Letter from the Deep – Healing existential despair

“Damn.”

That’s the first word that came to mind as I read that letter. “Damn” was also the last word I uttered when my eyes rested on the final sentence.

It all began a few days ago as I was cleaning out my email inbox.  There, hidden between old receipts and travel plans I saw an obscure digital letter, penned to a dear friend. The date stamp said it was four years old, but its contents seemed far older, so distant that they had been purged from memory.

As I read the words typed out by my younger self, I was struck by a cacophony of emotions. I saw a younger (and more naive) version of myself, trying to claw his way out of the depths of existential despair brought on by a loss of faith. For the first time in years, I was reminded of the blackness of that night and the depth of that valley. I didn’t want to remember, because its a place I have left in the distance, but this letter forced me to.  It forced me to remember how I handled the death of my best friend, God.

One final note, what follows is completely raw and unfiltered. There is profanity, which I tend to avoid, but in this case, its a requisite part of my story. 

The struggle of a friend

It all began when a dear friend wrote me of his emotional difficulty transitioning out of religion. For those concerned, today he is healthy, happy, and not a nihilist. But at the time, he spoke about the existential vacuum left by his loss of faith, and the dark uncertainty that followed. He spoke of an incessant pursuit of find truth and meaning, saying:

This quest consumes me to such an extent that some nights I cannot sleep. Some days I cannot eat. I become lethargic as a result of the pointlessness of it all and I want to scream, SCREAM until my voice cracks and my throat is torn and the foundations of everything that represents my life are shaken and crumble down, until I have clarity, until I see meaning, until I find a purpose for all this, for these short years on this tiny ass planet in this corner of reality.

My letter from the deep

Dear (Name removed),

Scream.

Go up into the mountains and scream.

I remember being in Canada with my wife who was attending a conference. I had the whole day to think. After trying to work in a coffee shop, I returned to my hotel room, and I sat there, utterly alone, and faced that same darkness. I had just been abandoned by almost everyone I loved because I had began publicly questioning my faith. I’d also been reading and thinking about my own mortality. This sequence of events, thoughts, and emotions made me feel infinitely fragile, insignificant, and inconsequential. And yet, my experience was the only thing I knew. I wanted to live forever, to be happy, to have some marvelous purpose. But all of that was slipping away like soft sand between my fingers. I began to panic knowing that soon I would join every disintegrated person by diving into the empty chasm of fucking oblivion.

I mourned myself.

I comprehended the unyielding reality of death and I wanted God back.

I spent a long time screaming and crying out to God, begging him to “please exist!” I wanted so much for him to be there and to reassure me everything was going to be okay, that I wasn’t alone, that I didn’t have to figure everything out on my own. I wanted it more than I had ever wanted in my life. I even promised him that “I will do anything, just let me live forever, let me continue to exist. Please exist and let there be a purpose and an afterlife.” 

The empty silence embraced me and my tears dried out. God, did not show up, just like before.

I found no answers, and I’m still looking.

My wife returned from her conference, we went to have dinner. Everything went back to normal. It was nice having another person with me, even though she probably wasn’t concerned with such questions, and I couldn’t talk to her about my loss of faith out of fear of losing her too. She still believed I was some kind of “liberal Christian” at the time, and I could not stand her thinking I didn’t believe at all.

Sometimes, I wish I’d never became a freethinker, things would have been much easier. In considering my intellectual journey I realized that I’m not really doing anything good for myself. Idiots around me build small empires, they build construction companies and make loads of money, they buy mansions and live in luxury, even while they can’t string together a few coherent sentences. Their lives are wholly devoted to the hedonistic pursuit of a life of pleasure. Simple, ignorant pleasure, thinly veiled by Christian excuses. And here I am like Qoheleth (The Ecclesiast), I know a lot of utterly depressing facts, but so far the only accomplishment for all my efforts is making 95% of the people in my life hate me.

Sometimes it feels like that’s all I’ve ever fucking accomplished! Sure, I have made a handful of dear friends in this new journey, but almost everyone I know has abandoned me! Up to this moment I’ve wasted all my life investing into the church and studying the Bible instead of building wealth. I live in a small condo and drive a beat up Hyundai, all the while many of my philosophically ignorant friends scoff at me from their mansions. What have I gained? The knowledge that perhaps my life and everything in the universe doesn’t really  matter? What the fucking hell is the point of that?!

At the same time, I am also paradoxically happier than I could have ever been inside my small religious community. I would have felt like a bird in a cage, and every day would have felt as though I am being strangled and smothered. There must be a way out! Maybe there it!

Look, it is a fact that we have lived, we have learned, we have experienced. We exist, damn it, we do! Whatever this existence thing is, we are here, we exist! Whether it was gods or aliens, or just the laws of nature that produce universes, I don’t know, but I am here, I exist, and that fact I do know! And to live seeking out the truth is better than to live a comforting lie, even if that lie comes with nice feelings, community appreciation, and a wealthy lifestyle.

In the end, I don’t know much. I admit that, but I’m learning. Even if there is no transcendental purpose from the outside, one concrete fact is that no matter what happened: I was here. I fucking existed. It’s likely that one day when I will be dead,  I won’t be able to think or be self-aware, but still I know that I have stood here, lived my life, done the best damn job I could have, and tried to make some kind of fucking difference.

And if the universe is like a giant videocassette, I know my life was a damn good frame, even if nobody is watching it anymore, I know that if someone rewinds it to that frame called 2014, I will be there. Damn it, I am there, and that matters. That will never be erased. It cannot be erased. Even if we are the last creatures to ever exist. Even if our universe quietly disappears into the dark night, and another one is born in a distant bubble, and that universe will evolve sentient creatures who will never know my struggles nor look at the stars and think of me, I still have existed. I still have existed! And I will be here.

Even if I am just another droplet in the infinite ocean of space and to others it may seem as though I am totally insignificant, from my perspective, my comprehension of the cosmos is the only thing I know, it’s the only reality I can know, to me it is all that matters. I am just one tiny speck of sand on the seashore, that is true, but I am the speck that stares back at the sea. I am just one tiny bundle of molecules in a vast expanding universe, but I am also the damn astronomer. Existence matters!

We matter,

Yuriy

What now?

I looked at the letter and hesitated.  Should I share it with others or bury it even deeper? After all, it shows an unflattering picture. It shows me at my most vulnerable and suggests that some people who lose their religious foundation/community can experience a time of existential despair and turbulence. But I as I reread it a second time, I knew what I had to do. I had to share it.

This letter showed something encouraging and promising, the fact that this despair is short lived and can be replaced by a happy and fulfilling life. Leaving your religion is not easy, but with time and effort, that narrow path will be worthwhile for those brave enough to tread upon its unmolested wilderness. 

If you are daring to make that trek, here are some worthwhile lessons I have learned through it all:

1. The road to truth is hard and its travelers should be prepared, but its well worth it

Its often said that staying committed ones religion is like following a difficult path, and that its much “easier” to leave the faith and enjoy various forms of debauchery. This is demonstrably not true. This glimpse into my past is evidence that willing to accept truth, whatever it may be, is a weighty thing. It is unquestionably the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It would have been so much easier to stay a submissive Christian than deal with the fallout. In the end I think it was absolutely worth it, but it was like undergoing a painful surgery. It hurt. A lot. And the unprepared traveler may be horrified to experience this without expectation. But in the end, “to live seeking out the truth is better than to live a comforting lie.”

2. Losing your social support hurts, but some friendships will heal, others are better off lost

Probably one of the most difficult things was the feeling of being completely alone in this struggle, yet, as the years went by, I have met over two hundred people from my own Slavic community (many still in the closet, a few even having leadership positions within Slavic churches), who have also began walking this journey. In addition, I have rekindled a few friendships with people who once shunned me. Others, I’m rather glad to have lost. Seeing their irate and disrespectful treatment of others has shown me that I’m better off alone than in a den of gossips.

3. Rebuilding your foundation is frightening because you’ve been indoctrinated to think there can be no other way

People who grow up in secular countries like Sweden do not experience these types of existential crises. Why? Because they have not been indoctrinated with a lifetime of slogans such as “without God there is no meaning!” I was. You probably were too. Thus, each time you even begin to think about a loss of God and a divine meaning to life, you will be inclined to believe your upbringing. It took me at least six months to reevaluate everything and come up with new answer to the existential vacuum left by Christianity. If you’d like to know how I find meaning to life, see this. In retrospect, I was able to heal and find that the “truths” I’ve been indoctrinated with were not so true, but it took a long time to rebuild a new foundation and find newer, better answers.

4. Jettisoning your belief in an afterlife is hard, but you will heal as you mature in your thoughts about life and death.

I really do understand the fear of death, perhaps more than any Christian. After all, someone who is a Christian doesn’t actually have to confront their mortality, they believe there is no such a thing as death. To a Christian, death is the act of waking up in a new place with new friends. To an atheist, death is not that exciting. It’s very likely to be the end of everything beautiful in life. I love life and I recognize it is short and precious. It took a long time to transition from the fear of loosing something so beautiful, to the focus on enjoying it. But this happened. I promise you it happened. The fear and angst I once had is gone.

If you would like to know how I discovered ways to deal with the thought of death, see this post which draws on a wealth of wisdom from the ancient Stoics.

Even in Westeros, winter ends. If you are going through a difficult transition, I promise you, it gets better.

Why I don’t trust the Bible – Part 5 – An inaccurate description of reality

This is part 5 of a series (see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). 

After having hundreds of conversations about Christianity I have noticed many people perform the “faith flip-flop” maneuver. In the beginning they start off being quite confident, boldly proclaiming that the Bible has been proven to accurately describe reality. After further examination, when confronted with various biblical errors and inaccuracies, they flip flop to saying “you can’t prove or disprove it, you just have to take it on faith.” Many simply reject the evidence by saying that it’s impossible to “disprove” the Bible, because it speaks in a spiritual magisterium, one that cannot be tested, analyzed, or examined by human methods like science and reason. “The Bible cannot be scrutinized,” they say, but is that really the case?

In part they are correct, the Bible does make a plenitude of claims and assertions that we have no way of verifying or falsifying. For example, the Bible says that there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10).  Is there any way we would be able to detect that? Can we look up in our telescopes and see angels rejoicing? Can we visit heaven? Are there echoes of angelic songs and dances that slowly ripple their way down to the earth? No, this claim is completely outside of the realm of verification and falsifiability, we simply have no way to examine it, rather it has to be accepted on faith.

Yet, there are other claims in the Bible that can indeed be tested, and are these we can falsify or verify. The Bible says that millions of Hebrews left Egypt in a mass exodus (600,000 men, not counting women and children; Exodus 12:37-38).  We can examine the evidence for and against this historical claim. For example we can go to the described desert route and do archaeological excavations, seeking the physical traces of such a colossal emigration (which archaeologists assure us, would most definitely be there). We can also read the recorded histories of the ancient peoples in the region and time period to find corroborating evidence, if this massive migration is confirmed or mentioned.

It’s claims like these that interest me the most, the claims that can actually be inspected using an evidence based approach. If the Bible claims that a particular process cures cancer, let us employ this process and see if it works. If the Bible says that Belshazzar was the king after Nebuchadnezzar, let us can compare that to Babylonian historical records to see if it matches (nope, it doesnt.)

And so, with no more ado, let’s briefly examine just a few claims of the Bible (we only have time for a few) to see if they are an accurate representation of reality.

INACCURATE ADVICE

1. Prayer doesn’t really work

The Bible states that “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Mat 21:22). We can test this claim, we can observe people who do believe and pray, and we can see as their prayers are unanswered. I’m serious, pray that God would reveal himself to me, like he did to Apostle Paul, the Bible says “whatever you ask for” and that surely applies. Okay. Prayed? Why hasn’t it happened? If prayer works, why do people usually have only one or two examples of miracles, out of tens of thousands of people uttering tens of thousands of prayers? Why doesn’t it happen consistently? And these exceptions are usually cases of random selection, which is when ten people pray for something that always has a 10% chance of happening, of course one person always get an “answer.” Any of the more concrete sounding miracles out there, are always unverifiable, always based on testimony alone, usually in unreachable countries, brought to us by the world’s longest game of telephone.

Where are the cases with hard evidence? Person with an amputated limb walks into a prayer meeting, and limb grows back after prayer? Why hasn’t that happened even once in the history of the world? Instead of giving me a documented case, I’ve only ever seen lots of post hoc rationalizations that try to explain away why it’s not working (“oh, it’s not Gods plan”, “well you didn’t have faith”, etc). Let’s be honest, you claim prayer works, and yet, deep down, if I ask you to pray for God to heal all the little children in Seattle Children’s Hospital, you KNOW, for a damn fact, that it’s not really going to happen. You know it won’t work, in fact, you’re already inventing up excuses that explain why “it doesn’t work like that.” Stop and look around your city, every hospital you see is a monument to the epic and consistent failure of prayer. 

2. Obedience doesn’t work

The Bible states “honor your father and mother – which is the first commandment with a promise – so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” (Eph 6 :2-3). First I’d note that honoring ones parents is generally a good thing. However, claiming that it extends ones life is an erroneous way of describing how the real world works. There are thousands of examples of very elderly people who either didn’t have parents to honor, or failed to honor them. For example, the infamous killer Bradford Bishop, who killed his mother (obviously failing the “honor your parents” rule) and escaped to Switzerland, but is now 80 years old (Oh sure, you think, “but he’s gonna get it in hell soon,” but whether or not that happens is irrelevant to the fact that the Biblical claim that obedience is tied to longevity has failed). On the other hand, while walking through your local children’s hospital, you will find the utterly tragic and horrifying reality, hundreds of sweet and obedient children are dying from diseases that prayer can’t cure.  An acquaintance of mine lost a kind little girl to cancer, and a parent-killer lives to be 80. The Biblical claim in question is utterly false.

3. Fear of God doesn’t work

The Bible also states that “the fear of the LORD adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.” (Prov 10:27) And yet, this is absolutely at odds with the reality before us. Third world countries without access to medical health, have significantly lower life expectancy than first world countries with better healthcare and sanitation. Are we really to conclude that all the people in Central African Republic are actually wicked Christians (having a life expectancy of 50, and a Christian population of 80%) while most of the people in Japan (having a life expectancy of 85, and a Christian Population of 2.3%) are actually obedient to God while being atheists?  The Bible provides an erroneous description of reality, fear God as much as you will, but if you don’t treat Ebola you will die. What determines length of life is access to sanitation, healthcare, technology, nutrition, and simply having good genes.

INACCURATE HISTORY

1. There was no Global Flood

The Bible states that there was a flood wherein “the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered.” (Gen 7:19). First off, there are at least ten contradictions in the flood story itself (most scholars state it was two separate myths woven together. Second, a wooden ship the size of the ark is impossible to build, even by modern craftsmen, because wood warps at such sizes (which is why modern ships only increased in size after they were switched to metal).

Third, the logistics of loading the ark, living on the ark, and disembarking from the ark, are literally impossible, having one of every animal on board would produce so much excrement that eight people could not hope to clear it all, working 24 hours a day. Also consider other absurdities of the story, like that the kangaroos would need to swim from across the ocean to reach Australia, while the Amazonian tree frogs would have to hop all the way across an immense desert, and then cross an ocean.

Fourth, numerous civilizations lived and prospered right thought the middle of the date given for the flood, leaving tangible historical records. In fact Egypt has written history, going uninterrupted, that starts a thousand years before the date of the global flood. There is a written Indus script that was developed 200 years before the flood and was used four hundred years after, with no interruption. Famous conquerors like Sargon of Akkad ruled and conquered cities in the exact same time period as the flood. All of these historical facts completely invalidate the possibility of a global flood, but if that’s not enough, scientists say a global flood is physically impossible given our planet and our geological evidence.

2. There were no Egyptian plagues or Exodus

There is not one bit of corroborating evidence that the Hebrews were ever in Egypt, or wandered through the desert. In fact archaeologists say that “no Egyptian text mentions the Israelites except the famous inscription of Merneptah dated to about 1206 B.C.E. But those Israelites were in Canaan; they are not in Egypt, and nothing is said about them escaping from Egypt.”

  • Israel Finklestein, one of the leading archaeologists in Israel writes “there was no record of any Israelites being in Egypt at that time, and hundreds of thousands of people trekking the desert would likely not have been allowed by Egypt, which tightly controlled the area… There is also no evidence such a group camped for extended periods – including in the places mentioned in the Bible.”
  • This is echoed by  Ze’ev Herzog, Professor Emeritus/Director of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University who states: “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel.”
  • Likewise, by William Dever, who is frequently referred to as the most prominent US archaeologist of the Ancient Near East. He writes: “archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness.”

Also, obviously, if the Hebrews never left Egypt, then there was no Canaanite invasion, which is exactly what the records show, all the Canaanite cities were never razed or burned to the ground.

3. Solomon wasn’t the richest king

The Bible states that Yahweh told Solomon “And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.” (2 Chronicles 1:12). Is this accurate? The conservative Christian scholar Kenneth Kitchens estimated Solomon’s wealth (using a biblical description of Solomon’s annual income in talents) to be equivalent of 20 Billion USD. If that’s the case the King of Thailand has got Solomon beat, with his net worth of 30 Billion USD.

All that aside, seriously consider that Solomon’s Palestine was a tiny speck on the map, 10,000 square miles wide, and there were kings who ruled empires that comprised most of the world. In fact the Greek Empire ruled by Alexander the Great covered 2,000,000 square miles of land, which, ironically enough, included Palestine, but only as a small 0.5% of Alexander’s territory and resources. It is impossible that Solomon could have acquired more wealth than Alexander the Great with such a comparatively tiny land area with limited natural resources, limited citizens to tax, and a limited army.

INACCURATE SCIENCE

1. A mythical creation story

The origin of the universe, God or no God, is a marvelous and fascinating thing, I will grant you that. In fact, there is nothing illogical about saying something like “God, the metaphysically necessary ground of all being is the source of all contingent being.” That is indeed a possibility, however, the Bible doesn’t say that, sophisticated philosophers do.

The Bible creation myth is very different. Besides the many contradictions in the story, it is written like a fairy tale,  including talking snakes, magical trees, psychic relationships with all the animals, and includes all manner of scientific inaccuracies. For example plants existing before the sun (someone didn’t know about photosynthesis), a flat earth with a firmament (snow globe cover) above it, and sloppy categorization of the sun & moon as big lights (only one is a light, the other a dead rock) and the stars as little lights (of those, many are hundreds of times larger than the sun.)

In addition there are other descriptions that clearly show a lack of scientific accuracy, for example the story shows Elohim splitting darkness from light, which is a common mythical idea (dualism), but in reality, light is energy, darkness is the absence of energy, you cannot have both the absence & presence of oxygen in the same room, and then split “oxygen” and “no-oxygen” into two rooms, that is logically impossible.

2. An inaccurate cosmology

The Bible describes a wholly inaccurate view of cosmology. The earth is said to be a stationary and immobile flat disc with a protective shell on top, set on pillars that can be shaken (in case you are wondering, no this is not the case). The heavens are the realm on top of this firmament, just like in other ancient myths, the Bible shows this as a real physical place, just above us (Job 22:12)). God is depicted as hiding in the clouds and walking on top of heavens (Job 22:14), causing rain to pour out of heavenly windows (Gen 8:2), releasing wind out of special storehouses (Psalm 135:7) and shooting lightning at the earth. Today we have learned that these phenomena are not supernatural, but rather completely natural. We have discovered that the accurate answers include the rain cycle, global wind patterns, and pressure changes conducive to lightning storms. Likewise, as Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, said upon breaching the atmosphere, “I don’t see God up here.” Now, while I’ve included this mainly as a joke, the reality is that the Bible indeed says God is above the clouds, it literally says that, and that is an erroneous description of reality.

We have also discovered the earth is not flat, nor firmly and immovably planted on pillars, but rather flying through space at immense speeds. In the last few hundred years, we have discovered even more things that the Bible states in error. Stars are not really tiny lights that can fall to the earth (Rev 6:12-13), they don’t exist in a small firmament layer under heaven (Isaiah 14:13), but are giant suns, billions of light years away into the distance. Recently when we began building even stronger telescopes, we discovered that there were hundreds of billions of stars, not a few thousand, like the Bible states (Deut 28:62). In fact, when it comes to cosmology, the Bible describes almost everything incorrectly!

At this point you can probably say “well, that’s all metaphor” but the reality is, until we discovered it was false, everyone believed it was literal. It was believed by the ancient Hebrews as literal. Why would God write in such an imprecise way that is causes misunderstanding? If people can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s a metaphor, until we verify it apart from the Bible, what use is the bible anyway?

3. An erroneous view of mind

While solving the puzzle of human consciousness is not by any means reaching its end goal, we have certainly learned quite a bit about what kinds of things humans are. The Bible describes human beings in a way that’s not accurate. The Bible never alludes or even mentions the brain, even though this is the very organ that produces our ability to reason, think, and be self-aware.

Instead the Biblical texts place the mind as being located inside the heart.  This is patently not true. We have conducted many heart replacement surgeries, and nobody lost their mind during such a procedure (except maybe the family members from worry.) The Bible doesn’t just associate the heart with the mind, it clearly describes all of our mental functions with the heart.

The Bible states that we use our hearts to remember skills (Ex 31:6), to love (Deut 6:5), to grieve (1 Sam 1:8), to write music (Eph 5:19), to keep secrets (1 Corinthians 14:25), to think (Mat 9:4) and ask questions (Mark 2:8), and make decisions (1 Corinthians 7:37). In actuality we know that all of these things are done by the brain. A person can survive with an artificial heart, but take out the brain, and they cease to be a person. The Biblical authors were completely ignorant of this, and this serves as yet another instance of a Biblical failure to correctly describe reality.