Posts Tagged ‘family’

What if you’re wrong?

February 10, 2012

Lately, it’s been a minor preoccupation of mine to write about my apostasy from the Christian faith. Blame it on the positive feedback I’ve received on previous pieces that keeps me coming back to this topic. I’ve inadvertently uncovered a hidden sect of unbelievers in the small, northern Minnesota town where I work for the local newspaper, who prior to reading my columns that are critical of faith were under the impression that they were the only ones who felt that way about religion. So after receiving a certain number of emails and phone calls from fellow non-believers who are so thankful for my public confessions, and how what I’ve written so far has given hope for the future of reason, how could I stop? Fairly high praise for a small-town newspaper reporter, wouldn’t you say?
Yet, of course, there are the detractors. Most people aren’t exactly tickled to have their most cherished beliefs criticized anywhere, but especially not in a public forum. But this is Minnesota, baby! The general populace is far too polite to come out with the pitchforks and torches simply because the basis of their entire existence was insulted. No, they’ll stew in their own hatred, unwilling to let their neighbors witness their potential emotional instability, and eventually they’ll cap said feelings toward these ideas, forgive and forget, and move on, just in time to pull the hotdish out of the oven for dinner. Instead of the public lynching one could expect in other regions, here there’s the obligatory letter to the editor or two that file in, and most recently, a small litany of individuals who insist on praying for me (see “What I hear when told ‘I’ll pray for you’”).
Also recently was a visit from a local preacher, who one would expect is also praying for me. We met for coffee and discussed why it was I had renounced my former faith. Unsurprisingly, it eventually came up: what if you’re wrong? He was clever in the way he phrased the question, but it all comes out the same in the end. What are you going to do, an unbeliever in god, the creator of all things on heaven and earth, when you die and have to face your maker at the pearly gates?
In all honesty, I’m a little bit surprised that I haven’t been asked this question more often. It’s a common fear of the faithful, to leave the comfort of the church for whatever reason they may have and to ultimately find out when death’s winged chariot draws near their bedside that they had made the wrong choice, and that whatever benefits they received in life in no way balance to the tortures that await them as a member of the damned. I know I feared this as a Christian. And I know many of my fellow Christians from my former congregation felt the same. But it’s funny how no longer believing that hell exists can change your mind about having such fears.
The Bible, for all the clarity it generally lacks, is more or less straight-forward when it comes to who is going to hell. Blasphemers, of all stripes, are condemned, and from that point there are various denominations who widen the gulf to various degrees in regards to who else they feel are going to the lake of fire. So as one who openly renounced the savior of the world, not to mention the creator of the universe, I am therefore a more than worthy candidate for eternal suffering. Does this not worry me? Really, what if I’m wrong?
The question is most widely known as Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician who, in regards to the question of the existence of god, looked at the problem not ontologically or cosmologically, but instead prudentially.
“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”
It’s this line of reasoning that — if it doesn’t bring people to the faith — keeps people from leaving the faith. The converse would be that you wager that God isn’t, wherein if you lose, you lose everything.
Authors and thinkers on this matter have been quite eloquent before me. So let us first consult with Bertrand Russell, who said that upon meeting god would very succinctly state, “But sir, you didn’t give us enough evidence!” Taking it a bit further, and certainly more aggressive, would be none other than Christopher Hitchens, who first off refers to the wager as “religious hucksterism of cheapest, vulgarist, nastiest kind it is possible to imagine.” At the root, it has nothing to do with piety, let alone morality, and only hopes to win favors because it can, not because it’s right or earned. Even the religious should be insulted by such suggestions that the omnipotent creator of all things could be so easily connived as to allow the individual into heaven who on his lips said he believed but in his heart felt content that his bet was simply safe.
Hitchens went on, contributing further to what Russell would say when face to face with god, with, “Look, Boss, if it’s true what they say about you, that you’re an infinitely kind and forgiving and all-fatherly person – this is certainly what your fans keep saying – do you not have a little room in your obviously very capacious heart for someone who just couldn’t bring himself to believe in you, and really, honestly, truly couldn’t, as opposed to someone who spent half their life on their knees making fawning professions of faith because Pascal told them it was a good bet? Which of us is the more moral? Which of us is the more honest? Which of us is the more courageous? Which of us has the bluest eyes and is the most sexually attractive? Which of us has the real charisma here? I’m only asking.”
As poignant of answers to Pascal as both Hitchens and Russell have offered, they still don’t address the central point of the argument, that being that, assuming god is one who is easily given in to those who simply claim faith, one can gain all with a proper wager. For this, we’ll turn to neuroscientist Sam Harris, who once noted that, given the vast number of gods that have been worshipped and religions that have been adhered to over the centuries, and the incompatible claims made by each, that we should all expect to go to hell simply by probability. Pascal’s Wager, after all, makes the assumption that Yahweh is the one and only god, and that Christianity is the one and only system of belief. What if in fact the Muslims have had it right this whole time? Or the Jews? Or the Pagans? Or maybe it’s the Catholics who’ve been on the right path, and you happen to be Baptist, or vice-versa?
If it isn’t obvious by this point that the question of ‘What if you’re wrong?’ is a ridiculous question, then by all means it’s important that you as a person must go forth and believe the next theological claim given to you, because the possibility exists that it just may be correct.
The fear of the ultimate unknowable, what happens after our bodily death, won’t go away with the presence of a logic that further illustrates that we can’t know based on the laws of probability. Regardless, I think it’s important to ask ourselves is it not possible that we are simply not satisfied with the obvious answer of what happens to us when we die, that being that we cease to exist and our bodies decay to feed the next generation of life on the planet, and that this dissatisfaction has been mistaken for being insufficient?

The experience of losing one’s religion

February 4, 2012

By Nathan Bergstedt

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review

Here’s a suggestion to writers out there: consider the topic of a recent conversation that you’ve had for a writing subject. A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation about freedom of speech that turned into an interesting column. And just earlier today, I had another conversation that got my wheels turning. And it was just the fodder I needed for another piece.

Anyone who has read my opinion columns with any regularity will probably know that I am a non-believer, a humanist, a free-thinker, a bright, an agnostic, an atheist. First off, as a minor tangent, I see all these terms as basically describing the same person. The individual can mince hairs as to how they like to define themselves. But for me, if I’m going to be defined theologically, despite the fact that I have no theology, any term that means “does not have a belief in god” will do just fine (for the record, I personally find Daniel Dennett’s term “bright” to be kind of stupid, though I say that with all due respect for his work in general).

Now that that’s been covered, let’s return to this conversation I recently had. It was with a fellow non-believer, who like me, grew up as a Christian. But unlike me, this person is not publicly out as an atheist. And the reason for that is because of fear of family repercussions. Part of this is because of the hassle that is apparently inevitable that would come in the form of a series of interventions in order to do some soul saving. But the other reason why this person has not told the family is because of concern for the mental well-being of the family, meaning not wanting them to have a constant fear for their loved one’s soul burning in hell forever.

Now, this person doesn’t believe in souls or some sort of consciousness that can exist beyond a body, nor in a place that this soul would go post-partum. So this fear does not belong to this person. But for those who do believe in hell, the idea that the soul of someone you care about is damned to spend eternity in fire is a horrible thought. Why would you want to trouble those you care about with this fear?

The easiest answer would be because it’s irrational, and it gives credence to the idea that a hell exists to attempt to protect people from the fear of it.

But more importantly, religion is a very important aspect of the lives of many people. So conversely, losing one’s religion is one of the biggest chapters one can experience in their short lives. To expect someone to keep this quiet from those they care about the most would be unrealistic to an extreme degree. The sensibilities of the faithful shouldn’t supersede the social and mental well-being of the person having the realization that all that they thought they knew was untrue.

I remember when I came out as an atheist. My family beseeched me to mind the feelings of my now ex-wife in regards to this topic. It was hard on her. Of course it was. But what about me? I had spent months wondering if my family was going to disown me upon learning that I no longer believed. And after I no longer went to church, all I had ever known by means of a support group was gone. I had lost contact with many friends, and my family wasn’t really sure how to talk to me. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t want to talk to me; they just weren’t sure how. But all this time, the burden was on me to mind the feelings of my wife, and no one expected her to mind how I felt to any similar degree. With the exception of a few friends, no one important in my life saw what I was doing as something right. I was finally being honest with myself about how I felt and thought, but the way it was approached by those around me was that it wasn’t something I did for myself, but something I did against others. I claim this is terribly unfair.

In the few years since all this happened, I’ve received many compliments on how I’ve come along, as well as for what it took to come to such realizations despite the social pushback.

But that doesn’t change the way the coming out experience happened. I find it terribly unfortunate and borderline disgraceful that those going through such profound changes in their life should have the extra burden of having to tiptoe around the delicate feelings of those whom they disagree. But I also can’t say that I necessarily blame my family for thinking and saying such things. The faith is what they know. Having a family member that is no longer part of the faith is new. And what’s more, they do in fact think that I’m wrong. I shouldn’t be surprised when I lacked support.

That doesn’t mean it’s the way things should be though. That’s part of the reason why I’ve written about my beliefs and experiences the amount that I have, because I think more people should be open to those who have no theology. Unfortunately, by the tenants of the religions of so many, there is no real way to reconcile the faithful with the faithless, if for no other reason because of the idea that one side will burn in hell forever. The stakes are simply too high. But these are the ideas of the faithful, not the faithless, so it should be their burden to deal with such claims, not vice-versa.

I love my family, and certainly care what they think. But I can’t let what they think dictate how I live my life. The last couple of years has been a wonderful time of self-discovery that I wish more people could experience. It’s hard enough to lose one’s religion, but in one man’s experience, it’s definitely worth it in the end.


April 6, 2010

It’s raining again today.

It’s my brother’s birthday.

He’s 30.

“It’s raining again today,”

he said.

“There’ll be other birthdays,”

I told him, leaning against

the hood of my car, water

dripping along the bridge of my nose.

“You won’t even remember this.”

The squirrels in the neighbor’s front yard oak

didn’t rest, but I imagine they sympathized.

My brother chased them back up the tree,

soaked and stained and ready

to receive his presents.