My spiritual journey
Before I knew an angel from the ice cream man, I was taken to church - because that's what parents did in the 1950s - they dressed up the kids and trekked off to weekly doses of righteousness. I never did actually enjoy church; my mind was too active to sit still and listen to monotone stories of how sinful I was. But I tolerated it - because that's what kids did in the 1950s. Our family had moved to Dallas in 1952 and promptly joined a Presbyterian church in the neighborhood. I enjoyed Sunday School more. We made stuff. I enjoyed making stuff. I enjoyed Vacation Bible School also - because we made stuff there, too.
I started avoiding church services in junior high or high school. Sometimes I would lay in bed and pretend to be asleep when mom or dad came down the hall to see if we were ready for church. They'd prod a little bit, but not enough to make me actually get up and get dressed in a tie. That 'faking it' procedure got me through the high school years. I was, however, active in the evening youth vespers - I even became president of the Vespers group. That was enjoyable because of the friends I had there and the friends I made there. It was a social outing. It was fun. There was no deep spiritual commitment. I just went through the rote drills of worship.
I went to the diverse community of Austin, Texas for college at the University of Texas. One evening, in the living room of the neighboring dorm, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the country's eminent atheist activist came to speak. I listened. I still considered myself to be a Christian, but I had to admit, much of what she said made sense. I was open minded enough to at least ponder options of spirituality and/or religion. I didn't embrace atheism, however. It didn't feel right. After all, I was the product of years of brainwashing of mainstream Biblical fairy tales.
In college, while I lived at the Sigma Chi fraternity house (whose creeds and rituals were based on Christianity), I became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. A crusade rep spoke at our chapter dinners, led Bible Study, and counseled us individually in our rooms. As I was about to serve as chapter president, I prayed to Jesus for the strength and guidance to lead a bunch of college fraternity guys. I also smoked marijuana. Now I'm not sure which was the greater help - Jesus or weed, but I did get through the year-long term as president.
So, late 1970 or early 1971, I became a devout born-again Christian. I hung out with the Christian faction in the fraternity house, went to church, dated a woman from church, and truly believed I had found salvation and joy in Jesus (or was that the dope talking, again?)
While I was in college, I concluded that denominations could not have come from God since they were so often based on human disagreements. Sects splitting from sects that had broken off of cults that had broken off of cults. So I searched for and found a nondenominational Bible Church. This felt better - no divisive creeds - just teachings rooted in the Holy Bible. I carried that philosophy with me when I moved back to Dallas and, although I went through phases of being devout and being lukewarm, I usually stayed true to a nondenom Bible church.
I did go through another search phase, this time looking for a more honest, true church. I found it in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). These people had their act together. What a slick organization. I was sold. In about 1980, I was baptized a Mormon. I had to be re-baptized since the Mormon church did not honor nor acknowledge my Presbyterian baptism. I enjoyed the Mormon church - the zeal, the purity, the striving to earn the right to enter the Temple.
Some Christian friends thought I was an idiot for becoming a Mormon and submitted my name to two Mormon-buster mailing lists. These are organizations that exist solely to get people out of the cult of Mormonism. They now had my name. I received lots of mail and phone calls. I read their literature. I was open to what they were trying to tell me. Soon, after considering their logic, I agreed with them - the Mormon church is a hoax. It was founded by two humans who, dissatisfied with their own church, created their own and wrote an accompanying book.
One of my favorite activities is to invite Mormon Missionaries into my home and ask how the angel Moroni could have taken the golden plates (on which Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon) up to heaven - how could physical objects be taken into a spiritual realm? The missionaries hate that question. One young kid even got angry with me because he had no answer to my question. His white-shirted partner had to calm him down - I suspect the younger guy was new to the proselytizing task.
Well, I did go back to the Mormon church - to meet with the elders and tell them I thought their church was a hoax and not for me. They were disappointed but polite (I think they had heard it before). I went back to the Bible church.
I was so devout that I broke up with what many said was the perfect wife for me, but she was an atheist and I felt strongly that a couple should share at least some basic spiritual beliefs. I was a Christian and she was an atheist - couldn't happen.
A significant event happened while I was teaching at a community college. I had just completed my PhD and told the class the news. A student came up to me after class and commented how neat it was that, even though I was intelligent, I was still a spiritual Christian (she knew that because I shared my faith in class). She said that research shows the more intelligent one is, the less likely one is to be religious. Well, that bothered me. I was religious yet I wanted to consider myself to be intelligent.
Another significant event in my spiritual growth is the fact that no one has ever been able to explain the meaning of "Jesus died for my sins." I do not understand how that could be and no one else has helped me with that one. A pastor once told me that all Christians had doubts - if they didn't they were lying to themselves or were ignorant of their own beliefs. I had doubts about how or why Jesus died for me. I accepted the rationale that there are some things God just doesn't want us to understand.
I moved to Oklahoma and went to MetroChurch in Edmond. I was looking for a nondenominational church and that one seemed to have spirit. I was very devout at this time. I would not go to sleep until I had read my Bible, often memorizing verses before going to bed. I fasted on Sundays and tried to keep the day holy.
My teaching philosophy includes helping students to become better thinkers - to be open minded, to reason, to be innovative risk-takers, and become better problem solvers. I push students to think things through for themselves. Over the course of about two years, I had three students that made a huge impact on my spiritual growth - Ginger, Jodie, and whats-her-name. These students were unable to think for themselves.
I once asked Jodie a thinking question. She said:
"Well, the textbook says . . "
"I can read the book, I want to know what you think."
"Well, the class seems to think . . "
"I'm not asking the class - what do you think?"
Dead silence. I realized she was unable to think for herself. She often quoted the Bible and shared her faith in Jesus. The experience with those three students got me to realize - the more devoutly religious one is, the less likely one is a good thinker, a good innovator. This was weird. Could it be true? I spent the next two years researching religion, creativity, and thinking. Sure enough, statistics and my experience show it to be true.
I started exploring my own beliefs and spiritual philosophies. My devout Christianity was so ingrained in me that I was resistant to let it go. After all, it provided comfort and familiarity in a tough world. It was part of who I was. I wasn't willing to let go of that. The more I read and discussed with others, the more I came to accept that religion is just medication - it helps some ease their pain. It is comfortable, it does help one belong. It does provide social outlets. But its a sham - faith built on fairy tales, found in a book. That book says its true (the antidote to sin is found in the Bible, but the concept of sin is also found only in the Bible - the book tells us how to overcome something the book created in the first place). I also realized that all the things the Mormon-busters told me about Mormonism could be applied to most religious sects and cults. They were all doctrines created by men to further and promote man-based causes.
At first I became an agnostic. That made sense. The existence of God is unknowable. We will never know how the world began nor how life began. Those events are simply unknowable. Therefore, all humans are agnostics. None of us knows for sure, despite what my Christian neighbors tell me. The universe may have been created by a magnificent supreme being (could even be God) but, if so, I think he has moved on to other projects. After you create something, don't you move on to other projects? I enjoy the bumper sticker: "Militant Agnostic. I don't know and you don't either".
The more I read and studied and listened to my inner thoughts, the more I realized that believing in an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing superbeing was not for me. It was too silly and fraught with too much conjecture and too many inconsistencies and shallow creeds. But it was very hard to let go of my Christian beliefs. My identity was based on being a Christian, it provided comfort and acceptance. But I had learned enough that I could not go back.
When I became a born-again Christian, it was a huge leap in my spiritual growth. When I became a born-again atheist, it was an even larger leap in my spiritual growth. I truly felt liberated. So much about religion and Christianity now made sense. It is just a drug, a medication for people in need. In need of belonging, in need of feeling accepted, in need of justification, in need of a set of beliefs.
As an atheist, I am more satisfied, more ethical, and more self-confident; and I have more self esteem. There are statistics that show atheists have higher morals (they answer to themselves, they are not led by an invisible God, and they believe that this life is it - be good while in it.) Questioning religion and then becoming an agnostic/atheist is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me: more joyous, happy, and liberated. My eyes have been opened. I have learned the truth, and the truth has truly set me free.
I no longer believe that a baby was born of a virgin, that a snake or serpent talked, that women came from a man's bone, that man was formed from dirt, or that the son of God (or God himself - which is it?) became an unsuccessful carpenter, died, and came back to life. I assume Jesus of Nazareth, single into his thirties at a time when the norm was for people to marry young, wasn't a very good carpenter as there is no mention of his services being admired or in great demand. He held people's attention with his fables. I assume he was a good storyteller and a charismatic speaker - I have no reason to believe he was anything more than that.
The world now makes more sense. Why would a loving and all-powerful God allow two planes to fly into the World Trade Center? Or a major earthquake and tsunami in Japan? Tornadoes in Oklahoma that spare some people and kill others? When I was a Christian, I wouldn't be able to make sense of those and other tragedies. There is no logical explanation that also includes God. The common standard response is something like, "There are some things we're just not meant to understand." Religion just didn't/doesn't satisfy my desire and need to understand.
Jesus of Nazareth may have, intentionally or unintentionally, led a great cult of believers with his wisdom, stories, and promises. He may have been a smart man who appealed to those seeking easy answers. He developed a following of people who listened and thirsted for a spiritual journey. These people, especially Saul/Paul, worshipped this wise man and later built a church and a religion around his words. They formed a cult of worshippers. Years after the death of Jesus, some of those followers wrote about him in order to witness to others. Some of those writings were compiled into a 'holy book' - the Bible.
During my journey, I was adequately brainwashed (Church camp, Vacation Bible School, Bible stories) to be a 'good' Christian. Fortunately neither of my parents were very devout (even though my father spent a lot of time socializing at church activities) nor did they insist that I be. I might still be a devout Christian today if not for:
1. The phrase, "Jesus died for my sins." God demands the blood of an innocent man (his own son or he, himself, depending on one's creed of beliefs), in order to forgive sins, that he himself condemned us with. No one has yet been able to explain that phrase to me.
2. The comment "Glad you're still a Christian. Most smart people are not religious."
3. The three Christian non-thinkers in class. I have since encountered just too many thoughtless Christians, such a waste of ability.
4. The realization that I am a bit too curious and inquisitive; have read the Bible too thoroughly, with its tales of a vengeful, egotistical, murderous God; and have discussed spiritually with too many intelligent thinkers.
We each choose a path of personal beliefs and values that provides comfort for us. After being a devout Christian and questioning and conducting research into beliefs, the Bible, propaganda, and one's ability to think; I have chosen the path of skeptic agnostic or atheist - it is more rational, intelligent and just good common sense.
© James Robert Watson, PhD, 2016