It doesn’t take long, when you live in America, to realize there are groups of ultra-religious assholes who justify their assholishness by referencing the bible and its impossible standards for humanity, and cherry-picking it to shame or otherwise hold contempt for a group of people other than themselves. I recognized this group (the Jerry Fallwell genre) when I was in high school in the 1990s.
Growing up attending an ELCA Lutheran church, it was pretty easy to distinguish those religious zealots from my own group, because as Christians go, mid-western, Scandinavian Lutherans are pretty moderate. Sure, there’s the occasional lunatic, but they are the minority.
My defacto stance on the matter was that one can be a non-zealous Christian, be moral, and still end up in heaven.
I remember learning, maybe by my freshman year in college, that December 25 was almost certainly not the date Jesus Christ could have been born, according to the birth story in the bible; March or April seemed a more accurate time. When I shared this discovery with my mom, about the Pagan rituals Christianity adopted, she half-heartedly accused me of blasphemy…in the gentle sort of way that loving, Lutheran, midwestern mothers do. I wasn’t persecuted or commanded to go to church, but it was clear that she would rather not hear about revelations like that, and she assured me that ignorance is bliss in these matters.
Fast forward a couple years. In a college freshman biology class, the professor pointed out the absurdity of the claim that the Earth is younger than 7000 years old. He talked about James Hutton and Charles Lyell and that they demonstrated how the Earth must be older than their contemporaries claimed, given the slow nature of geographic formations. At the time, I took that to mean that the Earth, and all living organisms on it, could not have been formed in 6 days. That seemed fairly intuitive to me, anyway, and I had already assumed the Earth was quite old, but never gave the precise age of it much thought.
My Christianity was still in tact by the year 2000, but it didn’t escape my attention that the most holy times of the year (Christmas and Easter) were grossly commercialized to the benefit of corporations. I had grown up in a Reagan-Democrat household, and I had conservative leanings at the time, probably even more conservative than my parents, who were (and still are) middle-of-the road (although the GWB administration, and its outrageous folly, pushed them to the left a bit). So even though I saw a commercialized Christmas as sinful, or at least tacky, as a pro-freedom wannabe-capitalist, I was friendlier to the modern American corporation and its behaviors than I am today.
Somewhere along the way, I took an anthropology class, and I learned about Neanderthals, homo Erectus, homo Ergaster, Autrailapithicus, and lots of other species that predated humanity, while becoming more human over time. At this point, the religious implications of human evolution didn’t occur to me; in fact, I’d never given evolution much thought, and the grandeur of the process, and its implications, had never crossed my mind. No one, up to that point, had ever pointed out a paradox between original sin, salvation, creation, and the kink that evolution introduces.
In 2001, there was 9/11, which more or less solidified the “us versus them” mentality for many Americans. Though I was a bit more progressive by this point, I took it as a reasonable proposition that extreme religious views were consistently correlated with terrorism. I didn’t feel really attached to my religion at this point, or inclined to defend its merits juxtaposed against Islam. For moderate midwestern Lutherans, moderation is itself a justification for its correctness.
From 2003 to 2010, the notion that science can disprove or shed light on religion’s suspicious claims became clearer to me, but I was focused on my career and family, and I was in no hurry to disprove anything. I’m a pragmatist, and it was enough for me to slowly gather facts about the natural world and universe, and what our role is in it. For pragmatists, formulating an opinion too quickly can be harmful and lock us into a faulty viewpoint. Of course, the fact that I had 2 young kids during this time may have influenced the amount of time it took for me to formulate a revised opinion on the life, the universe, and everything.
Since 2010, my interest in science has greatly increased. I started to understand cellular metabolism, and that led to an increased curiosity about the cell, and its inner workings. I began to understand the symbiosis between the cell’s nucleus and its mitochondria, and how genes play a role in protein formation. This tied in with my interest in evolution, and the relationships between all living species, which can be described genetically.
But the missing part of the bridge between where I was in 2010 and now is the matter of how life could have gone from such a simple state to such a complex one as we have now. The universe certainly seems to be guided by immutable principles, and the fact that humans are lucky enough to exist now seems unlikely, given the chaos of the earlier universe.
These conclusions led me to call myself a Deist for quite a while – my thoughts were that God doesn’t appear to intervene in the universe, and the bible’s major claims are almost certainly untrue, and written by primitive liars and schizophrenics, but it seemed fairly likely that there must have been a creator of this big machine. In hindsight, this view might have been closer to Spinoza’s pantheism than it is to Deism, but I’m not (nor was I) concerned about semantics like that. Pragmatism is (or ought to be) more concerned with practices and outcomes.
It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized I was committing a logical fallacy: God of the gaps, where God is used as justification for incomplete knowledge. Somewhere between then and now, I realized what a dishonest proposition it is to commit this error, and that I was as guilty as my ancestors of rationalizing my ignorance, and pointing to God as a solution for something. Up until about 400 years ago, it would have been very tempting to blame disease or poor harvests or natural disasters on our human failings and lack of reverence to God. Of course, that’s crazy. Those things aren’t caused by God; rather, they’re caused by now well-understood natural phenomena.
The problem with God of the gaps, and indeed the rationale for God, is that it makes God arbitrary. God could easily be replaced with all-knowing unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters, and the argument would be just as sound, and have an equal amount of evidence. This arbitrary nature seems to highlight the fact that God, in terms of how we’ve defined him, is a device to hedge our ignorance.
Another problem I saw with God of the gaps is that it gives people license to practice blind certainty. Being convinced of something can be a dangerous proposition, especially when you don’t have proof for it. Investigation, and willingness to say “I don’t know” is a more honest position. We don’t know a lot of things, and blind certainty stops us in our tracks, and that is altogether bad for humans. There is a lot left to discover, and saying “God did it” is neither honest nor wise, and it neglects the burden of proof we bear when making a claim that something exists. It also pretends to know something that we just don’t, no matter how much we’d like it.
There are a lot of ancillary examples of what added to my skepticism, such as examples in the bible or more existential questions, like the problem of evil. But Christianity’s appeal began to wane for me somewhere between 2003 and 2006. It just wasn’t sound enough for me, because I have high standards for what I accept as evidence, and I was aware of the special pleading fallacy before that. Of course, it took me a while to form an articulate thought around this concept, but I think that anyone who has to take responsibility for themselves in this world understands that failure to have high standards for evidence results in really bad outcomes, and gullibility is a liability.