Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Deconstruction: Losing Faith in God

How I Lost My Faith in God

Welcome to "My Deconstruction Blog". This blog is about my journey from being a totally committed Christian to where I find myself now, a spiritual wanderer disillusioned by the collapse of my faith in the Church, my faith in the Bible, and my faith in God.  This post is about my loss of faith in God.

Do you like magic? I do! I like close-up magic such as card tricks and coin tricks. I like prop magic. I like stage magic. I like the tricks where the person seems to have mental powers.

One of my favorite tricks to do is a (fake) demonstration of telekinesis where I move a pencil without touching it, using my (not really) mental abilities to manipulate the invisible electromagnetic fields that surround physical objects.

Of course it is all fake when I do it. It is possible that some people have real mental powers, but most magicians are fakes like me.

If you want to see an example of a fake psychic getting exposed by a skeptic, the clip below is a good one. The psychic's name is Hydrick and he claims to have the ability to move objects with his mind. Please watch the video now before reading the rest of this blog.

Million Dollar Challenge

James Randi is one of many skeptics that do not believe in supernatural or paranormal abilities. Randi founded a skeptical group that will pay a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate any supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria.

If Hydrick had such special powers, the video above would have been the perfect time to show it. The skeptic Randi would have become a believer, and Hydrick would have collected $10,000 in the process. (The video was recorded in the 1980s. The size of the prize was raised to $100,000 a few years later, and then raised to one million dollars in 1996. The million dollar prize is still available to anyone today who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria.)

Even after Hydrick was unable to demonstrate his abilities in a controlled environment, there were people who still believed he had psychic powers and they gave excuses for him, blaming the lights, or blaming Randi's disbelief, or claiming that Hydrick does not work like this, saying people should just "have faith" in Hydrick and "simply believe".

The million dollar challenge is not just limited to people who claim telekinesis powers. Thousands of people have been tested, with ability claims of mind reading, mind control, predicting the future, aura reading, astral projection, extra sensory perception (ESP), clairvoyance, remote viewing, speaking with the dead, telepathy, and water dowsing (to name a few).

None did any better than Hydrick.

But surely God can pass this simple test, right?

Think about it. Does your church need some money? No problem, just ask God to move a pencil for you in a controlled environment. You will leave the testing center with a million dollar check. After all, Jesus himself said,

"Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matt 17:20)

If God can move a mountain, surely He can move a pencil, right?

Only he can't. Or he won't.

I lost my faith in God when I realized that God cannot (or will not) move a pencil in a controlled environment.

I have been a Christian since I was a sophomore in high school when I had what I thought was a divine experience of God meeting me and loving me and accepting me and challenging me to be fully the person I was created to be. Over the next 35 years I submitted myself to the teaching of Christian doctrine and to the study of scripture. When questions and doubts arose, they were always swayed by my experience and by my hope that with enough study those questions and doubts would be resolved.

My faith in God survived 35 years of complicated theological arguments.

My faith in God survived 35 years of mental gymnastics regarding biblical scholarship.

My faith in God survived 35 years of twisted-pretzel logic regarding God's will.

But my faith in God could not survive the reality that God can't or won't move a pencil.

It has been a painful loss. I lack the words to describe it well. This blog is part of my self-therapy.

Can I still be a Christian if I don't believe in a God who gives parking places at the mall during Christmas? Can I still be a Christian if I don't believe that God helps my team win football games? Can I still be a Christian if I don't believe that God is creating physical blessings and physical curses based on how people behave?

Can I still be a Christian if I do not think the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God?

I don't know.

I'm not even sure I care.

I just know I am now being honest with myself, and I can live with that.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Deconstruction: Losing Faith in the Church

How I Lost My Faith in Church

Welcome to "My Deconstruction Blog". This blog is about my journey from being a totally committed Christian to where I find myself now, a spiritual wanderer disillusioned by the collapse of my faith in the Church, my faith in the Bible, and my faith in God.  This post is about my loss of faith in the Church.

I have lost my faith in the traditional organized church. That is not an easy thing to admit because I have such wonderful memories of many different churches I attended over the years and the many different and amazing people I met in those churches.

My first time at Church

I was a sophomore in high school when I became a Christian and I had never been to a church service. I asked a friend that I knew attended church how it worked. He helped me set up a meeting with the pastor one afternoon that week, and in that meeting the pastor spoke with me about joining the church and following Jesus. We prayed. He said on Sunday, after his sermon, he would ask me to stand with him up front to be welcomed into the congregation. Apparently that was going to involve people walking by and shaking my hand. The reason for this was not clear to me, but I figured everyone is always a little confused the first day of school, right?

My friend and I went to church together that Sunday morning and I was slightly nervous because everything was new. There were a lot more people there on Sunday than Thursday, but everyone seemed very normal, talking about food or football or weather or whatever just like you would hear at the mall or at school or any other place where people gathered. It felt comfortable.

We went to Sunday school that week, but I don't remember much about it because my mind was focused on "being welcomed into the congregation" at the end of the pastor's sermon. When the class ended, I was excited as I followed my friend to the sanctuary.

When I entered the sanctuary, I remember how much it "looked" like church. The long wooden pews, the raised stage with a wooden pulpit, the choir, and the stain glass windows. Because of movies and television, this almost seemed familiar.

I stood there, not knowing where to sit, but then my friend walked over to the spot where the youth were, and we all settled in there. I enjoyed everything about the service, wondering why my fellow youth were so distracted and not paying attention to all the wonders around us. The whole thing was a smooth running operation. There was even a bulletin that included the order of events for the service, which I monitored closely: prelude, call to worship, opening hymns, prayer, more hymns, offering, special music. Then the pastor's message, the thing I had been waiting for! This was when he was going to introduce me to the church and welcome me into the congregation. My heart rate increased.

Turns out he had some other things to talk about before he got to me. Fair enough, I thought, so I took a few breaths and waited for my turn. I enjoyed listening to the pastor as he was a polished speaker. He told a joke. He told a story. He read a verse and talked about it. Then another story, another joke, another verse, and so on.

I was keeping track of the time and noticed it was getting close to Noon, the time I had been told the service would end. And then I thought, "Oh no! He has forgotten about me!" So right in the middle of his sermon I got up and walked down the aisle and sat in the front pew so he could not miss me. I might have even waved at him just a little. Later I would learn this is not the typical way of doing things. Later I would learn that after every sermon there would be an invitation, and I simple had not been patient enough to wait for the proper time for God's spirit to call me.

Despite my breach in protocol, I was soon introduced as a new member of the congregation and after a closing song, many people seemed very happy to shake my hand.

After the service people said their goodbyes and conversations could again be heard about food and football and weather and whatever. Only now I was, apparently, a member of the group. I didn't feel much different, but at least I knew where to sit next week. I figured that was a good start! :)

Two decades in Church

I attended church almost every Sunday morning for the next 20 years. I also went to many Sunday night services, Wednesday night activities, and weekly Bible Studies. I attended many different churches over that time from multiple denominations. I was very dedicated to maturing in my Christian faith. For the most part it was an amazing time of learning and growing.

I had a lot of questions starting out, but as a young Christian I was encouraged to put those questions "on the shelf" with the idea that I would come back to them later when I was more mature. After all, you can't understand calculus when you are still learning basic arithmetic.

For two decades I put many things on the shelf that troubled me, and most of those things did indeed become more clear with maturity. But there are two things that even now, after all these years, I still have a problem with. These two things I can no longer avoid if I am to continue growing in my faith.

First is the fact that much of scripture just does not make sense. The absurdities, the atrocities, the contradictions, and especially the science. When someone tries to give answers to these problematic passages, the answers just raise even more questions. If you are reading this, you probably know what I am talking about. I will go into more details in my "Losing Faith in the Bible" post (coming soon).

The second problem I can no longer avoid if I am to continue growing in my faith is the problem of God. Church leaders speak confidently for God regarding His thoughts and plans, but when asked simple follow-up questions, God's plans seem to quickly fall apart. If you are reading this, you probably know what I am talking about. I will say much more on this topic in my "Losing Faith in God" post (coming soon).

Authoritarian Church

So it turns out that the church does not really want people to ask questions about God and the Bible. It turns out the church is very authoritarian on these matters, and that instead of asking questions or having doubts, we should simply believe.

If you ask, "What about the lack of evidence?", the church tells you to simply believe.

If you ask, "What about the contradictions?", the church tells you to simply believe.

If you ask, "Why is your denomination right and that other denomination wrong?", the church leaders light up excitedly to talk about their tradition's historical figures and their tradition's historical events. But when you then ask the follow-up question, "Okay, but why are your historical figures and historical events better than some other groups historical figures and historical events?", the church tells you to simply believe.

The church claims to have authority because of its correct understanding of God and the Bible, but does so without providing evidence for being the correct understanding of God and the Bible. This is the worst kind of authoritarian, requiring people to submit and obey without question.

So What is the Big Deal?

You might be asking, "Why are you making such a big deal about evidence and rational belief? Why does it matter? We are only talking about FAITH after all."

There are two reasons why I care. First, because I am more interested in Seeking Truth than I am defending my faith. If my faith is wrong, I want to know that so I can move on to something more True. My Christian faith gives me comfort, but not enough comfort to be satisfied believing something that is incorrect or harmful.

The other reason I care is because improper authority can be very dangerous.

People have flown planes into buildings because they were told God wanted them to.

People have driven trucks into crowds because they were told the holy scriptures instructed them to.

Three Christian men in Garden City, Kansas recently plotted to kill Muslims in a "bloodbath" to ignite a religious war (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/10/15/it-will-be-a-bloodbath-inside-the-kansas-militia-plot-to-ignite-a-religious-war/?utm_term=.c48afbc4cc98)

We call these people "fanatics", but how are they any different than you and me if we believe God without evidence and we accept holy scripture without evidence?

Figure 2: Militaristic Church Mindset
Hopefully your church is not so over-the-top as to have a poster that says "I'll see your Jihad, and I'll raise you one Crusade". But this type of authoritarian church mindset is more common than you realize. For example, you probably know the melody for the following lyrics:

"Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before."

Is this really the correct way to think about God? Is this really the correct way to understand scripture?

I strongly desire to find a church where people can use plain words to talk honestly about God and honestly about the Bible while still being committed to making Christ real in their lives.

Sadly, I have lost faith in finding such a church.

Others have lost their faith too

Have you ever heard this joke?

A man is stranded alone on a desert island for many years.

Eventually he is rescued by a passing ship. As he stands on the deck of the rescuing vessel, the captain says to him, "I thought you were stranded alone. How come I can see three huts on the beach?"

"Well," replies the castaway, "that one is my house."

"What is the next hut?" asks the captain.

"That is my church. I go there to worship."

"And the third one?" asks the skipper.

The castaway shrugs and says, "Oh... that's the church I used to attend."

What about this one?

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

The jokes above reflect what millions of people know all-too-well, which is that many people are unhappy with their church experience. Church attendance is a topic that has been well researched, and the data is clear: an increasing number of people are leaving the church in America. One study reported that 30.5 Million U.S. adults have left the church but still have kept some form of their faith without church, while another 34.5 Million have left the church and their faith completely (see Figure 1). Furthermore, those who are leaving the church tend to be younger than those who are staying, which does not bode well for the future.
Figure 1: Dechurched Adults in the United States

Church leaders are (of course) aware of these trends, and yet church leaders typically do not ask those who have left about the reasons why they left, which is too bad because people (unlike God) usually respond to questions with clear and audible answers.

I am not trying to be flippant. The Bible is often contradictory or nonsensical when read literally. When pastors and church leaders are repeatedly trained in the selective parsing of complex writings, it is no surprise they become less skilled at speaking plainly.

Next up: Losing Faith in God