Photo by Gift Habeshaw, Unsplash.
Philosophy of religion has always reminded me or Tic-Tac-Toe.
I think most people learn the pencil and paper game Tic-Tac-Toe. Or maybe they don’t anymore, but when I was a kid, we played this game. Then we all stopped because once you really know how to play, the game always ends in a stalemate.
Once you get it, it always ends in a stalemate. I’ve tossed out this idea a few times on various venues, and gotten broad agreement from people of many different faiths (and no faith) backgrounds. I’m sure there are dissenting views, but I’ve been pleased with the overall level of consensus, especially among those who are prone to disagree on just about everything else.
This is the story of how I arrived at that conclusion.
Jesus Loves Me
I was born to nominally Christian parents. We were Protestants and my parents thought it was a good idea to take me to Sunday school. I think it was a good idea too, and I’m really grateful.
The church was great when I was little. We got to be with other kids, and we got to have storytime where we learned interesting stuff about Adam and Eve and David and Goliath, and there were usually cookies.
We memorized the Beatitudes, which I still find quite lovely, and sang songs. My favorite was “Jesus Loves Me,” which I believed to be true. Jesus used to come to me in my dreams, and comfort me, and it seemed so real, I could feel the texture of his robes.
I started questioning some of the religious stuff I was taught at about age 8. I don’t remember what questions I asked. Not at first, but I do vaguely remember the reaction they prompted.
Kids at that age typically ask a lot of questions, and while that can be annoying, grownups will usually indulge and try to be friendly. Why is the sky blue? What is glass made of? Why does daddy snore? All okay. Why do men have nipples? Why does the dog lick his behind? Iffy, but still not out of bounds.
Then the time comes where you ask something like, “Mom, where do babies come from?” Even if you get an answer, you sense….something, because mom is acting sort of weird. I noticed a “sort of weird” reaction when I asked questions about Jesus. At church as well as with my parents.
Hmmm….well, it didn’t seem all that important at the time, and there were other questions to ask, so I just shrugged and went on playing jump rope and watching cartoons.
Fast forward a few years. My mom was the only one taking me to Sunday school regularly, and her interest was waning. That was alright with me. By then, I had other interests, including a blossoming fascination with boys.
But when I was 14 or 15, a friend invited me to church camp, and I was pretty excited. Those questions had been brewing in the back of my mind for awhile now, this invitation offered me a fresh venue and audience where I could finally get some answers.
To make a long story short, I got in trouble at church camp.
I don’t remember all of the questions I asked there, but I do remember the straw that broke the camel’s back. We were sitting around a campfire under the tutelage of our camp advisors debating whether or not a baby would go to hell if it died before it was saved.
When my turn came to weigh in, I told them I thought this was a ridiculous question, and that God is basically a jerk if he would send a newborn baby to hell for not being saved, which for a baby, isn’t even an option. Why are we even talking about this?
Well, “we” were not talking about it anymore because I got banished to my cabin for the rest of the night. Much to my delight, I discovered there were a couple of other heathens who had also been banished for their “willful” and “prideful” behavior. We decided to sneak over to check for heathens in the boys’ cabin, and sure enough, there were some there too.
We all got our swimming suits and went for an unauthorized late-night swim in the lake by the light of the moon. It felt so wickedly fun and freeing. Except that I got some tar-like stuff on my brand new swimming suit that my mom could never get out of the fabric. I had really liked that swimsuit, and for years suspected the stain was a punishment from God for my transgressions.
I was not invited back to church camp again. And I decided Christianity was a sacred cow I didn’t need to slaughter. If someone prays, I’ll bow my head and be polite, and then get on with whatever’s next. This questioning thing is not worth it!
Sunday school was a fading memory, but the church experience was not over for me yet.
I had an uncle who had been an alcoholic for years until he found Jesus. Then he became a “born again” holy roller. He could be insufferable at times, but it did seem like a miracle that he never drank another drop of alcohol for the rest of his life.
Anyway, Uncle Roman took up the torch, and he dragged my cousin and me to Sunday service, week after week, with mixed results.
Sometimes we went to a pretty little church where a fire and brimstone preacher passionately shouted at everyone, sometimes walking among the pews, and leaning in. I found him terrifying, not least because he had a fairly large tumor on a stalk hanging out of one of his ears, which would dangle and shake while he was preaching in a booming voice.
The other parishioners didn’t seem to mind. They were pretty enthusiastic and would sporadically shout things like “Hallelujah” and “praise the Lord!” This place didn’t even offer cookies, and most of the time, I was just looking forward to going home.
Other times Uncle Roman would take us to a black church, which was a lot more cheerful, and I liked the music. We didn’t go there very often, unfortunately, but it’s pretty bizarre that he took us there at all because he was racist.
I remember seeing a black man talking on TV one day when I was visiting my cousin, and I moved in closer to hear what he was saying. Uncle Roman was sitting behind me on the sofa, and paused his conversation to ask, “Why are you listening to that n*gger?”
I was taken aback, and after some hesitation, I came up with what I thought was a clever “gotcha” reply. “Uncle Roman! What would Jesus say if he heard you say that?” He puffed up his chest, and a mischievous twinkle passed through his eyes, then he said, “Jesus thinks he’s a n*gger too.”
Wow. Okay. Note to self…never ask Uncle Roman questions about religion. Or anything, really.
I mention this because, at this point, Uncle Roman was the most influential Christian in my life, and that was not very inspiring! The other Christians I knew were not particularly religious. They were not great at answering questions about religion, but they were not unhinged racists, so it was a mixed bag.
Still, I felt pretty short on mentors.
Fast forward a bit, and I’m about to broaden my horizons by attending a university with a sprawling campus and enough students to fill a decent-sized town.
At this point, I still didn’t know a lot about “religion,” which for me was just another word for “Christianity.” That was the only religion that existed in my mind. Other people who had yet to find Jesus may have followed some exotic cults, but I didn’t see them as particularly relevant.
My experience and focus centered on the only three kinds of Christians I knew: Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.
Yes, I’m now aware that Jews are not Christians. But at the time, we knew Jewish families and they were “like us,” so I assumed they were another variety of Christians, like the Catholics. They certainly weren’t completely alien, like the Muslims “over there.”
We had adopted a cat from a Muslim family, and that was my only exposure to them outside of television, which has never offered a very flattering portrayal. We debated whether or not to change the cat’s name and decided since he was an adult, we would not. As a result, we had a cat named “Abdul.”
I didn’t actually meet Muslims until years later and was mostly surprised to discover they didn’t have horns. 🙂
The Philosophy of Religion
The grassy open spaces on campus where people gathered between classes were a decadent feast for me!
We had some quirky hardcore Christian missionaries, preaching against the evils of drinking alcohol and “whore mongering,” and other Christians trying to tone down the message to something more reasonable. We had Jews and atheists and Wiccans…and even some Hari Krishnas chanting and offering us free vegan meals.
I had never seen anything like it. In the classroom, we touched a bit on what my professor called “The Christian Myth,” and I found that really interesting. Myth? What was that supposed to mean?
My professor held some of his office hours in a vegan cafe, where the waitresses had strange piercings and you could order novel dishes like barbecued tofu. I met him there one day, and over green tea and carob brownies, asked him some questions. I have no idea what the questions were, but I definitely remember the pivotal part of his answers!
He told me that I was confusing religion and the philosophy of religion. Not really an earth-shattering revelation to most people, I suppose. But I’d never considered such a thing.
An example would be a case where a Christian uses the Bible as evidence in an argument with an atheist. It doesn’t work because the atheist doesn’t accept the validity of the Bible. The atheist has a different point of departure, NOT in your religion but in the philosophy of religion….further back than you may have ever thought before.
He was talking about religion in the general sense, and the ability to deconstruct and question absolutely everything. Not just the Trinity, for example, but the very idea that God may not exist at all. He introduced me to philosophers past, and let me see for the first time that I was far from alone in having lots of questions!
People had been asking these questions about the nature of God and existence for as long as they had been able to formulate questions, and not just in the Christian context. This was a watershed moment.
Let’s Drink From Every Well
I started greedily gobbling up everything I found remotely interesting. Nothing was off limits. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism….Hermeticism, Wicca…heck, I even read bits of the Satanic Bible. Though certainly didn’t study these things evenly.
I was way more interested in the deconstruction of Christian doctrine since that was my background. And discussions centered on the very existence of God since that is really the root of all this, isn’t it?
I found atheist thought really satisfying, simply because I could ask or say anything! There were no sacred cows too sacred to slaughter. Awesome.
I found a group of like-minded friends, mostly from Christian backgrounds and we spent literally years discussing these matters. We often met at a coffee shop that catered to insomniacs. Over 500 piece puzzles and copious quantities of coffee and tea, we discussed the meaning of life, the universe, and everything….and especially the existence (or non-existence) of God.
Eventually, everyone stopped playing philosophy of religion Tic-Tac-Toe. We knew how to achieve a stalemate, and it was time to make a choice. No one was arguing against this framework, as at least in this, we had come to a consensus.
The Ultimate Question we wanted to answer was this: Does God exist?
Available answers according to our construct were yes, no and maybe. Theism, atheism, and agnosticism, respectively.
We had concluded that theists cannot prove that God exists, but atheists were on equal footing because they could not prove that God does not exist. (Yes, I know some atheists have a bone to pick…but this was OUR model). Only agnostics were left with nothing to prove, having settled more or less on “I don’t know.”
Most of us who originally set out on this journey together had landed on agnosticism. Some waffled, thinking it was more representative of their true belief to identify as atheist, and maybe a few of them eventually did. No one opted for theism, and Christianity, in particular, was definitely out.
To this day one of my friends from back in those days calls atheists “baby agnostics.”
She insists they just haven’t gotten to the final destination yet, which in her mind is agnosticism. Case closed. Needless to say, she was dismayed by my acceptance of Islam a few years later, which she viewed as far, far more problematic than being a “baby agnostic.” I’d simply regressed and slid right off the deep end, though if she still thinks that, she politely refrains from saying so. 🙂
No Truly Satisfying Answer
Now, whether you decide to accept this model or split hairs over exactly who is and is not an atheist or agnostic, the bottom line is that there isn’t really a slam dunk answer here. If there were, we’d expect more of a consensus, right?
We are left with what?
Believe in God, in which case you can chalk existence up to His creation.
Insist there is no God, which makes it a challenge, I think, to explain existence.
Yes, I know of the First Cause argument, which says basically if you MUST believe something “simply existed,” it makes more sense to believe the simpler thing (the universe) simply existed than something more complex (God). But I never found that terribly convincing because the whole idea of God is that He is of a completely different nature from creation, and does not need a cause the way everything in creation does. The idea the universe just existed, or popped into existence….or created itself or whatever…was even less convincing to me than creation.
Agnostics don’t know. So there isn’t a whole lot to say about that. Which may be why you don’t find too many snarky agnostics eternally haggling over such matters. Soft atheists, if we can make room for such a thing, are similar, I think, and should not be lumped with the obnoxious variety so many of us have come to know and flee. 🙂
Why Am I A Weirdo?
Choosing agnosticism felt pretty good. It’s not as if you really have to do or believe anything when you’re Ultimate Answer is “I don’t know.”
I realize some agnostics are going to object to that reductionist description, and I get there is granularity there too, as with atheism, and pretty much every other idea under the sun. But for my purposes, it’s good enough, especially since I’m using it to describe my own beliefs at a certain point in time.
The only problem was there were still some lingering questions.
- What was wrong with the majority of people, who willfully persisted in believing in God (or gods)?
- Why do other people seem to take the religion their parents teach them and run with it?
- Why don’t they seem to even question concepts like the trinity?
- Or ponder the very existence of God?
- Why wasn’t I like them, transitioning smoothly from Sunday School to the Big People’s chapel?
Sometimes I felt like a colorblind person staring at gray blobs where almost everyone else could make out “God” in the interspersed green blobs that I would never perceive. Grrrr.
But later I decided to shrug it off. There was no explaining why people believed what they believed, and anyway, no one really knows. Maybe one murky answer is as good as the next.
With that, I parted ways with those who had anti-theist leanings. The ones who, even to this day, maybe angrily debating the believers, wondering why the heck they don’t sober up already. 🙂
The Problem of Logic
I have to mention a pet peeve now, which is people confusing faulty logic with an unconvincing premise. These are two different things!
If your premise is that God exists, then your logic flows from there, and it may be pristine. The same goes for “God does not exist” as a point of departure.
Consider an example. If my premise is that the earth is flat, it’s logical for me to worry someone might fall off the edge. The problem with “flat earthers” is that their premise is wrong, whether or not their logic flows correctly from there.
Why is this important? Because I like to cut right to the chase. There is no sense haggling over various strands of what flows from the initial premise when you can just agree…or disagree…on the root premise to start with! I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to bridge a gap that can’t be bridged.
Though I do venture such a discussion now and then, I prefer to preach to the choir.
Please Don’t Be Mean
“Hey, hey, hey, hey-now. Don’t be mean; we don’t have to be mean, cuz, remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” ~ Buckaroo Banzai
I don’t see a need to be condescending and insulting to others, the way some people are. We can see there are three basic options, and we’re all stuck with picking one and going from there.
My own background is full of twists and turns, so maybe that’s why I’m not so rigid.
I’ve been a lot of different places along the spectrum, so I don’t feel too alienated from anyone who is trying to figure things out. I don’t see any reason why we can’t debate everything within the context of mutual politeness and respect.
I do try to set that example, though some people really do test my patience. 🙂
Actually, the closure wasn’t closure, but it sure felt like it was.
We were nearing graduation, and I felt content. Our undergraduate days would soon be behind us, and we were off to the next adventure. I didn’t yet realize that “adventure” would mean a boring, soul-sucking job in the confines of a cubicle, bolstered by the agony of a long, frustrating commute.
Nope. I had a wonderful (Catholic-turned-atheist) fiance, and I was going to get married, secure a glamorous job, and live happily ever after. And as an added bonus, we’d settled this God Question once and for all.
I distinctly remember basking in this fantasy, with a congregation of my college friends and my husband-to-be.
We were at a popular German pub, outside on the patio on a perfect evening, filling a long row of picnic tables on both sides. We were sharing pitchers of ice cold beer and snacks, laughing and chirping happily, while the distinctive scent of marijuana wafted faintly through the breeze.
It was awesome. Just one of those rare evenings where the world felt just right. 🙂
Except I would not get to live in that moment forever, and life would not be anything like I imagined. Nor was the God Question actually settled for me, though I’d have surely laughed at anyone who told me otherwise back then.
Or not. 🙂