Part 7 (part 1 here)
One long story later, I have finally reached the end. So far, there have been three points I wanted to bring home. First is that I was a born-again Christian; my faith was not fake or shallow, and it was deeply important to my life. Second is why I did not leave the faith. It was not because I wanted to sin, it was not because I was mistreated by Christians, and it was not because I disagreed on a specific doctrine or denomination. Thirdly, I wanted to drive home that why I did leave the faith: because I found so little evidence to support it that I was physically incapable of believing anymore.
So what’s left? In this last part, I want to tell you what I love about being faith-free. I want to tell you how losing belief in god behind made me a better, kinder, more moral, and more whole person. There are many wonderful things about being a non-believer, but I’m going to list my four favorites.
1) My ethics and morality belong to me now. Back when I believed in god, even a progressive-Christian god, I believed that morality was defined by him. The goodness and badness of thoughts and actions were god-given attributes. As such, no matter what methods I used to define my own ethics (scripture, prayer, experience, observation, compassion,etc), I always felt that I was guessing at someone else’s mind. I was constantly glancing sidelong over my shoulder like “did I guess right? Is this the right one?”
This had several negative effects. First, it demotivated me from developing my own personal set of ethics. After all, they weren’t really my ethics, they were god’s, and I was just trying to figure them out rather than actively developing them myself. Furthermore, it increased my feelings of guilt for moral failings while simultaneously reducing my initiative to right my own wrongs. The fact that I felt I was sinning against god was a distraction from the harm that I might be doing to actual people, and trying to seek forgiveness from god took my focus away from trying to make things right with other human beings. Finally, I value my ethics and morality much more now that I am a non-believer because they are mine. They are a work-in-progress, shaped by my experiences and observations and constantly open to scrutiny and revision, and deeply personal. I created them, I take responsibility for them, I own them, not god, and not anyone else.
2) I don’t have to forgive people who wrong me. Evangelical Christians are probably clutching their pearls right now, but I don’t care. There is such freedom in being able to determine one’s own thought-life, and the Christian commands to forgive are a huge impediment to that. It turns the attention and burden off of the wrong-doer and onto the injured party. Rather than being allowed to reach my own peace and process grief and healing at my own pace, Christianity demanded that I must immediately forgive abusers, regardless of the abuse, and regardless of their own repentance. If I retained any anger, that was a sign that I was at fault. Indeed, not absolving an abuser of their sins is often treated as a worse crime than the abuse. This sort of theology is toxic from top to bottom, and is inevitably used to protect those in power who are harming others. My own suffering under this command was small compared to many, but it was still a wonderful feeling to be able to say “no, I don’t forgive you for hurting me, and I don’t have to. My healing process is more important than your desire to be affirmed and forgiven.”
And in case anyone’s wondering, yes, I have forgiven most people who have done me wrong. But I did it in my own time, on my own terms, without pressure from god, and that made it so much more healthy.
3) I am much more generous. I think this ties in a bit with #1, but it has a few of its own distinctions. When I was a Christian, I was of course encouraged to be charitable and do good deeds. But in a Christian ethical system, the most important thing I could possibly do was “be right with god”. And being right with god was a matter of internal belief and behavior. It had nothing to do with actually doing a lick of good out in the world. Sure, I wasn’t supposed to treat people like shit (and my naturally empathetic nature wouldn’t let me anyway) but I didn’t really need to treat them well either. Kindness, giving, respect, acceptance, and charity were all good, but none of them were necessary the way “knowing god” was necessary. So you can guess which one I spent more time and effort on.
Besides that, removing god from the equation placed me in a position of equality with other human beings unlike anything I had experienced before. No longer was a relationship with the divine competing with my relationship with human beings. And no longer did I have special knowledge or a special relationship with the divine that was not shared by the majority of humanity. Instead, we were all equally alone, equally uncertain, equally mortal, and equally human. That feeling of connection with others tapped into my compassion more deeply than anything I had known before. I felt much less deserving and entitled to the things I had, and much more willing to share them with others. Leaving god allowed me to tap so much deeper into my human potential to be kind, generous, and compassionate.
4) I am finally free. The bible pitches Christianity as a religion of slavery. Before we know god, we are told we are slaves to our “flesh” and to our “sinful selves.” But, although god “sets us free” that is only in the sense of a property transfer. We are told that we are “bought with a price” that “you cannot serve two masters… god and mammon” and that “you are not your own” and you are a “living sacrifice to god.” Your body is not your own, it is a temple to god. Your will is not your own, it is to be brought into subjugation to god. Your soul, spirit, and life are not your own. Even in my most progressive expressions of faith, I did not have full ownership of myself.
Christians always painted being a “slave to your flesh” as a terrible thing, but do you know what I call it? Self-ownership. It means that my life and body belong to me. It means that my choices are mine alone to make and that I alone am responsible for finding meaning in them. It means that I am a free man. And despite the dire implications that this would cause me to succumb to my basest desires, I find I have more self-control now than I had as a Christian. My self-control is motivated solely by my own will and determination, not guilt or external commandments. After all, being free is not the same as being lawless or undisciplined. Only a slave-driver would claim that.
And my spiritual slave-driver is now gone. Thank the god I don’t believe in, I’m free at last.
So, at this time in my life, do I want my faith back? No. I can honestly say, I’m so much better off without god. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally miss it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t good things about my life with faith. But leaving faith has made me more moral, allowed me to feel my full range of emotions, made me a more generous man, and set me free. I am a better and happier person without it.
If I was ever offered some evidence compelling enough to make me believe again, I would not reject it out offhand. But I have to say… I’d be a little disappointed. My life without a god is so much better than my life with one. This is the truth. And, as an ancient book once taught me, I will not be ashamed of the truth.