Guest by Karen the Rock Whisperer
This is a personal story.
At nearly 62 years old, I’m an agnostic atheist (and a secular humanist). I don’t actually know that there are no deities. However, I don’t know of any real evidence for a deity. I can’t believe in someone(s) who supposedly affects the workings of the real world, and yet leaves no trail of evidence that meets the scientific standard. God, by whatever name(s), is so important to most of the human occupants of our planet, that I can’t believe such evidence wouldn’t make it into a paper in a top-tier journal like Science or Nature. I have specific problems with the Christian understanding of God, but those only become relevant when real evidence of that deity, or any deity, is established. This hasn’t happened.
What I can believe in, because modern psychology documents it and I’ve personally experienced it, is the ability of the human mind to acquire and persist in all kinds of beliefs that have no external justification. I spent the first three decades of my life being absolutely convinced that I am worthless, completely lacking in value to anyone, and a total waste of resources. I maintained this belief in the face of K-12 and university grades that said I was a good to very good student, the love and affection of a man who would become my husband, a sterling work record with regular promotions, and other evidence to the contrary. In my early thirties, my mental health finally deteriorated to the point of near non-functionality, and I had to get help. A prescription for an antidepressant calmed the tsunami waves of hopelessness that washed over me. Therapy, off and on over the last three decades, has helped me learn techniques for redirecting my mind away from the rumination that brings on those waves. The depression dragon that lives in my mind, and whispers to me about what a disgusting waste of good oxygen I am, is still there. I’ve simply learned how to coax her into sleeping most of the time.
I grew up Roman Catholic, in a very conservative, authoritarian household, dogged by undiagnosed depression. I attended Catholic elementary and high schools run by an order of very liberal nuns. If my parents had learned about the feminist environment of my schools or the nearly humanist liberalism of my nuns, there would have been explosions of volcanic proportions, but I wasn’t telling. (Those nuns planted the seeds of my current secular humanism.) My doubts about the veracity of my church’s teachings began in high school. One issue was that, although I prayed often and intently, I never felt any connection to a god in my prayers. It really felt like I was talking to the ceiling. Another was that Catholic theology was starting to not make rational sense, and having things make sense was becoming more and more important to me.
I went off to college to study engineering, and then married a classmate who came from an Evangelical background. Together we attended an Evangelical church for a few years before abandoning churchgoing entirely. Overall, that church was a painful experience for me, because the Evangelical emphasis on the worthlessness of humans fed my depression. It also baffled me as I gradually realized that my fellow church members actually believed in Biblical inerrancy. I knew enough science to realize that it couldn’t possibly be so.
So, many experiences, many indicators that Christianity was a hodgepodge of questionable beliefs, and I was ready for deconversion, right? Well, no. Depression kept me tied to the theology of human worthlessness. Engineering did the same. The mindset of an engineer is that there is an established body of knowledge, well-codified, and the engineer must design a solution to a technical problem by drawing on that established knowledge. All problems have solutions, though it might take a great deal of creativity to develop some solutions. Engineers live in a world of facts and (hopefully) reasonable extrapolations from those facts. Christianity (like other religions) offers what it declares is an established body of knowledge about God, his relationship with humans, and his demands and expectations. I was having issues with that supposedly established body of knowledge, but for several years I approached the problem as an engineer: clearly, if I was confused, I simply didn’t understand the established body of knowledge well enough.
Then came the WOW experience of the first antidepressant, and the questioning. The dragon in my mind had been telling me all these lies about myself. What other lies were hiding up there? Were my doubts and questions about religion actually justified? I soldiered on, questioning many things I’d considered as intractably true as the laws of physics. It was hard work, I stalled out many times, and struggled to shake the depression and improve my opinion of myself.
Middle age came around. (We never had children.) I’d gotten into the habit of being laid off, because my engineering expertise was in a fiercely contracting subfield. I’d find what seemed like a promising company, to have it miss a market window or not qualify for the last infusion of venture capital, and go bankrupt. It got very tiresome after a while. Then my parents needed extended support, which took me out of the workforce for a few years. I needed to retrain, and my heart wasn’t in it. Meanwhile, a casual interest in geology was becoming an obsession. With support from my wonderful husband, instead of going back to engineering school, I entered a master’s program in geology at our local university.
My geology education was another WOW experience, an extended one, because I discovered the scientific outlook. All knowledge is provisional, and everything is questionable. Scientific theories are established by not only their ability to explain real-world phenomena, but their ability to predict future phenomena. I acquired the ability to question everything I thought I knew. I lost the engineering mindset of seeing life as full of problems to be solved using a body of codified knowledge. Instead, I embraced the scientific mindset of seeing life as an adventure of discovery, where I was required to keep challenging my own understanding.
I became disabled and have never been able to work as a geologist (long story, not germane here). But the gift of that scientific education is the ability to truly examine my beliefs, disconnect them from all the oppressive ‘shoulds’ of my upbringing and the depression dragon in the back of my mind, and decide on their validity based on what I know about reality. And so, today, I can stand up and call myself an agnostic atheist, free of residual fears and doubts, because I have a good (and improving!) toolkit for evaluating the stuff in my own mind. Not that I’ve reached some pinnacle of self-knowledge, or that the depression dragon doesn’t still have some good days. I’m a work in progress. But instead of a default mental state of struggling and stalling, my default state is now up and flying.
I have discovered true freedom.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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