Saturday, May 7, 2011

Inspired by some speakers at the AA convention in Des Moines easter week-end, I finally decided to tell my family I no longer share their religious beliefs.  Below is the letter I sent them.  So far the response has been largely good.

Dear Family,

I know that this letter will not be easy for some of you to read and receive. I love each of you and wish to remain a part of the family. It is not my intent to hurt any of you. I know that some of you know what I am going to say in this letter. Maybe you all know. I am certain that, if any of you don’t actually know, you have suspected and this letter will be a confirmation rather than news. We have been dancing around this issue for some time and it is time to face it directly. It is time for me to honestly and candidly state my position to try to clear up any uncertainty and erroneous speculation.

I no longer hold a belief in the existence of any supernatural deity. After years of study and thought and even prayer initially, it became clear to me that, if I wanted to be honest with myself and others, I had to admit that I cannot see sufficient evidence to accept the claims of any religion. For the most part you agree with me. You agree that the evidence does not support the claims of Islam, Wiccan, Joseph Smith, Hinduism, Buddhism or any of the many other religions on offer. The sole point on which we differ is that I see no better reason to accept the claims of Christianity than you do to accept the similar claims of other religions.

Over the years I have talked to many people who have written a letter similar to this and I have read the stories of many more. An all but universal thread through these stories is that deeply devout believers have a great deal of difficulty accurately comprehending how and why people like me come to this position. There is a strong tendency to grab for explanations that are false and even insulting. I, therefore, thought it would be good to address up front and in writing six of the most common misconceptions.

First, I did not come to this position brashly or suddenly. It was the result of a lot of thinking, researching, soul searching, and even prayer occurring over a period of years. I have always been a seeker of truth. It matters to me whether what I believe is true or false. I want to believe as many things that are true as I can and I want to believe as few false things as I can.

I was raised to believe that a particular brand of Christianity was true. I spent decades studying that religion and its apologetics and trying mightily to defend and espouse that position. But the more I learned, the harder it became to defend. I tried to see the emperor’s new clothes. I listened to what others said about the color and texture of the fabric and tried with all my might to make my eyes see it. But the day came five years ago when I finally had no honest choice open to me but to admit I could not believe. The evidence simply does not support the belief.

Second, I cannot simply choose to believe. For a seeker of truth, honest belief is not a matter of personal choice. I cannot look at my bank statement and yet choose to believe I am a millionaire. The evidence indicates otherwise. I cannot look in the mirror and choose to believe that I can eat as much as I want of anything I like and not gain weight. The evidence indicates otherwise. Likewise, I cannot simply choose to believe the claims of Christianity in the face of the evidence available to me, or lack thereof. All I can do, if I want to be honest, is examine the evidence available to me and admit it when it is not sufficient to convince me. I would love to believe that an eternal life of bliss awaits everyone at the end of this life. But there simply is no good evidence to support that conclusion. An honest man cannot base his beliefs on wishful thinking or simply choose what he will believe.

Third, I did not come to this position out of anger, or being hurt or wounded or any other emotion. I have been surprised at the number of my friends who, upon hearing of my lack of belief immediately asked what bad thing must have happened to me – did one of kids die? Did I lose my career? Was my wife leaving me? Did someone in the church offend or hurt me? No, no, no and no. My life has been a good one. I have a successful career, very good friends, an amazing wife and two of the best sons a man could ask for. Economically, I am better off than 90% of all of the billions of humans who have ever lived. I came to my lack of belief by way of an honest, careful and reasoned examination of the available evidence. Any pain associated with coming to this position was a result of it, not a cause. Most of my friends and social support structures were related to the church and had to be almost entirely replaced. This letter is not easy to write and will cause awkwardness and pain. I have seen vile hatred spewed at people simply for saying they do not believe. And I have to face the fact that I may yet experience that first hand. If my position were to be dictated by reaction to pain or emotion, I would have continued to believe. That is the path of least resistance. But if I want to be honest, the only path open to me is to admit what I can and cannot believe. The path of honesty is too often not the easiest or most comfortable path.

Fourth, I am not rebelling against authority. I submit to authority daily and am happy to do so. When I stand before the court, I submit to the judge’s authority. I seek to obey the laws of my land and other lands through which I travel. I willingly submit to the regulatory authorities of my profession. Even in social situations, I submit to the “authority” of my peers as to what is or is not acceptable conduct. I have no problem with authority. If I had a problem with authority and could simply choose to believe, I would choose to believe that I am the anointed prophet and, therefore, the authority to which all other authorities must submit. Other men have made a good living and built massive empires that even continued on past their deaths by doing exactly that. But I am seeking truth and striving to be honest. Not submitting to a non-existent authority is not the same as rebelling against authority.

Fifth, my lack of belief in your religion, does not leave me without a moral foundation. I am a secular humanist. I spent last weekend with almost a thousand humanists and freethinkers at the American Atheists’ annual convention. I would put them up against any similar number of Christians in terms of their honesty and concern for those around them. I know many others who do not believe in your religion or any religion but are some of the most trustworthy, honest and moral people. They create and support charitable endeavors that provide, food, shelter and medical care to those unable to provide those things for themselves. They have been involved in relief efforts in New Orleans, Haiti, areas affected by the Christmas Tsunami and, now, Japan. And contrary to an oft stated canard, there are many atheists in foxholes willingly risking their lives for others. I took a picture of a significant number of such foxhole atheists at the convention last week end. I am the same person, with at least the same moral fiber and character as I have always had. In some ways I am more moral than I was as a Christian. I have found humanist based morality to be superior to religion based morality. Assuming that my loss of belief is caused or even accompanied by loss of morality would be 180 degrees wrong. It is honesty and integrity that led me to this position and caused me to send this letter.

Sixth, this is not a phase. I came to this position over a period of years and I have now been here for five years. I continue to seek truth. I read and listen to the best apologists, writers, debaters and preachers of all sides of the issue. I read the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon and other holy books. I often listen to American Family Radio and similar networks while driving. And with each passing year, it only becomes clearer to me that all religions are right about one thing – the claims of all other religions are not supported by sufficient evidence to warrant accepting them.

There are many other misconceptions out there but I will not lengthen this letter by attempting to address them all. If you want to discuss them, my position, the reasons for it or any other topic, I am happy to do so. And I will do so in person, by telephone, skype or by correspondence. If you would rather not talk about it, that is fine as well. However, what I do not want is to become the target of indirect or passive-aggressive conduct and attempts at manipulation. I have been up front and direct with you. Please grant me the same courtesy. If you wish to address this issue with me, please do so directly.

To sum up, I love you. I do not want to hurt you. But I cannot accept the claims of any religion. If you want to discuss this issue further, I am open to doing so at your pleasure.