily (unavoidably?) lost or corrupted in the translation process and holy texts have a tendency to be compiled and recompiled from multiple sources whose authorship can be geographically diverse and separated by hundreds of years. Writing is a product of its time, carrying the assumptions inherent in the world view of its author. If the author lived in a culture that considered women to be property then the writing may well contain that view. If the author didn’t know for example what stars are or the motion of the earth around the sun, that ignorance may well be exposed in the writing.

Our perception of the authority of the written word has changed radically over time as well. Historically the word has had an almost magical quality. In fact in some cases the very act of making marks representing ideas was a method of spell casting. Before the invention of the printing press (enabling mass production) the sheer rarity of books endowed them with authority. They were expensive to make and were owned by the very wealthy. Even if books were available, levels of literacy in the past were very low. Our view of books is much more pragmatic now. We are less likely to believe the content of a book simply because it is in a book. The availability of books and levels of literacy are far higher now, although not evenly distributed. People now have greater opportunity to engage critically with books and fact-check using the internet.

If assessing a holy book to decide if I could have trust and confidence in it I might ask:

  • What is the history of this book and how was its content assembled?
  • Is the author identifiable and how credible are/were they?
  • What is it offering me and what does it want from me?
  • Are its claims consistent with our constantly improving understanding of how things work?
  • Are its claims verified or supported by independent records?
  • Is it logical and consistent?
  • And how does it compare with other holy books?

I’m not convinced that a book is a good way to ensure that an essential religious message travels unaltered over hundreds or thousands of years to reach the maximum number of people. Perhaps holy books are not so much the perfect transmission of the values, will and intent of supernatural, creator entities. Perhaps they are more to do with normal people expressing and recording their (and others’) religious experiences.

Is Atheism a Religion?

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The question of whether atheism is another kind of religion seems to pop up with surprising regularity. I’d like to spend a few moments sharing my understanding of what atheism is (and isn’t) along with some ideas about where points of confusion may arise.

I find it useful to think about atheism in relation to other *theisms. There are a lot and I won’t include them all but … there’s theism, which is the belief in one or more gods who are usually creators that get involved in human affairs. There’s monotheism, which is a belief in one god. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are examples of monotheistic religions, although some might debate Christianity on the grounds of the Trinity. Polytheism is the belief in more than one god, as in Hinduism or the ancient Greek pantheon (Zeus, Poseidon, etc.). Anti theism is an opposition to a belief in any gods. Pantheism is the belief that “god” is essentially another word for describing nature or the universe. Atheism describes an absence of belief in any gods.

None of the *theisms are in themselves religions but instead describe a position on a belief in god or gods. However, religions may have a stance on the existence of gods. For example, all Muslims are monotheistic (as far as I’m aware) but not all monotheists are Muslims. So it follows that atheism, as an absence of a belief in gods, is not a religion, but a religion could be atheistic. All we can say about monotheists for sure is that they believe in one god, although not necessarily the same one. Similarly, all we may say about atheists for sure is that they have no beliefs in any gods. Why one person is an atheist might be completely different from why another is. Atheists, like monotheists, polytheists etc. don’t necessarily believe the same things or base their beliefs on sound reasoning.

So why is atheism sometimes spoken about as though it’s a religion? I think confusion about definitions of atheism can explain this to an extent but I also think that many atheists draw on science, reason and logic when discussing religion, which some people may see as a system of belief that is analogous to religion. It could be that the repeated pairing of the word “atheist” with “science” facilitates this misconception. Science is of course no more a religion than atheism but like religion, science is in the business of saying things about existence. A core difference between science and religion is the means by which we get there. Religions, particularly those based on holy books, make claims about existence from a position of assumed authority. Things are true because an authority says so. Believers may be promised rewards and non-believers might be threatened with punishment. It is a way of looking at the world based on subservience and faith. Scientists make claims about existence from a position of questioning. They observe, hypothesise, test, and theorise as part of an ongoing “chipping away” at the truth. There is no reward or punishment for believing but there is the utility of discoveries. It is a way of looking at the world based on scepticism and evidence. Another important distinction is that when scientists make new discoveries and new evidence arises, scientific claims are amended and improved, whereas many religions aren’t (easily) able to change in response to new discoveries. Good examples are geology, the fossil record and evolution, which for many casts doubt on creationist explanations of human origins (sometimes called intelligent design).

In my first post I talked a little about how I stopped believing in god. My reasons for not believing were not terribly scientific but were sort of empirical. I had prayed many times in my life but had never observed a response. Nor had I seen or heard anything that could be called evidence for the existence of a god. This was enough to spark a wider interest in religion and to cause me to critically engage with some of the claims made by religions. I share the view that there is no reason to believe something without compelling evidence. This is why I identify as an atheist. However, I don’t think you need to be an atheist to question religious claims to knowledge. In fact many religious people, to their credit, are critical for example of the sexism and homophobia they observe in holy books and daily life.

Goodness and Religion

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A few weeks ago a friend was talking to me about leaving her religion. She said she’d spoken with her family and they’d asked her how she thought she could still be a good person without her faith. They’d said that morality came from her religion and that she couldn’t pick and choose the bits she liked. I’m not convinced at any religion can really be considered the de facto source of morality  but I think there are many examples of religious teachings that try to define what is right and wrong. Some of these teachings tap into moral properties that are common to all people. Other teachings may have more to do with the values held by specific groups.

There are a range of behavioural predispositions we could call good or bad that are part of our biology rather than learnt. These have to do with social behaviours and are instrumental in persisting the human species. Where people differ from other animals is that we also have culture. Good and bad behaviours depend to some extent on the context and who is judging the behaviour. Even if a person wanted to do only good there will be someone, somewhere who considers their behaviour bad. We all know for example that breaking into a person’s house is bad. We also all know that breaking into your elderly neighbour’s house to help them because they have fallen is good. So if a person can’t literally be all good or bad, why do we talk about “good” and “bad” people? I think it is likely we have these categories as a way of summarising complex observations, thoughts and feelings about people into a simple shorthand to guide our behaviour and to help us communicate our views to others.

We tend to label people as good or bad depending on what we think of their actions, behaviour and intentions. I might call someone a good person because I know that they volunteer at a homeless shelter. Here I’d be focusing on a specific behaviour over time and assuming that they intend to make others’ lives better. If I see on the news that someone has committed a murder I might describe the perpetrator of that crime as a bad person because of the intellectual and emotional weight of that one action. Someone might view themselves as a bad person because they have been repeatedly told it or taught that there’s something wrong with them. Conversely, a person might believe wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their evil actions. Their intent is good but based on faulty reasoning, misunderstanding or illness. The question of who gets to say what is good and bad is an important one.

So where does religion fit into all of this? Broadly speaking religion can contribute to our values and offer some guidance about how to order our lives. Of course there are many religions, each making mutually exclusive claims about existence. They have some members who behave well and others who misbehave. There do appear to be areas of moral commonality between religions, such as the suggestion that we treat others as we would like to be treated. Since this isn’t the property of any one religion, it supports the idea that our morality is much more than a set of specific religious teachings. Our values change over time and between places, which can cause problems for religions that are not sufficiently dynamic. The Anglican Church for example has encountered considerable difficulty in modernising its stance on sexuality. It’s an interesting issue since it seems to have a lot to do with the role of culture and politics in the interpretation of scripture. This is a problem not just because of the effect it has on how people treat each other, but also for the institutions since people will increasingly ask “what relevance does a religion have if it’s at odds with the values of the society it exists in?”

My view is that religion can influence morals but the final word on morality doesn’t belong to religion. Our values change over time and hopefully for the better. Goodness finds expression in the actions of the religious and non-religious alike. It might be true that my friend was raised in a religious environment and learnt something about goodness from that experience. I don’t think that means you have to take the bad with the good. She had the courage to question some of teachings she felt uncomfortable with and I’d say that’s the hallmark of a good person.

How I Stopped Believing in God

Recently friends and colleagues have been asking me if I believe in God and when I tell them that I don’t, they are interested to know why. It turns out that many people I know identify as Christian even if they don’t attend church or read the Bible. The fact is I used to believe. I was raised in a Christian home in the South of England, attended church on Sundays and associated with other Christian families. By the time I became a teenager I no longer enjoyed church or believed the Bible stories. Adam, Eve, Noah, Moses; it all seemed a little far fetched. I stopped going to church at fourteen or fifteen and never went back. I could see the flaws in the Bible tales if taken literally, so viewed them as assorted metaphors and fables that still supported the existence of Jesus and God. I continued to pray and believe in some measure right up to my mid-twenties. I imagine like many people my enthusiasm for God increased when times were desperate or when friends were particularly enthusiastic and diminished when things were going well.

I stopped believing in God while eating lunch in the grounds of an old church in a lovely port town called Lymington. It was a beautiful summer’s day and it occurred to me that I had been praying since childhood and had never had a reply. Not one. The impression I’d gained about God was that he had created everything, knows me completely, loves me and wants a relationship with me. The nature of the relationship between me and God was supposed to be somewhere between parent and friend or at least that is how the notion had crystallised in my mind. I began thinking about my experience of this relationship and whether it had lived up to my expectations.

I set myself a task. I imagined that the relationship between me and God was just a normal, earthly, relationship. What could I say about it? Could I really claim any kind of relationship? I have never seen God nor had physical contact with God as one sees or touches people. I have never had a conversation with God as one shares thoughts, feelings and stories with people. I couldn’t understand why God would make humankind a social species and choose to only talk at us through a book that had to be translated, edited and interpreted. The answer seemed obvious to me. God doesn’t respond because he doesn’t exist. It wasn’t that these thoughts had only just occurred to me. I’d thought about it before but was only then ready to accept them and the implications. I immediately felt a kind of restfulness and peace that was quickly followed by fear. I was afraid of punishment or retribution. I then felt angry that I should feel this way. Was that what had been holding me in place? Had I maintained my beliefs out of fear? I’d left the Christian faith as a teenager but the effect of it hadn’t left me.

Reflecting now on my experience back then, I’m struck by how long a process it was but how immediate it felt. Early on I recognised that Christianity specifically and the supernatural generally are badly evidenced. It was clear that my religion was just one of many religions making claims about truth, existence and reality. I understood that the Bible could not seriously be considered the unaltered word of a creator god. It wasn’t enough to know these things. I needed to feel comfortable with them, to allow them to dissolve the fictions I had been sold as truths in my formative years. Religious beliefs are not just ideas nor only a guide for how to behave, but are also a part of the person. They inform how you see yourself and signify your belonging to a group. When the tenets of your faith are challenged you feel as if you are being challenged personally. This is why it took so long and in part why I was afraid.

I’ve shared my experience here because I know others are going through the process of leaving their religion and evaluating their beliefs. Many are not as lucky as me and may have to deal with family and community difficulties as a consequence of their changing beliefs. Some will even face violence. I guess what I want to say is: it’s okay to not believe in God and you aren’t alone.