What do I believe? In short...

Sent in by Hells Bells

I was brought up as nominally Christian, attending a CofE infant school, with a brief spell at a Church of England (CofE) primary school before we moved to the “countryside” and the relatively secular state education system. My secondary school (an all-boys boarding school) was also CofE – one of those “peculiars” where the school had its own ordained chaplain and wasn’t considered part of any parish. I fell into evangelical Christianity when I was 13. Puberty was hitting, and I suppose I was confused by what was happening to me - wanting a female puberty to happen instead of the male one yet, as so often in my life, rationalising that desire out in terms of the practicalities should it actually happen. I was lonely, bullied, confused and I didn't fit into school. Reading the “Knowing God Personally” booklet made perfect sense with what I had been taught up to that point. If Jesus had the answers then he could sort me out, give me purpose. The conversion experience was real, emotional, and significantly changed my outlook on life.

However I soon realised that the charismatic group I had fallen into had extremely conservative views. The regular preaches against homosexuality made me realise that I couldn’t reveal my confusion – the people who I was recognising I would have to confide in should I want to be “healed” (because “sexual deviance needed to be healed”) would, undoubtedly, reject me given the attitudes they were displaying.

All the way through my teens and twenties, the emphasis was on learning more – learning how to be a good Christian by studying the Bible, praying and telling others. Sometimes it was easier than others. I found the personal interaction difficult. I guess I was fundamentally afraid that I was in some sort of cult, because, rationally, I couldn’t make much distinction between the church I was in and the cults I heard about. The Bible was deemed to be the sole arbiter of the Christian faith – leading to a fundamentalist outlook with contradictions that were simply swept under the carpet. The problems were mine – I was taught that if I only had enough faith, I would see God clearly.

Around the age of 30 I met then married my wife. I wanted to do the “right thing” spiritually yet, despite having “experiences of God” (which were mainly powerful emotional responses, and usually on my own), my reluctance to commit to the church started to increase – there seemed something false about it. Nevertheless, as a couple, we were invited into leadership – something I was pleased about given the refusal of the church I attended throughout my twenties to even look at me that way, yet something I was concerned about because I wasn’t sure whether I could cope with it. And then, a few years later, my gender crisis hit.

That involved some serious soul-searching. I acknowledged that I had wanted to be female for as long as I could remember. I learned that it was not a choice, and that the only guaranteed “cure” was to transition, and that most people who did so lost everything – also understanding that lots of people came to a compromise that didn’t seem to fit with me. What did I want to do? My answer needed to be “right”. I mentally froze. It was hard. As part of coming to understand myself, I discovered that there were different ways of looking at Scripture and, as a result, started to ask myself questions about what I believed. Life after death was the first tenet to go, then I started questioning the structure and purpose of the church, then there were questions about the authenticity of the Bible – and once you get to that point you can question anything.

In the meantime the church leaders made it quite clear that they weren’t prepared to have the female me in their church. My wife needed support, and was keen to broaden their horizons. However, they weren’t so keen, and hid behind dubious theology. At the time when I was most vulnerable, losing my job and with my marriage at a very rocky stage, they rejected me – and that hurt very, very deeply indeed. The time, the money, the commitment, all counted for nothing because of inbuilt bigotry “dressed up in the bright robes of faith”. After 18 months of trying to confront those church leaders, my wife started going to another church. I initially tried to go with her, but my questions and untreated hurt meant that I was screaming inside – I couldn’t go. I didn’t want to be left out, but the stated message from the church leader was basically “while I don’t reject you, many here may question your identity” – I wasn’t to be accorded the respect of being a human being. Two years later, while the leadership still says it’s thinking about ways to challenge the church members, the hurt is too deep and is still being compounded by the church’s delay. In fact I simply want to walk away from it all – something that is simply not possible while my wife continues to attend the church small group as she seeks to address her own questions.

There has been much debate in the media between the theists and the atheists – Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins being the main protagonists in the atheist camp. Doing some research recently, there’s also a large amount of “ex-Christian” material on the internet. Where do I stand on all of this?

My brother recently lent me “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins, a book he wrote in the ‘80’s to explain evolution, and how it had to be the only mechanism by which life on this planet could have appeared. While his defense of evolution as a mechanism for the development (as opposed to the appearance) of life was convincing, I found the rest of the book seemed to depend upon assumptions – a number of “what if”s leading to “therefore”s. But it consolidated a basic problem for me – did I really accept evolution? This was one of those discrepancies swept under the carpet. The evidence was strong – far stronger than any creationist evidence supplied, and I had tacitly accepted the evidence for evolution for years. Accepting this then led to another question - why have homo sapiens, who have been on this planet for around 100,000 years, been singled out as special by a God who (presumably) created the planet some 4,000,000,000 years ago? This then predicates a requirement that humans are, in fact, special. Increasingly I find that all of the things attributed to humans to make them special (communication, abstract ideas, recording information, grief, fear of death, love) can all be seen within the animal kingdom to some degree. Indeed, my wife was reminded the other day of how monkeys behave while listening to our two children squabble.

The Bible presents a number of other problems. As a charismatic evangelical, I was taught that the Bible was inerrant – it was literally the Word of God – but there are any number of websites out there that carry a list of contradictions, both literal and philosophical. To be honest, I find the tone of some of them a bit harsh, and some seem to rely on an overly literal approach to the Bible themselves. But there are some basic contradictions – for example is God a god of love, in which case how can He condone the evil (genocide, rape, murder, deceit) that was done in His name and, apparently in lots of cases, with His specific blessing? (Someone has reported the number of deaths in the Bible attributed to God [excluding the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and numerous plagues, etc] – 2,270,365; the number attributed to Satan – 10, and he had to ask God's permission for some of those!)

Digging into the history of how the Bible came to be in its current state, it becomes apparent that committees of men (and it is usually men rather than women) have had a large part to play. Books were included or excluded based upon a variety of criteria, which seemed to change over time and were sometimes (usually) politically based. Even the contents of the books were changed, sometimes to overcome the internal contradictions that had been found, other times to overcome the contradictions between the Bible and church teaching. Indeed, there are four canonical versions of the Bible, depending upon which major branch of the church you belong to. They can’t all be inerrant, can they? The Greek and Hebrew writings had no punctuation (and sometimes no spaces between words) – and that also leads to some interesting theological debates. For example, the English translation of Jesus’ statement on the cross “I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise” has a comma which is placed differently by Protestants and Catholics, largely to support their different views of heaven.

It has seemed to me for some time that Christianity stands or falls predominantly upon the veracity of the Bible. As someone said to my wife the other day, it all depends whether you believe that the Bible is the Word of God or not. There is precious little proof of the basic tenets behind Christianity without it – indeed the contradictions in the Bible over these basic tenets (for example: the resurrection; the existence of hell; the means of salvation) would seem to make it difficult to create a case for those basic tenets even using the Bible as support.

I find that arguments that Christians have used to defend their faith are generally one-sided. For example, the argument that the world would be a worse place without Christianity (or, indeed, any religion) is made as a blanket statement, and then supported by the church’s backing for causes such as the abolition of slavery. However, the ugly truth is that, in the specific instance of slavery, the church was very divided over the issue, and only really came alongside Wilberforce towards the very end of the campaign. Causes such as the denial of rights to women and homosexual people (not to mention the confused yet often derisory message given to trans people) are just ignored, yet those are issues that the church is still extremely divided on, while society as a whole has largely resolved its moral position. There appears to be a Christian assumption that, because the church tied itself to some campaigns which are viewed as morally good, we should ignore the church’s attachment to campaigns that most people find morally repugnant. Of course, moral campaigns have been waged by atheists as well, but that counter-argument seems never to be applied.

Questioners are often met with responses about having to deal with the pain in their lives, or an assertion that they couldn’t have truly “been saved”. The questions, which are actually independent from my existence, are addressed at best with non-answers such as “the Lord knows best” or “His ways are not our ways”. I’ve been discussing these issues with another friend for some time. She doesn’t really know the depths of my Christian history, but she is convinced of the reality of God, even though she is far from convinced about His revelation through the church. She lent me a book which gave her some answers. I was disappointed. Rather than answering the questions, the author usually tried to rephrase them in such a way that stock Christian answers (such as those above) could be given. To be honest, it was pretty much the approach I had given to others in my 25 years in the church. The patronising message is “you don’t really understand what you’re asking”.

Sure, questions about the Bible can be (and are sometimes) met with a liberal Christian understanding that it’s not inerrant or literal, but only tries to describe God in certain ways, or is a product of its times. Additionally research shows that “our brains tend to register frequently heard facts as true, even if they are patently false. As a result, our memories and beliefs are highly malleable and unreliable.” But then we seem to be getting dangerously close to the viewpoint that people essentially make up what they believe, and support it with selective quotations from whatever source – a pick’n’mix faith so derided by evangelicals.

People can, and do, divorce the church from Christianity. A frequent response seems to be (and I remember saying this many times myself) “I don’t have religion, I have faith” and “it’s all about relationships”. The main issue when discussing church is that it means at least three different things – your own set of relationships, a local congregation and the “church universal”. Criticisms of, say, the “church universal” are frequently met with objections that, say, the local group doesn’t do that. Yet Christians are often keen to see themselves as part of a global movement, and hope for unity.

I, and most scientists, freely admit that science also does not have all the answers. It can’t (yet) for example, explain many of the “why” questions – what makes something alive in the first place; what started the universe off to begin with? Indeed, you can argue (and I have) that scientists can also have faith that rationality can explain everything. But science over the last 200 years has pushed forward our understanding of the cosmos at such a rate that Christians (and those of other faiths) are often left reeling at the consequences of the discoveries. I think it’s primarily because of that that the Christian church (and other fundamentalist organisations) are often nay-sayers and conservative in their outlooks – the pace of change can be too much to handle, and the destruction of certainties once taken for granted is too painful.

And that brings me back to pain. Leaving a church group is painful as the relationships you have built up are severed or slowly wither away. Leaving a faith can be equally traumatic. Christianity (and other faiths) purport to give a purpose and meaning to life. Removing those beliefs can leave you feeling groundless, and depression can be a short-term result. The more fundamentalist your community, the less self-esteem you generally have. Walking away from the comfort of the group often means that the person with low self-esteem struggles to establish him- or herself in a new environment. When your life partner continues it the church environment, it somehow seems to make the pain even more personal. Additionally evangelical Christians often take it as their personal mission to bring the new unbeliever back into the fold, usually without understanding what has underpinned the change – preferring instead to personalise the decision or working on the fear of judgment which often still remains. The assumption seems to be that if you’re not a Christian then you must be some kind of immoral beast without any ability to discern right from wrong. Moving away from Christianity must be some kind of delusion. The pressure can be immense.

So, what do I believe? In short, I don’t know. There are “coincidences” that are difficult to explain rationally without recourse to some sort of “spiritual world”, but it is just possible that these could just be statistical anomalies. Just because there’s around a one in a half trillion (500,000,000,000) chance that you could throw 15 sixes in a row doesn’t mean that it can’t happen – it certainly doesn’t mean that God was behind that unlikely event. It’s impossible to prove the absence of something – therefore it’s impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist. But I have reached a point where I can say that I don’t believe in the “Christian God” any more – although I wouldn’t say that a “creator god” doesn’t exist. I strongly suspect that man made God rather than the other way round.

Having said that, the ingrained habits of 30 years are hard to break. In the middle of September 2007, I found myself at the start of what promised to be a stressful day at a new customer site, and my natural reaction was to pray. I then asked myself, “who to” and “what was the expected result”. There is comfort in old behaviour patterns – but comfort doesn’t make it right (another message from my evangelical youth!).

One of my cousins recently asked me why I believed the Christian message so strongly for so long, yet now see all the flaws in it. I think it was because I was never taught to question, other than in controlled environments like science lessons at school. I had a poor self-image that ultimately meant that I didn’t trust myself to make decisions – I still find this hard, preferring to leave options open at almost any cost. I believed that others knew much more than I, and I wanted to seek that knowledge. I didn’t let myself think that the Bible may not be true, because those who presented that argument were perceived as threats to my faith, and therefore my salvation. The questioning started slowly when trying to address my gender issues, around six years ago, and would probably have stopped if the church I was in had accepted me.

Someone has written very succinctly what I feel about my Christian faith: “Time and time again I am struck by a couple of things: the enormous number of errors and inconsistencies of the Bible; the process by which the Bible was put together; the blood-thirsty nature of 'God' in the OT particularly, and the seemingly impossible, variable and problematic requirements for God's steadfast love in the NT. When I read the Bible, I feel fear and terror, not love and comfort. I feel rejection and threats of eternal abandonment -- not unshakable, unbreakable, unconditional love. I feel the imminent strike of God's mighty and furiously imposed hand against my mere mortal and fleshly face at the slightest indiscretion, not the guiding, loving, patient and persistent support and immeasurable love of a father - a real father.

And yet, somewhere in my heart, I still want to believe. I want to believe that God really is there, that God himself is saying: ‘I agree with you. They get me so wrong! I am the one you can depend on. I am everything and so much more.’ But that would just be making God in my own image wouldn't it? And that, I remember, is a big no-no. God is the same today, yesterday and forever ..., which hauntingly means that God (at least when referencing the OT) may still be liable to bouts of terrifying anger, rage, jealousy, vengeance, murder, rape, genocide and infanticide (just to name a few).”

It’s just that the bit of my heart that wants to believe is getting smaller every day (as I recognise that it actually wants to believe because of the fear of what might happen if I declare unbelief), but like the knowledge of my male past, I don’t think it will ever disappear.

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