Losing Eternity

in #religion5 years ago (edited)

Hello Steemers. I wanted to share with you one of the most significant transformations I've ever gone through regarding my personal identity. I hope you enjoy it.


From Wikipedia: A comprehensive worldview is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society's knowledge and point of view.

Not something we can easily change, right?

Whether we like to or not, we know each other by the labels we use. Both those we project and those we store as mental representations of others. The combination of all of these labels forms our worldview. These labels influence how we think which then changes how we form new labels and interpret existing ones. We make associations between labels, words, and actions. Surrounding the whole mix are emotions which lack words of their own.

Let me give you an example:

I, Luke Stokes, no longer think the label “Christian” applies to me.

How does that feel? For some, a smile and a chuckle, welcoming another adult out of the world of make-believe. To others, a tragedy of deception from demonic forces with eternal consequences and ultimately damnation. I know people in both of those extreme camps. The largest labels cause the most division. Our religion, our political party, our sex, our physical appearance, our position on controversial moral issues... these can all cause pain and separation. They form neat little boxes our brain quickly references without having to evaluate each person as an ever-changing individual.

Over the last couple of years, I've changed. For a little background, I grew up in a Christian family, served in Christian ministry for 6 years (which required me to raise financial support from others), and worked for a company with a Christian mission statement for almost 4 years after that. Decades of my life are aligned with the label “Christian” from my music, to my friendships, to my presence on Sunday mornings. For many, it would be hard to think of me without thinking about that label (and their various versions of what it means). My hope is for people to see me for who I am and talk to me about ideas as I see them today, not as a set of labels would dictate.

It's been challenging talking about my story. I know what it feels like to remove a label you’ve assigned to someone, especially if important aspects of who they are to you come from that label. These labels often shape our understanding of moral character, trustworthiness, and empathy. Changing them brings a feeling of loss, like a member of the tribe has moved on. The “us” vs. “them” mentality can take over, increasing division and alienation. Conflict arises as questions are raised which other worldviews have already settled and don’t want to revisit. Rehashing tough questions is seen as a waste of time and energy or, worse, a threat to the status quo. I now think those around me are even more confused to think of me under one label while hearing me say things which fit others.

I can't let that stop me. I want to pursue truth [1][2], no matter where it leads.

The problem with this approach, I’m now realizing, is the more I learn, the more I recognize how much I don’t know and how wrong I’ve been in the past. It’s a humbling process. Let me give some examples.

Growing up, my “Christian” homeschool curriculum (I use air quotes there, because I don’t think the books actually accepted Jesus into their heart as Lord and savior) explained how evolution isn’t real. I now think it is real [3][4] and those who claim otherwise have some confirmation bias going on, from my perspective. And yes, abiogenesis is something different from natural selection, please don’t confuse the two. I was taught to believe false things about the nature of reality and some of it was done in very fallacious ways. That really bothers me.

Let’s go with another even more controversial example: abortion. My parents are no longer with us, but if they were, I’d probably be having some amazing conversations with my mom on this topic. We used to have the best discussions. As a child, I can remember her peacefully protesting for the right to life for what she (and most pro-life advocates) consider to be defenseless humans being murdered. I now take a more nuanced approach. If life starts at conception, why don’t we value single cell or simple multicellular life equally in all species with the potential for high levels of consciousness? Have we rationally and philosophically come to our perspectives or were they handed to us by centuries of dogma? Other than our level of consciousness, is a human being fundamentally different than an animal if we both got here through evolution? When it comes to abortion, why do we also ignore the clear evidence of (at a certain point in time) two fully-functioning conscious human beings occupying the same space? It’s somewhat arbitrary to only call it two lives once the birth takes place and the separation is more clearly defined. So we’re left with a complex question we don’t yet have answers to: When does a clump of cells become a conscious human being with its own claims to life and liberty? Why does a clump of cells have more say about human well-being than a fully-functioning human woman whose life (and maybe whose family’s life) would be forever changed (often negatively) if these cells fully develop into an unwanted child?

How about another one: corporal punishment. Is it ever okay to inflict pain on children as a form of punishment? Every church I’ve ever attended says it is. My own understanding of morality and reason say otherwise (along with many who have spent decades studying this stuff [5]).

Are human beings fundamentally evil by nature? Is authority good for humanity or does it bring about our own corruption? Can non-violent communication and the concept of violence being a tragic expression of unmet needs bring about long-term change in the world?

I could go on, but we’ll leave these questions and others like it for future posts.

So where has my search for truth led me so far? Well, let me lead with some questions I’ve been pondering over the last year or two:

  • How much of my belief system was originally determined by the country I was born in? How much of it by the beliefs of my parents?
  • Do I believe thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings, etc—things we can provably demonstrate originate as functions of the physical brain—can and will exist in an afterlife without a physical body as we know it? If so, why? What evidence do I have for that belief beyond my own emotions?
  • What are my thoughts on the God of the Gaps? [7]
  • How much of my belief system is based on an unquestioning view of the Bible without having actively pursued textual criticisms of it?
  • Do I believe a square circle can exist somewhere in the universe? (no) Do I believe consciousness without matter can exist somewhere in the universe (or outside of the universe for that matter), and if I do believe it, why do I believe it? If matter is involved (such as a miraculous Jesus), what of the “super being” argument instead of a deity?
  • What evidence or reason for believing do I have that humans contain a spirit, and do all evolved beings also have a spirit or were we the lucky primates and if so, why?
  • Given the large amount of things I previously thought I was sure about concerning Christian dogma, history, human perception, etc, how can I reliably trust the things I know now without adopting a more skeptical, rigorous, scientific epistemology?
  • What level of evidence should I require to believe things which have no known, provable representation in the physical world?
  • How do I explain the accepted theories of human evolution and the idea that we mastered fire which enabled us to pre-digest our food which led to more neurons which led to the brains and consciousness we now enjoy? [8]
  • How many skeptical views about my beliefs have I deliberately studied and considered?
  • Given the many contradictory (and changing) views on such fundamental religious concepts as the afterlife, how can I put so much assurance in it? Some argue hell is a second death, not eternal at all. Others say the concept of hell was invented later in the religion. And what of heaven? Is it on earth or not? Who are the people outside of the walls?
In short, I've lost my belief in eternity as taught to me in the Bible. As I started working through these questions, I listened to even more audio books, lectures, debates... always reading and learning. Looking at the world through other peoples' worldviews teaches your brain something and fundamentally changes how it responds to new information in the future. Learning about the brain via books like Thinking, Fast and Slow [9] and Predictably Irrational [10] have fundamentally changed my understanding of what it means to experience existence.

The questions above should not be taken as a direct challenge to anyone else. They are part of my own personal journey.

In summary, my mechanisms for separating out opinion from justified belief have changed, and I think the long-term result is beneficial for myself and my family. Pursuing truth means leaving things which appear to be less-than-true behind. It means following the path, no matter where it takes you or what the personal cost might be. I've already lost very meaningful connections by being honest about my thoughts on these issues. Thankfully, I've also started some great dialogues with true friends who may not agree with me but love me just the same.

I don't know where this road will lead me and for once in my life, I have great peace about that. I'm no longer pretending to know things I don't know. For the things I'm passionate about, I'm now way more open to criticism, correction, and alternative perspectives (but you'll certainly get a strong argument out of me). I've embraced love as a truly powerful force which can change the world. I want to be part of that change, and I think it starts by being honest with myself and those around me while removing faulty thinking and dogma. I'm still quite off in many ways because I understand computers more than people, but I am always improving.

Regardless of how my labels change over time and the emotions that may cause for those around me, I will do my best to be true to myself and continue growing. I hope you can accept me for the individual I'll be tomorrow.

Footnotes
[1] WaitButWhy.com - Religion for the non Religious
[2] WaitButWhy.com - How Religion Got in the Way
[3] Stated Clearly
[4] It’s Okay to Be Smart - 12 Days of Evolution
[5] Upworthy - The science of spanking: What happens to spanked kids when they grow up? (infographic)
[6] Bestoked at Blogspot.com (my old blog) - Blogging Is the Mental Projection of Your Digital Self
[7] Ted.com - What is so special about the human brain?
[8] Wikipedia - God of the Gaps
[9] Wikipedia - Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
[10] Wikipedia - Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

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I appreciate your sharing something which is clearly important at the core of your being. For me as a third generation atheist my initial reaction to your declaration was a bit of a shrug. But upon further reading I can see what a deep connection religion has had for you in your life, and how monumental this shift has been. Although I can imagine it could be freeing and feel like the lifting of a burden, I think it would probably also feel like quite a loss. It's not just the loss of a worldwide, like-minded community, but of a part of yourself that's been there since childhood. Not to mention losing the hope that we will all be reunited with our loved ones after death. "Loss of Eternity" indeed.

When I've imagined myself joining a religion (a nearly impossible task at my age, having lived without belief from the start) I've felt the most attracted to Buddhism and Deism, though the latter may be due to my admiration for Thomas Jefferson.

While I am sure I will never be converted to any organized religion and I am glad of it, part of me also envies the sense of comfort and relief it would bring if I could believe someone was watching over us and that 'God' would make everything all right in the end. It's also hard not to want to have the built in community that religion provides. And the idea of losing either of my parents forever is still unthinkable to me.

When I was 6 I had a best friend who was very concerned that I didn't believe in God. She got her mother to invite me to go to church with them and we went to Sunday School at her Presbyterian church. I could see her looking over at me, hoping that I would somehow "get the message" and be part of it. I didn't like it. I remember asking the lady how could Abraham be willing to kill his own son, and whatever she answered I remember a strong sense of disapproval and resistance coming from her, as if she wasn't used to being questioned by children. Later at my friend's house my friend told me to go into the closet for 5 minutes and, "Try really hard to believe in God." When I came out I told her I still didn't believe and she got very upset and asked me to try again. I went back in the closet and decided I would tell her I had changed my mind (even though I hadn't.) I was eaten up by guilt that I lied to my best friend, but it seemed to make her happy.

Thank you for sharing your story and your understanding.

It was a very painful loss and in many ways it's ongoing. Deep and valued friendships are fractured. People I love are hurting, simply because I am no longer the person they once knew, and I no longer see the world as they do. Just this past week, I had a phone conversation with someone who felt I had abandoned them. They were on the verge of tears because the pain was so real and the vulnerability so raw. It hurt to know I caused that pain.

In the beginning, I had many conversations. I shared openly and honestly, I cried together with my wife who still believes. I talked with friends and family. I saw pain, pain I was causing. I started focusing on philosophy and morality. I started building up and explaining my understanding of what is good and right for so many who had only known those things as defined by God. Thankfully, my versions of beauty, goodness, and justice were not so completely foreign to them. Over time, a few have remained in true relationship. They have asked their questions and respected my answers. Others, I'm sad to say, are still defensive and staying clear of the pain.

I don't have answers for them or myself at times as far as how to navigate the relationships. Sometimes I feel it's best to move on, build meaningful relationships elsewhere and spare them from having to make sense of my change. At other times, I want to engage directly and show how dividing ideology and dogma can be. Mostly, I think I walk the line between the two, swinging back and forth. One thing I do know, life is short. Meaningful relationships are all around and community is what we make of it.

Things are much better with time. My wife and I enjoy each other more than ever and we're navigating how to raise our children. I've never been more joyful, happy, or content, though it does pain me to think of some who miss the old me and have yet to understand the new.

Thank you again for your heartfelt and sincere comment.

You're very welcome and I empathize with all of those thing you have described, even if the ways in which being my authentic self have sometimes caused pain are not the same as yours. I am glad that things got better with your wife - that would have been a massive challenge in the beginning, I am sure.

Here's one more story from my family if you don't mind my sharing...

My maternal great grandparents were all devout Mormons and one great-grandfather actually founded the Mormon church in a large city in Arizona and helped to build it. However, by the time my mother was born, her parents no longer believed in the faith. Well, my grandfather stopped believing by age 18, possibly because only he and 2 other siblings out of 11 survived childhood. His childhood was one unremitting tragedy and I think that permanently ruined his faith in a benevolent God. So one of the first things he did after he married my grandmother is work on persuading her not to believe either. He was successful. Unfortunately, my great grandfather had an inordinate influence and control over their lives for as long as he was alive, so they felt they must sent my mother and her siblings to Mormon church every week. But instead of going together as a family, which is truly the entire point and core of the Mormon culture, the family, they would drop my mother and her sister off at the church every week and then pick them up. Through this and many other ways this convey to my mom and her sister that this was something they were doing just to appease their grandfather. So their likelihood of becoming believers was already low. As they got older they would skip out of church and do other things and then come back, so they didn't even hear the sermons or socialize with the other children. No one who knew their family was keeping an eye on them, so they could do as they pleased. The final nail was the fact that when they got home their father would rant about what a bunch of nonsense it all was!

My mother's two younger siblings were born much later and only one of them went to church with any consistency - my aunt. She became the only member of our family who actually believed in the Mormon faith. But even she had terrible doubts. In order to sort of shore up her faith she married a very dominant, very devout Mormon, hoping that would put her back on the right path. Instead, all the other ways that she had been growing as a human being, such as speaking five languages fluently, playing guitar, violin and singing opera at the concert level, and other artistic ventures put her at odds with her husband. He wanted her to devote all of her time to the church and to supporting his rise in the church ranks, and he disapproved of her singing and of her career teaching music to children. They had my two cousins, a girl my age and an older brother. She became more and more withdrawn and depressed. Then she became pregnant again with twins and they were born very premature, weighing only a pound each. The first twin died a month later. Unbeknownst to the family she was suffering from postpartum depression and psychosis. She was driving my little cousin somewhere and suddenly had an overwhelming urge to drive the car into a brick wall - luckily she didn't, but she pulled over and became hysterical. The police came and took them home. Not long afterwards she bought a gun and shot herself and died, leaving my cousin, age 7, without her mother. My uncle remarried within a few months a woman with three kids of her own and they became a deeply religious Mormon family of 8. Years later when my cousin and I were in our late 20s she came out as a lesbian and the response of both the church and fellow Mormons was so negative that she started to have her first doubts about her faith. Her bishop called her in and asked her to renounce her sexuality and told her she might be ex-communicated. I don't know at what point she stopped believing entirely, but she did. She still sees her father and siblings, the surviving twin and her older brother, but when she married her long term partner her father and stepmother did not attend.

Not sure why I am telling you all of this except to share about another family for whom the conflict between belief and non-belief have been highly painful. My cousin is now very happy, has a high powered career that takes her all over the world and has built a wonderful life with her wife.

Wow. This would make for a rather dramatic movie script, but knowing it involves real people and real tragedy pains my heart. This is the side of religion many don't see. What it does to the human psyche.

It's amazing how many people are absolutely convinced their spiritual texts are accurate and their religion is true while at the same time knowing every other one is false. This involves some mental gymnastics which I think impact other areas of life as well leading to irrational behavior.

Thanks for sharing your story.

I like what Ricky Gervais says when people ask why he doesn't believe in God. He says, "Which one? There are 3,000 of them. The only difference between you and me is you don't believe in 2,999 Gods and I don't believe in one more than that."

Good read @lukestokes. Thank you for sharing so openly. Whatever realization you have, as far as you stay open to it and it comes from the heart, it is beneficial for your evolution, your journey. You certainly have good intention and heart! Much love!

Thanks Jan. :)

There is no growth without struggle, you cannot learn without errors. Good luck on your journey!

Well said, @cryptofunk. Thank you!

Awesome post @lukestokes thanks for directing me to it from your comment on my recent ones. Very well thought out. Some of the thoughts and journeys you have taken I have shared. Due to different life experiences I also went some OTHER routes. It seems like the destination we are both converging on is the same.

Simply put. We want to know the TRUTH. We are willing to change our beliefs at any point when we find information that shows where part of our understanding of TRUTH was wrong. Asking questions is never bad. It is a good thing. Encouraging others to ask questions is good, discouraging them from asking questions is bad.

Life and hopefully After-life (don't expect to know it until I die) is an adventure and never having the complete answer is part of the fun.

Oh there is a really INTERESTING documentary you should check out. I think you'll get a kick out of it. It goes back in history quite a ways but it does change a lot on how I view the afterlife. You and I should talk more. :)

It follows where the concept of "the Devil" came from. It is quite interesting.

Thanks! I'll check it out.

I can relate to so much of what you have written. I found your post sincere and compelling. Really enjoyed it, thank you.

Thanks @benjojo! I'm really glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for commenting. Some times you put yourself out there and you never know what people think unless they spend the time to let you know. Much appreciated.

Thanks for sharing. A lot of this resonated with me.

Thanks @bacchist. I'm hopeful we all can have healthy conversations about stuff like religion, politics, and more here. Time will tell.

I greatly respect your honesty and transparency here, especially with the people who knew you before this worldview shift. I wonder how many others go through similar transformations in the way they think but keep it hidden, pretending in public to be the person they know others expect them to be. That would be a terrible way to live and points to the dark and manipulative side of religion denounced by Jesus (according to what's been written about him). I hope at least some of the people from your past have continued to show you respect and not related to you with an “us” vs. “them” mentality.

Thanks so much, Jason. Unfortunately, I think there are a lot more people "faking it" than most true believers realize. Changing a world view and all the labels that go with it is an extremely painful and socially dangerous thing to do. Most people are not in a financial, social, or mental place to put themselves at such risk.

What's funny to me is how often I find people who self-identify as atheists and yet seem to be following aspects of the Kingdom of God as far as how they treat their fellow human beings. While on the other hand, I see many who confidently claim to know things (which they honestly can't know) who are doing the opposite. Almost like a certain parable with sheep and goats, am I right?

Respect, I think, should be earned. For some people, I can imagine how it's cognitively dangerous for them to stay connected with me. I get that, I really do. I stayed quiet for a while as I worked through all this for that reason. I didn't want to hurt people I care about. Where things stand now and in the future? Time will tell. Some relationships have faded. New ones have formed. Others have strengthened.

Very good points. I think hypocrisy is something that everyone battles with at some level. If we're honest, we all have some disparity between what we value and say we believe and how we live. There's a gap between our reputation (who people think we are) and our character (who we really). One thing I find interesting about Steem is how transparent everything seems to be. Like, how I can see the amount of SP anyone has. That's crazy to me. I wonder how much technology has had to do with a growing cultural expectation that people be more authentic. Never really thought of it before from this perspective.

I know I've already commented on this, but I have another question that's come out of our discussion here and I thought this was the best place to ask it.

Was there a point at which you consciously rejected the eye-witness testimonies of Christ's resurrection as presented in the gospels? Did you doubt the historical accuracy of these writings? What shifted in your thinking and worldview before this conscious rejection? What have you decided to believe about why these authors said what they did about Jesus?

Thanks for taking the time to consider these questions. I'm genuinely interested.

Thanks for the questions, Jason.

Was there a point at which you consciously rejected the eye-witness testimonies of Christ's resurrection as presented in the gospels?

Yes.

Did you doubt the historical accuracy of these writings?

Did I have doubt? Yes, as anyone should who reads the accounts given in the gospels. They make claims which go against the laws of physics, so a high level of scrutiny is required, IMO. As to the historical accuracy, I think there is scholarly evidence for the many of the authors and dates which is certainly important for those who believe in the teaching. However, that doesn't excuse the problem of faulty eye-witness testimony. I could send you a certified letter about an alien I just saw, and even though we'd have great evidence for the author of the later and the time it was written, that would not prove the existence of aliens just based on my testimony.

What shifted in your thinking and worldview before this conscious rejection?

I tried to outline all of that in the post here. It started, I think, as I began to think differently and more critically on things such as the nature of money, the nature of government, etc, then religion fell under the same scrutiny and my belief systems needed better epistemological support. I started to see aspects of the Bible and my religion which did not fit my understanding of morality (via the NAP, peaceful parenting, etc). Mostly, I started learning about how the brain works and about psychology to realize much of the beliefs within religion are based on human nature, not necessarily on actual events. The big question which really spun me around (and was hammered home even more having a Pakistani team member as part of my company) was the idea that your place of birth determines your religion more than anything else. If you were born somewhere else, you'd (most likely) be a different religion. Also, monotheists are already 99.99% atheist in that they reject thousands of other gods which many others believe in. Why can they be so sure they are right when the others are using the same psychology to claim to have truth also?

What have you decided to believe about why these authors said what they did about Jesus?

I think it's possible they were deceived or confused, much like many other claims other religions make via eye witness testimony about supernatural events. Is it possible those events did actually take place exactly as claimed? Yes, it certainly is! Would I need more evidence than I currently have to believe it? Currently, yes, I would. Many other aspects of the Bible (the nature of endless suffering in hell, etc) I now think are not even internally consistent with the original translation of the text. I could go into more detail about the problems with how the scriptures were formed or the inconsistencies I see with the morality of the God of the bible over time, etc, but those arguments won't be very useful for someone who believes. I know this, because that was me not too long ago. I had justifications for every argument. As I learned more about the process, I realized what my brain was doing and how well known these psychological processes are. I had to move on in order to be internally consistent.

Coming from a society heavily inclined to "religion", the views in this article is enough to have you bound with chains with the pastor speed dialed while you are bathed with holy water and flogged with a "holy" whip to cast out the "demons" that had suddenly taken over your poor soul.

Hahah. Thankfully I don't live in a country under Sharia Law, or I might have been stoned.

That is even scarier :)

Lol

In Kano Nigeria, a Sharia state; it's amputation after public flogging.

Hey Luke, I recently stumbled on to this post from you after reading the beautiful love letter you wrote your wife. I really appreciate your honesty here and your desire to seek the truth.
It’s interesting though how we sort of had reverse path in terms of faith, as I grew up in a very atheist setting and wanted to have nothing to do with religion. But I came to Christ half way through uni after doing a lot of reading/research around the historicity of the person of Jesus and the resurrection.
I totally respect the journey you’ve been on and by no means do I want to get into a debate about this, but I’m just curious about your view now around both the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection. Would be interested to hear your view on this.

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