Note: This was written about 18 months ago and posted on my now-defunct blog. I figure it might be worth reposting, mostly for posterity.
Throughout most of my youth, like the majority of middle-class Americans, I was raised as a Christian. As an argumentative and nerdy teenager, much of the intellectual energy throughout my adolescence was dedicated to the fervent apologetics of the Christian faith. In my eyes, I was trying to defend some deep, correspondent truth about the Lord. Today, I realize that was mostly youthful self-deception. I was trying to make beliefs I had made an epistemic and personal commitment to due to my social situation work with the experiences of the modern world I was thrust into. There is nothing wrong with my attempts to find some reason to cling to my contingent religious beliefs, and there is nothing wrong with people who succeed in that endeavor, but it was wrong for me to think I was doing anything more than that—something like defending eternal truths I knew certainly through faith, which I did so dogmatically.
As the title of this post suggests, my quest to make my religious beliefs work was ultimately unsuccessful, or at least have been up until this point (I’m not arrogant enough to assume I’ve reached the end of my spiritual/religious journey). For a variety of personal and intellectual reasons, I have since become a sort of agnostic/atheist in the mold of Nietzsche, or more accurately James (not Dawkins). Most of the point of this post is to spell out for my own therapeutic reasons the philosophical and personal reasons why I have the religious beliefs I have now at the young age of twenty. To the readers, this is ultimately a selfish post in that as the target audience is myself, both present and future. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this autobiographical/religious/philosophical mind vomit. Please, read it as like you would a novel—albeit a poorly written one—and not a philosophical or religious treatise.
Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning of my childhood. But to understand that, I guess it’s better to start with my mother and father’s upbringing. My mother came from an intensely religious Baptist household with a mother who, to be blunt, used religion as a manipulative tool to the point of abuse. If her children disobeyed her, it was obviously the influence of Satan. Of course, any popular culture throughout my mother’s childhood was regarded as the work of Satan. I’ll spare you the details, but the upshot is this caused my mother some religious struggles that I inherited. My father came from a sincere though not devoted Catholic family. For much of my father’s young adulthood and late adolescence, religion took a backseat. When my parents met my father was an agnostic. He converted to Christianity by the time they married, but his religious beliefs were always more intimately personal and connected with his individual, private pursuit of happiness than anything else—a fact that has profoundly influenced the way I think about religion as a whole.
Though neither of my parents were at all interested in shoving religion down my throat, I kind of shoved it down my own throat as a child. I was surrounded by evangelical—for want of better word—propaganda throughout my childhood as we mostly attended non-denominational, moderately evangelical churches throughout my childhood. My mother mostly sheltered me from my grandmother’s abuses of religion, and she reacted to her grandmother’s excesses appropriately by trying to make my religious upbringing centered on examples of God’s love. However, her struggles with religion still had an impact on me as she wavered between her adult commitments to an image of an all-loving deity with the remnants of her mother’s conception of good as the angry, vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament. She never really manifestly expressed the latter conception, but it was implicit, just subtlety enough for my young mind to notice, in the way some of the churches we chose in my youth expressed the Gospel.
At the age of seven, we moved from Michigan to the heart of the Bible belt in Lynchburg, VA, home to one of the largest evangelical colleges in the world: Liberty University. Many of the churches we attended in Virginia had Liberty professors as youth leaders, ministers, and the like, so Jerry Falwell’s Southern Baptist conception of God which aligned closely with my grandmother’s was an influence on me through my early teenage years. Naturally, religion was closely linked with political issues of the day. God blessed Bush’s war in Iraq, homosexuality was an abhorrent sin, abortion was murder, and nonsense like that was fed to me. Of course, evolution was an atheist lie and I remember watching creationist woo lectures with my mother while she was taking an online biology course from Liberty (she isn’t a creationist, for the record, and her major was psychology, which Liberty taught well enough).
Though it certainly wasn’t as extreme, some of the scenes in the documentary Jesus Camp are vaguely like experiences I had around this time. I was an odd kid who got interested in these serious “adult” issues at the age of nine while most of my friends were watching cartoons, so I swallowed the stock evangelical stance hook, line, and sinker. But there was something contradictory between my mother’s reservations about an angry God and refusal to push my religious beliefs in any direction thanks to the influence of her mother, my father’s general silence about religious issues unless the conversation got personal or political, and the strong evangelical rhetoric that the culture around me was spewing.
Around seventh grade, we moved from Virginia to another section of the Bible-Belt, Tennessee. For my early high school years, my interest in evangelical apologetics mostly continued. However, religion mostly took a backseat to my political views. With the beginning of the recession, I became far more interested in economics: I wanted an explanation for why there were tents with homeless people living in them on that hill next to Lowe’s. My intellectual journey on economics is a topic for another day, but generally, the political component of my religious views was slowly becoming less and less salient. I became more apathetic about social issues and more focused on economic issues.
It was around this time I also became skeptical of the theologically-justified nationalistic war-mongering fed to me by the Liberty crowd in Virginia. We lived near Ft. Campbell and I had the displeasure of watching family after family of my friends ruined because their dad went to Afghanistan and didn’t come back the same, or didn’t come back at all. The whole idea of war just seemed cruel and almost unjustifiable to me, even though I still would spout the conservative line on it externally I was internally torn. I would say I was beginning to subconsciously reject Christianity’s own ontology of violence (apologies to Millbank).
It was also around this time, ninth grade, that I began more systemically reading the Old Testament. War is a common theme throughout the whole thing, and all I could think of as I read about the conquer of Israel, the slaying of Amalekites, the book of Job, and the like were my personal experiences with my friends who were deeply affected by the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, there was skepticism and doubt about how God could justly wage war and commit cruel mass-killings in Biblical times.
Around tenth grade, I became immaturely interested in philosophy. I’m ashamed to admit it today, but Ayn Rand was my gateway drug to what would become an obsession of mine up until now. I loved elements of Rand’s ethics, her individualism, her intense humanism (which I still appreciate on some level), and of course her economics (which I also still appreciate, though they are oversimplified). But her polemics against religion and her simplistic epistemological opposition between faith and reason put me in an odd position. What was I, a committed evangelical Christian, to do with my affinities with Rand? Naturally, I should’ve turned to Aquinas, whose arguments for the existence of God and his unification of faith and reason I now can appreciate. However, at the time, I instead had the misfortune of turning to Descartes, whose rationalism seemed to me seemed to jive with what I saw in Rand’s epistemology (today, I definitely would not say that about Rand and Descartes at all as Rand is far more Aristotelian, ah the sophomoric follies of youth). Almost all of my subsequent intellectual journey with religion and philosophy could be considered a fairly radical reaction to the dogmas that I had bought at this time.
I had fully bought perhaps the worst of Rand and Descartes. Descartes’ philosophical method and “proofs” of God, with all the messy metaphysical presumptions of mind-body dualism (though I might’ve implicitly made a greater separation between “mind” and “spirit” than Descartes would’ve), the correspondence theory of truth, quest for certainty, and spectator theory of knowledge, the ego theory of the self, and libertarian free will. From Rand I got the worst modernist presumptions she took from Descartes, what Bernstein calls the “Cartesian Anxiety” in her dogmatic demand for objectivism, as well as her idiosyncratic views on altruism (though I never really accepted ethical egoism, or believed she was really an ethical egoist). The flat, horribly written protagonists of Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead I took to be somehow emblematic of the Christian conception of God (don’t ask me what in the hell I was thinking). Somehow, I couldn’t explain it then coherently and cringe at it now, I had found a philosophical foundation of sorts for a capital-C Certain belief in protestant Christianity in God and a watered down Randian ethics. Around this time, I also took an AP European History class, and my studies (and complete misreadings of) traditional Lutheranism and Catholicism reinforced my metaphysical libertarianism and Cartesian epistemological tendencies.
Around this time, my parents became dissatisfied with the aesthetic and teachings of evangelical non-denominational churches, and we started attending a run-of-the-mill, mainline PCUSA church my mom had discovered through charity programs she encountered as a social worker. I certainly didn’t buy Presbyterianism’s lingering affinities for Calvinism inherited from Knox (such as their attempt to retain the language of predestination while affirming Free Will), but the far more politically moderate to apolitical sermons, as well as focus on the God of the New Testament as opposed to my Grandmother’s God, was a refreshing change of pace from the evangelical dogmatism I had become accustomed to in Virginia. It fit my emerging Rand-influenced transition to political libertarianism well enough, and the old-church aesthetic and teaching methods fit well with the more philosophical outlook I had taken on religion.
In eleventh grade, we moved back to Michigan in the absolute middle of nowhere. Virtually every single protestant church within a twenty-mile radius was either some sort of dogmatically evangelical nondenominational super-church where the populist, charismatic sermons were brought to you buy Jesus, Inc.; or an equally evangelical tiny rural church with a median age of 75 where the sermons were the somewhat incoherent and rabidly evangelical ramblings of an elderly white man. Our young, upper-middle-class family didn’t fit into the former theologically or demographically and certainly didn’t fit into the later theologically or aesthetically. After about a year of church-shopping, our family stopped going to church altogether.
Abstaining from church did not dull my religion at all. Sure, the ethical doubts I was having at the time and the epistemological doubts caused by my philosophical readings were working in the background, but in a sense, this was my most deeply religious time. I had taken up fishing almost constantly all summer since we lived on a river, and much of my thoughts while sitting with the line in the water revolved around religion or politics. When my thoughts turned religious, there was always a sense of romantic/transcendentalist (I was reading Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman in school at the time) sublimity in nature that I could attribute to God. Fishing, romping around in the woods, hunting, and experiencing nature became the new church for me and was a source of private enjoyment and self-creation (you can already see where my affinities for Rorty come from) in my late teens. Still, most of my intellectual energy was spent on political and economic interests and by now I was a fully committed libertarian.
Subconsciously earlier in my teens, but very consciously by the time I moved to Michigan, I had begun to realize I was at the very least on the homosexual spectrum, quietly identifying as bisexual at the time. The homophobic religious rhetoric of other Christians got on my nerves, but in rural northern Michigan I was mostly insulated from it and it never affected me too deeply. Since I assumed I was bi, it wasn’t that huge a deal in terms of my identity even if homosexuality was a sin, which I doubted it was though I couldn’t explain why, so I never really thought too deeply about it. However, it did contribute to my ethical doubts about Christianity further; if God says homosexuality is a sin, and Christians are somehow justified in oppressing homosexuality, how does that bode for God’s cruelty? It became, very quietly, an anxiety akin to the anxieties I was having about war when I moved to Tennessee.
Though abstaining from church didn’t cheapen my experience of religion, my exposure to my grandmother’s angry God did. Up until that point, I had mostly been ignorant of her religious views because we lived so far away; but moving back to Michigan, as well as some health issues she had, thrust her religious fervor back into my—and my mother’s—consciousness. The way she talked about it and acted towards non-Christians reeked of the worst of I Samuel, Johnathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Jerry Falwell rolled into one. My skepticism towards the potential cruelty of the Christian God caused by my experiences with war and homophobia were really intensified by observing my maternal grandmother.
The year was 2013, I had just graduated from High School, I had just turned eighteen, and I had chosen my college. I had applied to some local state school as a backup which I only considered because it was a full-ride scholarship, my father’s alma-mater, the University of Michigan, and Hillsdale College. After the finances were taken care of, I’m fortunate enough to be a member of the upper-middle class, the real choices were between Michigan and Hillsdale. For better or for worse, I chose the latter.
My reasons for choosing Hillsdale were mostly based on misinformation about the college’s mission. Sure, I knew it was overwhelmingly conservative and religious. But I thought there was far more of a libertarian bent to campus culture. The religious element was sold to me as completely consensual, not enforced by the college at all other than a couple vague comments about “Judeo-Christian values” in the mission statement. I wanted a small college full of intellectually impassioned students who were dedicated to, as the college mission statement said, “Pursuing Truth, Defending Liberty.” The “defending liberty” part made me think the college was more libertarian, and the “pursuing truth” part made me assume it was very open-minded as a liberal arts education was supposed to be. I figured there’d probably be some issues about my budding homosexuality/bisexuality, but since it wasn’t a huge deal at the time for me personally, and some students I’d talked to said it wasn’t a big deal there, I thought I could handle it. Further, I suspected my major was going to be economics, and Hillsdale’s economics department—housing Ludwig von Mises’ library—is a dream come true (my opinion on this hasn’t changed).
If I ever had problems misunderstanding the concept of asymmetric information, the lies I was told as an incoming student to Hillsdale cleared them up. The Hillsdale I got was far more conservative than I could ever imagine and in a ridiculously dogmatic fashion. It was quickly revealed to be not the shining example of classical liberal arts education I had hoped for, but instead little more than a propaganda mill for a particularly nasty brand of Straussian conservatism. The majority of the students were religious in the same sense of my grandmother. Though they would intellectually profess to a different concept of God than my grandmother’s simplistic, lay-man Baptist understanding of God as an angry, jealous judge, the fruits of their faith showed little difference. My homosexual identity—by this point I’d abandoned the term “bisexual”—quickly became a focal point of my religious anxiety. Starting a few weeks in my freshman year, I began to fall into a deep depression, largely thanks to my treatment by these so-called “Christians”—that would cripple me for the next two years and that I am still dealing with the after-shocks of as I write this.
Despite the personal issues I had with my peers at Hillsdale, the two years I spent there were hands-down the two most intellectually exciting years of my life until that point. My first semester, I took an Introduction to Philosophy class. My professor, James Stephens, turned out to be a former Princeton student and had Richard Rorty and Walter Kauffman as mentors. His introductory class revolved first around ancient Greek philosophy, in particular, Plato’s Phaedo, then classical epistemology, particularly Descartes, Kant, and Hume, and a lot of experimental philosophy readings from the likes of Stephen Stitch and Joshua Knobe. The class primarily focused on issues in contemporary metaphysics which I had struggled with since I discovered Rand—like libertarian free will and theories of the self—epistemological issues, and metaphilosophical issues of method. Though only an intro class outside of my major, no class has changed my worldview quite as much as this.
In addition to the in-class readings, I read philosophy prolifically and obsessively outside of class as a matter of personal interest. That semester I had finished Stitch’s book The Fragmentation of Reason (which I wouldn’t have understood without extensive talks with Dr. Stephens in office hours), worked through most of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, basically re-learned Cartesianism, and read Hume’s Treatise. By the end of the class, I had completely changed almost every element of my philosophical world view. I went from a hardcore objectivist Cartesian to a fallibilist pragmatist (I had also read James due to Stitch’s work with him), from a fire-breathing metaphysical libertarian to a squishy compatibilist, from someone who had bought a simple referential view of language to a card-carrying Wittgensteinianist (of the Investigations, that is).
Other classes I took that first semester also would have a large impact on me. In my “Western Heritage” class—Hillsdale’s pretentious and propagandized term for what would usually be called something like “History of Western Thought: Ancient Times to 1600”—I essentially relearned all the theology I had poorly understood in my high school AP Euro class by reading church fathers and Catholic saints like Augustine, Tertullian, and, of course, Aquinas as well as rereading the likes of Luther and Calvin. Additionally, and this would have the most profound intellectual influence on me of anything I have ever read, I read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty in my first political economy class cemented my epistemological fallibilism (although, I also read Fatal Conceit for pleasure which influenced me even more).
Early on that year, after reading Plato and Augustine, I began to become committed to some sort of Platonism, and for a second considered some sort of Eastern Orthodoxy. By this point, I was a political anarchist and saw the hierarchical and top-down control of Catholicism as too analogous to coercive statist bureaucracy. By contrast, the more communal structure of Orthodoxy, though still Hierarchical, seemed more appealing. To paraphrase Richard Rorty on his own intellectual adolescence, I had desperately wanted to become one with God, a desperation I would later react to violently. I saw Plato’s ideas of the Forms and Augustine’s incorporation of them into Christianity as a means to do that. But as I kept reading, particularly James, Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein, the epistemological foundations of my Platonist metaphysical and theological stances crumbled. I became absolutely obsessed with the either-or propositions of the “Cartesian anxiety” and made a hobby of talking to my classmates in a Socratic fashion to show that they couldn’t be epistemically Certain in the Cartesian sense, much to the chagrin of most of my classmates. You could’ve played a drinking game of sorts during those conversations in which you took a shot every time I said some variation “How do you know that?” and probably give your child fetal alcohol syndrome, even if you weren’t pregnant or were a male.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I had turned more explicitly to theological readings and topics in my interests. (Keep in mind, I was mostly focusing on economics and math in class, almost all of this was just stuff I did on the side. I didn’t get out much in those days largely due to the social anxiety caused by the homophobia of my classmates.) My fallibilist/pragmatist epistemic orientation, as well as long with conversations with a fellow heterodox Hillsdale student from an Evangelical background, wound up with me getting very interested in “radical theology.” That semester, John Caputo had come to Hillsdale to discuss his book The Insistence of God. I attempted to read it at the time but was not well-versed enough in continental philosophy to really get what was going on in it. Nonetheless, my Jamesean orientation had me deeply fascinated in much of what Caputo was getting across.
My theological interests were twofold: first, more of an epistemic question, how can we know God exists? My conclusion was that we can’t, but whether God exists or not is irrelevant—what matters is the impact the belief of God has on our lives existentially and practically. This was the most I could glean out of Caputo’s premise “God doesn’t exist, he insists” without understanding Derrida, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Foucault. I began calling myself terms like “agnostic Christian,” “ignostic Christian,” or “pragmatist Christian” to try and describe my religious views. This also led me to a thorough rejection of Biblical literalism and infallibility, I claimed it was more a historical document on man’s interaction with God from man’s flawed perspective.
But, now in the forefront, were questions of Christianity’s ethical orientation that had lingered at the back of my mind since the early teens: why did the Christian God seem so cruel to me? I had resolved most of it with my rejection of Biblical infallibility. Chances are, God didn’t order the slaughter of Amalekites, or Satan’s torture of Job, or any of the other cruel acts in the Old Testament—the fallen humans who wrote the Bible misunderstood it. Chances are, most of the Old Testament laws on things like homosexuality were meant specifically for that historically contingent community and were not eternal moral laws and God of the New Testament, as revealed by Jesus, was the most accurate depiction of God in the Bible. Paul’s prima facie screeds against homosexuality in the New Testament, when taken in context and hermeneutically analyzed, probably had nothing to do with homosexuality as we know it today (I found this sermon convincing on that note). God sent Jesus not as a substitute for punishment but to act as an exemplar for how to love and not be cruel to others. I could still defend the rationality of my religious faith on Jamesean grounds, I was quoting Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism more than the Bible at that point. I also flirted with some more metaphysically robust theologies. Death of God theology seemed appealing based off of the little I knew about Nietzsche, and process theology to me bore a beautiful resemblance to Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order. Even saying it now, much of that sounds convincing and if I were to go back to Christianity, most of those beliefs would probably remain in-tact.
But still, there was this nagging doubt that the homophobic, anti-empathetic behavior of the Hillsdale “Christians” somehow revealed something rotten about Christianity as a whole. The fact that the church had committed so many atrocities in the past from Constantine using it to justify war, to the Crusades, to the Spanish conquistadors, to the Salem witch trials, to the persecution of homosexuals and non-believers throughout all of history still rubbed me the wrong way. Jesus’ line about judging faith by its fruits became an incredibly important scripture for me with my interest in William James. That scripture made me extremely skeptical of the argument that the actions of fallen humans do not reflect poorly on the TruthTM about the Christian God. What was the cash value of Christian belief if it seemed so obviously to lead to so much human cruelty throughout history and towards me personally?
That summer and the next semester, two books, both written by my philosophy professor’s mentors coincidentally enough as I had independently come across them, once again revolutionized the way I looked at religion. The first was Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the second was William Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Psychologist, Philosopher, Antichrist which I had read in tandem with most of Nietzsche’s best-known work (ie., Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Genealogy of Morals, and, most relevant to this discussion, The Antichrist).
Rorty had destroyed any last vestiges of Cartesianism or Platonism I had clung to. His meta-philosophical critique of big-P Philosophy that tries to stand as the ultimate judge of knowledge claims of the various professions around me completely floored me. His incorporation of Kuhnian philosophy of science and Gadamer’s hermeneutics was highly relevant to my research interests in the methodology of economics. Most importantly for religion was his insistence, though more explicit in his later works I had noticed it fairly heavily in PMN, that we are only answerable to other humans. There is no world of the forms to which we can appeal to, there is no God to whom we are answerable to, there is no metaphysical concepts we can rely on to call a statement true or false. The measurement of truth is the extent to which it helps us cope with the world around us, the extent to which it helps us interact with our fellow human beings.
Nietzsche’s concept of the Death of God haunted me, and now that I was beginning to read more continental philosophy some of the concepts in Caputo that flew over my head began to make sense. The Enlightenment Project to ground knowledge had made God, at least for much of the intellectual class who were paying attention to the great philosophical debates, a forced option. No longer could we rely on the Big Other to ground all our values, we had to reevaluate all our values and build a meaningful life for ourselves. Additionally Nietzsche’s two great criticisms of Christianity in the Antichrist stuck in my mind. Nietzsche’s critique that it led to the inculcation of slave morality, a sort of resentiment for the “lower people” didn’t quite stick because it seemed cruel. But his view that Christianity’s command to “store our treasures in heaven” took all the focus off of this world, it ignored all those pragmatic and practical results of our philosophical beliefs that had become so important to me thanks to Matthew 7:16 and William James, and instead focused on our own selfish spiritual destiny did stick.The first critique didn’t quite ring with me because Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian, and to be honest quite cruel, attitude seemed as bad as what I saw the Christians doing to me. But his criticism of Christianity’s afterworldly focus on the afterlife rather than the fruits of their faith in this life posed a serious threat to my beliefs, and helped explain why the empathetic, homophobic hatred I was experiencing from my classmates was causing so much religious anxiety and cognitive dissonance.
(Note: Clearly, I’m violently oversimplifying and possibly misreading both Nietzsche and Rorty in the previous two paragraphs, but that’s beside the point as I’m more interested in what they made me think of in my intellectual development, not what they actually thought themselves.)
Still, through most of my sophomore year, I tried to resist atheism as best I could and cling to what I saw as salvageable in Christianity: the idea of universal Christian brotherhood and its potential to lead people to be kind to each other was still promising. Essentially, I still wanted to salvage Jesus as a didactic exemplar of moral values of empathy and kindness, if not in some metaphysical ideal of God, at least in the narrative of Jesus’s life and his teaching. Ben Franklin’s proto-pragmatic, yet still virtue ethical, view on religion in his Autobiography lingered in my mind very strongly during this phase. I still used the term “agnostic Christian” through most of that time and self-identified as a Christian, but retrospectively the term “Jesusist” probably better described the way I was thinking at that time.
I came to loathe (and still do) what Paul had done to Christianity: turning Jesus’ lessons into absolutist moral laws rather than parables on how to act kinder to others. See, for example, Paul’s treatment of sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians. Paul represented the worst slave-morality tendencies Nietzsche ridiculed to the extreme, and the way he acted as if there was only one way—which happened to be his what I saw as very cruel way—to experience Jesus’ truth in religious community in all his letters vexed me. Additionally, I loathed Constantine for turning Christianity into a tool to justify governmental power and coercion, which it remained throughout the reign of the Holy Roman Empire, Enlightenment-era absolutism, and into modern social conservative theocratic tendencies in America.
But the idea of an all-loving creator, if not a metaphysical guarantee of meaning and morality, sending his son/himself as an exemplar for what humanity can and should be still was extremely—and in many ways still is—attractive to me. I flirted with the Episcopalian and Unitarian Universalist churches, but something about their very limited concept of community rubbed me the wrong way (I probably couldn’t justify it or put my finger on it).
Clearly, my religious and philosophical orientation (not to mention my anarchist political convictions) put me at odds with Hillsdale orthodoxy. I started writing papers that were pretty critical of my professor’s lectures at times (though I still managed to mostly get A’s on them). These essays were particularly critical in my Constitution (essentially a Jaffaite propaganda class) and American Heritage (essentially a history of American political thought class, which was taught very well by a brilliant orthodox Catholic Hillsdale grad) classes. I was writing editorials in the student paper subtlety ridiculing Hillsdale’s homophobia and xenophobia, and engaging in far too many Facebook debates on philosophy, politics, and religion that far too often got far too personal.
In addition, in the beginning of my sophomore year, I came out as gay publicly. With the Supreme Court decision coming up the following summer, never had Hillsdale’s religiously-inspired homophobia reached such a fever-pitch. I could hardly go a day without hearing some homophobic slur or comment and the newspaper was running papers—often written by professors—claiming flat out false things about gay people (like comparing it to incest, saying that no society has ever had gay marriage and the like). The fruit/cash value of Jesus’ teachings was quite apparently not turning out to be the empathetic ethos I had hoped for, the rotten elements of the Old Testament God which my grandmother emphasized, the Pauline perversions, and Constantine’s statism were instead dominating the Christian ethos.
At the end of that academic year (culminating with this) I suffered a severe mental breakdown largely due to Hillsdale’s extreme homophobia. By the beginning of the next school year, I was completely dysfunctional academically, intellectually, and socially; I was apathetic about all the intellectual topics I had spent my entire thinking life occupied with, completely jaded about the future, and overall extraordinarily depressed. I’ll spare the dirty details, but by the end of the first month of my Junior year, it became clear I could no longer go on at Hillsdale. I withdrew from Hillsdale, and transferred to the University of Michigan.
That pretty much takes me up to present day. But coming out of that depression, I began to seriously pick back up the question of why Christianity—even the good I saw in Jesusism—no longer seemed true in the pragmatic sense. Why was this religion I had spent my whole life so committed to all of a sudden utterly lacking in cash value?
I found my answer in Rorty and Nietzsche one cold January day while I took a weekend trip to Ann Arbor with my boyfriend. I sat down at a wonderful artisan coffee shop set in a quaint little arcade tucked away in downtown Ann Arbor, and was re-reading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty’s continued insistence that “cruelty is the worst thing you can do,” even if he couldn’t metaphysically or epistemically justify it, seemed to be a view I had from the very beginning when my doubts about the Christian faith started thanks to my experiences with the victims of war.
Now, I can say that the reason I’m not a Christian—and the reason I think it would be a good idea if Christianity as religion faded out as a public metanarrative (though not as a private source for joy and self-creation that my dad exemplified)—is because Christianity rejects the idea that cruelty is the worst thing you can do. According to Christian orthodoxy (or, at least, the protestant sola fide sort I grew up with), you can be as outrageously, sadistically, egomaniacally cruel to another person as you want, and God will be perfectly fine with it if you believe in him. If Stalin would “accept God into his heart”—whatever that means—his place in paradise for eternity is assured, even if he had the blood of fifty million strong on his hands.
I have no problem with that per se, I agree with Nietzsche that retributive justice is little more than a thinly veiled excuse for revenge. Further, I agree with Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender in saying “Revenge is like a two-headed rat viper: while you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.” As an economist, the whole idea of revenge kind of seems to embrace the sunk cost fallacy. I still regard radical forgiveness and grace as among the best lessons Christianity has to offer, even forgiveness for someone like Stalin.
What seems absurd is that while Stalin could conceivably get a pass, even the kindest, most genuinely empathetic, and outstanding human being will be eternally damned and punished by God simply for not believing. For the Christian, the worst thing you can do is not be cruel, the worst thing you can do is reject their final vocabulary. When coupled with Nietzsche’s insights that Christianity is so focused on the afterlife that it ignores the pragmatic consequences of actions in this life, it is no wonder that Christianity has bred so much cruelty throughout history. Further, the idea that we are ultimately answerable to a metaphysical Big Other rather than to our fellow human beings (as Rorty would have it) seems to cheapen the importance of our other human beings. The most important thing to Christians is God, not your fellow man.
Of course, the Christian apologist will remark that “TrueTM” Christianity properly understood does not necessarily entail that conclusion. No true Scotsman aside, the point is well taken. Sure, the concept of Christian brotherhood teaches that since your fellow man is created in God’s image harming him is the same as harming God. Sure, Jesus does teach the most important commandment is essentially in line with my anti-cruelty. Sure, different sects of Christianity have a different view of divinity that are more nuanced than the one I gave.
But, again, if we judge this faith by its fruits, if we empirically look at the cash value of this belief, if we look at the revealed preference of many if not most Christians, it aligns more with my characterization than I would like. Between the emphasis on the afterlife, the fundamentally anti-humanist (in a deep sense) ethical orientation, and the belief that cruelty is not the worst thing you can do, I see little cash value to Christianity and a whole bunch of danger that it is highly apt—and clearly has been empirically—to be misused for sadistic purposes.
This is not to say Christianity is completely (pragmatically) false. I also agree with Rorty when he says the best way to reduce cruelty and advance human rights is through “sentimental education.” The tale of Jesus, if understood the way we understand a wonderful work of literature—like Rorty himself characterizes writers like Orwell—should live on. It may sound corny and blasphemous, but if “Christian” were simply the name of the Jesus “fandom,” I’d definitely be a Christian. I also certainly don’t think Christianity is something nobody should believe. The cash value of a belief is based on the myriad of particular contingencies of an individual or social group, and those contingencies are not uniform to my experience. However, from my contingent position, I cannot in good faith have faith.
Perhaps it is a sad loss, perhaps it is a glorious intellectual and personal liberation, and perhaps it is something else. Only time will tell. Anyways, 6,325 words later I hope I have adequately explained to myself why I am not a Christian.