Positive & Negative Conceptions of God

Although I’ve always known that most believers sincerely love God or at least have very positive feelings toward him, I’ve recently come to realize how much I’ve failed to appreciate this fact when dealing with others, and I suspect my own feelings about God have clouded my perceptions. That is to say, I think my negative view has prevented me from understanding how precious their beliefs are to them, and I would do well to remind myself that most people don’t share my opinion, no matter how justified I think it is.

While I was certainly a devout believer before my deconversion, I can’t say that I ever really loved God. As a child, I was completely uninterested in religion, and when I became interested as a teenager, it was primarily because I was worried about avoiding hell. I didn’t care nearly as much about serving God for his own sake, bringing him glory, building a relationship with him, or even entering heaven when I died. From the beginning, my view of God was heavily influenced by my fear of eternal damnation, and this fear intensified during my struggle with scrupulosity, eventually transforming into frustration, anger, and even hatred during my last few months as a believer. Most Christians love God for creating them, blessing them, and “saving” them from hell; I, on the other hand, could never bring myself—no matter how hard I tried—to love a being who threatened to burn me in a lake of fire if I didn’t meet his demands, especially his demands that I completely repress my sexuality and suppress my doubts. For this reason, though my deconversion itself was emotionally draining, I emerged from the experience happier than ever. I didn’t feel like I had lost anything except my unfounded fears. It sounds strange for someone who built his entire worldview and identity around religion to say, but my belief in God was simply never important to my happiness; it was instead mainly a source of worry and anxiety. Sure, the prospect of living forever in paradise and the promise of having one’s viewpoint vindicated to all humankind after death were certainly nice consolations, but they never came anywhere close to negating the misery of having hellfire constantly hanging over my head. Once I stopping believing in God, I was happy the divine blackmailer was gone, and I didn’t want to see him ever return.

Now when I deal with believers, I frequently forget how their view of God radically differs from my own. If I present arguments against their religion, they’re generally unreceptive because they want God to exist. They’re not going to consider the possibility that they’re mistaken unless they absolutely have to. Their faith is a source of hope and joy for them rather than a source of fear and sorrow, as it was for me. God is often the most important person in their life, as it were. To those who sincerely love God and especially those who have never even seriously contemplated the possibility that he doesn’t exist, merely expressing my atheistic viewpoint is akin to suggesting that the parents who raised them were actually paid actors who never really loved them, as in The Truman Show. It’s no wonder they react so negatively toward atheists, especially atheists who directly challenge their beliefs and sometimes even insult their beloved heavenly father. Followers of other religions may worship other gods, but none of them really explicitly deny that the Abrahamic god exists and thus deny the validity of their special relationship with him. This is why the highest level of contempt from believers is reserved for atheists. Of course, it doesn't at all excuse their mistreatment of us atheists, but it does help us understand it.

This is not at all a new insight, but it’s especially important for me in particular to bear in mind when thinking about or discussing religion. It’s so easy for me to forget that very few people, even other atheists, have such negative emotional reactions to the mere mention of God. Not only does it bring to mind irrational belief without evidence, it conjures an image of the deity who killed Egyptian babies, who ordered the genocide of the Canaanites, who damns billions of unbelievers to hell, and especially who made my life such misery for so many years. Whereas some nontheists are attracted to deism or pantheism as a way to salvage belief in God when their traditional conception is dismantled, I want nothing to do with the idea at all. Instead of an emotional attachment to it from past positive experiences, I have an aversion due to my past negative experiences. I think it’s noteworthy, however, that this aversion doesn’t extend to every aspect of religion. In fact, I’m sometimes drawn to the idea of a humanistic and potentially naturalistic religion like Unitarian Universalism. I rather like the idea of frequent, regular meetings of a community united in their values, if not beliefs, to discuss ethical, social, and personal issues and enjoy each other’s friendship. I know that if I ever wanted to join such a community, I would need to overcome my distaste for the idea of God, at least as a metaphor, and appreciate that it means so much to so many people because they conceive of it so differently.

Even if I never join such a community, it’s still a good idea for me to attempt to rid myself of such emotional baggage, for my own sake and for the sake of understanding others. I stopped believing in God years ago, and now it’s time for me to stop loathing the idea of God itself, by disassociating it from the idea of hell, which I will always rightly hate. Perhaps I can approximate the mental state of most believers by imagining a universalist god who never even considered creating hell and who will welcome absolutely everyone into heaven. Such a deity would still be vulnerable to criticism from the Problem of Evil, but it's so much easier for me to have less negative feelings about this concept. It's an interesting mental exercise, and I hope it will help me improve my interactions with believers.

Image: Evgeni Dinev | FreeDigitalPhotos.net