This is from my favorite chapter in Dan Barker’s book, “Losing Faith in Faith.” I found it online and thought I’d repost it here. It’s long, but this chapter alone unraveled the last fraying strands of faith for me:
Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist by Dan Barker
I have a few questions, and I thought you would be the right person to ask. It gets tough sometimes, sitting up here in heaven with no one to talk to. I mean really talk to. I can always converse with the angels, of course, but since they don’t have free will, and since I created every thought in their submissive minds, they are not very stimulating conversationalists.
Of course, I can talk with my son Jesus and with the “third person” of our holy trinity, the Holy Spirit, but since we are all the same, there is nothing we can learn from each other. There are no well-placed repartees in the Godhead. We all know what the others know. We can’t exactly play chess. Jesus sometimes calls me “Father,” and that feels good, but since he and I are the same age and have the same powers, it doesn’t mean much.
You are educated. You have examined philosophy and world religions, and you have a degree which makes you qualified to carry on a discussion with someone at my level–not that I can’t talk with anyone, even with the uneducated believers who fill the churches and flatter me with endless petitions, but you know how it is. Sometimes we all crave interaction with a respected colleague. You have read the scholars. You have written papers and published books about me, and you know me better than anyone else.
It might surprise you to think that I have some questions. No, not rhetorical questions aimed at teaching spiritual lessons, but some real, honest-to-God inquiries. This should not shock you because, after all, I created you in my image. Your inquisitiveness is an inheritance from me. You would say that love, for example, is a reflection of my nature within yourself, wouldn’t you? Since questioning is healthy, it also comes from me.
Somebody once said that we should prove all things, and hold fast that which is good. My first question is this:
Where did I come from?
I find myself sitting up here in heaven, and I look around and notice that there is nothing else besides myself and the objects that I have created. I don’t see any other creatures competing with me, nor do I notice anything above myself that might have created me, unless it is playing hide-and-seek. In any event, as far as I know (and I supposedly know everything), there is nothing else but me in-three-persons and my creations. I have always existed, you say. I did not create myself, because if I did, then I would be greater than myself.
So where did I come from?
I know how you approach that question regarding your own existence. You notice that nature, especially the human mind, displays evidence of intricate design. You have never observed such design apart from a designer. You argue that human beings must have had a creator, and you will find no disagreement from me.
Then, what about me? Like you, I observe that my mind is complex and intricate. It is much more complex than your mind, otherwise I couldn’t have created your mind. My personality displays evidence of organization and purpose. Sometimes I surprise myself at how wise I am. If you think your existence is evidence of a designer, then what do you think about my existence? Am I not wonderful? Do I not function in an orderly manner? My mind is not a random jumble of disconnected thoughts; it displays what you would call evidence of design. If you need a designer, then why don’t I?
You might think such a question is blasphemy, but to me there is no such crime. I can ask any question I want, and I think this is a fair one. If you say that everything needs a designer and then say that not everything (Me) needs a designer, aren’t you contradicting yourself? By excluding me from the argument, aren’t you bringing your conclusion into your argument? Isn’t that circular reasoning? I am not saying I disagree with your conclusion; how could I? I’m just wondering why it is proper for you to infer a designer while it is not proper for me.
If you are saying that I don’t need to ask where I came from because I am perfect and omniscient while humans are fallible, then you don’t need the design argument at all, do you? You have already assumed that I exist. You can make such an assumption, of course, and I would not deny you the freedom. Such a priori and circular reasoning might be helpful or comforting to you, but it does me little good. It doesn’t help me figure out where I came from.
You say that I am eternally existent, and I suppose I would have no objection if I knew what it meant. It is hard for me to conceive of eternal existence. I just can’t remember back that far. It would take me an eternity to remember back to eternity, leaving me no time to do anything else, so it is impossible for me to confirm if I existed forever. And even if it is true, why is eternal greater than temporal? Is a long sermon greater than a short sermon? What does “greater” mean? Are fat people greater than thin people, or old greater than young?
You think it is important that I have always existed. I’ll take your word for it, for now. My question is not with the duration of my existence, but with the origin of my existence. I don’t see how being eternal solves the problem. I still want to know where I came from.
I can only imagine one possible answer, and I would appreciate your reaction. I know that I exist. I know that I could not have created myself. I also know that there is no higher God who could have created me. Since I can’t look above myself, then perhaps I should look below myself for a creator. Perhaps–this is speculative, so bear with me–perhaps you created me.
Don’t be shocked. I mean to flatter you. Since I contain evidence of design, and since I see no other place where such design could originate, I am forced to look for a designer, or designers, in nature itself. You are a part of nature. You are intelligent–that is what your readers say. Why should I not find the answer to my question in you? Help me out on this.
Of course, if you made me, then I could not have made you, I think. The reason that I think I made you is because you made me to think I made you. You have often said that a Creator can put thoughts in your mind. Isn’t it possible that you have put thoughts in my mind, and now here we are, both of us, wondering where we each came from?
Some of you have said that the answer to this whole question is just a mystery that only God understands. Well, thanks a lot. The buck stops here. On the one hand you use logic to try to prove my existence, but on the other hand, when logic hits a dead end, you abandon it and invoke “faith” and “mystery.” Those words might be useful to you as place-holders for facts or truth, but they don’t translate to anything meaningful as far as I am concerned. You can pretend that “mystery” signifies something terribly important, but to me it simply means you don’t know.
Some of you assert that I did not “come” from anywhere. I just exist. However, I have also heard you say that nothing comes from nothing. You can’t have it both ways. I either exist or I don’t. What was it that caused me to exist, as opposed to not existing at all? If I don’t need a cause, then why do you? Since I am not happy to say that this is a mystery, I must accept the only explanation that makes sense. You created me.
Is that such a terrible idea? I know that you think many other gods were created by humans: Zeus, Thor, Mercury, Elvis. You recognize that such deities originate in human desire, need, or fear. If the blessed beliefs of those billions of individuals can be dismissed as products of culture, then why can’t yours? The Persians created Mithra, the Jews created Yahweh, and you created me. If I am wrong about this, please straighten me out.
My second question is this:
What’s it all about?
Maybe I made myself, maybe some other god made me, maybe you made me–let’s put that aside for now. I’m here now. Why am I here? Many of you look up to me for purpose in life, and I have often stated that your purpose in life is to please me. (Read Revelation 4:11) If your purpose is to please me, what is my purpose? To please myself? Is that all there is to life?
If I exist for my own pleasure, then this is selfish. It makes it look as if I created you merely to have some living toys to play with. Isn’t there some principle that I can look up to? Something to admire, adore, and worship? Am I consigned for eternity to sit here and amuse myself with the worship of others? Or to worship myself? What’s the point?
I have read your writings on the meaning of life, and don’t misunderstand me, they make sense in the theological context of human religious goals, even if they don’t have much practicality in the real world. Many of you feel that your purpose in life is to achieve perfection. Since you humans fall way short of perfection, by your own admission (and I agree), then self improvement provides you with a quest. It gives you something to do. Someday you hope to be as perfect as you think I am. But since I am already perfect, by definition, then I don’t need such a purpose. I’m just sort of hanging out, I guess.
Yet I still wonder why I’m here. It feels good to exist. It feels great to be perfect. But it gives me nothing to do. I created the universe with all kinds of natural laws that govern everything from quarks to galactic clusters, and it runs okay on its own. I had to make these laws, otherwise I would be involved with a lot of repetitive busy work, such as pulling light rays through space, yanking falling objects down to the earth, sticking atoms together to build molecules, and a trillion other boring tasks more worthy of a slave than a master. You have discovered most of those laws, and might be on the verge of putting the whole picture together, and once you have done that you will know what I know: that there is nothing in the universe for me to do. It’s boring up here.
I could create more universes and more laws, but what’s the point? I’ve already done universes. Creation is like sneezing or writing short stories; it just comes out of me. I could go on an orgy of creation. Create, create, create. After a while a person can get sick of the same thing, like when you eat a whole box of chocolates and discover that the last piece doesn’t taste as good as the first. Once you have had ten children, do you need twenty? (I’m asking you, not the pope.) If more is better, then I am obligated to continue until I have fathered an infinite number of children, and an endless number of universes. If I must compel myself, then I am a slave.
Many of you assert that it is inappropriate to seek purpose within yourself, that it must come from outside. I feel the same way. I can’t merely assign purpose to myself. If I did, then I would have to look for my reasons. I would have to come up with an account of why I chose one purpose over another, and if such reasons came from within myself I would be caught in a loop of self-justified rationalizations. Since I have no Higher Power of my own, then I have no purpose. Nothing to live for. It is all meaningless.
Sure, I can bestow meaning on you–pleasing me, achieving perfection, whatever–and perhaps that is all that concerns you; but doesn’t it bother you, just a little, that the source of meaning for your life has no source of its own? And if this is true, then isn’t it also true that ultimately you have no meaning for yourself either? If it makes you happy to demand an external reference point on which to hang your meaningfulness, why would you deny the same to me? I also want to be happy, and I want to find that happiness in something other than myself. Is that a sin?
On the other hand, if you think I have the right and the freedom to find happiness in myself and in the things I created, then why should you not have the same right? You, whom I created in my image?
I know that some of you have proposed a solution to this problem. You call it “love.” You think I am lonely up here, and that I created humans to satisfy my longing for a relationship with something that is not myself. Of course, this will never work because it is impossible for me to create something that is not part of myself, but let’s say that I try anyway. Let’s say that I create this mechanism called “free will,” which imparts to humans a choice. If I give you the freedom (though this is stretching the word because there is nothing outside of my power) not to love me, then if some of you, a few of you, even one of you chooses to love me, I have gained something I might not have had. I have gained a relationship with someone who could have chosen otherwise. This is called love, you say.
This is a great idea, on paper. In real life, however, it turns out that millions, billions of people have chosen not to love me, and that I have to do something with these infidels. I can’t just un-create them. If I simply destroy all the unbelievers, I may as well have created only believers in the first place. Since I am omniscient, I would know in advance which of my creations would have a tendency to choose me, and this would produce no conflict with free will since those who would not have chosen me would have been eliminated simply by not having been created in the first place. (I could call it Supernatural Selection.) This seems much more compassionate than hell.
You can’t have a love relationship with someone who is not your equal. If you humans don’t have a guaranteed eternal soul, like myself, then you are worthless as companions. If I can’t respect your right to exist independently, and your right to choose something other than me, then I couldn’t love those of you who do choose me. I would have to find a place for all those billions of eternal souls who reject me, whatever their reasons might be. Let’s call it “hell,” a place that is not-God, not-me. I would have to create this inferno, otherwise neither I nor the unbelievers could escape each other. Let’s ignore the technicalities of how I could manage to create hell, and then separate it from myself, apart from whom nothing else exists. (It’s not as though I could create something and then simply throw it away–there is no cosmic trash heap.) The point is that since I am supposedly perfect, this place of exile must be something that is the opposite. It must be ultimate evil, pain, darkness, and torment.
If I created hell, then I don’t like myself.
If I did create a hell, then it certainly would not be smart to advertise that fact. How would I know if people were claiming to love me for my own sake, or simply to avoid punishment? How can I expect someone to love me who is afraid of me in the first place? The threat of eternal torment might scare some people into obedience, but it does nothing to inspire love. If you treated me with threats and intimidations, I would have to reconsider my admiration for your character.
How would you feel if you had brought some children into the world knowing that they were going to be tormented eternally in a place you built for them? Could you live with yourself? Wouldn’t it have been better not to have brought them into the world in the first place?
I know that some of you feel that hell is just a metaphor. Do you feel the same way about heaven?
Anyway, this whole love argument is wrong. Since I am perfect, I don’t lack anything. I can’t be lonely. I don’t need to be loved. I don’t even want to be loved because to want is to lack. To submit to the potential of giving and receiving love is to admit that I can be hurt by those who choose not to love me. If you can hurt me, I am not perfect. If I can’t be hurt, I can’t love. If I ignore or erase those who do not love me, sending them off to hell or oblivion, then my love is not sincere. If all I am doing is throwing the dice of “free will” and simply reaping the harvest of those who choose to love me, then I am a selfish monster. If you played such games with people’s lives, I would call you insensitive, conceited, insecure, selfish and manipulative.
I know you have tried to get me off the hook. You explain that Yours Truly is not responsible for the sufferings of unbelievers because rejection of God is their choice, not mine. They had a corrupt human nature, you explain. Well, who gave them their human nature? If certain humans decide to do wrong, where do they get the impulse? If you think it came from Satan, who created Satan? And why would some humans be susceptible to Satan in the first place? Who created that susceptibility? If Satan was created perfect, and then fell, where did the flaw of perdition come from? If I am perfect, then how in God’s name did I end up creating something that would not choose perfection? Someone once said that a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.
Here is the title for your next theological tome: Was Eve Perfect? If she was, she would not have taken the fruit. If she wasn’t, I created imperfection.
Maybe you think all of this gives me a purpose–putting Humpty Dumpty back together–but it actually gives me a headache. (If you won’t permit me a simple headache, then how can you allow me the pain of lost love?) I could not live with myself if I thought my actions were causing harm to others. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Since I think you created me, I suppose I should let you tell me what I could live with. If you think it is consistent with my character to tolerate love and vengeance concurrently, then I have no choice. If you are my creator, then I could spout tenderness out of one side of my mouth and brutality out of the other. I could dance with my lover on the bones of my errant children, and pretend to enjoy it. I would be very human indeed.
I have a thousand more questions, but I hope you will allow me one more:
How do I decide what is right and wrong?
I don’t know how I got here, but I’m here. Let’s just say that my purpose is to make good people out of my creations. Let’s say that I am to help you learn how to be perfect like me, and that the best way is for you to act just like me, or like I want you to act. You goal is to become little mirrors of myself. Won’t that be splendid? I’ll give you rules or principles, and you try to follow them. This may or may not be meaningful, but it will keep us both busy. I suppose that from your point of view this would be terribly meaningful, since you think I have the power to reward and punish.
I know that some of you Protestant theologians think that I give rewards not for good deeds, but simply for believing in my son Jesus who paid the punishment for your bad deeds. Well, Jesus spent only about thirty-six hours of an eternal life sentence in hell and is now back up here in ultimate coziness with me. Talk about a wrist-slap! He was not paroled for good behavior–he was simply released. (He had connections.) If my righteous judgment demanded absolute satisfaction, then Jesus should have paid the price in full, don’t you think?
Beyond that, it is entirely incomprehensible to me why you think I would accept the blood of one individual for the crime of another. Is that fair? Is that justice? If you commit a felony, does the law allow your brother to serve the jail sentence for you? If someone burglarized your home, would you think justice was served if a friend bought you new furniture? Do you really think that I am such a bloodthirsty dictator that I will be content with the death of anyone for the crime of another? And are you so disrespectful of justice that you would happily accept a stand-in for your crimes? What about personal responsibility? It is tough to open my arms to welcome believers into heaven who have avoided the rap for their own actions. Something is way out of kilter here.
But let’s ignore these objections. Let’s assume that Jesus and I worked it all out and that evil will be punished and good rewarded. How do I know the difference? You are insisting that I not consult any rule book. You are asking me to be the Final Authority. I must simply decide, and you must trust my decision. Am I free to decide whatever I want?
Suppose I decide that I would like you to honor me with a day of my own. I like the number seven, I don’t know why, maybe because it is the first useless number. (You never sing any hymns to me in 7/4 time.) Let’s divide the calendar into groups of seven days and call them weeks. For harmony, I’ll divide each lunar phase into roughly seven days. The last day of the week–or maybe the first day, I don’t care–I’ll set aside for myself. Let’s call it the Sabbath. This all feels good, so I suppose it is the right thing to do. I’ll make a law ordering you to observe the Sabbath, and if you do it then I will pronounce you good people. In fact, I’ll make it one of my Big Ten Commandments, and I’ll order your execution if you disobey. This all makes perfect sense, I don’t know why.
Help me out here. How am I supposed to choose what is moral? Since I can’t consult any authority, the thing to do, it appears, is to pick randomly. Actions will become right or wrong simply because I declare them to be so. If I whimsically say that you should not make any graven or molten images of “anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” then that is that. If I decide that murder is right and compassion is wrong, you will have to accept it.
Is that all there is to it? I just decide, willy-nilly, what is right and what is wrong? Or worse, I decide based on whatever makes me feel good? I have read in some of your literature that you denounce such self-centered attitudes.
Some of you say that since I am perfect, I can’t make any mistakes. Whatever I choose to be right or wrong will be in accordance with my nature, and since I am perfect, then my choices will be perfect. In any event, my choices will certainly be better than your choices, you feel. But what does “perfect” mean? If my nature is “perfect” (whatever it means), then I am living up to a standard. If I am living up to a standard, then I am not God. If perfection means something all by itself, apart from me, then I am constrained to follow its path. If, on the other hand, perfection is defined simply as conformity to my nature, then it doesn’t mean anything. My nature can be what it wants, and perfection will be defined accordingly. Do you see the problem here? If “perfection” equals “God,” then it is just a synonym for myself, and we can do away with the word. We could do away with either word, take your pick.
If I am perfect, then there are certain things that I cannot do. If I am not free to feel envy, lust, or malice, for example, then I am not omnipotent. I cannot be more powerful than you if you can feel and do things that I cannot.
Additionally, if you feel that God is perfect, by nature, what does “nature” mean? The word is used to describe the way things are or act in nature, and since you think I am above nature, you must mean something else, something like “character,” or “attributes.” To have a nature or character means to be one way and not another. It means that there are limits. Why am I one way and not another? How did it get decided that my nature would be what it is? If my “nature” is clearly defined, then I am limited. I am not God. If my nature has no limits, as some of you suggest, then I have no nature at all, and to say that God has such-and-such a nature is meaningless. In fact, if I have no limits, then I have no identity; and if I have no identity, then I do not exist.
Who am I?
This brings me back to the conundrum: if I don’t know who I am, then how can I decide what is right? Do I just poke around in myself until I come up with something?
There is one course I could pursue, and some of you have suggested this for yourselves. I could base my pronouncements on what is best for you humans. You people have physical bodies that bump around in a physical world. I could determine those actions that are healthy and beneficial for material beings in a material environment. I could make morality something material: something that is relative to human life, not to my whims. I could declare (by conclusion, not by edict) that harming human life is bad, and that helping or enhancing human life is good. This would be like providing an operation manual for something I designed and manufactured. It would require me to know all about human nature and the environment in which you humans live, and to communicate these ideas to you.
This makes a lot of sense, but it changes my task from one of determining morality to one of communicating morality. If morality is discovered in nature, then you don’t need me, except maybe to prod you along. I saw to it that you have capable minds with the ability to reason and do science. There is nothing mysterious about studying how humans interact with nature and with each other, and you should be able to come up with your own set of rules. Some of you tried this millennia before Moses. Even if your rules contradict mine, I couldn’t claim any higher authority than you. At least you would be able to give reasons for your rules, which I can only do by submitting to science myself.
If morality is defined by how human beings exist in nature, then you don’t need me at all. I am off the hook! From what I have read, most of you have your feet on the ground with no help from me. I could hand down some stone tablets containing what I think is right and wrong, but it would still be up to you to see if they work in the real world. I think we all agree that grounded reason is better than the whim of an ungrounded deity.
This is a wonderful approach, but what bothers me is that while this may help you know what is moral in your environment, it doesn’t help me much. I don’t have an environment. I’m out here flapping in the breeze. I envy you.
Nor does the humanistic approach help those of you who want morality to be rooted in something absolute, outside of yourselves. It must be frightening for you who need an anchor to realize that there is no bottom to the ocean. Well, it’s frightening for me also. I don’t have an anchor of my own. That’s why I’m asking for your help.
Thank you for reading my letter, and for letting me impose on your busy schedule. Please answer at your convenience. I have all the time in the world.