Her name was Jae; and she was a sophomore at North Pulaski High School in Jacksonville Arkansas when she passed away at the end of Spring Break in 2004. I remember Jae as having been this very energetic, compassionate, and charismatic individual with whom I shared many classes, a few smiles and passing conversations, and the mentorship of one influential role model. Coach Travis Lyda, our advanced placement World History teacher, had just asked us a question the Friday before:
What would you do if you only had one week left to live?
You see, we had reached the era in history known as the Dark Ages, and we were discussing the manner in which various sects of monks dealt with the disease that was ravishing Europe known as The Black Death. Lyda was contrasting the methods of those who practiced flagellation against those who chose to live life to the fullest; which prompted the question:
What would you do if you only had one week left to live?
Jae was among several of us to offer up their ideal way to pass on; and, like our classmates, her actions were centered on the ideal Spring Break. Jae had declared that her ideal week would conclude with her going fishing with friends; so when she passed midafternoon the following Friday with a note left in lipstick on her bathroom mirror of "Going Fishing" - a small town teenager would believe it nothing short of a miracle. This miraculous occurrence catalyzed several several things in my small town:
- The dangerous intersection in which several accidents (almost always resulting in fatalaties) a year would be restructured and recieve a stoplight.
- The funeral, which would host over 3,000 individuals from the area, would bring the community closer.
- The youth of the neighborhood, myself included, would have their first brush with mortality.
It would take several years for me to revisit this moment in history on a spiritual level, but it plays a role in my conversion (if you can call it that) to Christianity. This moment would spark, through a series of unlikely events, a small handful of friendships that would eventually lead to my attending Marshall Road Baptist Church. You see, I had grown up a "functional Atheist" as Ryan Bell would describe it; meaning that while when I was asked, I would espouse a belief in God (particularly Christ), my actions did not reflect this belief.
So, when I found myself becoming immersed in a suddenly more religious environment, and my extended network started drawing me towards church, I found myself moving towards it. In hindsight, this sudden pull towards religious practice in the years that followed made sense (see: The Power of Habit); but suffice to say at the time, it was a new and uncertain journey that I was beginning to emabark on.
The next six years would be a very pleasant journey into hyper religiosity; but for all of my fervor, I had never completely gotten rid of my functional atheism and I stuck to the more liberal churches in my area. However, liberal or not, I found myself practicing religion virtually every time the doors to my church opened and I found myself "witnessing" to troubled peers on PostSecret Community Chat. This constant presence that religion would have in my life would inevitably give me guidance throughout my young adult years and help establish an eternal outlook on life.
This eternal outlook is something that many theists espouse to having, but seldom actually practice. In many respects, even avid church goers are functional atheists, and it was my experience that many of them found themselves thinking eternally for their own salvation (re: heaven vs hell), and the salvation of others as it relates to their own standing in the eternal score book. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of most theists, but this post isn't about them and I only bring up this eternal view to reference a very philosophical and introspective era in my young adult life.
It was during this era that I thought I had found the meaning to life. I was aflame with the passion to do the Lord's work, find his calling for my life, and live my life in service to a greater good. I had joined the military (unrelated), I was working through my second associates degree, and I was devouring information from God, military service, and academia at a pretty staggering rate. Unfortunately, this meant trying to make sense of, often times, conflicting information.
To make sense of this information, I would take multiple philosophy electives and read countless books on the origin of life and the secular movement within America to best make sense of the Science Vs Theism debate. They were, after all, two sides of the same coin. And while if you heard my views on how Hell is really just "Absence of God and the natural end point of the Original Sin and Free Will" or the theory on how God exists outside Space-Time enabling the literal seven day creation to take eons, you might laugh - but these thought exercises ended up lighting a passion that would, several years later, unravel my short lived religious fervor without undoing the lessons it had taught me.
Several years later, after my family was sent realing from the loss of all four of my grandparents, and the suicide of two extended family members within a three year period, I found myself questioning the religious process. This questioning had started a little before these circumstances unfolded, but these losses - particularly the attempt to rationalize the "unforgivable sin" of suicide - had me creating overtly complex models to justify the existence of life after death under the Christian model. A model in which the vast majority of human existence (arguably, even a large number of Christians, depending on your denomination) would be damned to eternal Hell through (arguably) no fault of their own.
This cascading effect led me through several long philosophical discussions and journeys in which I seriously evaluated the premise of Christianity and it's net effect on humanity's survival.
It's beyond question that the major religions of our world have done their fair share of evil things and, in doing so, have set humanity back centuries in scientific progress; however, I think what the more militant anti-theists often neglect is the role that religion has played in ensuring humanity's survival. In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer illustrates exactly why we see patterns where they don't exist and argues how this predisposition to see patterns has led to the global rise of religion throughout our history.
However, he doesn't delve into why the ubiquitous nature of religion was a good thing until recently. During our species' infancy, it didn't really matter if we thought the stars were ghosts or gods, so long as we recognized that they heralded the rising tide or changing of the seasons. Similarly, while we often times cry out against entities that prevent our freedom to live life as we choose, religious doctrine and law arguably played a large role in creating a society that values order where chaos once existed.
However, in today's world - and as a young man living in the age of the Internet - the value of religion on a personal and societal level is far from being beyond questioning; and as a society that values freedom (allegedly) above all else, patronage to an institution that limits our freedoms by its very definition seems backwards. Which ultimately brought me to my religious breaking point.
During the time after my family's losses, and in an attempt to answer some of life's biggest questions without conflicting with the knowledge I had gained through multiple undergraduate degrees and hundreds of books, I found myself slipping further from religion and God. I struggled not only to deal with an allegedly benevolent God that would allow Jae or my uncle, both of whom were incredibly devout, to die well before their time; but also with understanding how worship fit into a generation at war.
Once the drift started, it couldn't be stopped.
It wasn't enough to be a "liberal Christian" that believed in marriage equality, no wage gap, world peace (ironic given my profession, I know), and equality for all walks of life. It wasn't enough to know that I was making the right decisions, donating to the right charities, and believing the correct morals - I was believing them for the wrong reasons. Everything I was doing was going through what I now refer to as "The God Filter."
My stance on marriage equality is no longer a minority, but even when it was - I was still running my political beliefs through The God Filter. I knew how I felt on the issue, and I knew what I felt to be morally correct in this instance - but I couldn't let myself believe or commit to it until I checked with the Bible. Similarly, I knew that women earning .77 on the dollar compared to men was (and still is) immoral; but I couldn't allow myself to vocalize it without rationalizing scripture.
I needed a change, so I started distancing myself from Christianity. Where I was once a liberal Christian, I found myself inventing titles like Agnostic Theist, Christian Leaning. Talk about a conversation starter. And it was a difficult trek as my "heroes and legends turned to idols of clay" and I found myself struggling to turn to the once dreaded secular world. However, once I came through it, I found myself with one final hurdle to cross - one final step.
It was only recently that I lost the creative titles and simply started referring to myself as an atheist; and the day I made that announcement, it was as if a great weight had been removed from my shoulders. No longer would I need to run every action through The God Filter, nor would every mistake be "The Devil's Fault" or accolade belong to Jesus. My life was my own, and it was the only one I would have.
My eternal mindset quickly became temporal, and my focus became more communal. If my life was my own and temporary, then I would want to live it to the fullest - without governments or religions interfering with my choices. And if I would want that for my single, temporary life, then I can only believe that others would want the same for themselves as well.
Suddenly life became simple. "I supported marriage equality because to do otherwise was shitty." Where I once would have had to prove that with thousands of words and rationalize it against scripture (selectively ignoring pieces of it in the process), I could summarize it in a single sentence. If I felt froggy, I could add on a second: "If I was in their shoes, that's what I would want."
Women in the military? "If I was a woman, I would want the option of serving."
Contraceptives? "I'm glad I have condoms! I bet the other methods are pretty swell too!"
Life became simple; and more than that, it became guilt-free. I would no longer have to look over my shoulder and make sure I abided by a strict code of conduct. Every personal tragedy wouldn't have to be treated as the bubonic plague, and I wouldn't have to repent with self-flagellation. I could just enjoy my life, make my mistakes, and learn from them.
When you remove The God Filter, the question of what to do with your last week on Earth only has one option remaining: