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A Look at Why We Believe What We Do

October 22, 2009

Copyright 2009 by Howard Pepper

I am starting a series of brief posts on why we believe what we do about God and ourselves in relation to God. Most religious people like to think that their views about humanity and God are the correct ones. Maybe not covering every issue, but substantially right and certainly more true than those of other religions.

In fact, the bulk of Christians would claim that Christianity is unique because it alone is based on a genuine response to God in faith that creates a connection otherwise not there. To them, other religions represent human attempts to please God or reach God, in the mistaken belief that we have to do something to earn God’s favor.

I agree with these Christians in the last part – that we need not do anything to gain God’s favor, to be loved. But I, unlike them, also take that to include that we need not even believe anything in particular about God or our need for God (even God’s existence). Still, without God “judging” us, our actions and beliefs do affect our material and spiritual well-being, so we are wise to give them both some thought…. Do you agree or disagree so far?

Now, note I’ve not tried to identify or define God here, which is part of the point! I have some ideas about who/what I think God is, developed over decades of study, contemplation, and what Christians call (as I did for about 27 adult years) a “personal relationship with God.” I’ve begun commenting on defining God in other posts and will return to it, but for now I want to keep the focus on what you may believe or are pondering in hopes of coming to know something about God.

Here are some of the factors we will explore that lead each of us to whatever views of God (or gods) we may hold, or to question whether there even is a God:

1. What we were taught as a child (culturally, in our family, church, school, etc.).

2. What kind of relationship we had with our parents (usually most profoundly our father, as American culture and religion, like most, casts God as a male figure, often even as “Father”).

3. What we’ve experienced from the religious people and institutions closest to us or who we, at some critical point, determined would best represent what God may be like.

4. Special experiences that we take to be of a religious or spiritual nature – which might be called altered states of consciousness, peak experiences (Maslow), miracles, healings, “near death experiences,” etc.

5. Study of Scripture, theology, philosophy, science or other areas which we feel lends reliable (rational) evidence to a particular view we have “inherited” or taken on later in life.

Which of these most has most profoundly influenced the view of God (or disbelief in God) that you hold to? Are there aspects of any of these that you particularly resent or seek to “undo?” Are there aspects that you are particularly grateful for and might feel you’d never want to challenge or change? Do you have a thought-out approach to updating your views of God, or would like to have one?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Janet Greene permalink
    March 8, 2010 6:46 pm

    These are excellent questions! As a deconverted ex-fundy-now-atheist, these are my answers:

    1. My father was an evangelical pastor, and I lived in a conservative community. I was thoroughly brainwashed in “the word” growing up. Accepted jesus into my heart repeatedly from about age 5 on, and was constantly terrified because i wasn’t sure of my salvation.

    2. My father had many good qualities, but he was not a good father. Much like the bible-god, he was prone to destructive temper tantrums. So my home emulated the old testament quite a bit – violence could come at any time, from anywhere. And this violence was legitimized by christian authors such as James Dobson that encouraged parents to abuse their children. My father also struggled with sexual attraction to very young girls (including me).

    3. The christians I saw were unhappy, burdened. Joyless. Nobody I wanted to emulate. However, I believed that they were burdened because christ had suffered; and therefore, being miserable was the least we could do in exchange!

    4. I never had a “spiritual experience”. I tried – for years I tried. I prayed and prayed; repeatedly tried to become a christian just to hedge my bets. I had nightmares that the rapture would come and I would be left behind. I spent about 2 years as a young child unable to sleep because I was watching for it – and I wasn’t sure I would be taken up to heaven with the other believers. I asked god to change my bad thoughts, but it never worked. I was still the same.

    5. I am now grateful that my childhood was as dark as it was. If my life had worked, I may never have looked for truth. But I became seriously depressed, was a bulimic for 20 years, became a cocaine addict, married an abusive man (big surprise, right?). The situation was life-or-death for me – find truth or perish. I started reading books like John Shelby Spong; Celia Murray Dunn; then the “four horsemen” of atheism. I became obsessive on the subject, and read everything I could get my hands on. The trick was to get past the initial fear of doubt – if I questioned my belief, then I would surely go to hell! This is how christian leaders keep their people in their place – through fear of questioning. But once I started, it was like a dam bursting – there was no stopping me.

    I am now a reasonably well-adjusted, happy atheist! I found out there are no short-cuts to this – we have to get to the root of our issues; get rid of baggage that only tears us down; and decide that it is ok for us to be happy and live a rich life (since this is the only one we know we have!)

    The day I woke up and realized that I KNEW, beyond any doubt, that christianity was completely false, was a happy day for me! I have struggled with a lot of anger to christianity for all the damage it caused to me, but I am slowly getting past that too. I remain extremely passionate about this issue, and am so grateful for courageous bloggers that provide community for people like me.

    • naturalspirituality permalink
      March 8, 2010 7:33 pm

      Thanks for this very personal and interesting comment, Janet. I’m glad you’ve worked your way to stability and a place of enjoying life, with freedom. Unfortunately, it is very hard for some people to get there. Being programmed from infancy, and very intensely, as in a missionary or ministry family, I’m sure is one major contributor to that. So much is going on subconsciously, that just the rational side of seeing more realistically is often not enough alone.

      If you are not familiar with the work of Marlene Winell, you might like to get familiar with it, and her…. Her work is something seldom seen… working specifically on the variety of issues, emotional and otherwise, that are involved in recovery from authoritarian religious situations, that are often mixed up with family dynamics, etc. If you are beyond needing that yourself, you at least may be able to refer other strugglers to her, her book or seminars, etc.

      You write well, so if you have an interest in further research and possibly writing things reflecting that, or the details of your own story, please keep in touch. I’m not able to be active on that right now, but plan to be in the fairly near future.

  2. Janet Greene permalink
    March 8, 2010 7:59 pm

    Thanks for the feedback (quick, too!) I am definitely interested in anything that helps to promote the idea that we don’t have to be slaves to religion. Even religions that tell us they are about a “personal relationship with jesus christ”, or that they are not “religion”, they are “true spirituality”. I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind, but please keep ME in mind!

    Have a terrific day…Ramen.

  3. Janet Greene permalink
    March 8, 2010 8:04 pm

    Oh, and thanks for the link – I will check out her book. I am just about to start counselling at a place that specializes in women who were abused as children & struggled with mental illness & addictions as a result. I am in a good space overall, but still suffer from post-traumatic stress – this will probably be a lifelong journey. Marlene Winell’s book looks really great!

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