My ex-girlfriend and I stood before my family with bowed heads and fresh tears. We clutched trembling, excited hands. With my sense of drama intact, I took a deep breath and said, “I have to tell you something.” It’s not surprising, considering our state, that my family collectively concluded—I later learned—that I had gotten her pregnant. She was not pregnant, thank God. I was still a virgin then.
Well, technically that’s not true. I had had gay sex years before, the culmination of sexual experimentation with a boyhood friend that had started with masturbation—which isn’t uncommon (the masturbating together, I mean, not the sex). It’s odd though that I don’t really view that experience as the loss of my virginity. Perhaps because it was never romantic.
But to return to the point, I hadn’t had sex with a girl at that time, and my ex wasn’t pregnant. The news I had to share with my family was altogether more sinister than that. You see, I had had a religious experience, and it was with profound relief that I confessed the good news to my closest: I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart. So began my serious—and tumultuous—relationship with God.
You Stupid, Stupid Boy
I’m now, and have been for several years, an atheist. I divorced Jesus six years ago, and for the first five years of the separation, I didn’t think much about my beliefs. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate my agnosticism (what I know) or my atheism (what I believe). I was content to just live my life free from religion; in reality, I was still shackled by indoctrinated dogma.
But that changed a year ago with my chance discovery of the late—and great—Christopher Hitchens on YouTube. It was such a pleasure to listen to his reasoning as he debunked my remnant and bankrupt beliefs—imagine shackles hitting the floor. After Hitchens followed Harris, and Dawkins, and Dennet, and Dillahunty, and I’m just as fervent now as when I was a born-again Christian. Beliefs are important—they govern our actions—and it deserves contemplation.
With new-found clarity, I look back at the night where I willingly became a slave to God, and I can’t help but think you stupid, stupid boy. But of course, it makes perfect sense; I didn’t stand a chance.
To help understand my conversion—and I bet many others’—I’ll provide some context by highlighting a few biblical doctrines.
The barbaric Old Testament is for the most part not relevant here, but its God is worth a quick mention, if for no other reason than to point out that believers often overlook—or worse, justify and accept—their Lord’s brutality. I did the same, and that is interesting, isn’t it?
The Abrahamic God of the Old Testament is a monster. He condoned the enslavement of people, the rape of woman, the slaughter of men, and even the murder of children. Not only did he allow it, he commanded his tribe to commit these atrocities. By today’s moral standards, the unchanging God of the Covenant is a racist, vindictive, sadistic, jealous, petty, and childish psychopath. But it makes sense; barbaric humans will create a barbaric God.
However, to find truly evil creations, we must focus our attention on the doctrines of the New Testament. Three of them, in particular, are pertinent to my journey to Christianity.
The Doctrine of Ancestral Sin
Introduced in the latter part of the “good book” is the doctrine—made so in the 2nd century—of ancestral sin, or as it’s more commonly called original sin, which declares that we are all guilty, wretched creatures, tainted by the bad choices of Adam and Eve—who many Christians believe to be figurative!
This doctrine is the contemptible belief that my children are accountable for my actions. Even believers don’t think that it’s just to condemn a child for a parent’s transgression, yet they so easily accept their own sorry state without questioning the injustice. It’s a short hop from believing you’re a problem, to accepting that you need solving, and it’s a shorter hop still to buying a solution.
The Jesus-solution is entirely based on this baloney doctrine, and Christians celebrate it as proof of God’s mercy, his love, and ironically, his righteousness. How peculiar.
The Doctrine of Atonement
We’re off to a poor start—being born broken—but perhaps we can make up for it by trying to live a good life? Unfortunately, there is no hope of that. You see, God’s law gets an upgrade in the New Testament, and we are now even convicted for thought-crime. Just thinking lustful thoughts, or coveting another’s possessions, makes you a criminal. It’s impossible for any lowly ancestor of Adam to stay on the straight and narrow.
There are no points for effort either; God is strictly black and white. To solve this dilemma, God creates a perfect law-abiding citizen—of himself—to make atonement—to himself—on our behalf, for our mistakes.
This doctrine is the immoral belief in vicarious redemption—the mother of all scapegoats. It’s the abandonment of accountability and justice. Murder, steal, cause as much harm as you can manage, it’s okay, just accept Jesus on your deathbed—sincerely, of course—and you’re pardoned. However, if you don’t know of Jesus, or you doubt, you’re doomed, no matter how good a life you’ve led.
Is there a more morally bankrupt idea than this?
The Doctrine of Heaven and Hell
Yes, as it were: the doctrine of heaven and hell. It’s—arguably—the most evil man-made idea to date, and considering that it has given false hope, and terrified millions upon millions of people, it’s going to be a tough one to beat.
This doctrine is the absurd belief that an all-powerful, all-merciful, all-loving God will condemn people for an eternity of pain, just for disbelief, or doubt, or lack of knowledge of Christ. This wickedness is taught to children; it’s mental abuse and unconscionable.
Many believers “humbly” believe that God created the universe so that he can have a personal relationship with each and every human. This is his greatest desire—he is, after all, the unchangeable, love-incarnate God of the Old Testament. Believers are also quick to claim—very nobly, I’m sure—that God deeply laments each person who rejects his advances. Yes, he regrets it so much that he will torture you for an eternity.
Who wants to believe in a celestial bunny boiler?
Too Much to Ask
Considering that each rejection pains him so, is it not reasonable to expect that God try his very best to make our choice an easy one? You know, to maximise his conversion rates, and gain as many of the relationships he so desperately desires. Why not physically reveal himself to every generation? Why not communicate with less ambiguity? Why not give scientific proof when we diligently seek it?
No, this is too much to ask of the mysterious stranger.
Instead, God opts to give us a book to communicate his divine plan. But oddly, he decides that the most important chapters—detailing the exploits of the primary protagonist—must be documented decades after the events, by authors who didn’t witness any of the said events. These “gospels” are then to be edited—some discarded completely—and compiled by committee. All the texts of this book must go through this process, and it must take hundreds of years to complete. Of course, the texts must be translated so that much of the intended meaning can be obscured.
It’s worth noting that the authors of the texts were primitive people who, by today’s standard, must be considered ignorant, despite how intelligent they might have been. The theologians, who compiled the bible we know today, are no different. It’s not surprising then that the bible is historically questionable, scientifically inaccurate, full of contradictions, and requires scholars for “proper” interpretation. Believers will disagree with this—they don’t have a choice—but the least that they must concede, is that the bible is ambiguous; after all, it has been—and is being—used to justify bigotry, torture, the abjection of woman, slavery and war.
This is the Almighty’s best effort at clearly documenting his master plan. How can one accept such incompetence?
God’s other strategy is to give us each a measure of personal conviction: faith! That is the key. Faith is what is most important—indeed, it’s the greatest of virtues!—or to quote Hebrews, “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” But it’s not evidence. It’s belief in the absence of evidence. It’s wish thinking.
And don’t forget, if we use our brilliantly “designed” brain-machine, and act reasonably by doubting and demanding evidence other than subjective experiences—which are fickle and unreliable at best—we are guilty of a crime so terrible that we face eternal torment as punishment. Some loving God.
Why would God be so evasive and such a phenomenally incompetent communicator, if it will only bring him hurt? Perhaps, the devil foils his plans. If only God was all-powerful. Oh wait.
The Fertile Earth of a Child
I was raised Christian, and I regularly went to Sunday school. I tried—with all the ingenuity of a child—to avoid going. My mother naturally saw through my efforts to “over sleep” and my frequent bouts of “illness”. My Guybrush Threepwoodesque attempt to use thermometer with bed lamp was, in hindsight, practically flawed—I still think it was clever, but shooting for 55 was over ambitious. I really hated going to children’s church; I’m not sure why. The teachers intended well, I’m sure. They didn’t try to frighten us with hell—like the Catholics are known to do—but they did teach us about heaven, and kids are clever, you know. If good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell.
There was a dramatic change in my family when I was about seven or eight. One Sunday morning my father joined us for church—a rare occurrence—and halfway through the service he started crying. It had upset me at the time; my father never cried. I learned later that my father had been an atheist, and that he had prayed the night before, “I’m going to church tomorrow. If you’re real, prove it.” God’s proof was that my father—being a hard man—couldn’t contain his emotions and stop crying. I suspect my dad became a Christian for reasons similar to mine. I will say this though, his conversion more than likely saved his marriage, but proof of God it’s not.
It wasn’t long after this event that we upgraded from the Dutch Reformed Church—who, as an aside, has still not renounced its support of the apartheid ideology—to a more evangelical and radical church called Agape Ministries or some such. This was less boring I will admit; the happy clappies was nothing if not entertaining. From my pre to late teens, we moved to four or five different churches. From Agape, to Emmanuel, to I can’t be arsed to remember. Each one of the churches ended in scandal. The pastor was gay, or a fraud or reasonable. Spare a thought for the men of God; they are devil hounded, don’t you know.
Strangely, throughout all my years in church I never really committed to it. I was forced to go, but I wasn’t buying what they were selling. The indoctrination, however, I couldn’t avoid. Seeds had been sown and flourished, and with it guilt and shame and fear. No decent Christian recruiter will be found without these tools in their toolbox.
Being a teenager isn’t easy as the cliché goes. I wasn’t much more troubled than the average kid, I figure, but I did have some skeletons in the closet. There was the before-mentioned gay experience, which was a source of confusion and shame, but at least it’s not something I now find morally objectionable or shameful like some of the things I did in my late teens.
I was popular enough at school, but I was a geek before it was cool, and we—I had three good geeky friends—resented the label. We considered ourselves better than other people, and we adopted a fuck the world philosophy. We were different and treated differently, but if I analyse it honestly, we ostracised ourselves. How juvenile to create your own problems, and blame others. All this is relevant to explain the consequences of combining youthful anger and geek power. Influenced by the Anarchist’s Cookbook, and its like, we performed criminal acts of vandalism. We did shameful things, and I was—I am—ashamed.
The Power of Guilt, Shame and Fear
I did get a girlfriend eventually—yes, the one I didn’t get pregnant—but it didn’t last very long. I was off to university in another city; she was still in school. It was decided that a long distance relationship wouldn’t work, but I missed her, and I desperately wished to get back together. It was my first holiday back in my hometown when she led me to Christ. I had spent the day with her, and I naturally had high hopes. It would be a kindness to say that she was a cold fish. I was hurt and confused—I didn’t know at the time that she fancied one of my best friends.
To make sense of the disastrous day, and because I’m a sucker for punishment, I phoned her that evening. The otherwise uninteresting conversation was given a shot of adrenalin when she, out of left field, challenged my relationship with God. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Half an hour later, I found myself in a car, parked outside my house with her praying for me. The floodgates had opened, and I couldn’t control my emotions. I cried, and thought God is at work. The parallel to my father’s conversion didn’t escape me. Such is the power of guilt, shame and fear.
I had found a scapegoat, and the relief was blissful. No, I didn’t stand a chance.
It took me seven years to come to my senses. It’s a story of ups and downs. But it’s a story for another time.