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Agnostic Testimony 20
What a long and strange trip it's been.

from: PsiCop

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People have asked me how I wound up being Agnostic, and specifically an Apathetic Agnostic. My story is a long one which I hope to keep as brief as possible. I expect that many people may relate at least to part of it, since—with all due modesty—I’ve had the most diverse religious background of anyone I’ve known. Somewhere in my tale, most will find something that strikes a chord.

I think.

I was born into a devoutly Catholic family, not unheard of in New England, which is more Catholic than anything else. The pageantry and ritual of Catholicism appealed to my sense of history, and provided fertile ground for my childhood curiosity. There’s an awful lot to the Catholic Catechism, or body of teachings, so much that the average Catholic is aware of only a minuscule portion, and even priests and nuns don’t have a handle on all of it.

CCD classes were interesting for me. I asked questions, which were mostly not answered, or answered with something evasive. I don’t recall getting the stock “it’s a mystery” too often, but I didn’t having heard anything more substantial. One thing that Catholicism does is to present God as an awesome, vast, cosmic being; if you think about this too much, you can become dumbfounded by it. I remember, as an example, trying to comprehend how it was that God knew everything that ever happened, is happening, and ever will happen. It was both humbling and bewildering. I just couldn’t get it.

I also tried to digest the nature of this towering God with things such as prayer. How was it that people praying to such an awesome, almighty God made any difference? Was God really just sitting around up there, in the sky, waiting for people to beg him to do things for them? How was it that God ought to be aware of everyone who is sick, but chooses to help only those who are prayed for? For that matter, how does God choose which prayers to answer and which to ignore? The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t understand.

Even so, as a child, I was very “pious,” so much that a lot of adults seemed to think I was destined to be a priest. I briefly entertained that idea while I was in high school, but quickly dismissed it, since I was beginning, by then, to have serious problems dealing with the Catechism.

By the time I went to college, I was less than impressed with the whole thing, so I declined to attend services at the university’s Catholic church. At the same time, I was having problems dealing with being away from home. The university I attended was enormous, a city in itself; but here I was, a humble country boy from rural New England. I was literally lost in it all.

I met some interesting people who seemed to want to help, however. They called themselves “Born-Again Christians.” I had no idea what it meant to be a “Born-Again” Christian; I knew there were Catholics, various Protestant churches, Orthodox, etc., but I’d thought all Christians were just Christians. They explained to me that being “Born Again” was different; all I had to do was accept Jesus Christ as “my Personal Lord And Savior,” and I’d be “Born Again” (Jn 3:3). It didn’t take much for me to do that; these people were pleasant and welcoming, everything that I happened to need, just then. I couldn’t really think of any reason not to go along with it.

Having done that, I learned from them that most Christians weren’t really Christians—because they weren’t “Born Again.” My goal and that of my little “congregation” was to ensure that all the Christians who thought they were Christians, became real (as in “Born Again”) Christians, so they could be saved. I attended services and twice-weekly Bible studies; I evangelized all over the place, to the point that people got really annoyed when they saw me coming (which of course, I rationalized away as their problem, not mine).

At this time, the fundamentalists I hung around with noticed that I had a knack for knowing things that it seemed I shouldn’t. They called this “the gift of discernment” (1 Cor 12:10) and told me it was a tremendous gift from God that I should use for good.

At the risk of sending my story around a very weird bend, this is how I became a lay exorcist.

You see, we were all convinced that “the occult” was from Satan and was being used to divert people from God. And some people got so caught up in it that they “invited in” evil spirits (demons, devils, etc.). These spirits needed to be cast out. It was necessary to have “the gift of discernment” in order to identify those so afflicted, and to verify that the spirit or spirits had left, once they were free.

I studied the occult on my own; since no one else had ever done anything like this, I had no teacher. Mostly I began by casting devils out of our own circle (everything was a diabolical infestation, from a sour mood to a headache). We branched out a bit, but it wasn’t long before I started wondering what on earth I was doing. Some people were genuinely sick, or had real problems, and I wanted no part of just declaring them free and sending them on their way. Even so, many people claimed that I’d healed them, so I kept doing informal “laying on hands” (Mk 16:18) sessions for people.

About this time, the fundamentalist clique into which I’d fallen began having doctrinal disputes. They argued over fine points of doctrine which, while I understood what they were saying, I considered trivial. Things devolved to the point where good friends ceased speaking to one another, and demands were made that “you’re either with him or me, that’s it.” Despite the often-clear battle lines that were drawn, I still managed to steer a course among it all; I probably got away with it because people appreciated my “spiritual gifts.”

As luck would have it (bad luck, that is) I was also having academic trouble. My chosen major had proven to be more difficult than I could handle, so I needed to find something else, lest I not graduate at all. Having become a little disillusioned by the infighting, I decided to study the Middle Ages and Church history; I believed that studying the saints might reinforce my faith. So I delved into my historical studies; I taught myself Latin and Greek, and studied the Bible in Greek rather than in translation. (Yes, I know the Old Testament was not written in Greek, but it was mostly known to early Christians as the Greek translation called the Septuagint, so it was relevant to my studies of Christian history.)

A number of problems posed themselves rather early. I discovered that some Bible translations took liberties with what had originally been written. I also learned that early Christianity was far more contentious than anyone had let on. Many of the saints whom I’d presumed were humble and pious, turned out to have been anything but; some argued with one another ferociously, and they could be dismal, dour, unpleasant, and occasionally outright-nasty people. Furthermore, my study of ancient history exposed me to classical paganism, some cults of which had many similarities with Christian practice and belief, yet predated it by centuries. I tried to reconcile this with my faith, but found myself unable to do it alone. I asked our pastor, who told me (as Justin Martyr had claimed in the 2nd century) it was “diabolical anticipation”; Satan and his minions had anticipated some of what Our Savior would do during his career, steered these things into the pagan sects in advance, thus creating confusion among classical pagans once the “real” Christ came along.

Perhaps under other circumstances, I might have actually accepted this explanation. But given the other problems I was uncovering, it just didn’t work for me. I talked to a few other clergy on campus about it; generally they couldn’t help much (although a Catholic priest agreed with me that the “diabolical anticipation” was unacceptably weird).

I continued studying the Middle Ages and Christian history, becoming familiar with many of the Church fathers. I also studied Gnosticism and a number of the other early “heresies,” and realized how fractured Christianity had been. The more I read, the more it seemed that people had believed simply whatever they’d chosen to believe, what seemed attractive to them, and that these beliefs had little or no relation to the actual career of Jesus. In fact, I was now unsure what Jesus’ career had even been! I was now too skeptical to accept any of it on its face. One of the more beneficial side-effects of my studies was my investigation into the medieval scholastics, such as Peter Abelard, St Anselm, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and others. They all had studied the pagan classics, then only recently recovered from the Near East via Islam and the Byzantine Empire. From the scholastics, I gained an appreciation for logic and methodical study. My skepticism was truly ignited by their work.

My exit from fundamentalist Christianity wasn’t sudden. There was no shattering epiphany (or de-epiphany?). I just gradually became less involved in it. I attended services less frequently. I skipped more and more Bible studies. I started avoiding other members of our clique and acquired other friends. By the time I’d left it all behind, no one was even aware that I’d left, and it already seemed in the distant past.

Only one thing stuck with me from this experience: that I had some sort of special “gift.” My new friends (none of them of the “Born Again” Christian variety) also noted that I had a way of “knowing” things, and that I had some sort of “healing talent.” So I was convinced this had nothing to do with my “Born Again” experience—it was genuine.

With my “education” in “the occult,” such as it was, I saw myself as a psychic. Over a period of years I accepted a wide variety of metaphysical notions—auras, chakras, astral projection, channeling, speaking with the dead, you name it. I suppose you could have called me a “New Ager” or even a “Neopagan.” (The idea of worshipping an ancient religion appealed to me, which was understandable considering my degree was in history. This persisted even when I realized that Neopaganism as it exists had virtually no similarities to actual paganism as it was practiced in classical times.)

The people around me acknowledged I “knew” things that it appeared I shouldn’t have. I was even once asked by someone I knew whether or not she should hire someone; I said no, that it wouldn’t work out, but she hired him anyway. Three months later she had to fire him for not showing up to work. She later told me she regretted not having listened to me.

I also got a reputation for healing people—just by being in their presence. Although I was sure that some of them truly felt better, I felt like a fraud, because I wasn’t actually doing anything! Eventually, my skeptical side kicked in again. After some observations, I realized that my knack for healing was simply the placebo effect, and my knack for knowing “the unknowable” was merely the product of my observant and analytical mind; in other words, I was good at making educated guesses and was frequently right. That’s all it was.

This spelled the end of my belief in anything metaphysical. I’d tried Catholicism, Christian fundamentalism, a kind of Spiritualism, “New Age,” and Neopaganism. All alike had failed to demonstrate any actual truth behind its claims. All alike had failed to provide anything unique, compelling, or useful.

There’s no way around it: Nothing metaphysical is demonstrable. As a metaphysical being, God would be included in that. I couldn’t logically deny any possibility of a God, but I did understand, at long last, that he/she/it/they could never be known with certainty. After all, I’d tried many ways of proving God’s existence, and had found all of them wanting. While the medieval scholastics whom I’d learned from would not have reached the same conclusion that I did, largely because of the world they lived in, the logic I’d been exposed to forced me to realize that … even if there is a God … she/he/it/they could not have been any of the Gods I’d been exposed to, and in fact, cannot possibly be involved in our affairs. Hence, logically, the “Articles of Faith” for Apathetic Agnostics hold true.