Monday, April 28, 2008

In the Cleft of the Rock

As I mentioned earlier, I was a devout Christian when I started programming BrainWorks, and now that I've finished, I am an agnostic with no particular religious leaning. My work in artificial intelligence was not the only reason I gave up my religious faith, but it is part of the reason. Moreover, it is a story worth telling, and I hope it will help both Christians and non-Christians gain a greater understanding of each other, something that is sorely lacking in this world where rational justification often takes a back seat to dogmatic conclusions.

To understand the process of giving up my faith, however, you must understand the faith I had. Many people who call themselves Christians, perhaps most, don't have much to do with the actual tenets of the religion. To the average Christian, being a Christian means that God and Jesus love you, and Jesus died for your sins so you that when you die, you go to Heaven instead of Hell. In other words, Christianity is a nice feeling in your heart and your insurance policy for when you die. It has little impact on your actual life, except for a general imperative to "do good things", which many Christians ignore, or act as if it only applies to other Christians.

I was never this kind of Christian.

My core belief has always been in causality, and by extension rationality. I have always believed that if something is true, you can trust in its consequences to be true as well. So I believed in the core tenet of Christianity, which is:
Jesus died to pay for my sins and rose from the dead so that I could receive God's spirit and thereby have a loving, personal relationship with the God in this life, and be with God in heaven after I die.
And I believed everything that logically follows if this is true. So yes, I believed that God can and does do miracles, even in this day and age. Real miracles too, not "I saw the face of Jesus in my pop tart". Stuff like "I was born blind and now I can see". I believed that people can and did hear from God, and that if you pray to God, he hears you as well.

Note that this is fundamentally different from saying that the Bible is the 100% true, infallible word of God. There are some clear logical inconsistencies, and I just wrote that off as "I guess they didn't hear correctly from God about that part", or "someone corrupted this text for their own purposes". The most glaring example is the book of Daniel, which purports to be written during the Babylonian captivity. However, the book contains words whose linguistic roots trace back to Persian empire, a culture the Israelites didn't encounter until well after Daniel died.

There were also some religious statements that don't logically make sense. The traditional explanation for these things, such as "don't eat pork", is that they apply to older cultures for some reason but don't apply to the culture of today. However, I took the stance that maybe people just didn't hear correctly from God and the Bible's authors recorded the wrong thing.

For example, even as a Christian I did not think homosexuality was immoral. There is no logical reason that consenting sex between people of the same gender would be wrong but between opposite genders would be okay. "God hates it for some reason" isn't a good argument. According to the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:19), things that are wrong because they are detrimental to humans. There is certainly nothing humans can do to injure God! Our actions can only harm humans, so if an action does not hurt anyone, it cannot be immoral. Consensual sex falls into this category regardless of gender.

So as a Christian I had no problem admitting that the Bible flawed and even wrong about some things. I disagreed with some very popular Christian opinions, and not just regarding homosexuality. But I still considered myself a Christian, because you can still believe the Bible is wrong about some things (bacon, homosexuality) and right about other things (Jesus died so God can have a relationship with me). I still believed that I could hear from God, talk to God, and witness the supernatural miracles of God.

But around one year ago everything changed, for two very different reasons. One reason convinced the pragmatist in me and the other convinced the idealist, and the two arguments together made me undeniably admit that I had been very, very wrong for the past 30 years of my life.

Please believe me when I say that I was not looking for a reason to leave my religious faith. As a Christian, I felt totally in love with God. To this day, I have never felt more joy in my life than during a Sunday worship service, singing hymns and praises. Being confronted with the irrefutable reality that I was wrong about God was agonizing and heart wrenching, and met with many tears. For months I felt devastated, and I still wonder if I will ever find something that brings me as much joy. But I had no other choice. I do not worship God; I worship truth, and by extension reality. If the truth is that there is no God, or at least no Christian God, then my only option is to act on that truth.

I am confident that most atheists and agnostics do not have the faintest idea how much safety and security a devout Christian gets from their religion. From the agnostic point of view, it's easy to think of Christians as weak minded for taking so much on faith and so little on reason. If a Christian doesn't change their mind when presented with solid reason, the conclusion seems natural. But it's difficult to comprehend the amount of mental and emotional security that even a religion brings, even a false one. The sheer fear of being wrong is enough to make most religious people flat out ignore solid arguments to the contrary.

I'm glad I took the red pill, but the blue pill would undoubtedly have been less painful. It is my hope that godless people would have compassion on those who still have religion, and understand that even though many may fear they are wrong, they lack the emotional strength to take the large steps that seem easy for us.


Shark said...

This post just makes me sad, and now I feel bummed out.

Ted Vessenes said...

On the positive side, losing my faith has been the most freeing thing I've ever done. Overall I'm much happier now that I'm through it. My life is better as a result. But yes, it was very painful at the time.

Related to this, I seriously considered going to church just to sing, even though I don't believe the message. I opted against this though because if I'm right, the I feel like I'd be supporting something false. And if I'm wrong and Christianity really is truth, the doing insincere worship for my own personal gratification seems like begging for personal damnation. Either way seems like a very poor choice.

I feel a bit like a recovering addict. Much better now that I'm "clean" of religion, but I still miss it. On the plus side, religion is way cheaper than real drugs, and can have some positive effects on your life too.

Anonymous said...

You didn't share the 2 reasons? or did I miss it?

Ted Vessenes said...

No, I'm going to write about those in the next two weeks. It's a long story, so I wanted to keep each individual post from getting too long.

My Slow Death said...

Hi Ted, I am an atheist who was raise Christian. After some time in the world during my teenage years I realised that the religion was utterly false. More concerned with safety than sense. Just like you I was somewhat bewildered, with no faith I was at the mercy of a very dark world.

However after reading some philosophy such as Spinoza, Shopenhauer and Watts I realised that life was entirely defined by our own perceptions. We dont need a security blanket to live in this world, what we need is some good conversation, some coffee and a chance to be with other people.

No Gods or Kings, only man.

If you feel like a lighthearted laugh, I made a short film about this very issue.

Keep up the awesome AI code, I love reading your blog.