sent in by Don T. Know
It's sort of funny to have an Agnostic complaining about Fundamentalism screwing up religion. But, upon reading this, I think you'll understand why.
My mother raised us (mostly my sister and I, the two youngest kids) in a Presbyterian Church. In retrospect, it was a "liberal" church – which is to say it wasn't exclusively focused on other-worldly concerns. It also had a this-worldly, humanitarian mission. We learned to try to love all people since God loves everyone. There was no "us" or "them." We were all God's children and we should strive to do our best to get along with others … and to help those in need. Without a creed, it would have represented pure religion as Thomas Paine imagined it: "I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy."
My mother considered her self a born-again Christian, but she never seemed to have any problem taking us to such a "liberal" church. I would learn later that she really was a pure religionist. After her death, I would read her letters where she was sad that her new Fundamentalist, Baptist church did not engage in people-oriented outreach efforts. She seemed to long for the kind of church where people helped others and lifted each other up – rather than focusing exclusively on an invisible world.
My mother prayed for my father's "salvation," which eventually did come about through a "born-again" experience after he was endlessly "witnessed to" by a man in work. It led to a road-to-Damascus conversion, which is to say it had a definitive point in time. Upon my father "turning his life over to Christ," my mother turned over the spiritual duties to my father, who was instructed to lead a God-fearing, Christian household.
We started attending a Fundamentalist, Baptist church. My other older siblings, especially those who weren't much interested in religion before, got on the bandwagon and "accepted Christ as their personal savior." That kind of bothered me since I wondered what was so magical about my dad's religious experience that made it superior to my mother's. I supposed my mother's religious guidance and example wasn't good enough for them. But, this didn't seem to bother my mother so I didn't let it bother me too much.
As for my sister and myself, it was a bit awkward since we were changing our religious routine – from attending a liberal, humanistic Presbyterian church to a rigid, Fundamentalist church. It was all a bit confusing and I didn't see much point in it. I finally "came around" myself – emulating my father – which is to say I "accepted Christ" and was Baptized. But, it never really meant much other than I felt good because I was doing what my father had done and what my other siblings had done. I belonged.
Early on, signs of bigotry and intolerance began to appear. My father would tear up mailings that the Presbyterian church sent my mother. I saw him destroy a Mormon literature rack erected in a hospital emergency room. He had quickly adopted the Fundamentalist belief that denominations that don't stress "Biblical fundamentals" (as embraced by his church, of course) or don't have "Just as I Am" altar invitations aren't really Christian. At best, they are honestly mistaken. At worse, they have been deceived by Satan and are doing his bidding.
I was the spiritual oddball in the family. At first, I didn't realize it. But, as I began to struggle with my doubts, I quickly became isolated. No one seemed to understand or appreciate why or how I could wonder how saying a prayer of repentance or claiming to believe a certain creed could make a difference in where one would spend eternity. Further, after reading such books as "Eighteen Inches Between Heaven and Hell" (the distance of the heart from the brain), I couldn't imagine how anyone could have any certainty that they were "right with God."
My mother never really had a pivotal turning point to Christianity. So, how could she be so sure she would go to heaven when she died? To quell my doubts, I sought a pivotal moment in my own life – numerous times … during numerous altar calls. But, it never satisfied the doubts. I honestly wondered how it was possible for anyone to know that everything had been properly aligned to get him or her to heaven. And, it wasn't necessarily a distrust of God. It was more of not knowing whether one's own heart/mind was properly "prostrated" to constitute that "saving moment."
Every altar call at church would have my heart pounding and palms sweating. I would struggle over whether to embarrass my family and myself by seeking yet another pivotal moment that might finally erase my doubts. Church became a living hell. By the time services were over, I was mentally and physically exhausted … sometimes ill to the point of vomiting. All the while, my family (mostly my father) was confused and angry. I would learn later that most of his anger was directed at himself as he felt helpless to deal with the situation. He was also angry because he would have been considered a failure by the church, which held him responsibile for leading his household in all righteousness.
The quest for certainty about salvation continued unabated and began to spread into more general ideas – such as the validity of religion and God itself. The quest and struggle continued into my first year of college – at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (1985), where I would make several more attempts at "pivotal moments." My uncertainty was further compounded by learning that other devout, Bible-believing Christians believed that it was possible for someone to "lose their salvation." Through these kinds of exposures, I concluded that the idea of a "Holy Spirit guiding believers to all understanding" was nonsense since it didn't align with reality. There were too many devout, Fundamentalists running around who disagreed on biblical interpretations. I thought to myself, what is more likely – God actually inspired a book that his Holy Spirit–guided believers don't interpret the same way? Or the book is ambiguous because mortal man wrote it? The answer was obvious.
I could only stand Falwell's indoctrination center for a year. I would return home and go to a local community college, continuing my quest for that ever-elusive certainty about salvation. But, alas, it never came. But, I still put up a charade – still playing the part of a "saved" child – going to church, etc. But, it was eating me up inside. I knew that certainty was not to be had … and I began to despise those around me who had certainty. I began to despise their intellectual weakness and lack of curiosity, knowing that their claim of "knowing for certain I would go to heaven were I to die now" was an impossibility. They were being dishonest. Having hope was one thing. But, claiming to know for certain where they would spend eternity, hardly.
My mother would die in 1987, with everyone saying it was "God's will" and how something good would come of it. Nothing did, in my estimation. After her death, I joined my father in his move to Pennsylvania, taking a break from college to figure out where I was going. My father re-married. It was good timing as I was ready to move on.
I moved out and began to experience life without Fundamentalism. It was absolutely wonderful … not so much because Fundamentalism had been such a horrific experience for me (it had) – but because I was now free to express and live my doubts. I could have experienced all of this earlier but I did not stand up for myself when I should have, playing the part as was expected of me in order to maintain peace and tranquility – even though doing so was tearing me up inside.
Being on my own allowed me to express … or more accurately live … my doubts. I became a practical Atheist – which means, someone who lives as if there is no God, regardless of what one claims to believe about God. For the next ten years, I remained ambivalent about God and religion, "living it up" as one might expect from someone who was in their twenties.
As I began to settle down, I re-visited the whole "God thing," formulating and solidfying my views – and accepting the fact that I was an Agnostic – someone who hadn't seen sufficient evidence from any religion or religionist – that would give me any sense of comfort or certainty about salvation, the afterlife, etc. I thought the only honest position was one of recognizing the seeming impossibility of knowing anything about the "spiritual realm."
Sure, there are a lot of people going around claiming to "know" this or that religious "doctrine" to be true – even being so bold (arrogant?) as to claim they know for certain they have found the right religion – the right God – the right prayer – with the right heart – in the right frame of mind – etc. – to state they are bliss-bound while others are torment-bound. But, I find that position to be dishonest at best. And, I find it repulsive when such certitude leads to bigoted and intolerant remarks.
I think all religionists – but especially the Fundamentalist, intolerant ones – are intellectually and morally dishonest. My conclusion on religion follows along the lines of what Thomas Paine said in his introduction to the Age of Reason:
"I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike. Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration: and the Turks say, that their word of God (the Kor
an) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."
I must confess, however, that I do miss the sense of community that a church provides. And, in that sense, I'm angry "about Fundamentalism screwing up religion." As far as I'm concerned, I think I would have been happy to continue to attend the Presbyterian church my mother raised my sister and I in – the one our "born-again" father took us from when he "found Jesus." It would have produced a more humble, balanced and humanitarian view of the world – instead of the warped mindset that Fundamentalism creates.
In conclusion, I'd like to quote Thomas Paine regarding Revealed Religion:
"As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some other observations on the word revelation. Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it. It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication- after t
his, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him. When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hands of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so. The commandments carry no internal evidence of divinity with them; they contain some good moral precepts, such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver, or a legislator, could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention. When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes too near the same kind of hearsay evide
nce and second-hand authority as the former. I did not see the angel myself, and, therefore, I have a right not to believe it. When also I am told that a woman called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or not; such a circumstance required a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it; but we have not even this- for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves; it is only reported by others that they said so- it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence."
Became a Christian: 13
Ceased being a Christian: 19
Labels before: Presbyterian, Fundamentalist, Baptist, Born Again, Agnostic
Labels now: Agnostic
Why I left: Agnosticm seemed to be the only honest position to take
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)