Why I’m not a believer – what about prayers and personal experience?


This is the fourth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

I don’t know whether anyone’s been following this mini-series of posts (probably not, given how long it’s taken me to write it), but anyone who has read through the post series to date may well be wondering why there was even a question in my mind at this point about becoming a non-believer. So far, I’ve written three posts about different arguments for the existence of a god that I came across in my reading, and the overarching theme of all three seems to have been me looking blankly at the argument wondering why on earth this was meant to be even remotely convincing. Why did it take me so long to get to the point of officially declaring myself an atheist, or at least an agnostic?
Well, part of it was the difficulty of proving a negative; I couldn’t prove God didn’t exist, and hadn’t yet realised that that wasn’t in itself an automatic reason for having to take the possibility of his existence seriously without positive evidence for same. And a lot of it was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect; so many people seemed so convinced that God existed that I didn’t feel able to dismiss the possibility just like that. Surely, if I kept reading and looking, I would find a more convincing argument one way or the other? Around the next corner? In the next book on the shelf on the religious section in one of the local libraries? But on top of that, there was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
I tried praying myself, since it seemed the obvious thing to try; if God did exist, this would give him the best chance to let me know directly. Not frenzied wordy prayers, just time in which I did my best to focus my mind on God and open myself to whatever He might be trying to tell me. And, when I did, I certainly noticed something – an inner sense of mental quiet, an awareness of my obligations. I figured that could indeed be God taking the first steps to commune with me. The trouble was, it also seemed the kind of effect that might plausibly be caused by me calming my mind and thinking I was communing with the divine. So which was it? And did the fact that I was even thinking that mean that I was overanalysing it and talking myself out of a genuine relationship with God like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle? Or did it just mean that I was exercising appropriate caution? After all, surely there was a risk that if I was too ready to believe I might talk myself into believing I was communing with God when I wasn’t, in much the same way as I’d managed to convince myself at the age of twelve that our house was probably haunted because I thought I could feel a presence there when I thought about it.
I simply didn’t know. This was such an important subject; surely it was incumbent on me to work out what the answer was! But I only found myself getting more confused. One thing was for sure; it all seemed a lot less clear-cut than the authors I was reading on the subject seemed to think.

And so my teenage years went on…

Comments

  1. Ian Goddard says

    Hi, for what it’s worth you are the first blog I have read on here. It would appear that I have had a similar life long journey to yourself culminating in a realisation that, as Matt Dillahunty put it, ‘This shit makes no sense’, I’ve always had an enquiring mind, thankfully, so being brought up as a Catholic, which just assumes an acceptance of faith as fact, I didn’t take it as face value and questioned everything. To be honest I couldn’t square the circle from a very young age and the more I looked into all number of faiths it just reaffirmed my belief that it was all man made and had no more validity than belief in Odin, Ra, Apollo etc.
    It has been revealing to find others like myself, I sound like the central character from John Wyndham’s The Crysalids, where I’m not odd although possibly in a minority. Thanks for the blog 🙂
    Ian

    • Dr Sarah says

      Let’s hope no mobs come and throw us into the Fringes, then! 🙂 I’m flattered to be the first blog you read on here – how did you find me? Do check out some of the others – there’s so much good stuff being written on here.

      I’m impressed that you questioned everything despite being born into a religious faith. My questioning came from a place of not only growing up without a religion, but knowing that my parents were of different religions (or that’s how they described themselves to me; different religious backgrounds would actually be a better description, since neither of them was actually religious). It made a big impression on me as it meant I was always very aware that different religious opinions did exist and needed to be taken seriously, which is really what started me thinking about the whole thing. If I’d just grown up with a dogma, I honestly don’t know if I’d ever have found the independence of mind to question it.

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