A relative recently called me with great concern for my salvation. Always nice to hear, isn’t it? Now, this relative means well and I’m confident they love me very much. The question came from a deep place of fear for my soul.
As we spoke quietly and calmly I realized that I would need to write my responses to these huge questions and those questions left unsaid (out of fear I might get angry or something–I didn’t and don’t). So, here are a few answers I am sharing with my relative and anyone else who is curious what I, as a non-supernaturalistic secular humanistic naturalistic freethinking human being, thinks about these things. I don’t blame you if you don’t care. Not everyone is worrying day to day what will become of them, or anyone else, in the afterlife.
My Dear [Relative],
First, let me assure you that I am not angry at your questions. I welcome honest, respectful questions from a person who is really ready and willing to listen to the response. I DO get irritated and a bit angry when I feel judged, disrespected or attacked by some who want to convert me without listening to what I think. I’ll bet you would get upset as well.
Second, I feel that your question is coming from a genuine concern for me, and I appreciate that. I know that you love me and want what is good and best for me. I want the same for you.
Third, I think you know that these important matters deserve discussion and sometimes honest debate and disagreement. In other words, if you ask me these deeply personal questions you should expect me to ask some hard questions in return.
Now, on to some questions you have asked, and some you may be thinking but feel too uncomfortable to ask. I look forward to hearing your honest responses to my responses, and any further questions!
1) “I am afraid you may not go to heaven. How can I know you are going to heaven?”
Well, I guess you couldn’t know for sure, could you? I don’t think there IS a heaven–a place certain people go to when they die. I think this world is all we have. Nature is everything and Nature is enough. When we die, we disintegrate back into the earth out of which we came.
2) “If you don’t believe in heaven, what do you think happens after you die?”
Watch a cloud, a snowflake, a dead bird in the field. . .they all disappear, dissolve, back into the earth. People have wondered about these things for thousands of years. There are many speculations. But I don’t think death is really a great mystery. Life is really very short! We are here for a short time. . .and then we are here “forever,” in a sense, when our elements break down and joint the rest of the material the universe is made of. I’m really fine with that and need no hope beyond the grave.
3) “So, what about Hell!? I don’t want you to go there!”
No, I wouldn’t want to go to a place of eternal punishment either!
But, let me ask you: Do you believe in a God of Love? I know you do. Now, if I said I loved you, then prepared a torture chamber to threaten you if you DIDN’T love me back, would you really say that I loved you? Seriously, that would be ghastly, wouldn’t it? Very UN-loving. I hear your objection: “Oh, but it HURTS God so much to have to send people to hell. It’s each person’s choice.” Really? So, if you refused to love me, as your relative, I could simply say, “Oh, sorry, this really hurts me but I have to torture you for eternity because you didn’t love me or serve me in exactly the way I instructed you to love me”? I want NO PART of that kind of God. That’s a monster, as far as I’m concerned.
One more question back to you: Let’s get personal here. You’re saying that I, your loving relative, am in danger of a terrible, tortuous eternal death while you and other people who love and serve the (Loving) Creator of Torture Chambers, will enjoy an eternal Praise Service while I burn? Hmm. I’ll pass.
4) “Are you saying you don’t even believe in God!?”
That’s correct. Sorry to say to you, I do not believe in any supernatural being or “otherworld” reality at all. There is no “spiritual world” out there. At least, I’ve seen no evidence for it. I once thought I saw that all around me, but I WANTED to see it so badly. Then I realized that much of what people say is “faith” is FEAR-based faith. Believe or ELSE you hurt God, make God angry, get thrown out of Church, or whatever. Fear that evil will get you. Fear of disfavor, loss of love and punishment. I find that very sad. And I get angry when I see people caught up in that Fear-based faith.
5) “How can you not believe in Jesus? You once accepted Him and were saved! You even helped lead ME to Christ!”
Well, as you know, I was once quite evangelical (Campus Crusade and all). Then I opened my eyes and my mind with more experience and understanding. I read about other great teachers like Socrates, Lao Tzu, Confucius and Buddha. I discovered there was so much more wisdom in the world, and Jesus was only one of many wisdom teachers. As for the “claims” that he was God and Lord and Savior–those are claims, beliefs ABOUT him. Maybe his call to love, compassion and justice is more important than “believing correctly”?
Please hear me when I say, I honor and respect Jesus. I do not worship him. I do not believe he was any more “divine” than you or I. Yet, I admire all people, Christian or not, who seek to live as Jesus did, with that commitment to helping others and living for Goodness’ sake.
6) “How could you lose your faith? You were even a Minister?!”
I sometimes say, I never “lost” my faith. . .I know exactly where I left it. That’s a little sarcastic, but still true. I left faith, as I left God, when I realized there was no need for that any longer. I left ministry–at least Christian ministry–for the same reason. I can do what I did as a Minister just as much, if not more, now that I abandoned my ordination.
7) “How can you live a good life and do the right things if you don’t believe?”
Well, I just do. I have almost 60 years to show for it. Yes, many of those years I lived guided by faith, but I found that was no longer necessary. We’re born with goodness within and have a pretty good sense of what is right and wrong. I need no one else to tell me what is good or bad, right and wrong. Most of that is common sense. Simple as that. There are billions of people who are not Christians who live good lives. I wonder, do they deserve torture punishment?
8) “But, don’t you believe the Bible is the ‘Word of God’?”
No. I studied the Bible in Hebrew, Greek and Biblical Studies through College, Seminary and beyond. I know the Bible better than most in the pews and probably better than many pastors (I have to say, it’s insulting when believers start quoting the Bible to me. They have no idea!). But, as I said already, there is great wisdom across the world and it doesn’t all come from ONE book. I wonder how SMALL a person’s God really is when they claim their Bible or Qur’an or other scripture is the ONLY and the BEST. I think that’s ignorant and frankly arrogant. Not impressive, or convincing.
Think about it: even if one book WAS “the word of God” doesn’t it make you wonder: Why did the Creator of the Universe speak thousands of years ago (to one group of people, in one language) and then stop speaking and writing?! It seems everyone wants the “final word.” (so say Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons. . .).
9) “Why don’t you go to Church any more?”
There are many many good folks who attend congregations. Some are friends and colleagues of mine. I still speak and teach in those places now and then, when invited. But for me, there are other ways of connecting to others and growing relationships. There are other ways of working for better communities and a healthier world. There are other ways of feeling a part of the beauty and the goodness of the world. At times it seems the Church, Faith, Religion do little more than divide the world into Insiders and Outsiders. If that’s true, I’m a proud Outsider!
And, there is Nature! Yes, again I’ll say: Nature is the greatest sanctuary with the greatest teachings and largest congregation ever imagined. Besides, sitting in a big box reading from ancient paper and singing praises to the sky just doesn’t appeal to me anymore, if it ever really did! Sorry for the bluntness, but can you hear that?
10) “Aren’t you worried about your daughter and her faith?”
No, not at all. I raised my daughter to think for herself, to question and search for answers that work in her daily life. She has, as our [relative] used to say, “a good head on her shoulders.” She’s smart and has met many people who believe differently. She does not go to church or believe in God, as far as I know, and that’s fine. I want nothing but her health and happiness. If she had faith, I would love her just as much.
I think all kids need to be given real, honest choices as they grow up, not just one narrow point of view. As I learned years ago in the Christian college: we truly value what we choose from alternatives. We don’t need to fear having alternative choices. If we have only one choice. . .what’s the choice and where’s the freedom?
11) “Sigh. I love you so much, but this makes me so sad, and scared for you. If you aren’t a believer, aren’t saved, aren’t one of God’s Family any more, I feel a loss. That just makes me sad.”
I sincerely feel sorry for that. I don’t want you to be sad or to worry and fear for me. I could say I feel some of that for YOU as well, but most of all I think we always come back to what really matters: the love, the family connection, the history we share, regardless of who believes what about anything. Right? I hope so, because I’d like for us to stay in touch and be able to respect each other enough to discuss these things–and much much more–out of love. And keep our sense of HUMOR too!
I’m sure you’ll have other questions, now or in the future.
Please feel free to ask and to discuss these matters with me. I have thought about and discussed these things in my ministry, chaplaincy and teaching for many years.
(When I get a response, I’ll share some highlights)