This is What I mean When I Say I Don’t Believe in God

I don’t believe in God.

Nothing sends off fireworks in the brain for religious people quite like an admission of atheism. It’s scary, in my beloved religious community, to admit that I don’t believe in God. I’ve had some unexpectedly unpleasant conversations with friends — conversations that suddenly dipped into ferocious defensiveness, in which they assumed a lot about what I believe and don’t believe.

So, allow me to explain what I mean when I say I don’t believe in God.

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Speaking the Truth In Love Can Break LGBT People

I hear it all the time: this protective need for some of my fellow Christians to “speak the truth in love” to their gay friends and family. In other words, while they say that they should “love and accept” those who are gay, they still feel a need to state that they think homosexuality is inherently sinful, and that gay people must commit themselves to chastity, denying homosexual sin.

I want to caution all Christians from doing this, because it has the potential to break vulnerable LGBT people. That might sound dramatic, overly policing, and hand-wringingly protective. After all, as one prominent religious pedant likes to say, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” If you believe that homosexuality is a sin, isn’t it your duty to let the world know? Regardless of how this “fact” makes others feel?

If you value the conversation and friendship of LGBT people you love; if you desire their best and want to see them flourish, unsolicited “speaking the truth in love” is dangerous.

I speak from my experience. When I was in college, the Truth in Love from my fellow Christians did indeed break me. To understand this, you must understand everything going on beneath the surface – everything weighing down on an LGBT person coming to terms with their lived experience. Here’s everything that was burdening me when I was in a small Christian college, and it certainly isn’t an exhaustive list:

  • Almost every song, movie, and cultural reference deals with heterosexual experience in some way: sex, romance, marriage, hooking up, dating, etc. From my earlier memories I could never relate to any of the romantic narratives in our culture, good or bad, positive or negative. This enforced a deep, subtle current of feeling completely alien in this world. It reinforced the deep intuition that I was some kind of freak.
  • More than that, my religion spoke in exclusively heterosexual terms. Adam and Eve, the image of man and woman as the union between Christ and the church. Straight people might be able to relate to all that, but I couldn’t. I therefore felt like an outsider to my beloved religion.
  • The pressure to not have sex is already crushing for young people in the church. For gay people, it is doubly so. The hormonal rage to hookup and experiment made me feel like I was caught between two crushing walls – one being my sex drive, the other being the possibility that if I do have sex, I will be committing a grave, abominable sin that reflects the deep brokenness of our world.
  • And if you retort that, “we are all equally broken, gay or straight,” it’s likely that they gay person in your life won’t buy it. I didn’t. In practice, gay people are more broken, more outside, more excluded, because the theology makes it so. When the Bible and Christian traditions speaks to your orientation only in terms of sin and disorder (unlike heterosexuality) the claim that “all are equally sinful” becomes a sort of gaslighting. Straight people have an out, gay people do not.
  • When you are a young twenty-something, the prospect that you have three choices in life, each one depressing or damning, becomes a constant source of anxiety. 1. You can live a celibate life, which, when you are twenty, can be a terrifying thing to commit yourself to. This has less to do with sex, and more to do with the world of partnered intimacy sex is attached to. Looking into a life without partnered intimacy can be absolutely debilitating. 2. You can get married to someone of the opposite sex, which can frankly feel unfair to your partner, impossible, or miserable. Or, 3. You can be sexually active, in which case you must live with the cognitive dissonance that you are not living the way God desires you to live. That is incredibly debilitating for a young mind.
  • When struggling with with one’s sexual or gender identity, your loving community and family can suddenly feel deeply unsafe. If you come to the “wrong” conclusion, does that mean they will reject you? If you have a sexual encounter and they find out will they berate you, sermonize you, tell you how sinful you are, or disapprove? And maybe you aren’t sure you have the emotional resources to be able to handle that rejection when it comes. This can also create a crippling anxiety for LGBT people.
  • The destruction all the above anxieties have on other areas of life can create a downward spiral of more despair and anxiety. When I was in college I failed six classes and it took me 8 years to finally graduate. I just didn’t have the bandwidth to succeed, to get a job, to be productive and healthy. Every moment of the day was spent trying to resolve my sexual orientation. This left me feeling helpless, afraid for my future, and like a total fuckup.

Add on top of this a friend saying that, while they love you, they still think you are sinning and need to repent. For me, it was just too much to carry.

And yes, I did want to kill myself. I went to sleep every night fantasizing about shooting myself in the college chapel. When friends would try to lovingly tell me that they think homosexuality is sinful, I would cut myself horribly. My arms are still a latticework of scars. This wasn’t because I was unreasonably fragile, but because I was carrying so many invisible things already, and my friends, pastors, and mentors not giving me the margin to question and journey simply broke me.

The friends who saved my life were the ones who gave me space: who withheld their own opinions, except when asked, and chose to walk with me through the dark places. They told me again and again that God has the grace and space for me to question and work this all out for as long as I need to. They told me that no matter what conclusion I come to I am still loved by them and by God, that they respect the journey I’m on, and that they still see me as part of the Kingdom of God. These friends were the ones who sustained me, and might be the reason I’m still alive.

Please, withhold your truth. Give space to those who are struggling, and understand that Job’s friends were helpful only when they said nothing. We need spacious love, not claustrophobic condemnation.

Does an Afterlife Make This Life Meaningful?

Around this time last year, I buried my cousin. Ian was a vegan, atheist, and environmentalist so dedicated to the cause of caring for the earth that his principles extended even to his death. After a physicist gave a science lesson on what would happen to Ian’s body, and how he would nourish the tree that would be planted over him, we took shovels and buried what was left of Ian. He was wrapped in purple linen, and the cancer had reduced his frame to a frail shadow of his former fit, powerful, athletic self.

The ceremony was void of any spirit, symbol, or God. I was disquieted by the that, and yet I was moved. I was moved by Ian’s commitment to science, and his care for the earth. I was tempted to call the funeral hopeless, but realized that wasn’t right. The funeral was full of love, conviction, and hope, and didn’t need to say anything about an afterlife. That wasn’t the point of Ian’s life – Ian was about the here and now, the earth, the injustices that plagued the planet now. He didn’t believe in the afterlife, and that lack of belief thrust him headfirst into the present. Plus, it wasn’t my funeral. Who was I to cast judgement on Ian’s wishes? That would be tasteless.

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Face the Music and Dance: Responding to Climate Change

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped a horrifying ultimatum on the world: we have a mere 12 years to to mobilize a World War II level effort to change the effects of climate change to avoid a cataclysmic future.

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Nontheism and Anxiety

Night sky

I’ve been fairly vocal about my journey into nontheistic religion, and the response from fellow Christians has been a tremendous amount of anxiety. I’ve found myself in twitter disputes over faith, and I’ve had more awkward coffee dates with concerned Christians than I’d prefer.

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I Have Always Been an Abomination: On Homosexuality, Satan, and The Church

Why do I relate to the figure of Satan? Why, in my deconstruction, has the figure of Satan emerged as the far more sympathetic, heroic, and interesting character? I can go on and on about post-modernist reframings of classic stories (if Gregory Maguire can do it with the Wicked Witch of the West why can’t I do it with Satan?) but, none of that really gets to the heart of it. I think, for me, it all goes back to being gay.

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Religion as Language

My faith is evolving from a religion of revealed truth to a religion of language and symbol. The faith of my childhood and young adulthood – taking for granted that a personal God is real, that scripture is God breathed, and that there is an after life – is now effectively dead. I question all of that, now. I don’t know what happens after I die, but I think “nothing happens” is the most likely answer. My understanding of God has expanding into something so abstract and impersonal that I can hardly call it God at all, and the personal God of my old faith is long gone.

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In Defense of Satan

skull

It’s probably slipped out now that I’m a member of the Satanic Temple. When I first made the choice to join, I decided that it would be a very quiet, personal decision, which I would share only with my most intimate friends. I’m very bad at keeping secrets, however, and by now I’ve spoken about it with friends of the less intimate variety, on my podcast, and I’ve voiced my admiration for the temple on social media.

Because of this, it’s probably time I start explaining why I would make the choice to join such a notorious organization.

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You Better Be Right

I was recently having breakfast with a dear friend visiting from out of town. Like many of my old friends, we found ourselves in an awkward place: a great chasm opening between us. He is still firmly situated in evangelical Christianity, and I’m unmoored and drifting away from my old faith. We still love each other, but it’s difficult. The anxiety, on their part, is palpable, and I feel anxiety, too, because I recoil from conflict, and the fear of getting hurt.

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