The Most Important Thing

When I did my post about how I stopped believing in god, I tried to focus on three main events that changed my thinking – realizing the power of the mind to convince us something is real, examining the logical problems with my beliefs, and experiencing the superiority of science versus superstition in treating my son’s ADHD.

There were many other things that influenced my doubts that I didn’t include for the sake of brevity, but they were also very influential.

That post explained how my frame of mind changed, which allowed some of these other events to be re-examined in a different light.  Before my frame of mind changed, I was able to dismiss all of the doubts raised by these other events because, at my core, I still believed.

So, I want to talk about some of those other things.

One of my best friends was in a car accident with her husband and three kids, five days before Christmas in 2008.  Their small car was struck by an 18-wheeler on the highway.  They were all alright, except for their 6-month-old son, who died.

One day a couple of months after the accident, my friend told me that she wanted to go to church with me.  I remember thinking that this was the way God was using her tragedy for good – it was bringing her closer to Him.

For an evangelical Christian, there is no greater good.  For all of God’s lost sheep to return to him is the ultimate purpose of this life.  That is why evangelicals are so annoying.  There is nothing that matters more.  Nothing.

So, if she had to lose her baby boy – a baby she had never been apart from and was still nursing – that was worth it if it brought her to Jesus.

Seriously.

Then, I remember thinking that I hated myself for thinking that.  I hated the entire belief system that made that an okay thing – no, the right thing – to think.

At the time, I was still in deep.  I had no way to explain my “supernatural” experiences, feeling “god’s presence,” and what have you, so I wasn’t ready to throw the baby Jesus out with the bath water just because it made me uncomfortable that God would allow a baby to die in order to bring the mother closer to himself.

God didn’t kill the baby, the truck driver did.

That’s what I told myself.  We have free will.  God doesn’t control what will happen, but he uses our bad situations for good.  The good was that she was finding Jesus.

Still, I felt sick over feeling that the death was ultimately a good thing.  It seemed so wrong.

But, like everything, I brushed it off.

I am so glad to be free of that belief system.  It feels good to know that the reason I felt sick for thinking her son’s death was for the greater good was because that was wrong.  There was no greater good.  It was an awful thing that happened.

You can argue about whether or not my problem was god or that I had a flawed theology, but it doesn’t matter.  Christianity places God above all else, no matter what flavor you follow.

I much prefer my new belief system where family, friends, and the people we care about are what’s most important.

7 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing

  1. Charity,

    Very interesting thoughts. Tough stuff, really. The story of the baby’s death breaks my heart.

    Can I ask you a few things? I hope so. How does not believing in God help here? How do you comfort a woman who lost her son? Is it worse to tell her that God has a plan, or to say the whole of her son’s life — and his death — are meaningless, the result of a cruel, indifferent universe, a bitter cold place that offers no explanations?

    The problem of evil or suffering remains even if you reject God. In fact, it gets worse. At least with a theistic position you can say that there is a willful, all-wise purpose to suffering; no matter how brutal that suffering is, God can explain it. But there is no comfort — is there? — in a universe where life and death are intrinsically without merit, purpose or point. Dostoevski tells in “The Brothers Karamazov” of soldiers tossing babies in the air and then catching them, getting them to shriek with delight, and then tossing them up one final time, in front of their desperate mothers, only to catch them on the tips of their bayonets. What kind of sick, cruel, disgusting, revolting universe would allow that? Who would want to believe in a universe that allows all that lives to suffer endlessly, needlessly, and without ANY reason? What kind of sick joke is this place, a place where religious beliefs and hopes and just plain dreams evolve in the hearts of men and women everywhere, hopes and dreams and beliefs that are as vacant as any cosmic wasteland? Does anyone LIKE this sort of universe, one where there is no comfort, where it is impossible for your friend to ever see her child again?

    I kick in protest at such a place. Christianity, even if a lie, is more beautiful than the ugly truth of this godless universe. Give me a falsehood that comforts than an obscene truth that ends only in despair and in the utter crush of nothingness. I LOVE LIFE! I love it so much I want it to continue, forever and for everyone. What kills me is that there are people claiming to be happy that they will be obliterated in death. To me, such folks cannot love being alive. They cannot REALLY love their children. Sorry. But that’s how I FEEL. It may be irrational to you, but so be it. I kick at the darkness; I give it the middle finger. I WANT there to be a God.

    And, in the end, I believe that if there IS a God, THAT is exactly what He wants of me. He does not force us to love Him; He does not force us to believe in Him. He is like any good father: he wants his children to freely WANT him. Love of God is not love if it is forced or irresistible. Do I want my child to want to be with me merely because I insist on it? No. I want my child to WANT on his or her own to want to be with me, to love me, to believe that I have his or her best interests at heart.

    But if there isn’t a God, then I will not pay this universe ANY compliments, for it does not deserve them. It is a vile place, one where children are born and then executed without cause. Instead I will honor my own subjective convictions, as they are infinitely more lovely than the truth. (I am at a loss to explain how a godless universe generates people who believe in a Creator, even a loving Creator.)

    Bury me appropriately — with a middle finger as my gravestone. I will have a Cross on my heart.

  2. Bill, I appreciate the conversation. You can always ask anything.

    How does not believing in God help here?

    It doesn’t help, per se. I mean, obviously, saying, “Well, you know, there’s no god” isn’t something I would say to a grieving person. It’s not relevant. It’s like bringing up that there’s no Santa; there’s no reason to mention it. And if someone needs their beliefs for comfort, then is not the time for a theological debate.

    “How do you comfort a woman who lost her son?”

    The same way I did comfort her, by being there for her. By giving her a shoulder to cry on. By quietly listening, while she talked about him. By taking her out for ice cream. By going for a walk with her. By having her kids over, so she could have some alone time or go to counseling. By being a loving friend.

    “Is it worse to tell her that God has a plan, or to say the whole of her son’s life — and his death — are meaningless, the result of a cruel, indifferent universe, a bitter cold place that offers no explanations?

    That’s a bit of a false dichotomy, there. I disagree that his life was meaningless, absent god’s plan. It meant something to her and her family, and to everyone who had a chance to meet her adorable, special little guy.

    What kind of god needs a 6-month-old child to die in order to carry out his good and perfect plan? I don’t find that comforting.

    To tell someone that life and death are part of god’s plan raises the questions of why some people die and others are spared. That’s not really comforting, either, in my view.

    What kind of sick, cruel, disgusting, revolting universe would allow that?

    Really? What kind of sick, cruel, disgusting, revolting GOD would allow that?? The universe is inanimate. It doesn’t have an opinion, nor does it have control. God does! And HE lets those things happen!

    Who would want to believe in a universe that allows all that lives to suffer endlessly, needlessly, and without ANY reason?

    Talking about the universe in terms of what it allows is like talking about your house in terms of what it allows. How can your house allow bad things to happen? Who wants to believe in a house like that? The universe doesn’t care, but not because it is cold and uncaring, rather because it is not a living thing.

    Bad things just happen. We can find meaning in our trials with or without a god. All of the things we are taught that god wants us to learn through our trials are still good things that come out of our trials. But, in my case, I don’t have to reconcile how a loving god could allow such bad things to happen in the first place.

    I prefer a world where bad things just happen to a world where there is an all-powerful being with the ability to stop bad things from happening, yet refuses to do so.

    But just because I don’t believe in god doesn’t mean I don’t believe life has meaning. It does. There is meaning in our relationships and our passions and everything we do that brings joy to ourselves and others.

    I love life, too. So much so that I don’t concern myself with what it will be like when I cease to have consciousness. I doubt I will much care at that time.

    In the meantime, I want to make the most of my life and my relationships, without worrying about my loved ones going to hell for eternity, without denying rights to people who are attracted to the same gender, without supporting a belief system that causes guilt and shame over basic human feelings and desires. I could go on. I have read so many stories of people who were hurt emotionally by their religious beliefs. One can blame it on poor interpretation, but at some point one must ask, “How can an all-powerful, all-knowing god let us flounder like this? How can He let so many people get it wrong? Why couldn’t He be a bit less ambiguous about what He wants from us?”

    I much prefer to be free of that and really enjoy LIFE. Enjoy nature. Enjoy my family. Enjoy my passions.

    I am not afraid of death. Maybe that makes me unusual. But, I believe that it is those who live in fear of death who are not really living.

    It’s not that I am happy that I will die. It’s just a fact that I can’t change, so it’s not worth my time to worry about. I am too busy trying to enjoy life in the time I have and loving every minute I have with the people I love because I know I won’t see them after they are gone.

    Not believing in god does not make me love life less or love my children less. On the contrary, it makes me love those things MORE than I did before because I know that I don’t have an eternity to get around to it.

  3. Pingback: Shatter Nicely » Blog Archive » An Atheist Doesn’t Love Life: My Response

  4. Dear Charity,

    Thank you for your awesome answer. You are a good person. I really appreciate your candor, your grace, and your honesty. (What follows is a reply to the WHOLE of what you’ve said thus far, not just the fragment in the post above.)

    ________________

    ON GOD’S WILL; HIS ‘PLAN’

    I am a Christian who does not believe God wills everything. A weak God wills everything; a truly powerful God does not. Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, said it well: God is so powerful he can be completely powerless (the manger, the cross) and still be God. I am not one who would state that God has a Plan, at least one that is evident in the death of an infant. He may have a Plan, of course, but I would never presume to know what it is, or that tragedy A or horror B is part of his Plan. I merely mentioned a Plan because you implied one when you referred to the death of your friend’s infant, and how you, as a theist, might make sense of that death.

    ________________

    ABOUT THE UNCARING UNIVERSE

    Indeed, the universe is uncaring, as you said, because it is not a living thing. It is indifferent; it generates nothing but sorrow for those who suffer so intensely. But I think you’re fooling yourself a little bit when you say that the life of a little boy who lived but 6 months has “meaning” to his mother. Indeed, it does: it is a meaning she creates and imposes on that life — by faith. The universe gives her nothing; she WILLS meaning into the life of her child, and into her own life. It is a faith move; the “meaning” does not exist “out there” in ANY objective sense. Finding meaning is, without doubt, a religious act. She “makes sense” of her child’s life and death, and her ensuing despair, by choosing to believe certain things the universe cannot and does not provide.

    Forgive the quotes that follow, but they’re germane to our discussion. I submit them because if we’re going to discuss what a godless universe REALLY looks like, we need to be brutally honest about it. What follows first comes from Roger Lundin’s awesome book, “Believing Again”; Professor Lundin draws the following from Kate Chopin’s novel, “The Awakening”. Here’s Professor Lundin:

    ‘One night, after having been present while a close friend gave birth to a child, Edna [Pontellier] speaks [anxiously] … to the physician who delivered the baby. …The doctor grasps “her meaning intuitively,” and responds by explaining that her troubles have to do with the fact that “youth is given up to illusions,” which are “a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race.” Were they to see life as it truly is — as a senseless struggle for survival that ends in a sinister slide to death — women would never willingly endure the pain of bringing children into the world. According to Dr. Mandelet, “Nature takes no account of moral consequences,” which he calls the “arbitrary conditions which we create.” Edna can only nod in agreement with this cynical wisdom, because she concedes that her life has been a “dream,” and it might have been better for her to have gone on sleeping, secure in her illusions to the end of her days.’

    If we take a strict materialistic view of the world — in other words, a scientific one, purely secular — any “meaning” your friend found in her baby was really nothing but certain sensations in her brain; the baby triggered various stimuli that touched the pleasure centers of her brain. Grief is nothing but the cessation of those sensations. And without the stimulations in those pleasure centers, reproduction would most likely cease. The “meaning” is just an illusion, a coping mechanism framed in an arbitrary moral framework that is also an illusion.

    Have you ever read the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, that great Catholic? She’s a writer who understands suffering; she’s a Christian who does not sugar-coat reality with the quaint fictions we all tell ourselves. In fact, orthodox Christianity is unflinching in its gaze at reality: it stares at suffering without escapism. After all, those who reject Christianity because of its seemingly irreconcilable belief in a loving God and a world that suffers, do so because it is EASIER; the rejection is an escape from what they believe is a worldview too painful. But Christians like O’Connor do not run away; they look at life and understand, truly, what death must mean. In fact, ALL Christians realize that if Christ IS dead, their faith is vanity. But I mention O’Connor because of what she really focused on. One writer put it this way:

    ‘[S]he understood an inherent, apodictical truth: modern man has closed his existence, “annihilated the cosmos by contracting reality into himself,” and created a “new world” formed in Hegelian second realities.’

    I am arguing that atheists who claim to have found “meaning” in the cosmos, and in their lives, are only deluding themselves with “second realities.” They comfort themselves with thoughts that are ultimately solipsistic: all that matters is that they find their own meaning, no matter how incongruent, or fanciful, or distant from what IS. They are locked up alone, with no two meanings alike. Even mere “survival of the species” is tossed up as some form of comfort, when it is both comfortless and meaningless: survival is just mitochondria on a blind, selfish march toward nothing.

    ON TRAGEDY AND THE ‘AWFUL’

    Let me ask you this: Why was the death of a 6-month-old child an “awful thing that happened”? What do you mean? The universe began by chance; it is expanding and contracting by blind laws, by blind inertia. The likelihood is that your friend’s baby’s death was inevitable, predestined; the result of mere fate. How can it be awful? And where did you get this sense of moral rectitude? After all, you’ve declared a particular death “awful”? Really? Who says? Why is it awful? What standard do I use to reach that conclusion? Where did that standard –that measure of what is good versus what isn’t — come from if it does not come from the universe? And isn’t your sense of outrage just a rattling of your DNA, something you can’t help because it is Nature’s way of keeping things going?

    ________________

    ON THEODICY, THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

    Permit me to note that you’ve presented a theodicy. If God is all-powerful, he could stop suffering. If God is all-good, he would stop suffering. Since suffering continues, we can conclude that God is either not all-powerful or not all-good — or he does not exist at all.

    But Christianity rarely if ever describes God as all-good or all-powerful. How it does describe God is in a much broader way: God is omniscient. God is all-knowing. (You mentioned this.)

    So, then, a Christian would offer to those who complain about a life filled with sorrow and suffering this question: How SHOULD an omniscient God stop suffering? How MUST an omniscient God behave? How MUST he stop evil?

    Here is the truth IF there is an omniscient God Who loves everyone (note that I said IF):

    Omniscience knows what it is like to be raped and murdered; it knows what it is like to be bludgeoned and burned. And it knows what it’s like to rape and murder, to bludgeon and burn. Omniscience knows what it’s like to be executed in a gas chamber at the same instant it knows what it’s like to open the valve that spews gas on praying Jews in that same gas chamber. Omniscience knows what it is like to behead, and what it’s like to be beheaded. Omniscience knows what it’s like to drown, and what it’s like to swim desperately toward one’s drowning child. Omniscience has been burned alive, and it has stood screaming helplessly on the sidewalk outside a burning tenement where a child is dying a horrible death.

    God has been a murderer, and he’s been murdered; he’s raped, and he’s been raped. He’s diagnosed cancer, and he’s died from cancer.

    And, allegedly, he loves the murderer as much as the murdered. He loves the Nazi as much as he loves the Jew. He loves the baby as much as he loves the driver of an 18-wheeler who accidently kills that baby.

    How, pray tell, does an omniscient God STOP EVIL from happening? Here’s an answer. Maybe God IS STOPPING evil right now, and the ONLY WAY omniscience can stop evil is exactly as we see life unfolding today. Maybe to stop evil it requires that, instead of ALL Jews dying in a Holocaust, only six million must die. Maybe instead of 30 children on a bus dying a mile down the road, a six-month-old baby dies in a freak accident.

    And perhaps to stop evil and suffering the way most atheists seem to demand — right now! — God (if there is a God) would have to INSTANTLY annihilate us all, or perhaps even something far worse.

    If life is fallen, like Christianity says; if it is in disarray from sin, how do you fix it? How do you repair it — and what is the BEST way to fix it? Imagine the world is like a sweater, pulled inside out by sin. OK. Do we fix it by destroying it? Do we fix it by throwing it away? No. We fix it by doing violence to it: we pull it outside out. Doctors sometimes cure people by making them sicker. Sometimes healing comes through amputation. Sometimes healing comes from breaking a bone that has already seemingly mended. How would omniscience fix a sick, dying world? And what about war and crime? Is it not true that sometimes peace comes from a sword, a gun? How do we know what we see today is NOT God intervening?

    Wasn’t it Aristotle who described “God” as the “unmoved Mover”, the First Cause of all things? Such an idea does little for me, even if true. But the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, cognizant of this idea that God knows ALL suffering more completely than any one who suffers, rightly described God not as the Un-moved Mover, but as the Most-moved Mover. Indeed, there can be no better description: God is the all-suffering God, suffering more intensely than any soul. And yet he is a God who hides that suffering; who does not lord his grief over us. He is not the sort of God who says to a grieving mother “Stop crying. You ain’t seen nothing.” No, instead he affirms her grief; he weeps with those who weep, he groans with those who groan.

    But Christianity’s gospel message is really this: that God’s suffering has been revealed — once. His sorrow, his very heart, is on display, for his omniscience hangs him on a cross. It kills him. It buries him. He would rather be in hell with us than heaven without us. And yet that is not all of the gospel, for the good news is that his sorrow is overcome by his love, and his joy. The good news is that he does not blame us for his sorrow, nor does he blame us for our sin and subsequent suffering. He blames himself. He even submits to our capital punishment, and he takes the blame even for that. Finally, at long last, we can fully grieve — and rejoice — with him, for we know, in part, that he knows our despair and our hope.

    You were an excellent friend to your grieving friend, Charity. All any Christian can do as a Christian is “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” You did exactly the right thing; you are a loving soul. In my opinion there is much cruelty in Christian witness; people MAY mean well, but their words often burn. But if your friend was seeking solace in Christ, that’s OK, no? And if God DOES make the lion lay down with the lamb, even after the lion has eaten that lamb, that’s OK too, right? If there is a God, surely it’s OK if he indeed finds the silver lining in any situation, good or bad, isn’t it?

    But I wonder if I could ever tell a little boy that there was no explaining his mother’s sudden death, murdered in a drive-by shooting. I wonder if I could ever tell a grieving little boy what an atheist tells me I MUST tell him: that he will NEVER see his mother again, there will be NO justice for those who murdered her, that she and her murderer will never be known, or seen, or heard from again. I don’t see how I could tell him to love life, to love nature, to enjoy his friends. I don’t see how I can help him if I tell him that life is inherently capricious; that the universe does not care, that life has no borders. That all is mere accident (or the result of mere fate). That beauty is an illusion; that youth is given to telling itself second realities; that morality itself is naught but a coping mechanism arbitrarily conceived.

    It is THIS, Charity, that I protest against. But I also protest against atheism’s many conceits. Atheism claims that it is rooted in reason and theism unreason, when both are actually rooted in faith; and yet atheism turns a blind eye to that fact. Atheism claims to be free of the temptation of telling itself comforting little fictions, when in fact atheism can only comfort itself with fictions. And yet, somehow, it denounces Christianity for being nothing but a fiction. Atheism claims to look at reality unflinchingly, without a theist’s rose-colored glasses. But atheism is blind to its own rose-colored worldview.

    I thank you, Charity, for letting me respond as broadly as I have. I have no war with you. I have nothing but fondness for you in my heart. You are generous of spirit, and strong of heart and mind to hold such a conversation. I appreciate you very much.

    All the best, dear Charity.

    PS. If you are interested in my complete argument about the problem of evil (it’s quite unique and original), I urge you to read this series. If you are interested in how I come to the conclusion that atheism is not based on reason or empiricism, then please read my “A Letter To Christopher Hitchens.” And if you want to see what I do with the speed of light — that it has wild implications regarding knowledge and God’s existence — please see my essay, “At The Speed Of Light: Faith, Existence and Atheism.” I think you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised.)

  5. Dear Charity,

    I know I might be taxing your patience, or just burdening you with too many words. But there’s something I feel I should have commented on earlier.

    This is the essence of your essay here:

    “Christianity places God above all else, no matter what flavor you follow.”

    Hence, the title of your essay: “The Most Important Thing.”

    I guess in one sense, you’re right. Christianity does show a hierarchy, with God at the pinnacle and everything else in tiers (or in tears) below Him. But I would challenge that this is Christianity’s ultimate message. God may be on top, but what is the nature of the God that is set so high? Christianity’s message, which makes it singular among religions, is not that God is the most important thing. Its message is that each one of us is the most important thing; that God is a Servant God, interested ONLY in us. The shepherd, after all, leads the flock to find the one stray sheep. Most religions depict humanity as climbing up some slope towards God — man, starting in the valley, strives toward the summit of divinity. Christianity turns that on its head: The summit comes to the valley. As I said above, God would rather be in hell with us than in heaven without us.

    Of course, this may seemingly reduce Christianity to wishful ego-centrism: that the God of the universe is interested in ME! This can and often does lead to a form of narcissism, religious and otherwise; I think we’ve talked about this before. But this does not nullify the fact that if God exists and He is Love, then Love will pursue us to the ends of the earth, not to satisfy our narcissism, but to deliver us from it. Even a self-destructive, self-loathing man could still be a narcissist, certain that he is too good for this world, or was once a man so good who never should have done such bad things, and now, as a result of being such damaged goodness, must punish himself. I commit suicide because I am too sensitive or because I just love people too honestly for them to love me; Goodbye, cruel world. Sometimes these thoughts remind me of the child who, knowing he’s upset his parent, strikes himself (have you seen this?) before the parent can offer discipline. Isn’t the child saying something like “A good child would not misbehave; I am good enough to realize this and thus I will punish myself”? (Not all self-destruction is of this kind.)

    I guess what I am saying is that Christianity is not what you’ve said it is. The highest good is whatever God would die for: He did not die for Himself, but for humanity. He became a Servant, even a Servant of death. That’s news that no Islam, Hindu, or Buddhist revelation has even remotely reported.

    The Christian God is the weak God.

    Peace to you.

    BG

  6. Correction: That should be “The shepherd LEAVES the flock to find the one lost sheep.” The shepherd does not, as I said, LEAD the flock to find the one lost sheep.

    Odd, though, that my mistake might actually make sense.

  7. Bill,

    Your comments never tax my patience. I enjoy them, in fact. I just can’t always find the time (or the quiet) to respond to them.

    It would take a lot to tax the patience of a mom who homeschools three boys.