On a trip to London two months ago I had the pleasure of getting back in touch with a friend I went to high school with in Brisbane, Australia. Linus was the third amigo in a trio consisting of him, me and Sam, who was best friend to both of us. Amongst the memories of a cringe-worthy yelling match on the green outside the music room and gossipy updates on characters we were still in touch with, we swapped tales of our journeys from faith to freethought.
I asked Linus if he would be interested in writing something up and he responded the next day with this beautifully written account of his year long awakening. I have copy and pasted it just as it was written here for your enjoyment.
If you have a story or thoughts to share – anonymously if you like – let me know.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment I lost my faith. There was no “ah-hah” moment, no singularity to bookmark in a calendar. Losing my faith was a gradual, awkward process… much like puberty.
It started with a discomfort about doctrine. Like a pebble in my shoe. How could Jesus have spent most of his ministry preaching about how the kingdom of heaven flies in the face of our conventional structures of power and status and caring for the powerless and the outcasts of society, and yet the church seems to spend most of it’s time preaching about how to gain earthly power and possessions and can’t give a sh*t about the powerless and the outcasts of our society?
After a year or two of this discomfort, in an increasingly politicised church, I went backpacking around the world for a year, solo. Apart from missionary trips and holidays with family, I had never travelled before. It may sound cliche, but travel really did open my eyes to things I had taken for granted.
Firstly, I got to see just how mercurial one’s lot in life truly is. I was “blessed” to have been born in a developed country. I was “blessed” to have been born into a middle-class family, where my father was able to work in a well-paid profession because of the opportunities given to him growing up. I was “blessed” to have grown up in an English-speaking country. But for each of these blessings, I am in the global minority.
What about the child born to illiterate parents in a favela in Rio de Janeiro? Was there something about me that was more deserving than that child? What about the tramp on the streets of Budapest? Or the prostitute in the slums of Kowloon? This idea woke me to the realisation that I had been cocooned in a microcosm of mostly white, middle class privilege. The idea that God wants you to be rich (or “blessed”) in order to be a blessing to others was, at best, an entirely laughable concept to those outside that “christian bubble”. At worst it was an incredibly patronising, imperialist attitude seeing as most of the people God “chooses” to bless happen to be Anglophone, white people who live away from major fault lines and climates conducive to catastrophic weather conditions.
Secondly, I went into this yearlong journey with the idea of “the Church” vs “the World”. “The Church” cared for its own and upheld good, Christian values. “The World” conversely was a dog-eat-dog place, which only valued materialism and self-interest. Of course looking back it was an extremely naive perspective, and of course I never would have phrased it that way then, but it was a deeply rooted belief that had buried itself subconsciously after 9 years of full commitment to the church. There is an idea in the church that Christians are different from other people. To the point where they believe that others can see that difference and will be drawn to it. It’s even part of some “praise and worship” songs; that the light of God will shine through Christians in such a way that people will approach them and ask them what their secret is and so they’ll get a chance to witness for the Lord!
Well, that’s one myth that I can say has been well and truly busted in field testing. Not once did I recognise a fellow Christian in my travels. There was no difference in demeanor that I could spot amongst the crowd. Perhaps there were no other Christians in all the hostels I stayed in for almost a year across 15+ countries? Not that I didn’t see any Christians at all — I saw plenty at church. At least in the English speaking countries, I did try to go to church regularly for the first half of my trip and not once did anyone go out of their way to talk to me. I was travelling the world, alone, the first time I had been away from home for more than a few weeks, and not one Christian invited me to their home, to join their friends, to show me hospitality.
I met a number of good friends in this time, some of which I still keep in contact with today. None of them are Christian. To my knowledge they are all atheists, except for one non-practicing Jewish girl. These people made me feel welcome, invited me into their homes, went out of their way to show me around in their home city. The scary, uncaring world seemed to care a whole lot more than the church.
When I returned home, I felt my equilibrium had shifted. I stopped believing that doubt was the devil speaking to me (such an insidious self-policing mechanism that it would seem apropos for the devil to have invented it). The one thing I had left was what pentecostalism leans on more than any other flavour of Christianity: my personal testimony. The good that religion had done in my family had to be proof that God was real, right? I began examining the problem of suffering (how an ostensibly all-powerful, all-knowing and all-benevolent God could allow such arbitrary suffering to happen across the world) critically, reading what real scholars had to say not just what was approved by the Christian bookstore. I highly recommend Bart D. Ehrman’s, “God’s Problem”, on this topic. It’s Malcom-Gladwell-ian in it’s readability to the layperson, but written by a serious and respected scholar of Biblical texts and church history.
It was sometime around then, while reading around this topic and about the history of the church and the bible itself, that I hit upon two lasting revelations.
All experience is subjective, and no experience, no matter how seemingly supernatural, can directly prove a specific doctrine, let alone an entire theological system. (E.g. A man in a wheelchair being “healed in the name of Jesus” getting up and walking can never prove the virgin birth, the resurrection, or that an embryo has a soul).
If God is real and personal like the church teaches, yet the majority of evidence leads me to believe that he does not exist, or has no interest in us and our planet, I cannot fool God into thinking that I believe in him when I do not.
It was upon reaching this point that I had to be honest with myself: I was no longer a Christian. After a few difficult months, I “came out” as atheist to my family. My mother cried. My father got angry. Hurtful things were said. It was like opening a raw nerve. It came to a point where I had to make a rule – if my parents wanted me to have a relationship with them, we would never talk about religion or religious topics (e.g. abortion, gay marriage, etc.) again. The good news is, things got better with time. It’s been 6 years now and we can now have philosophical discussions that skirt with questions of religion. I’ve become less strident in my atheism, and they’ve mellowed in their Christianity, so I’ve been lucky in that sense. My church friends are a different story, and this one is already dragging on as it is.
The long and short of it is, I broke ties with the church (which was not only my place of worship, but also my entire social network and my employer) and moved countries. I was essentially starting from scratch. I now consider myself an an atheist (still an unhelpful label, I’m also an “avegitarian” and an “aconservative”). I’m a humanist, I do not believe in a personal god, and as far as the supernatural is concerned, I believe that we don’t have all the answers. Science didn’t recognise germs until we had the microscope, and I believe that in time, we may find ways to measure and observe things we previously had no way of knowing were there. Or perhaps not. In the meantime, I feel that superimposing a meta-narrative to explain the unexplainable is fruitless if I can’t truly believe it.
As for the big questions — Why are we here? What’s the purpose of life? Perhaps those are the wrong questions to be asking. The question I’m asking most now is, How do we make life worth living? What is worth living for? I don’t have an answer yet, and may never find a definitive one. But at least I’m free to ask whatever questions I want, and nobody can tell me I’m wrong for asking them.
The time has come to admit to myself that after four gin and tonics and a couple of tequila shots I am not actually the next Beyonce gracing the dance floor. This reality was driven home to me recently when I was sent a video of myself dancing with some friends on a boat party. At first, I was all like, ‘Who’s that annoying girl flicking her hair around and thinking she’s an awesome dancer?’ Then I was all like, ‘I want to die and be reincarnated as a caterpillar.’
It cuts deep, really, but there it is.
Unfortunately, knowing this reality sober and acting on it after a *few* rounds of shots are two different things. What I need are clear boundaries that even vodka-addled brain synapses can process.
Therefore, here are four dance moves I have officially banned from my dance lexicon. This should wipe out at least 50% of the idiot things I do when the ‘you’re-not-as-awesome-as-you-think-you-are filter’ is clogged with Peach Schnapps. I think I’ll keep the other 50%. I have to have something to cut back on in my 30’s.
1. Cross-knee Legged Thingy
Was it Patrick Swayze who did this first? I feel like it was him or the guy who came up with the Staying Alive move. Either way, I’m not sure exactly why I practiced it for hours as a teenager in front of the bedroom mirror. It’s like it had some sort of magic trick property to it, the way the hands swapped from the knees almost without doing anything. It could have been cool, but its a decade too late.
2. Booty Shaking
I have actually had a friend of mine, a black friend of mine no less (it’s okay to be racist when you mean it as a compliment), marvel at the fact that I can shake my booty. Especially when I’m wearing this little white skirt I bought in Greece with the three layers of frill on it. It practically dances itself.
I think the problem is that no-one shakes their booty anymore. Or that I have white skin. Possibly a combination of both.
3.Backwards Bending Shimmies
I can bend backwards. In 6 inch pump heels. It’s something I think people might like to see combined with a shimmy. I don’t know why I think this.
4. Irish Jigs
Don’t act like you’re surprised this is in my dance lexicon.
As if you’ve never heard a song on a packed dance floor in a beach club along the Costa del Sol that sounds ever so slightly like something from Lord Of The Dance and been possessed by Michael Flatly and whatever that red head girls name was. Did you manage a scissor-kick finale in wedge heeeeeels???
Am very much hoping there’s someone else out there who also needs to join the Dance Move Detox…?Read More
I received this tweet this month:
Yes it is hard. Impossible even. Which is why my answer may surprise you.
Let me explain.
Remember when you were an Evangelical Christian – if you were one – and you were at a party (okay, okay, gathering) tucking into a bowl of cheezels and making small talk with a stranger? Remember that moment they casually mentioned that they didn’t believe in God? Remember that sinking feeling in your stomach as you realised that any pretence at a normal friendship was now over? Because if you want to sleep tonight instead of spending hours in guilt-ridden prayer for their soul on the carpet next to your bed, you need to get to work on doing your best to convince them there is a God and that they need to give him their life or they are going to spend eternity in hell.
Remember how that never worked?
It’s hard enough to convince yourself out of eating the last row of an Oreo Cookies and Cream chocolate bar, let alone convincing someone else out of a world view that has provided them meaning and purpose for the past two decades.
This is why talking is futile. On both sides. We cannot be valiantly rescued from our own minds by others. There is no kicking down of mental doors and carrying out into the new reality. It is each human’s responsibility to make their own mind up.
Which is why it is better not to talk but to ask questions instead.
A question – the right question – is the most powerful force for change I know. It’s the first echo, the bubble that rises to the surface suggesting there is something underneath, a vibration through the ground you stand on giving warning to the life altering earthquake on the way. Questions open doors in the mind from the only way they can be opened; the inside. This is because Questions require Answers to come from the inside.
Which is where all answers need to come from. If answers are to do anything more life changing than a fleeting, ‘Oh that’s nice’ or ‘Hmm, that’s different’, they must be formed in our own minds.
There’s three other reasons questions are so powerful.
You likely need to keep your relationship / friendship with this person over a long period of time. That or you would just prefer not to deal with the twangs of awkwardness across the room of a birthday party for the next few hours. One conversation ain’t gonna do nothin’. Your priority here, not just for the agenda of changing someone’s mind, but for the far greater pursuit of enjoying another human being and experiencing the diversity this world offers us, is to keep the dialogue open. That is only done when these conversations are, at their base, respectful.
2) You may learn something.
Read my blog “How To Tell If Your Religion Would Hack Someone To Death and Why I Don’t Call Myself An Atheist”. To my good-hearted twitter friend, can I just say that actually you don’t Know The Truth. No-one does. You have what you believe to be the closest version according to our current way of thinking. That’s admirable because it’s not an ancient version of a sugar daddy but it’s still very far from knowing The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth. This is what I call the Fundamentalist Line and crossing it, in my opinion, is where the world’s problems with religion and belief begin.
3) The other person may reciprocate with questions of their own.
And this is your time to shine!!!! Combined with Point 2, your answers will sound like, ‘I think…’ or ‘When I looked into it, it seemed to me that…’ and then finish with the all powerful Question, ‘Have you ever looked into it? What did you find?’
I imagine the main reason we want to convince other people of our worldview is because we love them. This love makes us care very deeply about the fact that they are living in delusion. It makes us desire greatly that they would also experience the freedom that we have received from our new way of looking at life. It even makes us have awkward conversations with strangers over a bowl of cheezels about their eventual burning for eternity in hell. This is noble and kind and going about it all the wrong way.
There is a greater expression of love than wishing the best for someone. It is wishing their best for themselves. You may not agree with what is their best. For absolute sure they don’t agree with what is your best. So the only way out of this impass is to hope for each others’ best.
Love is the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves without any insistence that they satisfy you.
Oh god, he’s sitting down.
I should have been ruder. I’m attempting to get three hours of writing in before heading to the beach. 50-ish, slightly yellow teeth, blue polo t-shirt with a smear down the front, jowls puffed over prominent teeth and an air of superiority. I answered ‘No, I don’t have one.’ to the request for a lighter. He returned a few seconds later with a compliment and I was about to bury my head in my laptop again when…
…he told me he was a Reiki Master.
My only brush with Rieki was a few years ago. The Pastor of our church interviewed a new convert in front of the whole congregation one evening. She gushed about how wonderful Jesus was and then, almost in the same breath, how he was magnifying her Reiki experiences. She had increased her practice of Reiki as a result of meeting Jesus. You could feel the air leave the auditorium as everyone sat with wide eyes wondering how the Pastor would respond. In a wonderful show of grace, he simply confirmed that Jesus was a great guy who met us where we were at and took us one step at a time further into his truth. Those sorts of responses are just one example of why we all respected Phil so much.
Since then, I’ve been curious. And who better to explain it to me than a Reiki Master himself?
Swirling a half drunk chocolate milk drink he carried over from the other table, he explains that Reiki is simply energy. The energy – called Ki – exists, it is, always has been, and it knows what we need. Usually, we ourselves don’t know what we need but the energy knows. When a Reiki Master lays hands on a person, this energy is transferred and set to work. When we submit to a Reiki treatment, we are simply allowing the energy to work in our body and do the things it needs to do, bringing equilibrium to our lives.
Sounds a lot like how we used to administer the Holy Spirit.
‘Why do you believe in Reiki?’
‘Because I have had experiences that tell me it is true.’
I’m not surprised at his answer. After a long discussion with a believer on the finer points of Christianity’s logic and evidence, it usually arrives at this statement, ‘Well I know it’s true because I’ve experienced it.’
I’ve said that statement myself, having grown up in the highly-experiential world of the Toronto Blessing movement as a child. People literally rolled around on the ground for an hour and fell off their seat because they couldn’t control the laughter God was making them do. My dad carried me out to the car after a church service one evening, my 9 year old body limp and my head rolling backwards as if I’d fainted. I was ‘under the power of the Holy Spirit’ and had been so for the past hour.
What believers don’t realise is that every belief system’s converts have experiences that seem undeniable confirmation of its truth.
‘Give me an example.’
I regret this request almost immediately. He launches into a story about a woman who received the largest orgasm of her life, sitting on a chair in the middle of a spiritual tradeshow, after he simply touched her once on the chest.
‘That’s what happens sometimes with the combination of a Reiki Master and a Tantra practitioner.’
The conversation has suddenly taken an unwelcome sexual turn. Of course, I have my own theories that explain this woman’s orgasm which I will explain in a forthcoming blog post. How would I have explained it years ago? Probably devils. We sort of lucked out if Devil’s are the ones administering orgasms. Could explain a lot actually… 😉
After reading my palm he asks me to bring my knees out from under the table, pinches his thumb and forefinger together and places the tips on the indent of my left knee. Then I need to close my eyes. We sit this way for an awkward few moments. I won’t lie, I peeked a little.
When he senses I’m about ready to move on, he asks The Question.
“Is the energy going up, down or just staying the same?’
I know this question. It’s a trick one. There’s only one correct response for me here and it is neither of the three options he gave.
‘What energy?‘ I ask, opening my eyes and staring him full in the face.
It’s hard to do this. We want to go along with what someone is suggesting. By providing me only three options with which to answer, he was attempting to bring me into a game, into ‘the Magic Circle’, where neither of us question the existence of the energy. We just assume it exists and that I am feeling it. The only thing left to discuss is whether it is going up, down or just staying the same.
Here are some questions from the old life I remember of the same vein…
Surprise, surprise, the reason I don’t feel anything, according to my new friend the Reiki Master, is that I’m not open.
‘Okay, not a problem. Sometimes I just sense that someone is open to it and can sense something very easily. But obviously you’re not one of those.’ he says, leaning back in chair and pursing his fat lips a little.
It’s a trick of belief systems to make someone feel inferior for not ‘playing the game’.
A large reason I put off questioning for real for such a long time was because it was really looked down on. Faith and blind belief was upheld. People would say from the pulpit, ‘I don’t let my head get in the way of God speaking to my heart…’. Then I realised that God, if there was one, had created both organs.
The truth is not afraid of my brain. God is not afraid of my brain.
Lastly, the Reiki Master confirms the scientific validity of Reiki. Just last year, he was called in to teach nurses how to administer Reiki treatments throughout an oncology ward. The cancer patients on that ward recovered so wonderfully better than all the others that they now make it standard practice to teach their nurses how to administer basic Reiki. There have been loads of scientific studies done that prove it exists and works.
This honestly astounds me. How could the world have missed this? Unfortunately I’m out of battery now on my laptop so I can’t google Wikipedia.
When I do, this is the first sentence of the third paragraph.
“The concept of ki underlying Reiki is speculative and there is no scientific evidence that it exists.”
Which I guess doesn’t mean it doesn’t. But it doesn’t mean it does either. Either way, I’m excited about the idea that Pentacostal Pastors and Reiki Masters could hold joint conferences. Their ministry techniques are basically the same.
Maybe the new convert was onto something…