I don’t remember the exact date or time I stopped being a Christian. As I look back on it, I was a species without a name for at least 8 years while I attempted to discern the world as honestly and coherently as I could; once I’d thought about it long enough, I started to call myself a Deist.
As I entered my 20s (c 2001), I realized that the most devout Christians I knew, or saw on tv, were nothing at all like me. And I had no desire to be like them. Most of them held worldviews which exposed an unapologetic detachment from anything which resembled reality, and I found their celebration of ignorance offensive, especially in this new world where nearly all human knowledge was fast-becoming available with the click of a mouse. The things they believed were not what I believed. And as time went on, I realized I would never square those differences.
During my time in this intellectual no-man’s-land, I never renounced Christianity, because…hell. Hell is a fantastic means for the church to retain positive cashflow from the honest skeptics in the crowd, at least for a while, until they’ve tried enough non-denominational churches to realize that nothing any church says makes enough sense to justify dressing up on Sunday mornings. This irrational fear-seed (hell), planted years earlier during my formative days in Sunday school, and reinforced through dozens of iterations of internal analysis and conversations with people just as clueless as me, implored me to reject the thought that the entire Christian framework is complete bullshit.
My experience with religion was not traumatic or therapy-worthy. The intellectual atmosphere within my household was honest enough, save for its occasional lipservice to a Betty Crocker styled Christianity. This leeway left the door open for honest inquiry…as long as I left religion out of it.
But even the most benign, fuzzy-wuzzy denominations of Christianity have eternal reward/punishment frameworks. Even those denominations who do not believe hell is a literal fiery pit still retain the notion that heaven is something of a celestial Disneyland. Even if you’re not worried about the fiery pit in Satan’s basement, rejection of this paradigm still means you miss out on an eternity of roller coaster rides, Mickey Mouse-shaped krisp bars with Jesus, and God-sightings at the holiday office parties.
It’s hard for people like me to give up on heaven, because it has dire implications outside of our self-centered considerations. The people you knew when you were young – the people you cherished and who taught you how to love, how to thrive, how to cope in a world that is often unfair, and who protected and fed you – the implication of this rejection means that those people aren’t in heaven either. Nor will they ever be. Nor will you ever be.
In this sense, life is a hopelessly limited endeavor where we’re constantly running out of time, and the payoff is an eternity of naught. It’s hard to get excited about that when the alternative view is so much more attractive and does not require constant contrarian persistence or bravery in the face of the abyss.
The trouble is heaven is not real. Neither is hell. Neither is God or Satan. And from what I have gathered over the last year during my odd and morbid obsession with Christian history, neither was Jesus. And no amount of hope or lament or wishful thinking makes something true.
When I read about the latest and greatest terrible thing some religious person has done in the name of their Deity, I cannot help but be mortified by their lack of reverence to the temporary nature of this life, and how their religion allowed them to do something that their evolutionary-derived ethical sensibilities probably would not have allowed.
Such was the case with Christian Clark, the 21 year old woman who lashed out at her ex-lover by murdering their 17 month old son, Andre Price. She sent a series of text messages to the boy’s father. Among other things, the texts said:
“Ahh look Angel [the boy’s sister] is still alive and sweating your son on the other hand is not even breathing”
“So you better pray for your kids”
“i really snapped this time. Sorry i did this swear to god i didn’t mean to.”
I don’t know what role religion played in Clark’s life. What I think is obvious from these texts is that she certainly holds some notion of the afterlife and a Deity who comes to make all things right. Therefore, her actions, whether mentally functional Christians choose to admit it or not, were a function of her belief in a God.
As I see it, religious fanaticism is defined as the actions of people who violate social, ethical, and legal boundaries, and do so with the perceived justification of a Deity. Christian Clark is a religious fanatic.
But what she believes is a lie, and no bearded Deity is going to make this better or hold Andre Price’s hand as he walks through the pearly gates. The little boy is gone forever, and that is a breathtakingly horrific tragedy.
Andre Price and millions of others have died at the hands of well-meaning religious fanatics who believed they were explicitly justified and forgiven by their favorite Deity for their atrocities, and that any sort of correction or justice required by the earthly problem they created would be solved in heaven.
As cultures across the world continue, or in many cases begin, to outgrow these primitive superstitions and fantasies about Deities and personal saviors, we cannot help but pay increasing attention to the most obvious evils intertwined within religious institutions. Rampant sexual abuse, oppression, and divinely inspired bombings and battery acid attacks are all artifacts of the so-called good books our Bronze and Iron Age predecessors bequeathed us, and they’re often legally allowed!
But even religion’s most seemingly benign aspect, the celestial theme park where your God-fearing loved ones went after they died, is not benign, because it convinces people that life is permanent and not rare, and that better circumstances await them after they die. The implication of this belief is that people are expendable, and this Earth is inferior to their Disneyland in the sky.
Nothing could be further from the truth, because this life is rare and temporary, and no invention of any Deity will undo this inescapable truth. This is the life we get, and we should cherish that, and stop allowing religion to temper our response or limit our outrage over these tragedies.