sent in by Max Furr
In 1961, Bible class was an elective at my high school, and I, desirous to be counted among the faithful, faithfully elected to attend. In those early days, there was no doubt in my mind that God was in His heaven, that Adam and Eve begat human-kind, that a talking snake enticed Eve to disobey God, and that two representatives of every kind of animal on earth held first class tickets for a cruise aboard the Ark.
There were no alternatives to these beliefs because there were no other religions offered, and biological evolution was never mentioned in general science or biology.
It was poetic irony, then, that the first small crack in my theological armor came as a result of Bible study. Late one night as I was reading, somewhat randomly, through the Revised Standard Version, I came across Revelations 13:8 which stated:
"And all the inhabitants of the earth shall worship it (the beast with seven heads and ten horns upon which were ten crowns), every one whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the lamb that was slaughtered."
Now, I was a kid who had been taught all of his young life that we had a choice whether to follow the ways of righteousness and be rewarded in blissful paradise, or to wallow in worldly decadence and reap an eternity of torment and agony. Yet, try as I might to rationalize otherwise, the only interpretation of this verse I could think of was that of predestination. The only people, the verse seemed to say, who will be saved at the end of time were those whose names were written in the "Book of Life" before the beginning of time!
Why would God, I asked myself, condemn hundreds of millions (billions?) of souls before they were born?
The next day, I probed my Bible teacher for a different interpretation. After momentarily staring at me with a blank expression on her face, she replied, "We aren't supposed to know everything."
I accepted the dodge, wondering why God would have something written down for us to read, but not to understand. A subsequent check of the King James version found that, although the wording was different, predestination was still painfully clear. For some time thereafter, I pondered and prayed, reread the chapter, and pondered more. The problem refused to go away.
Not long after high school graduation, some friends asked me to enter a debate they were having with a professed atheist. To my knowledge, I had never before met a real atheist. So, never one to miss an opportunity to proselytize my beliefs, I donned my godly armor of faith and ventured into the fray. I met every salvo of his reasoned logic with my own volleys of pious faith and scripture. In the end, it was a total rout—mine.
Thoroughly shaken, I laid out a verbal smoke-screen of dark prophecy for the future of this unbeliever, and withdrew from the battle. The fissure in my godly armor had been battered into a network of pernicious cracks.
Hastily applying a sturdy brain-splint of seasoned prayer, I retreated for weeks into mental convalescence. It had been my first contact with the enemy, and he had come to the battle with an awesome weapon that was entirely new to me: well reasoned, evidence based arguments. His knowledge of the Bible was greater than mine, his knowledge of other religions was lightyears beyond mine, and his knowledge of biological evolution shot my ego so full of holes I could feel my ignorance oozing.
A prayer rug thick enough to endure my supplications had never been made. At the time, I was not aware that the damage to my holy armor had come not only from the blows of the enemy, but from the growth of my own mind. I didn’t have long to wait for the Coup de grace. It came swiftly, and from a wholly different quarter.
An acquaintance of mine, having noted my air of piety, invited me to dinner and conversation at his home. That night, seated in his living room, he and two others began a concerted effort to convert me to Mormonism.
Among other arguments, they contended that the Mormon church was the "true" church because it had a 12 member governing body (like the twelve apostles), and if I wanted a seat on that shuttle-bus to heaven, I would have to be baptized by a Morman preacher into the Mormon faith.
I marveled at their confidence, and argued from the viewpoint of my beliefs. Then, near the end of the night--and I remember it well--came this exchange:
"How can you be so sure you’re right?" I asked.
"We know in our hearts we are right," they replied virtually in unison.
"Yes," I said. "I’m sure you do. But, so do the Jews, the Hindu, the Buddhists, the Moslems, the Catholics, and people of all other faiths. They all know in their hearts they’re right."
As I returned home that night and went to bed, the last exchange kept moving about in the back of my mind. When I awoke the next morning, the insight came in a flash. The comment I made as a response to their heart-felt belief that they were right, applied to my beliefs as well.
The logic was all too clear: Evey person believes he has the theological truth, and he believes it just as fervently as the next person.
I had suddenly grasped the indisputable fact that one's religious beliefs have more to do with cultural proximity than with truth. A person is most likely to believe that which he is taught by his parents, which is usually the beliefs of the particular culture into which he is born.
Then came the inevitable questioning of my own faith: "Could there be a good and compassionate god who condemns billions of very devout people to eternal agony for having the misfortune to have been taught the ‘wrong' set of religious beliefs?"
That morning my theological shell shattered. I decided I would place myself outside all beliefs, and view them with an objective eye. I would return to school and emerice myself in religious studies, philosophy and paleoanthropological science. I would acquire the knowledge needed for sound reasoning, and I vowed to follow the arguments to their logical conclusion.
During the ensuing years, I applied a strong dose of reason to each attempt to fashion for myself a new theology. I studied the results of objective research in biological evolution and contemplated the arguments for and against evolution. I studied geology and delved lightly into astronomy. I found that scientific disciplines corroborated each other in a logical harmony wholly unknown to the purveyors of faith and myth.
As I questioned and studied, I discovered a universe far more mysterious, beautiful and fascinating than I could have ever dreamed—and there are more wonders to discover, and still more we will never know. Yet, in all of this, my greatest discovery was that we humans are a part of the universe, not a separate, special creation. The universe is our mother, and we belong here however brief the moment.
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)