Last weekend, I went to Sunday Assembly to hear Ryan Bell speak. He is a former 7th-Day Adventist pastor who decided to take a year (all of 2014) to live as if there was no god. He documented the whole thing in a blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yearwithoutgod/ and, much to his surprise, he ended up with lots and lots of followers.
Needless to say, in 2014, he figured out that “God” was a human creation and not the other way around.
I introduced myself to Ryan after assembly (and after weaving through the large herd of people waiting to speak to him) and briefly nutshelled my religious background: I was a Christian for a large part of my life and when I discovered that the Christian story wasn’t true, I was devastated. I had believed that the creator of the universe knew who I was, loved me, had a plan for me and was going to let me live with him in heaven forever. It was a huge, awful thing to lose. I went through years of depression. I contemplated suicide. I’m just now beginning to come out of that depression and I’m trying to find a way to be okay again- and a way to honor this large spiritual part of myself that’s still here, even though I don’t believe in a “god.”
He asked me how long it had been since I’d made this discovery. I had to think about it. It’s been at least ten years.
He asked me if I’d read his cnn.com article: http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/08/opinion/bell-god-atheism/index.html I hadn’t, so he went on to tell me about how the Christian story is one that encourages a kind of nihilism about the life we have on earth and that was most likely a large element of my depression. I didn’t really understand what he was talking about until I went home and read the article and realized he had hit on something pretty significant.
Christians think they’re going to live forever so this causes them to be not as concerned about their actual daily lives. They’ll say things like they’re “not of this world.” (Like in John 17:16 , Jesus says, talking about his disciples “They are not of the world even as I am not of it”). They sing songs with lyrics that say things like “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.”
In the CNN article, Ryan Bell wrote that “…nihilism is a disease born of theism” meaning that belief in God causes the believer to think their life (on Earth) is meaningless- or at least, much less meaningful than the eternal life they’re going to spend in heaven. I don’t know that I’d want to 1. call nihilism a disease or 2. call Christians nihilists because of all the connotations that might come with that term, but I do agree with where he’s going. I had grown up believing that “this life” didn’t matter. Anything that happened in “this life” was all a part of “God’s plan” so I didn’t have to have much responsibility for what I did with my time here on Earth. My reason for living- for all of those years- was to do God’s bidding.
I remember the day that I decided that hell couldn’t exist. My belief in heaven quickly dissolved after that. It was ten minutes before my “Christianity in Contemporary Culture” class at Pepperdine (it was called something like that… we watched movies and listened to music and tried to draw Christian themes from them whether they were there or not) and I could not think of one single reason to go. I couldn’t think of any reason to do anything. I was paralyzed. If my beautiful eternity with God that I’d been preparing for wasn’t going to happen- then what was the point? Anything I did ever was going to be absolutely meaningless. I started thinking about the easiest and least painful way to kill myself.
I was sitting on the floor of my dorm room, facing my bed. My bed was covered with a large blanket I’d knitted the previous year with the scraps of yarn I had left over after making scarves to raise money for a mission trip. I reached out and grabbed the blanket and thought “This is here because I made it.” I took my knitting needles and a ball of yarn with me to class. Someone asked me what I was making. I said, “I’m proving my existence to myself.” They didn’t ask what I meant… probably because I sounded like a lunatic.
Ryan Bell says that you can create meaning in your life- that it doesn’t have to come from someone or something outside yourself. He’s more evolved than me, I guess. I can see how things might be personally meaningful to me though. I made that blanket- and that was meaningful to me. That was one tiny meaning that made me believe there were other things I could do that mattered- and that was enough to keep living- and going to class.
I’m resentful that there is no deep meaning or story that explains why the human race exists, though. To let go of that and pursue nothing but personal meaning for me is something I have to settle for, I guess. And that’s exactly what it feels like… settling.