Few people abandon God because they are consciously seeking to stun their consciences. Instead, they cease to believe in Him because they have fallen out of love with Him. This can happen because of some event in their lives that fills them with bitterness and anger, which they blame on God and consider unforgivable. Maybe a parent abandons the family, or dies young in terrible pain. Perhaps a close friend or family member “comes out” as gay, and blames his personal torment on “Christian guilt.” Or some treasured, wholesome dream dies right before a believer’s eyes, and leaves an aching abscess at the center of his life. He decides, in moments of deep suffering and confusion, that “a good God wouldn’t allow this.” So either God isn’t real or He isn’t good.
The Trade-In Value of Faith
There is an immediate payoff for rejecting God and His word. Right off the bat, you lose your fear of eternal consequences for your actions. Instead of weighing on your conscience, they are almost unbearably light. You realize that the moral laws you’d once obeyed to keep up a healthy relationship with God mean nothing more than notes scrawled to the Tooth Fairy. Over time, the residual shame and guilt that once held you back drain away, as you discipline yourself to remember that they are irrational. You learn to feel guilty about guilt, to be ashamed of experiencing shame.
But you’re still not out of the woods, not completely free. You might continue to experience a sense that certain types of things are “fitting,” that some moral norms emerge from the nature of things themselves, even if they can’t be traced back to a Creator’s artistic intent. This ghost of divine order haunts your brave new worldview, whose benefits you have only just begun to enjoy: the fresh “freedom” of action, and the set of cool, secular friends whom you might previously have avoided. You share with these people a warm nuzzle of superiority to all those benighted believers hag-ridden by fear and guilt. You like hanging out with this new crowd, making fun of your old subculture and its provincial, backwater mores. (You stick a Darwin fish on the back of your Prius.) This new crowd dresses better and has more fun than those drags you met back in Young Life or Catholic school.
If there’s one thing your new friends have absolutely no time for, it’s the idea of natural law. They are all about natural foods and “green energy,” of course, about staying in some sort of harmony with biological nature. They will even engage in a kind of secular fasting, abstaining from GMOs, maybe even from animal products. But such disciplines and self-denial abruptly end at the gateways of central pleasures. That’s why the same ecologically conscious person who won’t drink milk from a “factory farm” will dabble in drugs or dose herself with birth control pills.
Relax. The sense that human actions are subject to some intrinsic order can be cured by regular meditation on the chaos and destructiveness seen in nature. Ignore the apparent patterns and epiphanies of beauty that beguile high-level scientists, and instead keep your mind fixed firmly on genetic deformities of lab rats, or the fact that some animals eat their young or indulge in incest. Keep up the horror you feel for chaos, suffering and death — but don’t ask yourself why you feel this way, where on earth you got the craving for perfection that no animals seem to experience. Pretty soon, you will think of order and beauty as accidental illusions in a universe full of noise. In such a world, how could it possibly matter where we mortals seek our fleeting pleasures? After all, we’re only human. …
At this point, you might think that you’ve yanked up by the roots every trace of the Father who betrayed you. But you would be wrong. You will still experience a sense that right and wrong do exist, and that you want to be good instead of evil. In fact, you’ll have all sorts of leftover expectations and prejudices from the Christian world you grew up in, and the stubborn remnants of Christian humanism in our culture. There is no point in trying to purge yourself completely of all of these, when instead you can adapt them, take the emptied-out church in your soul and rededicate it as a temple — a neat reversal of what the Christians did when they converted pagan Europe.
How to Become a Social Justice Superhero
You used to think that human life is sacred. Now you know that it’s merely “important.” You used to consider cruelty or lying sinful. Now you see them as “antisocial.” You once considered suffering the side-effect of sin, which could be transformed and harnessed into a means of sanctification. Now you know better, and realize that it isn’t sin but suffering that is the worst thing in the universe. It is the great Enemy, the Adversary against which you steel your soul. You must shun the occasions of suffering, and whenever you unwittingly stumble into it you must go to your spiritual father in therapy and repent.
You don’t want to cause any needless suffering to other people, either. We are all in this life together, and we ought to work cooperatively to minimize its grimness, to swathe ourselves in Styrofoam and blunt every corner with Nerf. The way to embrace goodness and remain what you desperately want to be — a “good person” whom others will like — is to join the fight against suffering, in whatever form it shows itself. The goal of all human life is the greatest number of comfortable, pleasant moments for the greatest number of people. And you can be part of advancing that holy cause, at minimal cost to yourself.
Now there are many, many reasons that people suffer. You could (theoretically) dedicate yourself to fighting against hunger, combating domestic violence, or teaching illiterate children how to read. And maybe you actually do a little along such lines. But those forms of suffering are stubborn and intractable. You could use up your whole life wrangling them and still not make a dent. So the more efficient thing to do is to contract them out to a higher power — the federal government, with its hundreds of billions of dollars and vast powers of coercion. You vote, and Tweet, and talk to advance those causes.`
You choose for your own direct involvement much more manageable forms of suffering, which in one sense are closer to hand. You remember all the pain which you endured at the hands of religion: the pleasures avoided, the moments of guilt and shame, all to please the mythical Father at whom you’re still fitfully angry. So yoke the firm embrace of doctrine, and its stern rejection of error, with other forms of intolerance — especially racial. Then note the violent emotions which religion can provoke, and how many churchgoers also are gun-owners. Next comb through half-remembered history and fix on the worst incidents of violence committed by self-professed Christians. Do this for long enough, and you can come to believe that Christian churches are the single greatest source of suffering in America. And you can do something about it — which isn’t terribly demanding, actually.
You can make a point of scorning Christian beliefs, of praising other religions such as Islam (no matter what they actually teach — they’re not the threat). You can fight for every movement that loosens the bonds of Christian faith on your fellow Americans. You will use whatever means your fellow progressives present you, including the power of the state, to lift the crushing yoke of the Cross from helpless victims of ancient superstition. If need be, you will force them to be free. That means supporting same sex marriage, legal abortion, and restrictions on every attempt by religious believers to practice their faith in public — within the annoying limits of that dull Constitutional relic, the First Amendment, which progressive students at Yale are petitioning to repeal.
In doing all this, you will impress your newfound friends, cement your place in a social order where faith is already shameful, and feel a deep sense of accomplishment for very minimal effort. It’s the cheapest grace on the market, a grace which flows abundantly, rushing in to fill that Jesus-shaped hole that’s still in your heart. (For more from the author of “The Utter Incoherence of Liberalism” please click HERE)