It has taken a long time, but I think I need to come out of the “theist closet”. I am an atheist. I have been for the last 5 years or so. Before now, many people have regarded me as a spiritual example, which was a role and perception that I celebrated and encouraged. Now I feel ashamed at having done that and I feel I owe it to the many people that I encouraged to have faith how I came to the decision to set aside my own faith. The TLDR here is that I grew up religious, then had some life events teach me differently, and I regret being judgement. I think you have to have known me pretty well to feel like reading past that summary is worthwhile… here goes:
First, my mother, Susan Trotter, died from ovarian cancer. (which is why I work on stuff like this now). My whole family bought into the “miracle healing community” of the southern evangelical christian community. We looked towards Dodie Osteen for inspiration, and taped healing scriptures up all over the house. Multiple “prophets”, including my father, predicted that God would heal my mother. Once my mother died, almost all of my siblings were atheists within the year. I was the exception.
I launched into a reconciliation process, where I tried to test which parts of my faith were valid and which were not. While I felt betrayed by the charlatans and churches that advertised for-certain miracle healing, there were plenty of churches that had the good sense not to make those kinds of promises. What struck me most during this time was that my father, who had been a spiritual inspiration to me for years, did not reconcile anything. He still went to the same churches, and celebrated the same “prophetic” utterings. Although I know he struggled internally, his outward behavior saw no change. Even as he remarried and started a new family, the structure of his worship and all outward expressions of faith remained unchanged.
I realized that my father’s faith was essentially immune to evidence. The faith that had inspired mine was not based on, or compatible with, reason, it was entirely independent of reason and evidence. Essentially my fathers brand of faith was unfalsifiable.
Then I read The God Delusion, which is not a fun book to read if you are already having major doubts. One by one Richard Dawkins debunked my reasons for believing in a God. He argued that Science did have something to say about the basic tenants of religion, that the few falsifiable claims that religion makes had been shown to be false. One of the main reasons that I believed was because of a variant of Pascal’s Wager that took the form “Belief is insurance for life after death, and look how much good Christians do in the world..”
Dawkins book was the first place where I found a rigorous accounting of the good and bad that religion does in the world… and that accounting was painful. The generosity of religious people is bountiful where their religions say they should be generous, but the cruelty of religious people is just as bountiful, when their religions say they should be cruel. This is called “the problem of evil“. But I still had not abandoned my faith. It was not until the problem of evil showed up at my own doorstep that I realized I had to change.
Three years after the 9/11 attacks, on 11/9/2004, my brother John Byron Trotter was shot and killed in Ramadi, Iraq.
Even then I did not give up the faith. But I did start asking “Why?”. Why was my brother killed? As I examined the root causes, so many of the causal connections linked back to religion. My brother thought he was doing the will of God. The person who shot him thought the same thing. The person who sent soldiers and marines into Iraq thought he was doing the will of God, and so did the 9/11 bombers. So did the people who masterminded those terrorist attacks. The leaders were believers, the foot soldiers were believers. Everyone involved thought they were doing the work of an all powerful, loving God, as they sought to kill enemies who believed exactly the same thing.
After years of contemplation and research, I had to acknowledge that the evidence pointed towards specific conclusions about religion and morality. If the evidence supports that there is no afterlife then this world is the only world worth working on and fixing. The most significant barrier to progress on countless moral problems, including war, hunger and poverty, is the insidious idea that this lifetime does not matter, because there are later lifetime(s). It is very sad to think that I will never see my mother and brother again. But at least my brother was taken from this world because so many people believe that there are two worlds, the one we see and have evidence for, and another invisible and unmeasurable world.
Eventually, I had to stop pretending that we did not have any evidence for whether that next world exists. We do have lots of evidence on the subject and the evidence says that our modern religions are myths, and that life is likely entirely over once a person dies. Pretending or teaching others to pretend that “everything gets fixed in the next life” is intellectually dishonest and morally hazardous.
Knowing this, I have been feeling more and more guilty for the role I played in teaching religion. Even as others had doubts, I helped them maintain the intellectual contortions that are required to believe bronze-age myths in the space-age. I have been avoiding old friends because I do not know how to broach this subject. I can no longer pretend that my “teachings” were anything other than subtle injuries that I have inflicted on people who I claimed to care about.
Recently, however, I have had several of my long-ago friends come forward and insist on discussions that have resulted in me giving a few people this essential explanation. None of these friends have reacted negatively. Some of them have reacted with the “love the sinner” approach, and some of them have admitted that they are actually agnostic or atheist themselves. So far, no one has had the allergic reaction that I was afraid of. I am afraid of that reaction, of course, because I feel that I deserve it. After all, how many people have I made to feel guilty for not believing enough, or not following the rules strictly enough? How often have I been the inspiration for shame or guilt for peoples sexual decisions? How many people have “confessed” things to me, hoping to get “absolution” for something they never should have felt guilty about in the first place?
For years, I harvested the benefits from the fear and shame that come part and parcel in religion. My “leadership”, “authority”, or “pastoring” earned me respect and admiration from people who was sharing my various “advanced delusions”. Frankly, I would feel better if I had just sold meth. At least people who buy that stuff do not maintain any illusions that it is good for you.
So this is the first step in me making amends for what I have done wrong. If I have ever made you feel guilty about something that was only wrong only because “Fred said God said so” please accept my apology. I was wrong, and I am doing my best to carefully differentiate between “golden rule morality” and “rules from myths morality”. If I ever made you feel like I was better than you because I had some kind of pipeline to God’s preferences, I am sorry and I no longer think that.
I wish I could say that I am going to stop being a judgemental asshole, but I do not want to set expectations too high. I still operate with a pretty big dose of “sometimes wrong, never in doubt” attitude. My work especially requires a level of boldness that I have trouble reaching without being something of a prick. I have humble moments (like as when I am writing this) but they rarely last very long. I have a bad habit of acting from a place of… “well I have had the moral high ground lately tho…”. I wish I were a little more zen and a little less arrogant. I figure it took me 40 years to reach the conclusion that I am not “God’s gift to the earth”, perhaps I can learn in the next 40 years that I am not a “gift” at all. I would not hold my breath.
To all those that have shown me kindness during and after this process, thank you so much. Especially to those that have shown me kindness, even as you have disagreed with my conclusions. I have such nice friends.