Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Imprint

Christianity dominated my life for just under three years. It has been gone from my life for nearly that same length of time.  Going from thirty something Born Again Christian to Atheist undoubtedly affected me in complex ways.  For better or worse is hard to tell, as the measuring stick is hard to define.  My life before Christianity was full of confusion, depression and sleepless nights.  My life after Christianity was a nightmare in a different sort of way, drug addiction, severe anger issues, hopelessness.  The anger issues stemmed from the final realization that Christianity was false, the drugs were used to medicate the anger, then a chain reaction of problems ensued.  Those problems, for the most part, are resolved.  Yet Christianity affected me in other ways too. My philosophical views, political views, maybe even my day to day choices, all are different than those of the Pre-Christianity me.  The changes have to do with the theology of the Church I attended, my interpretation of the Bible, but mostly it has to do with the Christian community I was involved with.
The community, the Christian Community that is, was more influential than anything else during that time, as people often are.  As much as I hate to admit it, it was the best community/social circle I have ever had.  I tell myself that it was a false community, with false friendships, but it wasn't.  The friendships were real, they were just based on something false.  Yet that didn't matter; as long as you believed, your friends believed, your wife or husband believed, then everything seemed to hold together nicely.  The community was still genuine, the bonds that held it together still strong, the values and moral code still intact.  When someone fell, the community leaped in to help that person get back up.  The Christians of the community would tell you that it was God that helped that person back up, but it wasn't, it was the community, it was real people, they just wanted to give their God the credit.  In The Gospel of Mathew God says "if you loved one of your brothers you loved me."  Maybe that's all the authors of the Gospels intended.  Maybe they just made up the idea of God to get us to help one another.  Not just a moral code, but to act like a brotherhood, a sisterhood or a community.  Like the story of The Prodigal Son, the community could forgive anyone for anything.  Like the story of The Good Samaritan, the community could love even their enemies.  The community fulfilled these parts of the Bible amazingly, nevertheless they also fulfilled the more unsettling parts.     
The parables above were probably genuine, and had just intentions, but the belief system they were based on was not real, and it was too easy to realize this.  The authors of the Bible created a fail-safe for this problem: Disbelief and doubt are the because of God's nemesis, the Devil, whispering lies of deceit into our ears they would say.  Unfortunately, this fail-safe made Christianity even more unbelievable.  So more fail-safes were created, which made it all the more unbelievable.  Those who made it through all the fail-safes and still believed, are what The Book of Isaiah would call the 'remnant', a group that has been distilled down to the true believers, believers in all the fail-safes.  This was the community I knew, they were the remnant.  Unfortunately the remnant was a twisted form of the community intended by The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan.  They had the 'love one another' mentality, but lurking below they also had the fail-safe mechanisms ingrained in them.  All their acts of kindness became tainted, all the good things they did became undone; the division that was supposed to be healed, the enemy that was supposed to be loved, the prodigal son that was supposed to be forgiven and sometimes even the fellow Christian-brother or sister that was supposed to be helped, all tainted, all undone.
All of the good, bad and disturbing characteristics of the remnant were present simultaneously, and they all made one composite imprint on me. It has affected my perception of things in ways I cannot discern.  My views on abortion, marriage, divorce, pre-marital sex are all very similar to those that the Evangelical Christian Church holds.  I think it's hard for anyone to sort out where, when and how his or her worldview came into being.  I know my current worldview was partly developed long before Christianity.  Some of it was influenced by my personal struggles, by relationships, by failed endeavors, but more recently by Christianity.  My friends comment on the similarity of my arguments to those of Christians, I often engage in conversations with campus demonstrators who ask if I am a Christian, I have fellow leftist friends who jokingly accuse me of still being a Christian because of my Pro-Life stance, I often referred to events as 'destiny' or 'fate' directly following my departure from the Church.  Yet I am an adamant Anti-theist, my hatred for the Christian Right and their policies is severe, and my criticism of the Bible and the people who believe in it is uncompromising.  Like the imprint itself, the effect is mixed.    

When I was a member of the remnant, I said and believed everything they did; the solidarity made it easy.  They now say I was never a true believer. Was I?  Who knows.  Maybe there is no such thing as true belief in anything.  Maybe our beliefs are created and forced together because of our surroundings, the need for social survival, the need for identity, the need for stability.  I know there were reasons other than belief/disbelief that caused me to leave the Church, like the things I saw in the community when the remnant mentality came out, when the fail-safes came out.  Yet maybe some belief is still lingering in my psyche from the imprint, maybe I am a lost member of the remnant.  True believer or not, I fully accepted Christianity at one point in my life and now I have fully rejected Christianity, but the imprint it made cannot be erased and its effects cannot be undone.  


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Joel. I don't think anyone truly understands how powerful confirmation bias is in clouding one's perception of "evidence" until they leave an all-encompassing worldview, such as the version of Christianity you were able to see through.

    I think it is extremely admirable that you continue to share what you believe and why in the face of a steady onslaught of ignorant accusations (such as the No True Scotsman fallacy). It's quite unfortunate that your selflessness and genuine desire to share with others is consistently misconstrued as the opposite.

  2. Wow. This is quite a post, Joel. This is so very reflective and so very insightful. I "believe" a lot of the same things, though we arrive at different conclusions.

    Lately I'm learning to explore how religion is mediated, and how the various media are not merely vessels for the expression of religious identity, but in fact influence the essence of the religion itself.

    This idea of the imprint--this is very interesting. it puts terms to the process people go through as they begin to formally explore their own religious identity.

    As far as what you said in the beginning--I love this picture of Christianity. I wish that it would change in one significant regard. I would love to see a Christianity that functions as you've described, minus the exclusionary aspect of it. If the remnant did not fall into fail-safe mode, did not have the damning mentality that cropped up in times and places, and if they functioned like you described whether you believed or did not.

    Furthermore, I would like to see that remnant be okay with the uncertainty of the "realness" of God. Some of the philosophy I like most explores the idea of what it means for something to be real. This makes me think of the post you made recently--which you might consider reposting here on your site with an accompanying essay--by Aquinas about the existence of God. You made clear that you could possibly find a God like it described to be in existence, but that it would not be the God of Christianity. To the best of my recollection, nobody could refute a single of the laws. What if God's existence were simply the interaction that happens in the settings like you described above? The love that exists between people when they help those in need. If that was the essence of God. I like to wonder, what if the remnant could be more comfortable with that?

    1. I agree, with just a few modifications to their thought process, the Christian Community would be perfect. But you can't take away the exclusionary aspect, or the comfort about uncertainty aspect without falling into fail-safe mode. But I would argue that without fail-safe mode, the community would not be willing to take the risks they take to make it a stable loving, nearly perfect community. It's a catch-22. The last part of your question is a topic that I have always thought about, even when I was a Christian. What if Aquinas was right? (and all the others) But it is not the God that the ancient Hebrews described? Or it might be similar to the NT God without the fail-safes (If all of them were removed the NT God would be almost unrecognizable to most Christians)

  3. I would say you were a "true believer" except that I don't think that means anything. I think it's more complicated than that. Belief is a mysterious thing. It's deeper than conscious endorsement of certain doctrinal statements, although that can be a big part of it. There are foundational beliefs/understandings about the universe that you don't even know you have. We are all like this. Our worldviews are like ice bergs. Many Christians, even in the same church, think they believe the same thing because they compare iceberg tips, but they actually have little in common. Many Christians and atheists might bash heads because of the surface stuff when what's underneath is nearly identical.

    It's less about what you believe with your head and more about what you you know so well that you're not even conscious of knowing it.

    With the things that I am studying right now, unlearning has been as much a part of the process as learning. I am having to unlearn certain "Christian" ways of thinking about/understanding things. There is a lot that is wrong with the American Evangelical Church. There are some good things, but I think that you have been hit pretty hard by these wrong things.

    In a lot of ways I am completely relearning who Jesus was, first as a Jew, then as a person in history, and after all that as a figure relevant to today. I really wish there was a way that I could persuade you to read a few specific books or maybe listen to a few specific lectures. I think you would find that much of what you hate so much is stuff that needs to be stripped away anyway. The American Evangelical community needs people who are upset/distressed with the way that things are/the way that people think. Would you consider a book trade or something? I could read something of your suggestion and you could read something of my suggestion?

    1. Joe, thanks for your input. I would say that it's not more complicated than that, but it's actually simpler than that. You are unnecessarily making it complicated. The complications are what cause the confusion and the division. Jesus made it clear that following him may be hard, but not complicated. He made it clear that he was there to simplify the the very complex scriptures and the 600+ commandments. I always was a proponent of the hard but simple way of following Christ. If it was meant to be a scholarl,y estudious endeavor then he would have gone to the Essenes or Pharisees first, instead he went to the downtrodden, uneducated. He was a populist, in a good way. It was about ending human suffering and not putting your nose in some book. I am willing to study and learn the things about this world, but the one thing that needs to be simple, safe, peaceful is God and spirituality. That’s very, very clear in the Bible. I am here to give you respite, to give rest for the wary and peace for your souls’. The two greatest commandment (one greatest commandment really) is extremely simple and yet profound. If you understand this , and were willing to live that way, that was it (supposedly). Learning and then unlearning is not necessary.
      Christianity would not have spread like it did in the Roman empire if everyone looked at it the way you do. I honestly can't say where I would be if I 'stuck with it' longer and continued learning as you have. In your earlier comment you said I left Christianity in an infant phase. I would counter by saying why would it take this long to know the divine if your God is truly willing? Why would the first 'infant' phase be so frustrating and confusing to drive people away from the faith?
      Sure I would be willing to do a book trade. Let me think about what book and I will get back to you. It’s probably going to be a Sam Harris or Matt Taibi book.

    2. So initially I have a hard time disagreeing with you. In some ways it was and still is a very simple message, and I have ended up with something pretty complicated (I would say sophisticated, but I'm biased) in my mind. And I think that accounts for much of its spread across the world. That makes a lot of sense and I need to think about that some more.

      The message of Jesus was in some ways very simple, however, it was also unclear at times so that even his closest followers did not understand him. Actually he says that he uses parables intentionally so that not everyone would understand. It seems like Jesus wanted some things to be very clear and other things to be veiled.

      Also I think that much of the message of Jesus that initially was very easy to understand has become very difficult to understand because 2000 years have passed in which time empires which were used for metaphors and imagery have collapsed, technology has changed the way our brains work, we've moved from a primarily agrarian humanity to an industrialized one, new worldviews have grown up and overtaken and even wiped out older ones (even the ones that the writers of the bible lived through)

      If there is any truth to tabula rasa then our blank slates have been covered with information that is very very different from Jesus'/the bible writers slates. If we wrote a book today and sent it back in time to Paul, he would likely struggle mightily with understanding anything beyond the very basics. He would need more information from people with insight about how the world is in this era. I think it's the same with us.

      The argument that comes next from a lot of people who don't believe the bible has any authority from god is that if god intended the bible to be of any significance he would have made it timeless.

      First, I wonder how this would be possible at all. Think about the most basic things. Flight, sex, reproduction, love, war, money, murder, education, food, transportation, housing, farming, health, vision, speech,etc. all of these things have different images/thoughts/meanings/understandings across cultures and across time. Timelessness within an existence where time is a constant is not possible.

      Second, why would anyone who has concluded that the bible is not a book with any special god given authority, and therefore timelessness, continue to approach the book as if it should? If it is purely a historical document, then why not read it that way, trying to understand Jesus' and the rest of the writers words inside their historical context. Any attempt at understanding a historical document, even one as recent as our own constitution (let alone one from antiquity), is complex and requires sophisticated application of a number of academic disciplines. Again why would the bible be different?

    3. Just for my sake whatever book you recommend keep this in mind:
      I have watched a few debates involving prominent atheists like Lawrence krauss and read a little bit from guys like Dawkins and it seems that these guys (particularly krauss) don't seem to have any compassion for people who hold to faith in god. Krauss comes across with contempt and is often unfair in belittling people of faith using clever tactics (often humor/jest) rather than solid points (even though he has enough that he shouldn't need to rely on that). I would hope that there are influential atheists who can at least understand how a person can arrive at the conclusion that there is a god who loves them without being insane, immoral, intellectually inept etc. I would think that you would have some compassion for those trapped in the plight of faith in a god who either isn't there or doesn't care with your background.

    4. Joe,

      I agree with some of your points, but mainly I would say that your argument lends itself to the idea that your bible isn’t much of a spiritual document. If it can’t span across culture and time then what good is it? Other beliefs systems have managed to do that, why can’t the Bible? If some of Jesus comments were meant to be understood by only a few, then what was he hiding from the rest of us? Is Christianity some sort of elitist religion? I have argued this before, and it seems the Catholic belief system believes in this to some degree to justify their hierarchy of Popes and bishops. And maybe you and Josh would agree with this also. Isn’t all theological study designed with this in mind, at least to some degree? We could do a more complex analysis of the Bible treating it like any other historical text as you said, but if that was the case I wouldn’t have read it at all as I was more concerned with spiritual truths at the time and not ancient Middle East history.

      Reading the New Atheists probably wouldn’t be helpful here (even though Sam Harris is different), but that said I am going to defend them before moving on. Take Dawkins, he is the foremost biologist in the world, he spent his life studying biological evolution and he has bible belt evangelicals telling him he knows nothing about the origins of life and that many of his theories are wrong. These claims being made by people with almost no training in biology and their only evidence is a book written well before any of the advances in science had been made. On top of that, these same Evangelicals have much more sway than any one group should have over the workings of the world, often using Biblical reasoning to conduct their nefarious affairs. Wouldn’t this arrogance and wanton use of undeserved power piss you off? The New Atheists have a right to be angry, any atheist who pays attention to current world events does. The reasons go on and on and on. You can’t criticize the New Atheists unless you have been in their shoes. Either way, we won’t read any of their books. The only other books I have been reading are sci-fi novels and economics text books, so why don’t you just pick something you haven’t read either and we will read it together.

    5. I'm not arguing for a despiritualiation of the bible. We Christians in North America over emphasize the spiritual nature of the book, indeed to the point of deity as if it were a member of the trinity. This is wrong as the bible has no authority of its own. It is a collection of specific writings from specific times written in specific contexts with specific meanings. The implications of those specific meanings are far reaching and touch the most important parts of every human life all over the globe and in every era of history. God delegates authority to men who then write the books of the bible. The authority is tertiary, but solid nonetheless (needs a longer conversation). What are those other belief systems that have managed to span over time and space?

      I think that the truths of Christianity have a lot to offer at surface level. The basic spiritual truths are very easy to grasp. The world is created by a good god who cares about your interests and desires that you care about his. We chose to reject him and fill our lives with things that he hates (violence, greed, etc.). God overcame our sin by sending his son to model how humanity was supposed to live and to initiate the return of gods rule on earth.

      Very simple. Of course to the mind that desires, there is an unbelievable rich depth to all of these ideas. Rather than saying "to the mind that desires" it's better to say "to the mind that requires". My mind and yours are minds that require the rich depths to satiate a mind that is hungry. Not all minds need this. Indeed many cannot digest it at all. The claims of Christianity are still accessible to them, but in perhaps a slightly shallow way. Music is for the savant and the pop radio fan. One is content with a 4/4 beat, a synthesizer and lyrics about boys. The other would quickly abandon all music listening if they never discovered the different cadences, rhythms, instruments and arrangements that are also music.

      Yes of course the new atheists anger makes sense. If their claims are true a level of anger is entirely rational. But that's not how public discourse works at its best. Putting down your opposition and generally being a jerk takes away from credibility and feeds into the stereotype of the arrogant atheist. It's not very helpful to human progress unless the goal is to push Christians into a corner where they feel forced into reactionary anti-antithesm.

      I also have been reading sci-novels! Our brains will be coming from a similar place then. I just started reading a book called Simply Christian by N.T. Wright this morning. If you don't mind starting with a book of my recommendation I think that would be a great place to start. I also don't mind starting with your recommendation.

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  5. Joel, thank you so much for sharing your honest thoughts and where you're at, thanks for inviting me in to the conversation. It was an interesting read and I have no doubt you'll do well as an author. I can only reiterate that the friendships and bonds you built in those three years are real and I'm glad to know they've left an imprint, I hope a positive one. I do believe we were meant for community, even with all its quirks and flaws. I'm sorry you were hurt, and those words seem so trite, but I am. Just as Josh said, I have also arrived at different conclusions than those you've shared, but I appreciated hearing where you're coming from.

  6. I feel like Joel is one of my cosmic spiritual friends. Like when were in heaven together I will come over to house for dinner. To debate existence. This may be wrong for me to say this but when were both in some Hawaii like Paradise (Heaven) I am definitely going to try to say I TOLD YOU SO not very mature but still I am so confident in my beliefs that I am willing to make a spiritual wager of sorts.

    Revelations 2:10 you seen the criminal record and heard the stories from the man himself need I say more :)

    1. You are probably right Rywatt. I guess I will be willing to admit it at that point.