Picking at Threads – Prologue
As I type this it has been almost a year to the day since I started on my journey out of religion. I think it is only fitting that my first post here should give a few details on what happened and how it led to discarding my faith.
I grew up as a Protestant Christian, spending a few formative years at a Friends/Quaker church in a small town and later moved to a Presbyterian church after my family had become dissatisfied with some of the non-egalitarian practices of the Friends (this wasn’t known to me at the time). It was at the Presbyterian church where I would grow most in my faith, become a Christian musician and began my life as a follower of Christ.
I had questions from a very young age, though it was mostly genuine curiosity, not really skepticism. My questions were those like why did the bible say the world was created in seven days when we know the dinosaurs died at least 65 million years ago? And why did God allow Satan to live? Why couldn’t we just have Heaven now without all the intermediate period? And how could Adam and Eve be the progenitors of all humanity without incest among the nuclear family? Same with Noah’s family. And why were there so many people who disagreed about what the bible says?
That last question was largely inspired by the fact that my paternal family was almost all Jehovah’s Witnesses, which to me was just a weird, stick-in-the-mud version of Christianity where they didn’t celebrate holidays or vote. I really had no idea how deep that rabbit hole went until I had some candid conversations with some apostate family members. But the fact that so many people could read the same book yet come to entirely different conclusions bewildered me.
My faith remained in tact despite my questions. I was a little too smart for my own good, as I was always able to come up with some explanation or rationalization of the questions that arose. Over the years I became a liberal Christian. I came to think that the book of Genesis was simply a parable, that Satan wasn’t an actual entity and was in fact the evolutionary baggage that we carry and that results in the human condition. I also viewed sin the same way.
For some time I acted as a Protestant Christian apologist any time I talked to non-believers or even those of differing faiths than mine, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics or Mormons. On my own, I came up with many of the same arguments made by apologists today, such as finding possible alternate definitions of Hebrew or Greek words that would better support my own doctrine even if the translation was more unlikely. I would vehemently deny any contradictions in the Bible and always find the ways to explain them away. I pointed to fulfillment of prophecy, made ad-hoc explanations, made arguments by incredulity and even posed Pascal’s Wager before I ever knew he did.
After more time, I also noticed that miracles didn’t really seem to happen and that prayer wasn’t nearly as powerful as so many around me claimed it was. It seemed as though your happiness, health, success and well being was much more largely determined by natural and secular influences than by which god you prayed to or how devout you are.
I eventually became a strange sort of Christian deist, where I believed that God created the universe using natural means and that he interacted with the world only through Jesus Christ. I didn’t realize at the time how strange that is and it wouldn’t have taken much from a good critical thinker to dismantle it. But that didn’t happen.
About a year ago (as of this writing) my wife and I had just left a church out of frustrations more related to organization problems than theology, but we did feel as though we were never going beyond “Christianity 101” at any of the churches we attended. We considered the local church options for a time but decided that they were inadequate for what we were looking for and what we needed. Instead we opted to do our own research.
I set out to learn as much as I could about the bible, Christianity, Judaism, theology and the history of it all. I decided to look at the bible objectively, as would a scholar. I wanted to know who wrote it, when and under what conditions. I wanted to know who the first people were to worship YHWH, how we learned about him, how YHWH truly interacted with the world and how his plan would lead to Jesus. I wanted to learn how the bible was canonized and translated and why certain books were not canonized or why they didn’t survive the Protestant Reformation. I wanted to learn the history of the church itself starting from the earliest church fathers. I wanted to learn it all, or at least as much as I could in my lifetime. I wanted to find the truth that lay behind all the claims, writings, traditions, history and scripture.
At the time, the idea that it was not true, that there was no God, that YHWH was just another Ancient Near Eastern deity, didn’t occur to me. I was simply seeking the truth, using academic methods. I reasoned that my core beliefs could easily stand up to scrutiny and investigation and that I could discover what evidence would tell us about God. Yet despite my best efforts, my beliefs did not stand up to this scrutiny. I thought that perhaps my research would result in discovering that some doctrine out there really was the correct one all along, like maybe Orthodox Christianity or the Lutherans. If that didn’t happen, then perhaps I would find a truth that had been undiscovered. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think that I could find a “Truth” (with a capital ‘T’), but that perhaps I could falsify other doctrines and eliminate some as possibilities. The one possible outcome I did *not* consider, was atheism.
I started picking at threads, pulling away things that weren’t supported by evidence or reason. However, instead of discovering an underlying truth, I found that I pulled a few threads that unraveled my entire belief system. For the first time in my life I seriously considered that perhaps my beliefs were no more true than that of the Mormons or Islam, both of which I was always able to see for the obvious untruths that they are. I was discovering the all-too-human origins of the religion and beliefs I had held for decades.
In these posts I will describe what I discovered about the origins of my beliefs, what is supported by evidence, hypotheses, theories and historical reconstructions and how it all affected the bible, belief in YHWH and Judaism and thus Christianity. My goal is to adequately demonstrate those human origins.
As a disclaimer, I am *not* a historian or a biblical expert, but I do depend on those who are. I am a skeptic and do not readily believe what I read without seeing sufficient evidence for it, even if it is something I would love to be true. In fact, the more I want something to be true, the more skeptical I have to be to overcome my own cognitive biases and errors.
I will always attempt to cite my sources, refer to scholarship and to make it clear when I really am speculating. I am open to contrary hypotheses, corrections, new information and being wrong. I am much less concerned with being right as I am with having the truth. There is a difference.
Now, as much as I’d love to dive into some ancient Near Eastern history and religion, I have to start somewhere else first. Science. This will be the topic of the next post.