Losing My Irreligion

The following is written by a friend of mine, Edmund Standing:

For around ten years, I have written articles and blog posts from an atheist perspective. I no longer consider myself to be an atheist, and the following is my attempt at explaining this change of position. After a year away from writing, I now intend to post the occasional piece again from time to time, and this first post hopefully provides some clarity on where I’m ‘coming from’.

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My background is one of a family rooted in a mild and liberal Anglicanism. I wasn’t brought up in the kind of household where religion was ‘forced’ upon me. I didn’t ‘have’ to pray, and I wasn’t made to feel inherently depraved and sinful.

At age 14, I stopped attending church. Four years later, a quest for meaning of sorts began. Having watched a documentary on the racist ‘Christian Identity’ movement, I looked into some of its writings online. These texts were filled with biblical quotations used to ‘validate’ the CI theology and I picked up a Bible and started to check these texts in an attempt at looking at them in their proper context. I was instantly absolutely captivated by the Bible. I had never read the Bible properly before and, while I was of course familiar with a few of its passages and stories from church services, I was now seeing it in a completely different way. I found the book hugely exciting and in time I became an evangelical Christian. I was not ‘converted’ by anyone, but rather came to faith through my own reading of the Bible.

Through browsing in my local library, I became fascinated by religion and philosophy in general. I began a journey which involved lots and lots of reading, and sending off for numerous books and pamphlets from groups as diverse as hardline Christian fundamentalist sects, messianic Jews, Unitarians, Deists, Bahá’ís, Rosicrucians, ‘Sacred Name’ groups, John Todd Ferrier’s ‘Order of the Cross’, Theosophists, Gnostics, neo-Pagans, and so on. This collection of religious literature would later be joined by Catholic Truth Society books and a large collection of Islamic materials. I also started to read theological books, biblical studies, and historical Jesus studies. In time, my simplistic evangelicalism morphed into a less literalist and more thoughtful faith, and I decided to study Theology & Religious Studies at university.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed my degree. I loved all the reading, the class debates, and the exploring of ideas. In my final year, things started to go downhill somewhat, not academically, as I ended up with a First, but rather in terms of the direction my reading was going. I started to read a lot of so-called ‘radical theology’ and ‘postmodern theology’. Initially, I found these obscure, difficult texts, filled with a dazzling array of neologisms and technical terms, very engaging. Gradually, however, I began to see their inner emptiness. This was not religious material, it would not inspire action and it all too clearly was ‘academic’ in the worst possible sense. For an example of what I’m talking about, consider the following typical passage from the late Charles E. Winquist’s book Desiring Theology:

Theology belongs to the population of all discursive practices. It remains text production. There is no special privilege to its discursive formations that comes from outside of the text production. The theological exigencies inscribed within its texts are effects of the metonymical placing of extreme formulations throughout the texts. The efficacy of these formulations is in their pressure upon ordinary usage and reference. The pressure of figurations of ultimacy on the pragmatics of discourse is a transvaluation of the ordinary… Theological texts explicitly express their internal undecidability. In this sense, theological texts introduce an incommensurability into discursive practices that is an internal trace of the other.

Immersed as I was in this material, I felt increasingly dislocated from faith as a lived experience and more and more bogged down in a world of academic obscurantism. I no longer attended church, had little or no connection with any kind of religious belief or practice, and eventually became weary of not only academic theology but of all thinking of God. After my degree was over, I left theology behind and decided to further explore instead the critical and cultural theory the postmodern theologians were working with (or arguably misrepresenting). Sadly, in doing this, I inflicted upon myself the experience of reading piles of barely coherent, jargon-filled academic waffle, which I concluded fairly early on was devoid of any genuine meaning or purpose. I descended into a great period of depression and was overcome by a sense of emptiness, darkness, and meaninglessness. Unlike those who might be accused of using religion as a ‘crutch’ in such circumstances, I didn’t return to faith. In fact, in the period after I finished my MA, put academia behind me and got a proper job working with the elderly, I gained a new, wholly negative connection to religion and religious texts. As a result, I spent much of the past decade writing atheist articles which attempted to undermine the possibility of faith, the relevance of the Bible, the reality of God, and so on.

Looking back on it now, I can see a clear and deliberate pattern emerging, and a ‘tactic’ of sorts in use that I now consider to have been part of a subconscious effort to finally bury any connection I once had, or could ever have again, with belief. It seems to me now that, over my period of atheist writing, I was engaging in a systematic process of tearing down each aspect of faith one by one (the possibility of God, the relevance of Jesus, the relevance of the Bible, the value of faith, the possibility of a thinking faith, the possibility of engaging in theological thought and writing, the positive contributions of religion) in order that I could finally and ‘logically’ satisfy myself that the only rationally justifiable course of action was a wholesale repudiation of God and religion. Essentially, then, I would now argue that the attractiveness of atheism for me lay most clearly in the fact that, for me, embracing atheism offered a quick escape route from thinking too deeply. Weary as I was after four years of academic work, there was a strange sort of comfort to be found in arguing that all the big questions I had been looking at previously were ultimately meaningless and that there is consequently no need to investigate any further. On a certain level, there was a mirror here with the simplistic faith I first embraced in my late teens. The world is a simpler place and life is less challenging if you can satisfy yourself that you have all the answers and that the quest for meaning is complete. Both religious fundamentalism and atheism can provide that same certainty and a sense of being ‘at peace’ in a world in which truth is immediately self-evident and the need for debate is over, although I would now argue that any sense of being at peace in atheism was ultimately illusory and unsatisfactory.

With time away from writing and a period spent getting on with life itself, working hard, getting married, and making a home, certain interests and thoughts have come back to haunt me, although I feel they were always haunting me even in my time advocating atheism and attacking religion as wholly outdated, irrelevant, and so on. I have come to the realisation that, try as a might, I simply cannot shake the questions of meaning and the draw that faith continues to have on me. Am I really an atheist? Was I ever truly an atheist? The claim that atheists don’t really mean what they say or are deluding themselves is a smug and intellectually lazy way to answer atheism. There are many genuine atheists out there, but I’ve come to realise that I’m not one. I fear (on a certain level) that my atheism was always at heart a process of iconoclasm and a type of negative theology. As I say, for many, atheism is exactly what it appears to be, yet in my case I continued to channel my ongoing fascination with Christianity, my ‘obsession’ with the Bible (as one of my university lecturers called it), and my desire to engage with questions of belief and so on through a process of negation. I attacked the notion of God and offered strong critiques of biblical texts, yet in doing this I was able to maintain a connection, albeit a negative one, with those very things. For an atheist, I certainly filled a large amount of my time with talking about God and Jesus and reading the Bible. Now, again, there are atheists who do just that, and for entirely atheistic reasons, but I can simply no longer fool myself that this was all that I was up to.

On a certain level, I’m deeply frustrated. Many atheists or agnostics I have come across who are not intrinsically hostile to religion often say, “I wish I could believe in God, but I can’t.” I’m not one of those. I explicitly and definitely did not want to believe in God. Instead, I wanted to be rid of God, to purge myself of every last trace of what Nietzsche called the ‘theologian instinct’. Yet, somewhat to my surprise, I found that I have ultimately failed. I thought I had succeeded, but I was fooling myself. I continue to hear a knocking at the door, a knocking I have sought to silence, to deny exists, to muffle and drown out. I can no longer ignore that knocking, much as a part of me strongly wishes to do so. I am forced, for the first time in a decade, to confront the fact that I am not an atheist, but I am rather a believer in deep denial, or perhaps more accurately a believer who has been engaging in a heavily disguised kind of apophasis, and a believer whose attacks on the Bible are actually part of a quest not to destroy it, but rather to re-examine and re-think it. Frustration and disappointment are, of course, not all that I feel, otherwise I would be little more than a failed believer stuck in a state of melancholia. In reality, those frustrations and disappointments are nothing more than the result of a process of working through and rejecting the false comforts of a narrow and simplistic world view, and those feelings of frustration are even now giving way to a new sense of excitement and purpose, and new hope for the future.

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