Commander Lock: Dammit Morpheus! Not everyone believes what you believe!
Morpheus: My beliefs do not require them to.
That is one of my favorite pieces of dialogue from The Matrix Reloaded, colloquially known as The More Palatable of the Two Sequels. I was a Christian when that movie came out and that verbal exchange has always stuck with me. Even now, as an atheist, I find it poignant and powerful. I’d wager those two adjectives are seldom used in reference to that particular movie. That freeway chase scene was sweet though.
Living In a Dream World
When I was a Christian, the world revolved around absolute truth. Everything I believed was true for all people in all places at all times and without any mixture of error because I had received it from God. Even if the entire world disagreed with me, it wouldn’t mean they were right or I was wrong. To be fair, some issues were more vital than others. There were some which were non-negotiable and others which had some wiggle room. I wasn’t hard-nosed about every single opinion I had and I wasn’t verbally aggressive or petty when speaking with others who disagreed with me.
If something was true, then it was absolutely true. If something wasn’t absolutely true, then it was absolutely false. If I was Morpheus in the above scene and I was speaking to an unbeliever, this would have been my position: my beliefs do not require any agreement in order to be true, and since they are true, they are binding on everyone regardless of whether or not anyone agrees. Yeah, I know. But hey, can I at least get a few charity points for understanding the ad populum fallacy to some degree?
A System Built On Rules...Sort Of
There were some problems with my position which escaped my notice at the time. One such problem was distinguishing between the non-negotiable subjects and those which were up for discussion. I had no consistent methods or guidelines for determining the difference, mainly due to the fact that no such methods or guidelines exist. The official answer was that the Bible is the sole guide in such matters, but people interpret the text differently and have different internal value systems which make certain issues a bigger deal than others to them.
While there may be general agreement on some issues among Christians, particularly those within certain denominational groups, no two people are going to agree on the importance of every issue or the meaning of every biblical passage. The text itself makes no distinction between matters, so any such distinction must be made by each individual “according to their own conscience”. Put another way, they are to rely on their own personal interpretation of the text and their own personal assessment of what is important to them. In addition to absolutely true and absolutely false, it seems there is a third category: individual assessments which are matters of personal conscience and are not assigned an absolute value. Which issues are to be included in this third category and how they should be approached will vary. Suddenly absolute truth doesn’t look quite so absolute.
There Is No Spoon
Another huge problem was my failure to distinguish between what I viewed biblical texts to mean and what the texts actually said. I was part of a conservative evangelical denomination which holds to a literalist view of the Bible. “Take it literally unless it doesn’t make sense to do so” was the hermeneutical mantra. The natural question which arises is how one determines whether or not it makes sense to take a particular passage literally. This is where things start to get very muddled.
Most of my Bible study was done topically whether as part of a Sunday school lesson, following along to a sermon, or in my own personal study. Topical study is an effective method of propagating church doctrine since it is presented as what God says about subject X. These topical teachings form the building blocks of various doctrines and theological systems, and these systems are the lenses through which one reads the biblical text. The more these topics are discussed, the more these building blocks are reinforced and the interpretation of the text becomes a mental reflex. Since there is no separation between the text and the interpretation, Bible study essentially becomes an exercise in doctrine memorization with proof-texting.
Since the interpretation of a given passage is determined by its place in the overall theological system, it is this system which determines whether or not a passage is to be taken literally. Biblical texts have one meaning and cannot be otherwise unless the text is used to address a topic which is not essential to the system. In that case, there is some wiggle room and the interpretation is left as a matter of personal conscience. The structure of the theological system determines which topics are essential to it and which are not. I didn’t recognize this because it was obfuscated by the language used in biblical teaching. Phrases such as “the Bible says” and “God says” erased the line between text and interpretation, between subject and system. This was the meaning of the passage and it could not be otherwise. It was a very rigid, inflexible system which was highly resistant to alteration or change of any kind. Looking back on this now, it’s no wonder I held so many anachronistic, scientifically inaccurate views. It’s also no wonder I derided science for its adaptability and praised truth as eternal and unchanging.
Taking The Red Pill
I have since embraced the process of skeptical inquiry in all areas of life, left religion altogether, and am now an atheist. This process has been a world changer for me. My enjoyment of all areas of life has increased a hundredfold, my horizons have broadened beyond what I thought possible, and I am much more compassionate and understanding toward people. I know that feeling of isolation and disconnection, and helping alleviate the hollow sting of that feeling in other atheists and freethinkers is a source of happiness for me. Even as masochistic as it may be at times, I enjoy discussions with Christians for the most part. Whether engaged in spirited debate or casual conversation, I find them to be intellectually stimulating and I can be either accommodating or a firebrand depending on the tenor of the discussion. I no longer get offended at their attempts to convert me. It’s the price of engagement and it’s a vital part of their motivation to even have such discussions. They allow me to see how I used to be, hear how I used to speak, and feel how I used to come across. They also make me feel relieved that I’m no longer in that place.
While I’m very glad to have taken leave of that mindset and I’d like for others to do the same, the process of change was a difficult one for me and I wouldn’t impose it upon anyone who wasn’t willing or ready. Through these discussions, I’ve found another way to view the scene I mentioned at the beginning. I now understand the calm with which Morpheus speaks and the confidence in his gaze. It is born out of listening to and understanding others instead of merely striving to convince and convert them. The beliefs I hold, if founded on good evidence and sound reason, need no other corroboration. I hold them loosely and am not dogmatic about them. This allows me to discuss them and not just defend them. Others may not agree, and I’m content to allow that. My beliefs do not require them to. Not anymore.