A Turn of Faith

I’d been a devout deist for, what is still, the majority of my life. I proselytized, taught Buddhism and Taoism, and even has a small following.

But in my late twenties I was saved; I became a born-again Christian. I admit it was probably the best time of my life. I’d never known such comfort or joy, such a numinous feeling of accepting the Universe, and being accepted by it. I’m not sure how long I was born again… a solid two or three seconds (didn’t have a stopwatch on me). And while it took me almost ten years to come to terms with it, I’ve been an atheist since then.

peter_gomes
Rev. Peter Gomes at Harvard Memorial Church

My parents were divorced, and shared custody of my sister and me. My father raised us loosely protestant, but we didn’t really discuss religion—not because it was taboo, but because it wasn’t thought to be particularly important. My mother, however, insisted I go to Sunday school. We attended Harvard’s Memorial Church under the eminent Peter Gomes (a preacher so warm, endearing, and funny that he could even make Stephen Colbert laugh), a man I deeply admired, and who put belief and faith above dogma.

But the teachings of Sunday school struck me as rather silly. I’d assumed that the stories of the bible were intentionally ludicrous for the purpose of sparking debate, sorting who would challenge adult authority and who wouldn’t (I was in the former group). I debated nearly every point (with a number of rather patient ministers). I found concepts like determinism, chaos, and evolution all made perfect sense and came quite naturally to me. It wasn’t until I was about 12 or 13 that I began to realize that people actually believed in the bible (and to this day I still have a hard time accepting it, though intellectually I know it’s true). I had always assumed it more of a test-a challenge to children to see who would blindly accept authority no matter how obviously contrived. The idea that God loved you, but would none-the-less send you to suffer an eternity in hell (for the crime of not following rules which people with conflicting interests tell me he delivered himself) for being as he made me—seemed not only a transparent attempt at authoritarian control, but a masochistic and mentally ill message.

I was, none the less, deeply spiritual. It seemed to me that all things were connected, and that there is an invisible scale (karma, if you like) upon which if you apply pressure, something on the other side will always balance it—in this life or the next (yes, I believed in an afterlife, though speculation as to what that looked like struck me as rather silly. The difference between that life and this one is likely to be greater than the difference between an ant’s view of the world and your own—by several orders of magnitude. Even if someone had come back to explain it to us, English would not have the words, nor our minds the ability, to explain or understand it). I found great comfort in the knowledge that every wrong, from the playground bully, to the sudden death of a loved one, to the jerk who cut me off in traffic, would be accounted for in the next life. I did, in fact, believe in a god. He was both my god, spoke to me, I spoke to him, and he loved everyone.

I did, as I said, proselytize, and developed a bit of a following. It made me nervous, I didn’t want to form a cult, but I found I could give comfort. In high school and college, people sought me out to talk, and making them feel better was something I could do. As I did so, I felt like I was communing with god himself, like I was channeling him. These sessions made me feel empowered, made me feel like I was doing what I was meant to, and gave me great joy. I even considered the ministry, for a brief period, though I knew of non that would accept my agnosticism.

But as I got older, a few things changed. People’s problems became more severe, and my counseling less of a comfort. My own pride in my prior success forced me to attempt to counsel beyond my skills. Yet I still felt I had been channeling god. If I had been, then while there might be moments where he might not speak to me and I’d have found myself lost, but he’d never have given me false information with which to give bad counsel.

I began to suspect it was invented—nothing more than the voice in the back of my mind—the voice we all had, which I had aggrandized into a connection to the divine. I continued to counsel, met mostly with success, but I didn’t enjoy it anymore, it wasn’t rewarding. I wondered if there was karma, if there was a scale, if everything really would be okay in the end. Was I a fraud—a self-deluded cult of personality? It may seem strange, but I honestly couldn’t tell if I had a connection to the divine, or if I was making it up. That I was a fraud was an obvious possibility that I couldn’t ignore.

I had deliberately never asked god to prove his existence (and counseled people as to why you couldn’t, why it was an oxymoron and self-defeating). Yet I found myself reaching a point where I would have to ask. I began to sink into a depression. If there was no god, I wouldn’t see my loved ones again when I die. Why should I bother being a good person? (That one struck me as a cruel joke. I never had it in me to be mean or spiteful. So here I was, realizing that there might be no eternal consequences to lying, cheating or stealing, no karmic boomerang, and yet realizing that even if it were true, I couldn’t do these things. Without god, all I’d have left was myself, and I needed desperately to like myself, and I wouldn’t if I did these things. And I grew bitter realizing that that might make me a sucker. But that was who I was and I would be both unwilling, and unable to change it. Without god, I would be an a priori looser).

I remember when I first started asking for proof, in my late 20’s and 30’s. Asking turned to bargaining, and bargaining into begging, and eventually even a bit of threatening. I don’t think a day went by when I didn’t find a new way to ask god to show himself.

After a few years, I found myself in a deep, deep existential crisis. I admitted to “god” that I knew any power to proselytize or pontificate was gone, that my lack of faith deserved being stripped of any authority to ever speak to the divine interconnectedness of all living things again, that I had been inadequate. I admitted all these things, and just begged, please, for my sake. I was running out of enough faith to even keep asking. If he didn’t show himself, it would be over.

It was twilight, and I was driving down Rt. 9 in Massachusetts. I’d been on this road thousands of times; when my parents divorced, this section of road separated my father, mother, and school such that I was on it every day. In high school, it was the only rout to the movies, the mall, and the closest Wendy’s. In college, it was the road between my family home, my girlfriend, and the university. To say I knew it well was an understatement.

I was passing the scrub the Scrub-a-Dub in Natick, a place my father took us to clean the car and entertain his kids. I and went under and over a hill, and my mind started wandering. As was common for me, I started thinking about god. As was common for those days, I submitted another plea. And I was clear—this was the last time. I didn’t know what I would do with myself if god didn’t answer, but this was the last time. If I didn’t get something, I would know for certain that there was no god.

I made my plea, and instantly I had a vision. A giant cross lit up in front of me. It hadn’t been there a second ago, but there it was, maybe sixty or seventy feet high, beautiful against the setting sun. It was glowing with a bright white light, and was suspended perfectly over a green wooded hill—no cars or buildings around it, just this cross. Just when I needed it.

I remember a sudden shock that God was a Christian God, that the Christians had been right all this time. I mean REALLY surprised. But I didn’t care. I was happy, for everyone, that God existed. Justice was real, good would triumph over evil, nobody had anything to fear. I was happy for myself, and for all living things, brothers and sisters. And I thanked Jesus for showing himself to me, and loved him more than I have ever loved anything. It was the most powerful experience of my life.

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Rev. Peter Gomes, Head of Harvard School of Divinity

Three seconds later, I burst out in uncontrollable laughter.

It had taken a moment, but my critical thinking skills did indeed catch up with me. I had, unknowingly, pulled a prank on myself.

I actually knew that cross well. It’d been owned by the Sons of Mary, a Roman Catholic missionary in Framingham. It’s nearly impossible to see in the day, even if you know where to look, but at night it’s impossible to miss. It seemingly floats above that section of Rt. 9, nearly a mile stretch of it. It been there for 70 years, longer than I’d been alive, and I knew full well of its existence. But I rarely remembered it because most of the time I traveled that road was in the day—and if it was night, I’d be headed in the other direction where I couldn’t see it.

But it’s been erected there, over Rt. 9, for just one purpose—to get people thinking about god (it’s a symbol, that’s what symbols are for, and this one is well placed). And I realized instantly that I had been conditioned to think about god at that one spot., as far back as I could remember, whether I was in the back seat of my father’s car, or driving my very own, I couldn’t pass that scrub-a-dub, go down then up that hill, without god popping into mind. That was the point, that’s why it was there, and I’d been trained, without even knowing it, like Pavlov’s dogs, to think of god every time I hit that flat.

Indeed, so is everyone who crosses that stretch of road regularly.

The difference that day was that, in over twenty years, that was the first time I hit the flat at twilight. I caught it just as it was turning on (which it does every night)—and it wasn’t even turned on by hand, the bloody thing is on a timer. And yes, it came on at the lowest point in my spiritual life, at the time when I needed it most. But my faith had been in decline for years—there wasn’t a day in the last 10 years where that wouldn’t have been the case. And while I swore that this was the last time I was going to ask for evidence before giving up, I’d said that before too—and each time I thought the others hadn’t been real, and this time I meant it—but I always asked again. And I would have here too.

What’s more, I realized, is that I wasn’t the only one. This deeply personal “conversion” wasn’t just happening to me. There were seventy, maybe eighty other cars on the road with a clear view of the cross. Maybe a hundred people a day, every day, see it turn on. How many frequent that stretch of road? How many have unconsciously conditioned themselves to think about God right at that spot, as the symbol was designed to do. How many had a crisis of faith and wanted a sign? I don’t know, but I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one on the road that night who thought that the sign had been turned on right then and there just for him. No, I wasn’t the only one.

It had nothing to do with us. It comes on every night, at the same time. Some wish thinking, a little conditioning, and an egocentric view of the universe (a requirement of all theological beliefs) and I tricked myself into becoming a Christian.

I knew instantly that my belief was over, but that to the back of my mind, and instead just laughed at the trick I’d played on myself. I’d wanted it so badly, that with the suspension of critical thought, I could turn the most mundane of events into a personalized, notarized, hand delivered message from God.

It took many years for me to find a new moral framework, to find may way and come to terms with a word I had never considered before: Atheist. I had no resources, nothing to guide me, so I had to do it myself. Amongst the many reasons for publishing this Codex is so that others struggling with it can find help.

But there are things I believe in, like truth. I believe truth is the most important virtue, without which all things are meaningless (kindness? Without truth, how do you know who to be kind to, or the difference between kindness and cruelty?). In fact, while I still suffer deeply, and grieve the loss of karma and the belief that all wrongs will be righted, this has given a new sense of urgency to right them now, in this life, to live now. And I believe as I always have, that we are interconnected, closer to a single organism than individuals, and that any pain I inflict on another is a wound inflicted on myself as well.

Now my degree was in philosophy, so I’m well aware of the epistemological problems with truth. It’s impossible to know truth to a certainty. But there are degrees of certainty, and that it’s an impossible goal does not mean that the pursuit of it isn’t worthwhile or will not bear fruit (as science has clearly demonstrated). The pursuit of truth is one of the hardest endeavors one can undertake—you must be vigilant against influence by what you wish were true, and vigilant against over-vigilance. Impartiality is a skill too, and like truth cannot be perfected, only improved.

There are a number of “proofs” for god—arguments as simple as “well, we exist” and prime mover, to the “perfection” of a two to three-thousand-year-old book written by bronze age people who clearly understood a lot less about the natural world than we do now. But in terms of evidence? I’ve never seen any, and I’ve not seen any of these examples withstand critical analysis.

Now if I don’t believe, why not keep it to myself? Why challenge the beliefs of others (perhaps bitterly visiting the death of my own faith against others)? The answer should be obvious to a critical mind. I do not challenge deistic faith, faith like that which I once had. Indeed, that would be immoral, and I’ve no interest in it. But theistic faith is astonishingly corrosive to society (a view I had all my life, since the days of Sunday school. That view is nothing new to me, nor is my opposition to theism).

Indeed, if you grant that there is no God, look then on the toll Christianity alone has wrecked on blacks, women, gays…. It’s incalculable. And one must agree that, if you don’t believe it’s right, you must oppose it. Indeed, as it did for many people, 9/11 gave me a great sense of urgency regarding my views of theistic religion.

I oppose the denial of contraception to overpopulated communities suffering famine. I oppose the denial of condoms to communities stricken with AIDS. I oppose the suffering of parents told their children are in hell (or limbo) for dying before they could be baptized.

If you were raised in a culture that believes in god, it can be hard seeing and building a moral framework without him. But that framework is there, it’s real, and atheists can be and indeed demonstrably are every bit as moral as theists. Given that case, there can be no purpose to religion other than to control people, and it can accomplish nothing more than creating misery and suffering to those it oppresses.

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