I was raised in a Christian background — so much so that my parents used to take me and my family to an annual Christian retreat in the Spring. Consequently when I was growing up, Christianity was a heavy influence on my personal development. It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I began to really comprehend the implications of my beliefs — specifically that if my friends didn’t believe, they would go to Hell. And Hell no less — an unfathomably bad place for even the gravest of criminals, let alone people that simply didn’t know any better. After this I began to have strong reservations about the ethics of a God that would punish my friends just because they didn’t believe in something they had no tangible experience of.
As well as this, the number of questions I couldn’t find satisfactory answers to were beginning to stack up. They were relatively simple ones, so it struck me as suspicious that I couldn’t find consistent answers to them. These questions ranged from apparent contradictions to God’s advertised omnibenevolence (e.g., “what happens if someone has never heard of Jesus — do they deserve to go to Hell?” or “God drowned the whole planet in a flood, but this was a good thing?”), to the purely practical (e.g., “if God was omnipotent, why did he need to have Jesus suffer and be murdered — couldn’t he just have forgiven people?”)
These questions seemed really obvious ones to me (little did I know I was just scratching the surface), but it was a little concerning to me at the time that nobody would answer them consistently (let alone reassuringly). My nan would tell me whenever I asked about these things that ‘doubt and unbelief’ was a sin and so I shouldn’t doubt, but it was this attitude of people to not want to address these kinds of questions that evoked from me my deepest suspicions.
Why would they want to avoid the subject? Didn’t it bother them that the answers were always so… effete? What I couldn’t understand was why nobody else felt that getting answers to these questions was something really important — making the wrong decision could mean Hell, or maybe even worse. How could we know what was out there? The stakes were really high. But everyone was already so sure of themselves, even though they hadn’t always got the reasoning to back it up.
This was what I couldn’t understand about the faithful — how could they be so sure? Sure enough to commit their entire life to their faith; sure enough to risk potentially eternal torment and anguish should they be mistaken. How could they be so sure when so many people of so many different, mutually exclusive faiths were equally as sure — wasn’t that weird? Being ‘probably right’ just wasn’t good enough to justify such absurd levels of risk. Risking eternal suffering clearly makes the question of faith the most important thing for a person to get right, but people weren’t treating it that way.
I decided then that I’d search for answers outside the people I knew. I was still confident at this point that my beliefs were fundamentally correct — I just needed to find the missing justifications. I reasoned that by learning the arguments for and against my beliefs I’d end up strengthening them, satisfactory answers in hand, but to my overwhelming displeasure I found that the arguments for my beliefs were exceedingly weak, and instead the arguments against were actually devastatingly convincing. It appeared that the reason I hadn’t received good answers to my questions was because there were none, but worse than that: I came across so many, many other flaws I had no hope of defending rationally. The only way I’d be able to defend against this new knowledge would be to close my eyes and ears to it, but given my prior rationale that getting my beliefs right was extremely important, the prospect of doing so thankfully never occurred to me.
This experience was truly eye-opening and the result was a slow and steady de-conversion away from Christianity towards atheism. One by one, pillars of my world view were evaporating as I learnt progressively more about the arguments for and against the beliefs I held. The following months felt strange — I was very wary. I felt like I was making some kind of mistake, but there was never any escape from the reasoning. I still felt like God was watching me; I still felt as if I believed, and ultimately it was this ebbing away of God’s surveillance that showed me how much of a psychological phenomenon it really was. The longer I went without faith, the less I felt His watchful eyes and the more free I felt. Ever since then, I’ve tried very hard to critically examine my beliefs and not allow myself to fall under the sweet-scented spells of wishful thinking again.
I still do wonder: why is it that most people don’t seem to adopt the same approach? Surely they must understand the stakes. This question doesn’t stop at the religiously raised, but also those agnostics that are more-or-less apathetic to religion. The raised-agnostic should question his belief (or non-belief) just as much as the raised-Christian, but I can’t help but notice that not many people of either side do it. From a rational perspective it’s downright mystifying, because clearly they understand the potential consequence of an error of judgement, don’t they? It leads me to think that there must be some underlying psychological effect involved — maybe group conformity or just a lack of urgency, the prime factor of the deathbed conversion.
Neither of these answers are very satisfactory to me. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy between believers and non-believers alike to privately believe the afterlife’s not real — it’s hard to see in the non-believer, but the actions of the believer are often positively incongruous. You’ll never see a religious family happy that a loved-one’s died and gone to Heaven, they’re always just as sad as the rest of us would be. And there are plenty of Christians who are friends with non-believers, but if they genuinely believed their friends were going to be tortured forever if they didn’t convert, wouldn’t they do everything in their power to try to convert them? Nobody seems to behave rationally when it comes to their religious beliefs.
Afterlife ignored, the consequences of following an incorrect belief are severe — potentially a waste of your life, a life that you’d not have lived if you’d have had all the facts. It’d be truly tragic to a person if these facts were unveiled to them their deathbed — the harrowing realisation of the vicar of the imam, the rabbi or, potentially, the undecided agnostic. Why would anyone find it acceptable to take this kind of a risk?
For the Christian I once was, if I had come back from my questioning experience with my faith strengthened (as I had originally intended to), I’d probably be a very different person. A thought like this is very sobering to me; I’d believe that God was the very purpose of life itself and, consequently, I’ve no doubt that I would’ve devoted my life to Him accordingly. I’d have spent all the energy of all my days trying my utmost to convert friends, family and strangers alike to save them from the fiery abyss, or feeling unyielding guilt and regret if I didn’t. I’d be an agent of the Lord, serving him with all the passion in my bones, unwittingly carrying a heavy cross over my back as my own personal albatross, devoting everything I had to something so pointless, so devoid of meaning, and doing so with a pitiable misplaced sense of conviction.
The revelation unto me of truth on my deathbed after having lived such a life — a truth that God didn’t exist — is an idea that makes me shudder. It’d leave me hollow, overwhelmed in those final moments with total, complete and terrifyingly temporary despair as I drifted silently into the nothingness, knowing with cold, cruel certainty that I’d wasted the only life I’d ever have.
Such a scenario is not an acceptable price to me for not questioning my beliefs. Without questioning what you believe, you’re leaving your life up to a spin of the roulette wheel. If finding out you were wrong would make you wish you’d given it more thought, give it more thought now. Think about it and think about it until you couldn’t possibly expect yourself to reach a better answer. Only then are you in a position to live without regrets. Don’t let apathy or short-term rewards override the value of your life. Act rationally. Make your existence count.