Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Is There A God? Why I Believed And How I Came To Doubt

People believe in a god or gods for many different reasons. Most of them believe in the god(s) their parents taught them to believe in. This is as true for Christadelphians as it is for any other religion. However, as they grow older, they learn (and come up with) other ways to defend that belief, and Christadelphians in particular often put a reasonable amount of effort into reinforcing the belief regularly. All of this was true for me, and I genuinely believed in a god right up until my early 30's. The reasons for my belief changed over time, and my concept of who or what God was also changed, but the basic belief was there all along.

This article explores why I believed in God, and how I came to doubt God's existence.


Reasons for belief


As a child, I more or less believed what I was taught, and rarely if ever questioned whether those beliefs were true or why other people at school did not believe the same things. I grew up in a Christadelphian environment, surrounded by other people who believed similar things, at least on weekends and social events. At school I was surrounded by kids who didn't believe the same things, and I had been taught that those kids didn't know the truth about God, and that I was different because I was a Christadelphian. Of course, I didn't want the other kids to know I was different, and so I rarely spoke about my religious identity unless people specifically asked, and virtually no one did.

As I grew older, I formed various foundations for my beliefs, ranging from inferences of design and complexity in nature, to Bible prophecy and ideas about biblical authorship. I also learned to look for patterns in my own life and attribute those to answered prayer, although it was difficult to pinpoint which specific events were answers to prayers. Any one event may have just been coincidence, but I was sure that there was some limit to the number of coincidences that were likely due to chance, and that therefore so many coincidences could only have been possible via divine providence.

As an adult, I think my top 5 reasons for belief (in order) were as follows:

  1. Bible Prophecy
  2. Coincidences in my life - interpreted as the hand of God working miracles to help me
  3. Design in nature
  4. Biblical consistency and inerrancy - I imagined that so many different authors writing over such a long time period couldn't have produced such a consistent message unless they were divinely inspired
  5. Witness from other believers


Let's discuss each of these reasons and why I changed my mind on all of them.

Surrounded by other believers


Many other people believe in God, and they can't all be wrong, can they? This one is actually a 2-edged sword for Christadelphians, because when you're part of a tiny minority religion with only about 50,000 members, you have to believe that over 7 billion people are in fact all wrong about a great many things.

So this reason for belief wasn't so much about many people believing in God as it was about the reinforcement of my beliefs from other Christadelphians on a regular basis. I was surrounded by people who confessed their unwavering conviction that God was real, through both words and actions. This normalised the beliefs, and also provided a sense of belonging and community. Even in such a small religion, you'd be surprised how mixing with a couple thousand believers throughout each year can make the religion feel much larger and more ubiquitous than it really is.

As I grew older and started to read and interpret the Bible for myself more and more, I also started to find myself disagreeing with other people about various things. This was enough to counter the feeling that we all believed the same truth. I heard enough ideas I disagreed with to realise that no one had any monopoly on truth, including me. This meant that ideas and beliefs expressed by others were open to question, although there were still several Christadelphian authority figures that I trusted more than other people.

This reason for belief wasn't really the first to disappear, but it did slowly fade as the other reasons fell. I think you'll see why.

Biblical inerrancy


I probably believed ever since I was a child that the Bible contained no errors, but it was more of an absorbed or inherited belief than one I arrived at through investigation or reason. I just kind of assumed it to be true, and defended it because that's what I had been taught. Further, it was taught to me as an essential foundation for belief, such that it had to be true or else the rest of my beliefs would crumble.

This caused some distress in my early 30's after I read Bart Ehrman's book, "Forged". Ehrman had been recommended to me as a challenge to my faith some years earlier, and I had put the name to one side. Then in my early 30's I started to become much more curious about the foundations of my beliefs and started to ask many questions that I couldn't find answers to. So I bought one of Ehrman's books that sounded interesting and started to read it. What I read in that book changed everything for me. I knew that other scholars disagreed with Bart's conclusions, but what surprised me is that they didn't disagree with the evidence presented in the book. Many scholars actually agree with Ehrman that several of the books in the New Testament were written by someone other than the stated author. This and many other facts presented in the book effectively triggered the end of my belief in biblical inerrancy, which by this time had faded anyway due to the myriad of unanswered questions I had compiled.

This led to large question marks about the Bible's authorship, and about divine inspiration. Why would a perfect god allow errors to creep into his book? Why wasn't the book preserved accurately? What other inaccuracies might I find in the Bible? If there were forgeries in the New Testament, what else was lurking in the Bible that I was yet to discover? Worse, the facts presented in Ehrman's book had been known by scholars for decades or even longer in some cases. Why had I not heard about them? Why did other Christadelphians seem unaware of them? My questions were often met with criticism, and I soon learned that many Christadelphians do not like curious people who ask difficult questions, especially ones they had no answer to.

As for the Bible being written by multiple authors over a long period of time, I later discovered that most of the Old Testament was written around the time of the Babylonian exile, contrary to what I had been taught. A few books were dated to one or two centuries earlier, but even then several books underwent a long history of revision and redaction, before finally being compiled into something of a canon in the centuries before the common era. This profoundly impacted my previous belief that such consistency was not humanly possible. I began to see a very human process of compiling and editing written texts, including many historical inaccuracies in the text. For example, the story of the exodus from Egypt is contradicted by several lines of evidence from several prominent Archaeologists.

At this point, my view of biblical inerrancy was dead. But I still believed God had inspired the core message of salvation, albeit through fallible human authors.

Creationism


I had believed in creation ever since I was a child, including the story of Noah's flood, and had never really read much about evolution except from creationist sources. As an adult I started to develop more of an interest in creation and evolution, and for a while I dabbled in young-earth creationism after reading some material I found compelling at the time. I learned a number of creationist talking points and started to feel more confident in that belief.

However, there came a time when I decided to become more serious about learning about evolution, with the intent to disprove it. I felt that if I understood it and if I understood why people believed it, I would have a much better chance of convincing others that it wasn't true. So I set out to understand it by reading about it from more official sources such as talkorigins.org. I guess you could say my plans backfired when I discovered more and more evidence that actually sounded very reasonable and I started to realise why the majority of scientists accept evolution.

I learned to reconcile evolution with the Bible, and from that point on I accepted evolution although I had to keep it secret from other Christadelphians, for fear of becoming disfellowshipped. I eventually was disfellowshipped for believing in evolution, after I asked to withdraw my membership. My request to withdraw membership was denied by the ABs, and I was subsequently disfellowshipped instead. Ironically, their act of exercising their power over me (by disfellowshipping me) actually freed me from it. I never heard from them since.

Accepting evolution presented an interesting paradox. On the one hand, my faith no longer needed to fear falsification by science on that front, but on the other hand, evolution did not need God in order to explain nature. The design in nature no longer served as a reason to believe, because the very same explanation worked just as well without God in the picture. In fact it arguably made more sense without God. For example, if God was behind evolution, didn't that mean natural selection was really just divine artificial selection? Why then was artificial selection so much quicker and more effective when humans did it, such as in the evolution of cattle or crops?

Coincidences vs providence


How many coincidences does it take before it's no longer just coincidence? That was actually a literal question I asked myself when dealing with doubts about my beliefs. The idea that God's hand was working in my life was a powerful one, and for a while this idea did serve to boost my faith. It never occurred to me how self-centred this view was, and how it blatantly ignored the millions of people who suffered and died each year, many from natural disasters, sickness and starvation.

This all changed when I was speaking to someone about events in my life that I thought must have been a sign of God's hand at work. His response was that there were almost certainly a large number of other outcomes that could have happened, each equally likely to have been interpreted by me as God's hand at work. All of a sudden the string of seemingly improbable coincidences changed into just one sequence in a much larger set of possibilities, many of which I would have labelled as "providence".

From that point on, I stopped seeing improbable miracles from God, and started seeing events for what they really were. Just coincidences, and things that were all readily explainable via natural causes. I also became aware of things that didn't go so well, both in my own life and the lives of others. These were not punishments from a god that was apparently unhappy with something I had thought or done. They were just events, the likes of which happen to everyone from time to time.

I realised that many people in the world, including Christians and some Christadelphians, were much worse off than me. How could I thank God at each mealtime for putting food on my table when so many others around the world went without? I always had plenty to eat, and I was sure that I would still have food even if I never prayed for it. Yet others didn't have enough, and many thousands of children starve to death each year for that exact reason. How could I thank God for choosing to feed me, but not them? I couldn't. I prayed instead for God to feed the hungry and those who were sick, but nothing changed. It was difficult to escape the feeling that my prayers made no difference.


Bible Prophecy


Prophecy was probably my last major reason for belief in God. For a while I also believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and this was a proxy for believing in God, but that never became a core reason for my belief. Without prophecy, the resurrection was never enough on its own, since it relied on too many assumptions about history that could never be known with any degree of certainty. It lacked sufficient evidence for conviction.

My belief in prophecy probably first began to seriously crumble when I discovered the failed prophecy against Egypt in Ezekiel 29. This was followed by a closer look at Ezekiel 26, and I realised the prophecy against Tyre wasn't much better. If there were failed prophecies in the Bible, how could I trust that it was inspired by a god who could foretell the future? If some prophecies were successful and some failed, how was I supposed to interpret that?

I have since discovered that the book of Daniel is believed by the majority of critical scholars to have been written in the 2nd century BCE, around the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. I have also taken a closer look at other prophecies, including those against Syria and those relating to the return of Israel, and I found that in every single case the author was speaking about events in his own day, and not making predictions for modern times. After thinking about it some more, I couldn't understand why an author from ancient Israel would write a document to his contemporary audience telling them about events that would happen 2000+ years in the future. That didn't make any sense. Furthermore, people in every time period have found ways to apply the verses to their own day, which casts a lot of doubt over any such application. The whole idea of finding predictions of modern events in the symbology of ancient writings is just bizarre, and obviously anachronistic.

What now?


When my last pillar of belief fell, I became agnostic. I didn't just suddenly stop believing in God, but I also was a lot less sure about what I believed and why. At times I still prayed, although I couldn't shake the thought that I was just talking to myself, either out loud or silently. There didn't seem to be any evident difference. For all my repeated pleas to God to show himself to me, or increase my faith, the silence was deafening.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:7-11 NRSV

Well, as a parent myself, the analogy makes perfect sense. The only conclusion I could reach is that either the divine parent I was seeking didn't exist, or was seriously guilty of neglect. To continue the analogy, if the parent allows their child to starve to death, the parent bears full responsibility. We would not say that the child is guilty of not looking for food in the right place. What parent would hide or withhold food from a starving child? What parent would hide from their child in the first place?

If there is a god, I have yet to see any evidence for it. It's not enough to just believe, for I have nothing to believe in. Humans have believed in thousands of gods before now, and none of those have turned out to be any more real than the one Christadelphians believe in. Why should I believe in the Christadelphian's god? Without any real evidence, who is to say one particular god is any more real than any other?

Is there a god? On a practical level, I think it's pretty unlikely that there is a god that cares about us and wants to save us. I will explore the reasons why I think this in the next article.

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