This is the second part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction, which explains in a bit more detail, is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.
I was sixteen, and in what was then called the Lower Sixth (these days it’s Year 12; for those in the US system it would be junior year of high school), when my longstanding general interest in religion and its practices sharpened into a deliberate attempt to find out as much as I could about Christianity to try to figure out whether or not its teachings were the truth. I don’t recall any specific moment when this happened – it was a gradual drift – but there were definitely reasons why it happened at that point in my life. So here’s a bit more backstory.
Some personal information about me: Although I’ve never been formally diagnosed, it’s been fairly obvious for a long time that I’m on the autistic spectrum. Looking back, this had a big influence on how I approached this; I typically have a very analytical, logical approach to problems, and I also have the typical autistic trait of hyperfocusing on particular areas of interest, which in this case manifested as years of focusing on this question far past the point where most people would have dropped it. However, even before this, it majorly affected where I was emotionally in my life at that point.
Because of my lack of any innate skill in talking to people or making social connections, I’d arrived at the age of sixteen as a major social misfit. This hadn’t particularly bothered me up until then (the bullying and the social expectations did, but not the social misfittery itself), and over the next several years I’d figure out coping strategies. But this point in my life was when I really started wanting to belong to a group but without yet having the faintest idea how to go about it.
It’s an absolute cliché to say that this is when I really became interested in religion, but that’s what happened; this is the point in my life when I started looking seriously into converting to Judaism.
That is, of course, somewhat tangential to the story of how I didn’t become Christian. However, I thought it was worth mentioning because of a claim I often see from Christian apologists trying to come up for explanations as to why people don’t want to convert to Christianity; the claim that atheists just don’t want a god laying down rules for them. By the way, this always makes me wonder what rules they think I want to break; do they imagine I just want to indulge my urges to go on a theft and murder spree? All right, all right, I know the actual apologetic answer is probably ‘SEX! You just wanted to have SEX!’, but, since I’m heterosexual, becoming a Christian wouldn’t have stopped me from having sex; at most, the stricter branches would have expected me to postpone it till marriage, which was a laughingly moot point for me at this particular teenage-misfit stage in my life. Believe me, ‘imminent prospective sex’ was not among the available options at that stage regardless of what religious decisions I made. In any case, while it was something I was curious about, it was a very minor attraction compared to the idea of feeling like part of a group.
Anyway… Judaism. I was, as you’ve seen, fascinated by the traditions and ceremony and structure, and I also loved the centuries-worth of collected wisdom, and the idea of being marked out as separate and special in a way that would simultaneously bind me as part of an in-group. So, overall, I loved the idea of being Jewish. I hovered nervously but enthusiastically on the periphery, going to weekly services at our local (Reform) synagogue and reading everything about Judaism that I could get hold of. I kept the fast days and gave up seafood (I didn’t eat meat at the time for unrelated reasons). I tried building a sukkah in my back garden on Sukkot, although my main takeaway from that was that, wherever my religious future lay, my professional future didn’t lie in engineering.
So, if you happen to be a Christian apologist who was toying with the ‘she obviously just didn’t want God telling her what to do!’ theory, I hope that lays it to rest. Believe me, I would have been thrilled if a god had paid enough attention to me to tell me what to do. (Especially if it involved converting to Judaism.)
Sadly, despite my best hopes, this didn’t happen. No divine announcements, no inner conviction that any god actually was calling me to sign up to a lifetime of this. And I was honest enough with myself to recognise that desperately wanting to be part of a group isn’t actually a good reason to join a religion you don’t believe in.
So that’s how I didn’t convert to Judaism. Back to the story of how I didn’t convert to Christianity.
You might at this point be making the entirely natural assumption that this was also how I became interested in Christianity. It’s fair to say that I was occasionally tempted; while Christianity never held the same kind of innate attraction to me as the rich, vibrant traditions of Judaism, it would certainly have solved the ‘part of a group’ problem and done so rather more easily. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I avoided it; on one level I did recognise that joining a religion wouldn’t solve my various insecurities and that it wasn’t really fair of me to do so for that reason however badly I wanted to, and I think that’s at least part of why I avoided the option that had most chance of working. But there was something much bigger and more direct putting me off, and that was the horror that lay at the heart of Christian theology.
According to conventional Christian teaching, the afterlife is divided into two extreme binary options – eternal bliss or eternal torture – and the choice between them is made not on your actions but on whether or not you accept faith in Jesus. Non-Christians, regardless of how much good they did in their lifetimes or what their reasons are for not being Christian, are thus destined for eternal hellfire. Of course, the majority of people throughout human history haven’t been Christian – most often for very solid reasons such as not having heard of Christianity, genuinely not believing the theology, or having been brought up in a different religion that teaches them that Christianity is apostasy and God doesn’t want them to have anything to do with it – and those people aren’t generally any worse on average than the people who have been Christian.
So, if Christianity actually was true, then that would mean that millions of good and decent people – including, if you remember, my father – were destined for eternal torture. It would mean that some truly awful people were getting away without punishment due to being Christian, even where this was due to the sheer chance of being born into one family rather than another. And it would mean that the Being in charge of the universe was quite happy to let this state of affairs go on rather than plan an even vaguely fair system for the afterlife.
However badly I wanted to be part of a group, I could never, ever feel comfortable with the idea of signing up for a religion based on that belief.
There was, however, a bigger problem here than what I did or didn’t believe; what if it was true? After all, all sorts of terrible things were true despite me/other people not wanting them to be; there seemed no logical reason why this one had to be an exception. Millions of people were convinced of Christianity’s veracity. I couldn’t just assume they were wrong. What if the universe actually was in charge of a god that awful, with that horrific a system for the afterlife? My mind and heart quailed away from the thought.
Since I’ve raised the general topic of The Awfulness Of The Hypothetical Christian God, there are a couple of other points I should probably touch on here. Firstly, you might well be quite legitimately thinking here ‘Yes, and that’s on top of all the other terrible stuff this god is supposed to have done!’ The Christian God is, after all, supposed to be the same god who either sent or commanded various massacres in the earlier part of the Bible before being retconned into a divinely loving being. It doesn’t reflect that well on Younger Me to say that I can’t recall this bothering me that much, but, to be fair, I did already know that at least some of what was in the Bible wasn’t true; I think I managed not to think that much about whether those parts were true or how they would fit with Christianity. I don’t know how justifiable it is in hindsight that that wasn’t an issue for me, but, rightly or wrongly, it wasn’t.
And secondly, there’s what is generally known in theological arguments as The Problem Of Evil; the sheer amount of awfulness that exists in the world not of any god’s making but which, theoretically, an all-powerful god ought to at least be able to stop. I seem to be about the only atheist who’s never been bothered by this. The reason for that was fairly simple if philosophically shaky; I just assumed that, if God did in fact exist, he was bound by some kind of non-interference rule and couldn’t do more than provide emotional support, and all the claims about omnipotence were just something that people made up to make them feel better. I think I might well have got this idea from the mention of the Emperor-Over-Sea in the Narnian books whose mysterious rules constrained Aslan; I’m not sure whether that counts as ironic or not. Either way, this way of looking at things meant that The Problem Of Evil wasn’t one of the things that particularly bothered me during my theological questing.
The Problem Of Hell, however, was another matter. If the Christian God did exist, then the afterlife pretty clearly was his remit. If Christians were right, then millions were doomed and the universe was in the charge of a monster.
So, where did that leave me?
With a major conundrum.
On the one hand, I very much wanted not to have to believe anything so appalling. I was horrified at the idea of the universe being in charge of someone who would blithely let millions of people go off to eternal hellfire. I desperately wanted to believe that that wasn’t true.
On the other hand, I already knew I didn’t want to be the sort of person who based their beliefs on what they wanted to be true, rather than being honest with themselves about what the evidence showed. And I recognised that there was a real danger of me doing that here. If I rejected Christianity flat-out, it wouldn’t be because I had good reason to believe it false; it would be because I had good reason to want to believe it false, and that wasn’t the same thing. More subtly, I could see how I might let my feelings bias how I weighed up the evidence; even if I made a show of looking at Christianity, it would be all too easy to reject evidence I didn’t want to see or accept evidence against it that was unconvincing. I didn’t want to become someone who would do that; intellectual honesty was already something I valued highly.
And so I chose the only fair way that I could see through this conundrum; to look into Christianity properly, rather than accepting it blindly through fear or rejecting it out of hand for the same reason. I determined to look at the evidence for both sides and weigh it up as fairly as possible, focusing on assessing it on its own strengths or weaknesses rather than on whether it pointed where I wanted it to. If I genuinely felt, on doing that, that a particular piece of evidence pointed against Christianity, then fair enough; but it had to be for that reason, rather than because I wanted it to point that way. If I felt evidence pointed towards the truth of Christianity, towards the truth of a god so callous that he would abandon all non-Christians to eternal hellfire… well, that was a prospect so horrific I could barely contemplate it, but I still recognised that, if I really felt the evidence pointed that way, then the honest thing for me to do would be to accept that. Whatever conclusion I reached, I wanted to come by it honestly.
All this makes it sound as though I had some big determined moment of sitting down and vowing myself to this quest. As far as I remember, it was actually a decision I drifted into gradually. However, this was why I applied myself to learning about Christianity in the way I did; because I was so strongly motivated not to believe in it that this made me even more determined to weigh it up fairly.