I went atheist in 2005, and in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have taken that long. After all, I had spent an enormous number of the previous years being told half-truths and outright falsities in two different religions which effectively brainwashed me into thinking the sky god was going to smite my ass the second I had any kind of thought he considered impure. Of course, impure thoughts to my god were more like what popular culture considered impure thoughts to god: No booze, no sex, no swearing, no blasphemy – you know, all the best-known euphemisms for “no fun.” I had also learned in both direct and indirect manners that I had to look down on all the heathens and work hard to show them the great holy light.
Unfortunately for all the ministers I had during that time, I also had an inquisitive personality and had met enough different kinds of people that I learned to overlook their backgrounds. There was no way I would ever be able to do this religion thing both ways, and seeing as how the latest text message from either of my religions had arrived in the Dark Ages, it was god and religion that finally got the boot. Switching religions is a weird experience, and leaving it completely can give a longtime believer the heebie-jeebies. I developed an immediate hate for all religions at first which sent me into a good year-and-a-half-long spat with, for lack of a better term, shock. Religious belief isn’t something you can turn on and off if you were interpreting your teachings the way I was. It was a slow, gradual realization, and by the time I reached my big “Eureka!” moment, I was overcome with anger – anger at myself for being a blind dummy, anger at this god I suddenly didn’t believe in, and anger at the system that had successfully warped me into thinking “can’t sleep; god will eat me” all the damn time. I entered a period where all discussion about religion resulted in my impersonation of a Fox News pundit.
Ten years after the fact, my relationship with god is still irreparably ruined. My relationship with religion, though, began a significant upturn in the last half of 2006. I happened to be invited into a religious community with an open mind and an acceptance of anyone at face value. I gravitated toward them because I could talk or ask questions about religion and not get simple answers. Later, we held book groups, and it was in those groups that I started reading the work of Christian scholar Marcus Borg.
Most of my friends claimed Borg’s most famous books, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, as their biggest influences. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten around to reading either of those, so my first look at a Marcus Borg book was The Heart of Christianity. To put it bluntly, it was a whopper. There was eye-opening, revelatory material on virtually every page. Borg frequently questioned the stuff written in The Bible and invited his readers to look at the old historical context of everything written in it. It was primarily through the writing of Marcus Borg that I started to realize my beef with religion wasn’t exactly religion itself so much as it is the contemporary way of practicing it. It soon dawned on me that I’d had it all wrong – religion was never about easy answers or morally black and white viewpoints, and my big mistake all these years was in trying to interpret it that way.
I later got around to reading more of Borg’s work, like Speaking Christian and The Last Week. They kept right on crushing everything I thought I knew about religion. What I keep interpreting out of Borg’s work are messages contemporary followers of Cowboy Jesus fight like hell to deny: Religion is a dynamic entity that keeps growing and changing with the times. As religion evolves, its followers also evolve for both better and worse. So while both the fundamentalists and progressives are both willing to argue that followers in the past had it wrong, they frequently disagree on the direction in which religion was meant to evolve in. My view on Jesus himself was also radically altered; I ultimately began subscribing to a view of Jesus as a radical rebel who was executed in a gruesome way because he spent his life mouthing off to the wrong social caste. This was a form of Jesus I could actually follow and appreciate.
I started reading books written by other religious scholars as well, the most notable of which is probably Brian McClaren. They all managed to drill into my head a lot of things my younger, more fundamentalist self would have cringed at: Probably the most important thing they had to teach me was that being a good Christian meant doubling down to improve your community rather than your church. I also started to see that being Christian as applied during the Roman Era didn’t mean switching your set of religious beliefs, which meant that anyone who wanted to be Christian within the community was welcome – early Christianity, in fact, was considered just an odd little offshoot of traditional Judaism. In other words, truly old school Christians were able to be anything while still being Christians. Since Christianity was based more around the strength of a community which rejected the Roman caste system, being Christian didn’t require the acceptance of the god/man hybrid today’s Christianity revolves around. In fact, it didn’t really revolve around the acceptance of a god at all.
That makes possible what should be an impossible contradiction: My reconnection with Christianity went hand-in-hand with a fierce reinforcement of my atheism. No, I’m not going to call myself a Christian again, but the work of Marcus Borg has given me a view of religion which is a little like The Doctor’s view of humanity: Extremely frustrating because of what it gets used to justify, but I’m also in awe of its potential for good. Yeah, you might say I’m now completely lost and confused, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, being lost and confused is frequently the best way to see clearly.