Losing my religion

Aug 26

…but not necessarily my beliefs…

“…This is what we call Copernicus’ Principle; that we are nowhere special. But it strikes me that’s every bit as dogmatic as what we thought before Copernicus, before Copernicus they thought we are somewhere special, where Jerusalem or Rome is the centre of the universe. Now we’re saying we’re absolutely not special. Isn’t that every bit as bad?”

“Well, you’re absolutely right, we should never assume anything in our science…”

“…it’s hard to say “never say never”, but it’s hard to imagine how we’re ever going to solve how the universe was created, because even if we do figure out what happened at the Big Bang, then what were the conditions that allowed the Big Bang to happen? Clearly, something had to be existing. There had to be physical laws, and what allowed those to exist? So, it seems to me that there, at some level, is an intractable problem, it’s that you can always take the thing back to whatever created whatever you’ve just figured out.”

“…The standard theory is that some sort of random chemical reaction, maybe in a stagnant pool sometime in the early Earth, a random chemical reaction produced something that was capable of reproducing itself and then evolution kept going. But, as astronomer Fred Hoyle famously said, ‘The odds of a random chemical reaction producing a functioning bacteria is about the same as the odds for a whirlwhind blowing through a junkyard and producing a fully functional Boeing 747.’ It’s actually much worse than that because the number of moving parts on a Boeing 747 is of order of tens of thousands, the number of moving parts in a cell is hundreds of millions. You can actually do the calculation… only about one in 10 to the power 400 [a chance of one in the number which starts with 1 and has 400 zeroes after it] of these arrangements has got any chance of being a viable lifeform… we have 10 to the power 23 stars in the visible universe [‘only’ 1 with 23 zeroes after it]… If the life is this complicated then it’s an incredible fluke to get it going, far more improbable than the number of stars out there. So then there’s no chance for life.”

“Yeah, we don’t exist. Sorry.”

“Ah, and yet we know that here on Earth that almost as soon as life could start, about 3.6 billion years ago, life did start… most biologists would think that there must be some way around this paradox… maybe there was much simpler life forms, we’re not quite sure what.”

Transcript of physicists Paul Francis and Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt discussing the origins of the universe, life, and the possibility of other life in the universe – as retrieved from my wife’s recently-completed astrophysics unit from ANU (ANUx: ANU-ASTRO1x Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe, Brian Schmidt and Paul Francis, edX MOOC, 2014). Please note that I have cherry-picked this, for the bits that are most interesting for my purposes: neither of these scientists states adherence to a religious belief – indeed, in response to the question on whether there’s likely to be other life out there Dr Schmidt states that it’s inevitable, because we exist and “I don’t believe in being special”. He believes the Copernicus Principle is the right view, while Paul Francis (and one wonders if his middle name may not also be ‘Augustine’) says of the inevitability of other life: “I guess I used to think that, but the argument about the complexity of life is a pretty strong one so I’m really not sure about this at all.”

Several people have expressed consternation/exasperation about my apparent bent toward a religious view of life, in light of an ‘otherwise rational’ world view. I’m not alone in such a paradox (you really should read this article; you’ll find it much more enjoyable and informative than this one), but I thought it was time I wrote a post about that. Not least because I’ve been increasingly aware that I’m “losing my religion” and it’s a good way for me to take stock myself. So be prepared for some self-indulgent navel gazing; if that’s not your cuppa, you may not want to read any further.

Ten years ago I would’ve described myself as a Christian. Probably even five years ago, although with some hesitation. Today, well, I’m just completely unsure about what I am anymore, although I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a Christian by the mainstream definition. I see the institutional aspects of “the” church as a human endeavour filled with all the machinations of any such organisation. I see the doctrines of the church for what they are: historically fluid, evolving teachings which are as subject to cultural relativism and political influence as any other tradition, rather than hard-and-fast truths that are written in stone. And that’s not least because I see the Bible as a work of many hands, riddled with errors and revisions, accidental and deliberate, influenced by politics, differing ideologies, and evolving beliefs.

Which is quite a way from where I was 15 years ago. While I think I can avoid labelling myself as a fundamentalist back then – because I think I always tried to keep an open mind and accepted that I didn’t have all the answers – I did hold some pretty hard core fundamentalist beliefs. Thinking about some of the conversations I had with people who queried me about my faith, or even looking at some of the things I wrote back then, can make me cringe now. But at the same time, I don’t think I could ever disown my ‘spirituality’ in its entirety. That may just be because the neurons in my brain have been wired, perhaps through genetics, and certainly for a slab of my life through habit, to think in terms of such spirituality, and I accept that. But in some senses, I’m not sure I’d ever want to rid myself of that way of thinking. For me, that would be a bit like Cypher in The Matrix deciding that he wanted to go back into the matrix so that he didn’t know the steak he was eating wasn’t real. The analogy will of course seem ironic and erroneous to atheist-leaning readers because, from their view, a world view that allows for spirituality is the matrix, the deception that makes the ‘horrible’ reality bearable. But that’s not what it’s about for me – while I acknowledge it probably was in some measure early in my experience – it’s because I think that the prospect of having an entirely naturalistic world view would be limiting the possibilities of what may be, and in my opinion, what likely is.

In the beginning…

My Mum tells me that she started sending me to Sunday school after I started asking her questions about religion that she felt unqualified (as an agnostic) to answer. And she tells me that I stopped going to Sunday school after I came home and declared, “they can’t tell me whether there’s a God or not, so I’m not going anymore.” While I felt very proud of myself when she first told me that, I have no memory of this resolution or declaration, and having had time to reflect on it, and on me, it sounds rather like the false excuses I was inclined to use to cover what was actually troubling me. In a similar vein, I just stopped playing piano – ostensibly because my brother had convinced me that only girls play piano – when actually I completely lacked confidence, was a perfectionist, didn’t enjoy the lessons, had no real concept of the need for practise, and convinced myself that I was crap at it (Mum reassures me I wasn’t, but she’s my Mum). It’s perhaps telling that my only real memories of Sunday school were doing colouring in of pictures of this Jesus guy, about whom everyone else seemed to have some inkling, and about the stories and scenes in which he was involved, and about whom I didn’t know a thing other than his name. So it could easily have been that I just convinced myself that I was crap at Sunday school and quit. Either way, I don’t think I can attribute much of my spirituality to my childhood religious education.

Although, as an aside, I do remember some years later when the religious education teacher at primary school (year 6?) felt the need to declare, quite vehemently, that she enjoyed having sex with her husband, just to convince us that Christians aren’t prudes. I reckon if I wasn’t so stunned by the new sensation of being disturbed by the many different kinds of wrong I was feeling during those brief few sentences where she made her point, I’d have been outraged. Or, perhaps more correctly, I’d have been able to recognise my sense of outrage for what it was. I certainly didn’t need to hear that at that age. But perhaps there were some more sexually-informed/experienced kids in the class who did. Although their faces suggested otherwise – I recall even the most raucous lads being silenced into an epistemologically-dazed submission, as though their mums had just paraded through the classroom in their lingerie collections, twirling sex toys.

But I was a ‘religious’ kid. For what it’s worth, I don’t ever remember not believing in God. But that’s probably not worth much since you wouldn’t remember not believing in God unless you’d made an active decision to be an atheist – just like you don’t remember not believing in the Flying Spaghetti MonsterTM*. I remember ‘praying’ – I used to do something like a chant, where I’d ask “please no bad dreams tonight” over and over, and count the repetitions on my fingers as my hands were pushed together. Forty sticks in my head as the magic number, and from (very vague) memory it took some trial and error before arriving at the trade off that would ensure efficacy without my falling asleep before I hit the target.spaghetti

( * The Flying Spaghetti Monster is an established point of reference for a made-up being equivalent to God, as introduced to me by a family member.) Read about Pastafarianism.

I’m not even sure where I learnt the idea of praying. Actually, it was probably Sunday school. My father had resolved not to push anything onto us and let us find our own way, so I don’t think it came from him. My mum, as I’ve said, classed herself as unqualified to instruct on such matters, so I don’t think it was from her either. So probably Sunday school. Or television. Whatever, it wasn’t simply a one way street: my vain repetitions did, as far as I remember, ward off nightmares – I think I was (like most kids) pretty pragmatic in regard to determining from experience whether the outcomes I wanted could be achieved via a certain route, or whether something was just empty promises, and I wouldn’t have bothered with the effort if it didn’t pay dividends. Something was happening – whether it’s a ‘spiritual’ outcome or a purely self-induced psychological response as a result of ‘self-talk’ is a question I’ll return to again and again.

But when I think of my childhood spirituality, the thing that really endures is a sense of something – an emotion/sensation/assurance/all of the above – which felt at its purest in my dreams. I used to dream that I was a superhero. Or at least that I could fly, and I’d travel around helping people. It was like I had my own superhero TV series in my dreams – each episode was different, but the theme was the same: I’d help people out of a fix and I’d fly off at the end, with all the recipients of my good deeds cheering me from below. Ah, good times. But it wasn’t just me doing the superhero stuff, it was me and God. He was like my secret power, or my fuel. I knew in these dreams that all I had to do was get a run up and jump into the sky, and I’d be off. And just like the dream-feeling of lying on a train track, untied, but unable to move, or the dream-feeling of falling, my dream-feeling of flying was visceral and thoroughly convincing, with the accompanying lurch and acceleration. And the sense of confidence – that I was in partnership, and being watched over, and fueled – was equally convincing.

Interestingly though, apart from those early childhood years, I don’t really remember God ever being at the forefront of my consciousness again until uni years. I guess all the people in my dreams came to learn to live without my interventions. I had many long, late night discussions with one friend in particular during high school, which I’m sure must’ve veered into the spiritual realm many times, but purely as conjecture (and I do remember his absolute classic answer to “why are we here?”, which was: “to feed the cats”). That sense of closeness that I’d felt was long forgotten.


It was in my first year at University that this sense of closeness was remembered again – fittingly, or necessarily, as a result of a dream. In the dream I found myself on a scree-covered cliff edge skating toward a deadly fall into the Huon River, which borders our farm. It was one of those “I recognise what this place is supposed to be but it’s not really like this” dream scenarios. Close to the point of falling over the edge I suddenly had the knowledge that I had to jump. So I jumped off the cliff, reached up, and grabbed hold of a handle – effectively a skyhook. When I looked up, I saw that the handle I’d held was the handle of the yellow buoy that was used to moor my grandfather’s little boat in which Dad had taken us out on a few fishing trips. With a few swings back and forth I was able to build up enough momentum to launch myself back up onto the riverbank to safety.

When I woke up, the thing that really struck and stuck with me was the reappearance of that feeling of partnership, of knowing that if I jumped I’d be fine, and the sense of being cared for, and watched over.

This, of course, didn’t go astray in first year uni. I was desperately unhappy, lonely, and didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I vividly remember sitting on the windowsill of my university college room, looking out at all the lights of Hobart, and weeping for the fact that in all likelihood there was at least one person in each of those pinpoints of light who was as miserable as me. Yes, I had a sense of the dramatic. So, again, whether my subconscious self just dug out this childhood sensation to save me throwing myself off that windowsill, I don’t know.

But that dream also posed a riddle for me. Just of itself. That is, along with the sense of being cared for, I also had the sense that it carried a meaning that I had to solve. And so, I think for the first time in my life, I actually made a concerted effort to understand a dream. I thought about it a lot, and without really understanding why, other than the association of the buoy with those fishing trips with my dad, I came to the conclusion that the dream was telling me that I had to forgive my dad. Which actually surprised me, because until that point, I wouldn’t have said that I’d held any grudge. But through this dream I came to see that I had actually resented his decision to live separately from us for a couple of years in my high school years – even though he was well and truly back by the time I had that dream.

And that was pretty much that for a while. I went back to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (it was my first time living away from home, in a co-ed college with unisex bathrooms and wine supplied every week at formal dinners… oh, and mandatory tutorials regarding which I successfully put an argument to the Principal for their being superfluous; they weren’t – and I knew they weren’t – it was like quitting piano because you think you’re crappy at it and then saying it’s because your brother said only girls play piano… hmmm… is anyone else seeing a pattern here?) – good times, bad times, some times I can’t remember, and some times I wish I couldn’t and hope others don’t. I went from having entrance grades that qualified me for a choice of several degrees to having straight failures for all subjects (with at least one “absent deemed failed” for an exam no-show thrown in for good measure; only girls do exams). Despite an initial resolution to “get my shit together” when after the first year of uni I moved out of the college into a uni rental house to have a crack at doing a better job of it, the trend continued (in fact there’s probably a novel to be written from that second first year; this time 6 guys living under the same roof). And no matter what extremes I went to, I couldn’t exorcise the image of my year 6 religious education teacher enjoying sex.

During that second attempt at first year, I actually submitted an essay. (I did write one in first year – the very first for the year, and I was pretty pleased with it – and then a friend convinced me that it just wasn’t done to hand in a handwritten essay at uni – it was the 1990s after all. She offered to type it up if I dictated. From memory it was an electronic typewriter, and by the time it was done, and I’d raced to uni to hand it in, the office was closed. A day or two later I saw a sign up at the office saying you could hand in your essay late and lose a couple of percent for each day. I didn’t take up the offer. Only girls hand in their essays late). This essay in the second year was in a unit called ‘Concepts of Biology’. The essay was on evolution, and there were (rather generously) 10 questions available to us as options. I chose “the case against evolution”. And I have no real idea why. Perhaps the notion interested me, or maybe I thought it would be a challenge. I certainly wasn’t a 7-day creationist in my second attempt at first year in a Bachelor of Science. I had good marks in life sciences from high school and if anything I was actually rather enamoured with Darwin’s theory, for its wide-ranging explanatory power from such a simple idea. Perhaps it was even another one of my strange attempts at self-sabotage; only girls choose essay questions whose answers they already know.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, my Dad was reading Future Retribution. This work examines the doctrine of hell and its shortcomings, and concludes, based on a number of arguments and an examination of the Hebrew and Greek, that everlasting punishment in the Bible meant death – final, absolute, spiritual death – rather than an everlasting BBQ. It was first published in 1887, so its ideas weren’t new, but they were something of a revelation for my Dad, who’d been raised in the Salvation Army but had parted company with the organisation as an adult.

Then the Jehovah’s Witnesses did their rounds and this time my Mum could actually express a genuine interest in one of their publications, because she’d heard I was writing an essay on the case against evolution, and the JW’s had just the book for that. I think it was at this point that Dad also picked up a book of theirs.

I wrote my essay, and got a mediocre 13½ out of 20. The marker’s comments were along the lines of “The idea of these essays is to have students research a topic and state a case, which you’ve done in an interesting manner.” It read to me like a rather begrudging comment, something akin to “I’d like to fail your ass but you can actually hold an argument even though I disagree with everything you said.” I argued my case by engaging with writers such as (from memory) Gould, Crick, Hoyle and Dawkins, with a dialectic approach. I did read the JW book but it didn’t really inform my arguments, while it did raise a lot of points I hadn’t considered before (e.g. the kinds of arguments that later came to be named irreducible complexity) and it also paved the way for me to allow the possibility that perhaps there genuinely was a case to be made against evolution and, ironically (given just how propaganda-packed JW publications are) gave me the beginnings of a sense of the ideologies around the ‘debate’. So the main thrust of my argument in the essay was not informed by the JW stuff, but the canvas upon which I painted my argument was; a sense of stifled outrage had become the starting point, because through reading the two diametrically opposed world views, I was seeing “evolution” as not just the scientific theory anymore, but the entire juggernaut that came with it. For example, the way that the theory was being rammed down the public’s throat in the media, documentaries, and so forth, and often with apparently little care for the actual details of theory (e.g. the habit of TV presenters to speak of a species adapting to its environment, in an active way – which Darwin did not espouse). In short my reading and reflection left me with the impression that there did seem to be an agenda out there – to replace God with evolution in the public consciousness – even if the public really had no idea about the ‘mechanics’ of it and ended up with a completely misinformed view of evolution as a result; so long as it was not God that had the ideological ascendency, that was ok. I could understand why such a replacement could be seen as an advancement for society, but it seemed to me that there were more open and honest ways of promoting the evolutionary view.

So I examined the various “isms” that compete within the broader evolutionary theory (even the fact of the existence of these competing and conflicting theories within the one broad theory was news to me), their various shortcomings, and finally arrived at Dawkins’ reassurance that we will find those fossils of the intermediary “missing link” animals once we start digging in the right place – which, with my sense of outrage for the masses who were being drip-fed the idea that evolution was no longer just a theory, seemed to be gob-smackingly lame; it struck me as a flimsy reassurance upon which to create, well, enlightenment and modernity.

I should point out a couple of things here. Firstly, the terms “ideology”, “agenda”, and maybe even “propaganda” would have had me reaching for a dictionary back then. I’d studied English literature in years 11 and 12, but that was the extent of my foray into the arts – my ability to think ‘sociologically’ was quite limited (and if I was running universities, I’d make all students study a sociology unit, together with a critical thinking unit). Secondly, genetics was undergoing a revolution at the time – the Human Genome Project had only just begun – and the kinds of genetic evidence for evolution that are available now were (I can only assume) either unavailable or too arcane for undergraduate consumption. Unless only girls did genetics. I certainly didn’t attempt to make a case against evolution on a genetic basis. Without knowing it at the time (because I didn’t know what sociology was), it was probably a far better sociology essay than it was a science essay, and that’s probably exactly what the 13½ out of 20 and accompanying no-comment comment was saying. What I was really arguing for, was that evolution really was just still a theory after all (much to my surprise). I was actually quite shocked by how much uncertainty there was in the field (especially in relation to how life started), and I even felt – having come to love the theory in previous years’ study – like I’d been a bit duped. And I especially felt angry for all the people who would never open a text on the subject and would just trust what they heard and read because they heard it was ‘scientific’, over and over again. The various dinosaur and evolution ‘documentaries’ that came out over later years only needled that irritation further, with their speculative commentaries or over-aggrandising on various aspects of dinosaurs’ long-gone habits that may as well be what meals they had for breakfast on a Wednesday but only if it didn’t rain; as if we had that level of certainty.

The Jovies

The exact details of the chronology here elude me, but the upshot is that Dad and I ended up spending many hours over many weeks sitting on the front veranda and discussing the meaning of life. We’d both been exposed to the JW’s literature now and it was interesting us. I can only speak for my impressions of what was happening with my Dad – that he was hearing new ideas on old themes that he’d grown up with – while I was actually coming across an explanation of Christian doctrines which I hadn’t encountered elsewhere, which was engaging. It’s perhaps an indictment on ‘mainstream’ Christianity that I first really perked up my ears as an adult as a result of the JW’s approach of delivering their message.

In hindsight I recognise the JW stuff as sometimes-carefully-crafted propaganda which covers their tracks on their own ‘interesting’ history, and it didn’t take long for this to register at the time either. They are, of course, essentially a cult, and their message would only hold any appeal to anyone who was receptive to it, and at the time we were: I was interested in seeing what they regarded as the truth, on the back of my recent re-awakening of those old ‘partner-with-God’ feelings. They structured their message as a logical argument (within the limiting bounds of its own ideology), and tackled the beliefs of other denominations with the same methodical approach, demonstrating how they were the ‘one true church’. We were engaged enough that we took them up on their offer of a “Bible study”. A JW Bible study is actually a lot more like methodical indoctrination than an investigation into the scriptures – the Bible is featured only in snippets of verses here and there to ‘prove’ support of the books that you’re actually studying – their own publications.

In their defence, however, I find myself in the interesting position – a couple of decades later – of having to acknowledge that doctrinally they are probably actually pretty much on the money in many respects. Many Christians will hold reservations about the idea that the JW’s represent ‘Christian’ doctrines at all – reservations, or indeed a rejection I came to hold later – but the more reading I do on the early period of Christianity the more I find myself surprised that the JW’s doctrines are actually very closely aligned in a lot of ways to those of the early church – far more than many other denominations – particularly in regard to their Christology and apocalyptic views.

We were at the point where we were wondering whether we were really going to go and join the nutball JWs and knock on doors (much to my Mum’s horror, as she pictured the family splitting up as can happen as result of a new conversion to the JWs) when we started seeing cracks and inconsistencies in the logic (probably much later than we should have, but hey, we were two guys looking for answers, not logicians, and I was prepared to suspend disbelief for a while to see what they had to say). The thing that was the final straw for me personally was one of their publications which quoted Revelation 7:9

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands

…and then went on to declare something along the lines of:

That number is now some 6 [or whatever it was at the time] million people who identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses…

No matter how I attempted to tackle this in our “Bible study”, I couldn’t communicate the apparent paradox they were attempting to maintain: Revelation explicitly stated that no man could number the multitude, but they reckoned they’d done exactly that and were able to put a number on it. I couldn’t get it through to them – they had no problem with it at all.

Of course there are plenty of other contradictions to be found in the annals of Christianity, but while other denominations are more or less resigned to the idea that there are some things that we just can’t understand this side of eternity, this was the denomination that argued that the reason for all the contradictions in the other denominations’ views is because the other forms of Christianity were wrong. This was a glaring problem for me given that this is one of the passages from which they were asserting their claim as the one church that remained faithful to the truth.

My Dad had also come up against a wall in his new-found understanding of the scriptures, vs. the JW’s interpretation. We’d been continuing the late night discussions through these weeks – it was like we were on our own self-appointed mission. We talked for hours on end of a night on the veranda, tossing around ideas and arguments, only coming inside when it was too cold to stay outside. And we agreed now that it was time to part company with the JWs.

Born again

To cut a longer story short, we attended the local church for a while. The actual moment, falling chronologically between the JW episode and the local church, of my ‘conversion’, was in my bedroom. By that time I’d read enough Christian literature to know what I was seeking, I could understand the “salvation plan” of vicarious redemption, and was ready to accept it – I just didn’t know how. It was (cringe) a Billy Graham book that pointed out that if I understood what it was about, and I wanted to accept it, then that’s all I had to do: believe now that with informed belief, that’s all that was required. And I did believe.

There was no overflowing sensation other than my own tearful relief – something akin to having come home after a long journey. There were times later in my experience where I did genuinely feel close to God (for example when in my most disciplined period of study and prayer I awoke in the morning to the sensation of ‘something’ hovering over me, entreating me to get up, kneel, and pray; physically it was something like a ‘buzzing’ sensation above me as I lay in the bed, emotionally it was a strong sense of being nurtured by a presence – which I of course, in the midst of my most religious phase, surmised to be the Holy Spirit). I have also experienced a series of amazing coincidences (at a time when they were very, very much required to avoid a potentially dangerous outcome) which, even in my current “losing my religion” state, I have real trouble viewing as just coincidences. And then there was that initial dream that kicked everything off in the first place – reconnecting with God and feeling like I was being told to forgive my Dad, which in hindsight can be seen as preparing the way for my Dad and I teaming up to (re)investigate what this church stuff was all about. Such experiences as these are, as far as I can tell, far from unusual for people who have made attempts to take their faith seriously and attempt a closer experience of God.

Not long after this initial conversion – a few months perhaps – I was speaking to an ex-on-again-off-again girlfriend I’d hooked up with at uni. I can’t remember who called whom, but she asked what I’d been up to over the summer. Since the whole God thing was about all I’d been doing in my spare time, it was hard to avoid what I thought was going to be a very embarrassing conversation; telling someone who you’d regularly shared a bed with as a hormonal teenager that you just found God isn’t easy. But she pushed the point when I gave a brief gloss, and wanted all the details. “Well, I guess it probably started with this dream I had in first year…” It was a fairly long monologue, and it only stopped when I was approaching the end of it. It stopped because I realised she was crying on the other end of the phone. I’d just converted someone without even trying. It was quite surprising to me because this girl had friends who were ‘serious’ Christians, and who had been for a long time (and who I gathered had been worried about my bad influence on her when we were together), so it was a bit unsettling in some ways – I felt a bit like a “tool”, and not in the sense that I’d expected to at the beginning of the conversation.

So my first answer to those who’ve asked me how I came to be a religious person is really coming from the backdrop of these kinds of experiences; I never saw it as blind faith or a one-way-street where you turned your life upside down in the hope that something would pay off after you died. Nor do the scriptures teach that either: “taste and see that the Lord is good” – it’s also about experience. For anyone who cares to read an articulate and relatively balanced view of the subject, the philosopher William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience contains a host of examples of people who attest to religious experiences, some of which were life changing.

And I have to say that, at my core, I still believe in the ‘power’ of religion. It’s just that I’m no longer sure what that power stems from.

We ended up at the Salvation Army as a result of the appeal of one of their founding doctrines which, of course, they no longer teach; trust me to wind up chasing a no-longer-adhered-to ideal. The doctrine in question is that of ‘sanctification’, a.k.a. ‘the second blessing’, ‘holiness’, and other names. In short, the doctrine holds that sanctification is a second blessing that typically occurs subsequent to and separate from conversion, and is as different an experience from conversion as conversion is from not being converted. It has always been a contentious teaching (probably not least because it’s suggestive of a spiritual class structure and Christians are used to being in the ‘upper’ class), and indeed, having embarked on the process of pointing out to the congregation that we aren’t hearing the same teachings that the Salvation Army used to teach, on a couple of occasions I was personally approached by different members of the community and told that I wouldn’t be allowed to ‘split’ the church, and it was quietly suggested that I should find somewhere else to worship if I wasn’t happy with what I was hearing. At one point the stress of being so misunderstood, and feeling that I was banging my head against a wall, left me in tears. What I couldn’t get my head around was that this was a church whose founders stated up front that the one thing that separated them most – in teaching and in spiritual power – from the other denominations, was exactly that doctrine (which they considered – along with their other doctrines which were basically entirely mainstream – so important that they had an Act of Parliament passed to prevent the doctrines being changed. Later of course the Act was amended to allow the doctrines to be changed). Eventually I did part company, for a number of reasons, as well as just ‘drifting away’.

As to how I actually bought in to the teachings of the Bible in the first place, that’s a trickier, but in some ways simpler matter. In some sense I didn’t – I accepted very early that there were problems with the Bible (even just little things: why would God describe locusts as an animal that ‘goes on all fours’ – I even looked up the Hebrew word to see if God really did number an insect’s legs incorrectly). Some of the problems I assumed I’d be able to reconcile with further study (which was true in some cases), some of them I assumed I wouldn’t understand in this lifetime. I did believe that the Bible was God’s book, somehow. If you’d have asked me, I don’t think I would ever have answered that I believed that it was 100% ‘inspired’, but by the same token I compared versions and went back to Hebrew and Greek dictionaries to see what the “originals” said – activities that suggest that I did actually invest the text with more authority than just some philosophical writings. I never discounted evolution as an explanation for our origins (and found very early in my readings that the word rendered “day” in Genesis – as in the seven days of creation – could equally correctly be translated “period”) but instead held some kind of mingling of the scientific and Genesis narratives as being the likely truth.

But again, when I started studying an Arts degree around a dozen years after my initial conversion, I found it unsettling to hear the lecturer of an English Lit mythology unit speak repeatedly of “the myth of the Fall” – treating Genesis as just another text to be studied along with other mythology. And I found my being unsettled unsettling as well; while I never would’ve said I took the Genesis account as being literal, when I considered abandoning any idea of it being anything other than literature, it became very clear that I had accepted it as being true in some sense.

It does have appeal as a framework with the power to explain some difficult facets of the human condition. My eleven-year old daughter surprised me a couple of days ago by saying, “it seems to me that the thing everyone is most afraid of is death, even though everyone knows we’re going to die.” I don’t think the strangeness of that predicament struck me until my late teens; that death is probably the only thing more certain than birth in a person’s life, and yet we have immense difficulty dealing with the concept. The explanation that can be extracted from the narrative of the Fall is that we can’t cope with the notion of death because we were never supposed to; it’s simply the human brain trying to compute something it wasn’t designed to compute. Even before we’d started looking into the JWs, I’d gotten hold of a Bible in second year uni and started reading it just because I thought I should – I recognised it as a massive black hole in my knowledge. Parts of the Genesis account had a real power even back then: the inexorable, strong, sometimes difficult, sometimes messy bond that ultimately forms between two people in a romantic relationship – and the pain involved in trying to undo it (Peter Gabriel sang of extracting the hooks sunk deep) – is explained with incredibly sparse poetry: the two shall become one flesh. And so on. Even though I didn’t grow up with the Genesis narrative, it had, from my subsequent readings, still worked its way into my consciousness as a touchstone narrative, a framework upon which many of my other beliefs were hung, without my knowing it until I faced abandoning it.

Thinking on this recently, the words written in one of my employment references came back to me. They were something like this: “Marshall, like all gifted people, needs direction…” When I first read the reference it struck me as a two-edged sword. No-one had ever described me as gifted before; that was kind. But needs direction? What was that supposed to mean? More than a decade later I think the referee was exactly right. I find nothing more frustrating than walking into a situation where I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing and, more to the point, where no-one can tell me. In that kind of situation I’ll look around and see what needs to be done and set about doing it, but it won’t stop me being frustrated at the lack of direction. But, more than that, I do – or at least did – need direction on a grander scale. I think a large part of the appeal of Christianity was that it’s a grand narrative in which I could position my own existence. As a young man in my late teens I was certainly suffering from a lack of a sense of purpose – although I don’t think I’d ever have described it that way – and it was an anchor. And once I found a direction I took to it with gusto; I attended church, Bible studies, prayer meetings, helped out with youth groups, later taught “Christianity Explained” classes to people attending drug and alcohol rehab classes, and ad-hoc stuff like writing letters to a prisoner (I never knew what he was in for) to give him regular contact to the outside world, put my employment on the line in taking a stand for my principles, and very seriously considered becoming an Officer in the Salvation Army – that church’s equivalent of a minister.

Having more recently been drifting from that ‘anchor’ experience, I do indeed feel rather adrift again. Talking about it with a friend recently, he commented that perhaps one day science will discover the gene that makes some people need to believe that there’s “something more”. I reckon that’s probably a safe bet, or perhaps more likely, that there will be a combination of factors that do predispose people to a more religious outlook. But I don’t think we should view all religious people pitifully as weak self-deceivers; I think in some measure we all operate within a framework which allows us to understand our experiences to a point; a framework which has strengths and weaknesses – whether it’s religious or naturalistic. What I do think is unproductive is an overly reductionist framework – again, whether it’s religious or scientific. The problem I have with ‘hard’ atheism (which is certainly not all atheism) is the almost(?) religious rejection of any possibility of there being “something more”. Equally, my problem with religion now is that while I think there may very well be “something more”, the idea that we can define it or access it with any accuracy is a bit of a joke.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I wanted to outline some of the things that precipitated my questioning of my faith. “Precipitated” is probably a bit strong – it suggests a sudden event, whereas in the same way as my coming to be a Christian happened over a year or two of changing directions and opinions (while ‘officially’ it happened while I was on my knees in my bedroom), becoming adrift has happened over an even longer time. Which I guess is to be expected – I didn’t really identify as anything before being a Christian, so to unravel myself from that mindset – having delved deeply into it – was working against more momentum. Also, I should point out that my beliefs were probably never really static even as a Christian, so in some senses my ‘unconversion’ probably had its roots in my deliberations about my beliefs as a Christian.

Dude looks like a lady???

The first thing was probably the fact that in the late 90’s (before it was a cliché, I like to tell myself) I got sucked into a non-existent online romance. After many “chat room” (anyone else remember them??) sessions, the first time I spoke to her on the phone, alarm bells rang on a number of fronts. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt. And continued to. Around a year later, when she told me she wasn’t coming on the flights she’d supposedly booked from the UK to Tasmania, it really knocked me around. And yet I was almost ready to give her the benefit of the doubt again, thinking “but what if she really is genuine?” – but finally put my foot down and admitted that I owed it to myself to at least get some assurances. I asked for a copy of the tickets and a birth certificate. The birth certificate came in the post and it had obviously been tampered with on the crucial details – name and age (no, not really gender, unless he was also really good at faking a woman’s voice over the phone).

Apart from making me feel like I’d been punched in the stomach half a dozen times, this made me take stock of just how capable of self-delusion I was. To be fair, it also pushed me too far the other way – at times, subsequent relationships suffered from an almost paranoid suspicion, which upon reflection I recognised as being almost entirely because of that experience of having been fooled – or rather, having been a fool. I don’t think this rattled my faith in any real way, but it did open my mind to new possibilities – and the fact that the possibilities could indeed be realised.

Out of the fire into…

Then there was the impact of not attending church. Any evangelical Christians reading this might say, “aaah, that’s always the first step toward losing faith”. The analogy that was given to me is that if you take a red hot coal out of the fire and sit it on the hearth, it soon loses its heat and turns black, while the other coals remain red hot. And that’s an accurate analogy of course, but while Christians may interpret the analogy as something spiritual (e.g. the heat is the equivalent of the Spirit of God in His Church or something like that), cults operate on a principle of isolation from external influence to foster a self-perpetuating co-indoctrination of their members; that is, not attending church is probably the first step toward losing faith because you get to think about your beliefs more. For me, it wasn’t even the first step. The first step was accepting that church didn’t appeal to me anymore. I was running through the motions. I felt distinctly uncomfortable and out of place in some congregations. At times I found myself wondering whether God did actually have an “ideal” type of Christian – the number of times I encountered people who tended to represent the stereotype of a Christian so often mercilessly lampooned made it an unavoidable question, and I even wondered if my own character was somehow faulty. Thankfully there were enough people who were obviously devoted believers who also maintained an individuality such that I could eventually dismiss the question. But having studied sociology some years later, I am now quite fascinated by the sociological aspects of religion (although it’s not like such fascination doesn’t extend to secular constructs as well… it’s been equally interesting to be a soccer parent, a hockey parent, and a swimming squad parent, and experiencing the different lingos, expectations, and cultural aspects of the different sports).

No doubt the lack of weekly reinforcement did contribute to my move away from religion, although not as much as you might expect. I described myself as a Christian for many years after I stopped attending Church, and my core beliefs didn’t change. My core beliefs really only started to change when I started to read more widely. I think my faith was always an ‘intellectual’ faith – in that I thought very carefully about the position I held on doctrines (and I had a Dictionary of Theology from the very early days, which examined competing views, so I was always aware that there wasn’t just one belief about any particular aspect of Christianity) – but, at base, the one thing I guess I never really questioned – other than in random moments of “what’s the meaning of it all?” speculative hypotheticals – was whether the whole Christianity movement could’ve been an artificial construct. Even that’s not really true – because I did… I toyed with the idea of what if Jesus just died, and wasn’t resurrected, and tried to reconcile that to the world today in which even Richard Dawkins acknowledges that it’s impossible to understand English literature without an understanding of the Bible; how can we explain that influence, if Jesus just died? So I did consider the possibilities. But I think at base I had a religion-inclined world view, so these considerations were really more like thought games than genuinely open-minded examinations (while being far more open-minded than many Christians I’d encountered).

The biggest impact of moving away from church was probably on that sense of communion, and in this sense the evangelical Christian may very well be right about taking the coal out of the fire. As I’ve said, my faith was always experienced-based to some degree, so to have that cut out certainly weakens the overall sense of give-and-take. But in fact, marrying and starting a family probably had far more impact on interrupting my ‘communion’ with God than stopping Church; as a single guy in my most intense times, I’d rise at 5:30am, pray for half an hour, read the bible for an hour or so, then have breakfast before going to work from 8am to 4:30pm (and work, at that time, was full time farm hand work, where there were plenty of mind-numbing jobs, so I’d end up thinking about what I’d just read most of the day as well), come home, shower, pray, study (Bible or Bible study texts), have tea, listen to/play/sing hymns, study more, until about 9:30pm, and go to bed. During those times, actually going to Church was kinda like a holiday for me, and it’s a routine you certainly couldn’t adhere to if you wanted any kind of social life, marriage, and certainly not baby twins (and no, I’m not blaming my family in any way here; this intensity had waned well before I was married).

Schmunifarcity v2.0

The next big hit was probably embarking on the Arts degree – studying history, sociology, and literature put a different slant on my reading of the Bible and opened new understandings of our social endeavours. Reading The Epic of Gilgamesh was an eye-opener – seeing details of the Genesis flood narrative more or less reproduced, but pre-dating Genesis by hundreds and hundreds of years. Instantly I was thinking in terms of whether this represented independent corroboration of Genesis, or whether Moses would’ve been exposed to the Sumerian texts as part of his Egyptian education and basically ripped them off. It wasn’t something I had time to investigate in the middle of a literature unit, so I shelved the thoughts. I learnt a couple of years later that Moses may not have existed at all (something that had not even occurred to me, so strong is the tradition around his deeds and writings), let alone not written the books of the Bible commonly attributed to him. Interestingly, I’d been guilty of a kind of Hebrew-bias; for some reason I’d assumed that if there’d been any dodgy stuff going on with making stuff up in the Bible, it’d be in the New Testament, not the Old.

Gratitude challenge

Another thing that set me thinking was a bad car accident around a decade ago. Everyone, when recalling that accident, has their own “what if?” angle. While I was at work, my wife was driving our two-year-old twins to an appointment when she hit an oil patch and slid into a concrete dividing barrier (the type that is shaped as though it’s designed to make cars lift up and roll over – apparently they’ve been banned in some Scandinavian countries). The car rolled two or three times. My brother, a panelbeater (a.k.a. car body repairer) at the time, saw the car being trucked through the city after the accident and felt physically ill; he couldn’t imagine how at least one of the occupants wasn’t dead. The ambulance officers found some of our daughter’s scalp on the bitumen – the car was so squashed up that, despite being fully restrained in a child seat, her head had managed to strike the bitumen, through her broken window, with enough force to take a chip off her skull. And yet she had no hint of brain damage (indeed, she would be able to read this post at probably twice the speed I can). So when she opened her eyes in the hospital bed after having her scalp stitched back up, and announced in a sleepy voice, “I’m a big girl now”, apart from feeling like I was standing in an episode of ER, I felt like something pretty amazing had just happened. My biggest “what if?” angle was always what if it was a few millimetres more into the skull…

Unbeknownst to my wife, her mother happened to be driving the same stretch of road (an arterial route to and from the city from our rural homes – not a back route, but not a trip any of us did on a daily basis either) – in time for her to see the accident, pull over, assist, and accompany our intensely shy and anxious (at the best of times) son in one ambulance while my wife travelled with our daughter in another. If my mother-in-law hadn’t have been there, he would’ve been alone in an ambulance for a 25km trip, having been left by his mother and sister with the image of both their faces covered in blood, freaking out off the scale. Rather fortunate, and that’s always the “what if?” that my mother-in-law thinks of.

When I went into the car wrecking yard to see what measly sum I would get for my battered vehicle, I took the opportunity to look it over. The cargo barrier we’d had installed (the vehicle was a wagon) shortly after buying the car seemed to have given the kids a bit more protection – it had stopped the roof caving right down at the back. But the driver’s seat had me stumped: the roof was squashed into the headrest of my wife’s seat. And I knew that the top of her head sat well above the top of the headrest. I talked to her about what had happened, and it turned out that once the car was rolling and she knew she couldn’t do anything about it, she had twisted around into the gap between the driver’s and front passenger’s seat so she could make eye contact with the kids (who were screaming) to reassure them. I’m convinced that if she hadn’t, she’d either be dead or have had serious head trauma, with the roof squashing her head even more than it had the headrest. So, again, an amazing escape, and another “what if?”

But then I started looking at the other side of the ledger. My wife did have serious head trauma – just a different form – she was unable to drive with any confidence for a long time, and to this day she’s not the same person on the road as she was then. She described the experience from her point of view and it was horrific. She could see our daughter’s skull, and actually assumed the bloodied, battered white-red mess was her brain. The shock literally drained the colour from her vision – the trees at the roadside were in shades of grey.

When I took my son home from the hospital that afternoon (our daughter stayed a few nights with my wife), he freaked out as soon as I started the car. He was clearly seriously mentally traumatised, and I had to talk him through the trip – every corner elicited a little terrified cry, despite travelling at a crawl. The sight of his sister bleeding still freaks him out, to this day. For years, rain on his head freaked him out – it was a drizzly day when the accident happened, and he also made a connection between the shattering glass and rain falling – we pieced together from his accounts that he’d assumed the glass falling all around him was something like a waterfall of heavy rain.

And we learnt later that there’d already been three accidents on that piece of road that morning. So, despite being very grateful for all the “what if” scenarios that could’ve been so very, very much worse, I did think about things like what if the police had closed that lane while they cleaned up the oil? Or what if the truck that was in the safe lane had been 100m further on, or further back, so that my wife wasn’t overtaking in the oily lane at that point – one little thing like that would’ve made a whole host of other “what ifs” unnecessary, and saved a heap of real, lasting trauma.

The bizarre thing, surely, is that even as I write this, I feel like I’m being ungrateful. Sure, I am grateful that it wasn’t worse, but isn’t that fact – that we find things to be grateful for in the midst of terrible experiences – pretty much displaying a somewhat irrational bias? Maybe it’s a self-defence mechanism; maybe we’d all go stark raving mad if we had a genuinely balanced view of just how shite existence is (and I mean everyone’s existence, not just our own, statistically unusual privileged existence). Either way, it was niggling at me that this tendency to see the good in any situation – and to be thankful for it – when coupled with a religious outlook, tends to get God off the hook for pretty much anything. If I’m expected to be grateful to God, then surely I can also suggest that His operation could be tweaked a bit – there are much more effective ways of protecting people, if that’s really what we’re going to put the happy “what ifs” down to.

Book learnin’

A few years later I embarked on reading a history of Christianity. It was written by someone fairly eminent in the mainstream church (Anglican?), and despite the rather ambitious nature of cramming 2000 years into a reasonably compact work, and despite the likely bias of such an author, I was fairly shocked to learn just how much of the episodes of early church history were surprisingly like plots lifted from Shakespeare’s political intrigues.

I also read an investigation into the ‘Arian controversy’ by a Jewish journalist (I think that was his profession) – he was fascinated with the disputes around the formation of the doctrine that we refer to today as the trinity, and devoted a book to the summary of the details of the doctrine moving into and out of the realms of orthodoxy and heresy, and again the politics were (at that time) surprising to me.

More recently – over the last couple of years – I’ve been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s books, starting with Misquoting Jesus (along with F. F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: are they reliable? for a bit of apologist-supplied balance). As I’ve been questioning what I believe, the words of C.S.Lewis came to mind. He noted that if some guy appeared in history, claimed to be God, and the world changed as a result, it should surely be an important question in one’s life to determine who the guy was. Well, on the whole I’ve found Ehrman’s arguments to be convincing, which leaves someone who had unwittingly based their world view in the basic reliability of the scriptures, rather adrift indeed; Ehrman loves the Bible, and values it as a source from which to reconstruct a historical picture of the times in question, but ultimately that historical picture doesn’t look much like the traditions that are currently held by the mainstream church, and any notion of reliability of the scriptures has to be abandoned for the lay-reader (Ehrman argues that we can have a pretty good idea what parts of the New Testament are ‘original’ – except that we don’t have any real originals – and what parts are much later additions – but by ‘we’ he’s talking about people with degrees in relevant disciplines). It’s also worth noting that Ehrman started his religious career as someone who thought Billy Graham was too liberal – he’s not coming from a background informed by rabid atheism. In short, among other things, Ehrman makes a pretty good case from the scriptures and from other contemporary writings, that Jesus most likely never made the claim to be God, so Lewis’ compelling question of whether he was a madman or not, pretty much becomes moot along with many other such questions. I don’t think I’d ever abandon a world view on the basis of one or two problems from reconstructed evidence, but it’s not one or two problems. The picture Ehrman fairly carefully constructs is one of an entire artifice whose foundations are thoroughly undermined.

Where to now?

A non-Christian reading Ehrman’s work would have to wonder how any intelligent person today could adhere to a mainstream Christian view of the Bible. The answer, for myself at least, is probably that I didn’t treat the traditions with absolute paranoia, but rather assumed that if there were any really big issues with the reliability of the Gospels, for example, they’d have been more openly discussed (by people professing to be concerned about truth). Ehrman comments that many people who train to be ministers are fully aware of the kinds of problems with the scriptures that he elucidates, but once they go out into a congregation they decide not to tell their congregation because the people are ‘not ready for it’. Come to think of it, I’ve heard similar sayings myself regarding discussion of contentious ideas in the church, e.g. “you don’t kick out people’s crutches”. I’ve also been stunned by the lack of insight displayed by some participants in some Bible studies – I have no doubt that there are people sitting in congregations purely because their parents were there, and that if their parents hadn’t been in the church, they wouldn’t be either. But I also believe that if every Christian on the planet attended a lecture series covering these kinds of issues, there would still be some people in the pews. The ‘shape’ of Orthodox Christianity would probably change significantly, but people would still believe that there’s something else out there.

Possibly because they’re genetically programmed that way. Possibly because they’re so bound up in that world view that they can’t operate in any other. Or – and this is one possibility that I can’t see myself ever abandoning – possibly because there is something else out there, and they believe they’ve had an experience of it.

The naturalistic view is to me fundamentally lacking in humility. It makes our 5 senses the ultimate judge of reality (it doesn’t really – because, for example, we already know that bees can see ultraviolet patterns on flowers that we can’t see – but my thrust is that in the naturalist’s view it’s ultimately what we know or ‘prove’ as true that counts as truth). It’s perhaps the naturalistic counterpart to the overly anthropomorphic slant of the Christians’ “humans at the centre of the universe” view of the world. Naturalists may argue that on the contrary, they’re being entirely objective rather than allowing subjectivity to affect empirical evidence, but I’d say the impossibility of genuine objectivity has been well argued in multiple disciplines and is a facet of the post-modern world view, for good reason.

For me, this sentiment – that we need to allow a space for something else – exists independently of the problems it may be used to explain. That is, it’s not just “God-of-the-gaps” wherein I believe there may be phenomena that we can’t explain with our current knowledge (because it has gaps) and therefore we need to appeal to “something else”. There are indeed still those things for me, which I might explain with a God-of-the-gaps argument, but even if I couldn’t think of anything that our understanding can’t grapple with now – that is, even if I felt a naturalistic view explains everything we know or can conceive of – I would still allow for the possibility that there may be something we don’t know of that science can’t explain and could never explain, and which only “something else” can (or indeed still can’t, because the concept of an ‘explanation’ could be rendered meaningless in the face of the ‘something’) – and that the thing that science can’t explain may even be the ‘something else’ itself. Not allowing for something else, just because we have no need to, strikes me as a very narrow world view, as narrow on one level as a fundamentalist world view.

So, the belief of mine that has crumbled is that the “something else” takes the form of God as collaged in the Bible, rather than the belief that “something else” exists. And it may be that it’s only crumbled on an intellectual level, if not yet on a self-indoctrinated ‘instinctual’ level. At times I’m almost able to endorse, and feel pulled toward, the basic naturalistic world view, while at other times I’m struck, with a sense of clarity, that there simply must be something else.

As for which way I lean, I think it largely depends on the context of what I’m thinking about. If we’re working in spaces in which we have some access to the realities – e.g. grappling with the reliability or otherwise of the scriptures, which is a question we can investigate with our own tools and is about something we as humans have created – we can reasonably have some confidence in our ability to solve a problem and it’s fairly easy to pull apart the believer’s world view. But when we’re working with spaces to which we have limited access – e.g. the consideration that we’re part of a system that has a linear timeline and we’re stuck trying to theorise about what “happened” before time began, or why the world is even one in which we can raise and discuss such questions in a way that we can be understood (in some degree at least), or one that has such a thing as gravity – then I find that allowing for the necessity of horizons of which we’ve not yet conceived seems the more wise option. Indeed, the fact that any account of the origin of the universe leaves us with the question of “but what was before that?” should give us pause. Understanding origins and causes and effects is a very human trait, bound up in the very fabric of our language from the narrative structures we experience from childhood and onwards. While we’re getting reasonably good at understanding limited cross-sections of our universe (and by way of justification, I mean to say that while I’m writing this on a computer, over an internet – amazing accomplishments – we are also staring down the barrel of our own global self-destruction, which has really only been a real possibility thanks to the Enlightenment; our wisdom has very real limits) – ultimately the question of our origins (and indeed, God’s origins) – in the sense of what happened before the universe started – will always put us back into our box. There’s plenty more to learn about our world right now, without looking at such far removed questions, certainly. But to hold that, or behave as though, the fact that we are unable to explain something so fundamental without getting into nonsense-land means that we are safe to ignore it, seems absurd, and very strange indeed.

I have no doubt that religion has a power to change people – I have experienced it myself. Where that power comes from is of course up for debate, and I’m not convinced that our current mindset regarding the options for the possibilities of “where” are adequate. Elsewhere I’ve quoted one of William James’ reflections on the necessity of including altered states of consciousness in any appraisal of what “reality” may be, and it strikes me that we in the West have a rather closed mind with respect to what’s ‘real’. Ehrman, in constructing his account of what may have given rise to Christianity after the crucifixion (he argues that virtually all scholars in the field believes that Jesus did at least exist, teach, and be crucified), did some reading on hallucinations, and notes that the most extensive study undertaken demonstrated that 13% of the population report having experienced hallucinations. Hallucinations are typically defined in a clinical setting as a perception which lacks ‘appropriate’ stimulus or ‘external’ stimulus of the relevant sensory organ. To my mind, the notion that there is an ‘appropriate’ or ‘relevant’ stimulus is inherently narrow. I would suggest that if 13% of the population experiences something without the ‘normal’ external stimulus, it could be argued that the ‘normal’ stimulus should no longer be considered the only relevant and appropriate one. In doing some reading on synaesthesia and hallucinations I’ve learnt that thinking along these lines may not be so wacko: one paper speaks of the absence of an “appropriate” stimulus and notes, “Of course, we use the term appropriate in a statistical sense only (the appropriate stimulus is what the majority of people consider a plausible inducer of the perceptual experience in question).” Ehrman (who does not examine the kinds of questions I’m raising here – he’s just looking at the facts in respect to what happened after the crucifixion) goes on to comment that the research shows that people in bereavement are known to be particularly prone to hallucinations. I wondered just how prone, and found one paper that states that “In the context of grief after the death of a spouse, one-third to one-half of bereaved spouses report hallucinations of the deceased.” Compare that to an overview for differential diagnosis of hallucinations which lists the common causes of hallucinations: psychosis; delerium; dementia; Charles Bonnet syndrome; Anton’s syndrome; seizures; migraines; peduncular hallucinosis; sleep disturbances; drug effects; tumors; inborn errors of metabolism, and; Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Bereavement doesn’t get a look-in, even though the article begins with “Have you ever encountered a patient who reported isolated visual hallucinations but did not have any other symptoms of delirium or psychosis? …If you have, then the following questions and answers should serve to frame the differential diagnosis of visual hallucinations and to explore the available options for diagnostic testing and treatment.” So, despite up to 50% of bereaved spouses experiencing hallucinations, bereavement doesn’t feature in a list of causes to consider for a differential diagnosis of people who report isolated hallucinations but appear otherwise well. I suspect that may be because this would tend to normalise, rather than pathologise, hallucination. Again, we could suggest that bereavement itself is actually an entirely relevant and appropriate stimulus which elicits vision. But even so, the argument usually goes, even if an hallucination does arise from something we more ‘generously’ deem as appropriate, it’s still an hallucination – seeing something that is not really there. Again though, I wonder where do such visions sit in respect to ‘reality’, in a world in which hard and fast realities are already prone to subjectivities: in which, for example, three people can argue about whether an object is blue, or aqua, or green. How different is it to argue about whether the object is there at all? I don’t know.

Similarly, take a hypothetical: what if synaesthesia affected 80% of a certain population? That population might investigate the minority condition whereby affected people can’t smell the colour blue (clearly an aberration from the majority, but not one they necessarily want to discuss in terms of pathology just yet), and reasonably conclude that people suffering from this condition have a deficiency in the way the brain processes the olfactory stimulus of colour as passed from the retina. And while we attempt to label ‘conditions’ such as synaesthesia, just where are the boundaries? As my eleven-year old son pointed out, sometimes you think someone’s name suits them, or not (“You don’t look like a Dennis!”) – I thought that was a fantastic insight, and perhaps suggestive that like many ‘conditions’, synaesthesia-ish tendencies may actually exist on a spectrum in some way, and a spectrum on which we might all have a place.

So, not only do we have no idea about our ultimate origins, even within the sphere of our own immediate experience we have a largely reductionist approach to understanding reality, one that attempts to label and organise things, which also seems, to my mind, to suffer from a narrowness. And we already know there are stimuli in the world that we can’t access (high and low pitch sound – even the classification of high and low frequency is narrowly anthropomorphic – ultraviolet light, ‘odourless’ chemicals, and so on), so it doesn’t strike me as a stretch to think there may be a ‘spiritual’ realm to which we don’t typically have ready access. And it could even be just a name: the things we consider “spiritual” now might prove to be just physical stuff to which we don’t have access right now – so that, effectively, the naturalistic view is ultimately right, but probably not in a way most naturalists would expect at present.

In short, I think the Copernican Principle is quite likely correct, but I also think that naturalism has actually tended to be a pre-Copernican view in a new frock: if we don’t know about something, we’re inclined to think it doesn’t exist.

On the other hand, I’m also very aware of the risk of an open mind – that if it’s too open it’ll be filled full of junk.

So, where do I stand now? Well, I’m still unraveling my thoughts. And my feelings. And my habits. I’m still finding myself uttering a ‘prayer’ at times, and then catch myself, and have to ask who it is I’m actually talking to. I think it would take a good deal of time, or something like cognitive behavioural therapy to get me out of those habits – thanking God for a stunning view, asking for help, and so on. But I’m not sure I want to, altogether. I think it’s most likely that Jesus was an itinerant preacher who was crucified because he claimed that he was going to be the next king of the Jews, and that the picture we have of Jesus now was one that evolved in the first centuries of the church, as Ehrman pretty convincingly argues. It doesn’t fuss me – and never really did, except that I did buy into the Genesis account in some way – whether the first spark of life was from a lightning bolt in a primordial puddle or the ‘finger or God’. But, with respect to real beginnings – the universe and before – ultimately the notion of an eternal God is more satisfying to me – intellectually(?) as well as emotionally – than the notion that something inert has just always been and somehow came to give rise to the universe. And as to the possibility that the “unseen things” might become seen at different points in history, I maintain an open mind, because of the things I’ve experienced myself, and also the experiences related to me of ‘otherwise perfectly rational’ people I know.

Then there are the kind of coincidences where tens of thousands (reports varied from 30 – 100 thousand) of people flocked to a site where a miracle had been predicted to happen, and reportedly saw the sun doing weird shite. Including, apparently, atheist news reporters. The explanations today range from “of course if you make a hard journey to see something and then stare at the sun your eyes are going to do weird shit”, to “mass hallucination” (yep, that’d be a mass one, alright) through to physicists endeavoring to explain what was seen.

That Christianity is “the” religion is not a powerful argument for me (and never really was – I always thought it was likely that there were inspired truths in other religions), and I certainly could never say, now, that I believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”. But I do believe that religious disciplines have the power to unlock something in the range of human capability/experience. Whether this is, ultimately, something akin to the power of positive thinking, or something more, well, for now at least, I lean toward the something more.

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