Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia
My name is Neil Godfrey, 48 years, divorced, live with my 2 school-aged sons, presently work as a librarian at an academic library in Toowoomba (Queensland, Australia), and was a baptized member of the WCG for 22 years. Before that I grew up in a Methodist family. My evolution from ‘son of God’ to born-again atheist was both gradual and traumatic, but has left me feeling a far more ‘spiritually’ mature, loving, compassionate, open and relaxed man.
The first chink in my religious-thinking came in the 1980’s when, just for the sake of some variety, I decided on a new approach to Bible study. I had always swallowed the teaching that the Bible is like a jig-saw puzzle, that the only way we could ‘understand’ the writings of Paul, for example, was to refer, say, to what James said in a letter addressed to someone else while discussing a different theme! What I wanted to do for a change was to study thoroughly each of the Bible books in isolation from one another to explore the mind of the writer of each book and understand its meaning to its original audience. That sounded a more intellectually honest approach so I expected it to verify afresh ‘the truths of God’ that I had been taught. What happened, however, was that when I let Romans alone interpret Romans my confidence in all I had been taught by the WCG began to be shaken. Peter warned of those who twisted the writings of Paul, but surely the ones twisting Paul were those who forced isolated texts to fit with books written in different cultures and times to different audiences for different purposes and with different theologies!
But I was very much a believer and I had my personal Martin Luther transforming experience when I believed I had been unconditionally accepted by God. It was a real ‘born again’ experience — I felt more at peace, joyful, accepting of others and incredibly blessed. I even discovered that I could speak in tongues once someone showed me how — and if I wanted to.
There was just one niggling question, however. Was not the source of this new ‘spiritual’ power in my life my own personal faith? I was believing all these things about God and Jesus and these beliefs really did change my life. But could I not substitute Dagon, a totem pole, or any mythical god, and if I believed exactly the same things about them as I did about Jesus, then surely would I not be just a empowered, transformed and ‘born again’? When honest with my darkest recesses of faith I had to admit that it was no divine power from heaven that was in me, but that I was simply playing a very clever mind-game. It was my own faith in a particular God-concept that changed me, not God himself. It was the same psychological power that every animal feels when it fully trusts that it is totally and unconditionally accepted by a significant other. One main difference was the addition of all the doctrinal details to keep this faith fresh and active in one’s mind and linked with a particular group of others.
This thought was too scary for me to face up to immediately. I questioned many ministers in various churches about it, and read widely. Most disturbing was Edmund Cohen’s The Mind of the Bible-Believer. I desperately tore at his arguments the first time I read it, but finally had to concede that I was reacting to it with fear, not honesty. I could not escape the conclusion that the Bible was a ‘mind-control’ book that required the reader to abandon all honest, consistent and rational scrutiny of its very own text to avoid any risk of hell-fire.
So I seriously studied the origins and nature of the Bible for the first time in my life. Strange (or just lazy or cowardly or both?) that I had spent my whole life studying its content (as passed on through a particular set of translations and manuscripts with dubious histories) but all that time I never before thought to study in any real depth, and with true open-minded honesty, the origins of that content.
The history of the NT canonization turned out to be a history of a power struggle in the Catholic Church; the gospels were not eyewitness accounts of an historical event but were midrashic expressions of various faiths about a Jesus concept; and there was not a shred of independent first-century evidence that Jesus had even literally existed. The only reliable thing that could be said about the gospels and Acts was that they were a re-working of motifs not only from Old Testament and Jewish apocryphal writings but also from pagan religious festivals and literature — that they were statements of faith and not historical records was easily demonstrated. Even Jesus’ so-called revolutionary new teachings were found in much earlier Jewish and gentile literature. Finally, all I had been taught about how accurately the Bible itself had been preserved through the centuries proved to be nothing but a lot of wishful thinking and fairy tales.
The theological scholars who brought such things to my attention (e.g. Austin Farrer, John Spong, Steve Crossan and others) would often simply jettison all their arguments and evidence temporarily to assert a personal mystical faith in a real Jesus and God behind it all despite the evidence they uncovered. (Significantly however, the theological scholar who became the bridge between Farrer and Spong, Michael Goulder, did become an atheist himself.) Most Christian scholars really write apologetics for their faith: very few seem to have the mind-set or the ability to consistently apply the methods of true historical research. Earl Doherty’s web page, The Jesus Puzzle, sums up the historical evidence, or lack of it, for a single historical figure behind the origin of the Christian religion. The Journal of Higher Criticism also raises serious questions that arise out of the application of true and consistent historical research.
If God were really behind the Bible, then he did not leave an honest inquirer with any way of proving its message to be historically true. On the contrary, he left honest inquirers with all the evidence stacked against its divine inspiration. To believe in the Bible on these terms is like believing that God let the Devil plant dinosaur bones in rocks to test our faith in Creationism. How could I take such a God seriously?
It was a small step to think through the whole idea of God from that point. His attributes were supposed to be self-evident, but different cultures saw these attributes differently. So much of what I had believed had really been determined by the language of the questions I had been taught to ask. (e.g. “Creation” demands a “Creator”. Of course by speaking of “creation” I was predetermining my conclusion. Why not simply use “universe” instead?) God had really been an adult version of my childhood Santa Claus, a Jungian archetype. Joseph Campbell in his writings and talks on mythology helped me understand where Christianity sat in the world of religion and psychology. I also found that the theories of evolution were dishonestly or just sloppily misrepresented by fundamentalists. Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative opened my mind for the first time to the plausibility that our ethical sense really could be biologically based, and did not necessarily have to be some spirit entity in us. Even near-death experiences, I discovered, had long had very plausible biological explanations that were obviously far less exciting to circulate widely.
As a fundamentalist WCG believer I believed I had all the big answers to the big questions of life. I simply shut my mind to any idea that questioned those answers. Today I feel much more comfortable with questions without final answers. Living with questions rather than answers has made me more open to all that life has to offer. The only authority I accept as my guide to life comes from within me, and I have been surprised at how ‘moral’, ‘compassionate’, and ‘complete’ we can be when we finally learn to listen to ourselves and be truly free.
I had recently a chance to thank Bishop Spong for helping me (albeit unintentionally) on my path to atheism. I told him that since becoming an atheist I felt much more loving and relaxed and mature than I ever felt while a believer. He replied that he had found that many atheists do feel this way, while sadly most religious people he knew do seem to have an ‘uptightness’ about them.