Learning to respect other people’s beliefs is often the catalyst which forces you to re-examine your own. It’s only after you have stepped outside of your inherited worldview, and experienced a differing worldview, can you truly begin to see it for what it is. This can be a daunting task, because you may come to discover that everything you thought you knew was merely an illusion.
In my personal testimony about my deconversion, of which you can find an extended version of in my recent book Beyond an Absence of Faith (or which you can read the short version on this blog by clicking here), I talk about meeting my Japanese wife and how it was through her that I learned that the Christian beliefs I have elevated as paragons of holiness, reflecting the love of Jesus Christ and God, were in point of fact entirely and wholly inferior to the love expressed through the worldview of a Japanese woman who was raised in a secular Buddhist home and who didn’t believe in any God or gods.
Needless to say, this revelation shocked me deeply. Which is why I stated that
Meeting my wife was the thing that forced me to see that my Christian beliefs were not as loving as I thought they were. In fact, when properly examined they proved to be the opposite. When I made it known among my religious friends and family that I was marrying an non-Christian, there were a spattering of warnings about being unequally yoked with a nonbeliever, as per 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, and that if I continued on such a path that I should try to convert my non-Christian wife, which is the advice given by most Evangelical institutions.
But I found both notions equally un-loving.
Certainly both positions lacked genuine empathy. Non-believer, you say? Convert! CONVERT!
There is no understanding to be had in this. And if you cannot understand the other person, you cannot empathize with them, and so you cannot sympathize with them.
My Christianity preached a malformed notion of love. A love which wasn’t about loving others for who they were, it was about forcing them into the same mindset as me. It was a way to dictate how others should think and act, according to what my religious beliefs deemed proper, simply so I wouldn’t have to endure the discomfort of checking my worldview for two seconds and contending with other, equally valid worldview, since after all, this way lays doubt.
Anything that challenged my religious worldview was automatically bad, because I presupposed my Christian worldview was automatically right. Looking back, I cannot express how foolish such a notion is, but it is one I held to nonetheless.
One example that comes to mind is when my wife talked to me about all the fun charity activities she had undertaken while she was abroad in China.
At the time, I had a little trouble wrapping my head around it. Every bit of charity work I had ever experienced as a practicing Christian was part of missionary work designed to bring the saving message of Christ and the word of God to those in dire need of saving. Although it was never stated outright, it almost seemed as if the need to do missionary work wasn’t to help others so much as it was meant to save them from sin, save them from themselves.
The sort of missionary work I did as a Christian certainly wasn’t about walking a mile in another persons shoes. It was more about handing them some fancy new shoes and telling them to walk like me.
But according to my wife’s worldview, the charity and aid work was simply about helping those in need, first and foremost!
What a novel idea, I thought.
It never even crossed her mind to use the aid work to manipulate the downtrodden and the unfortunate with acts of service and kindness, so they would feel indentured enough to their benefactors that they might suffer to sit and listen to the sermons which accompanied the free Bibles we handed out.
For my wife, it wasn’t about pushing any belief system.
It was about saving people, not from imaginary damnation, but from real world suffering!
What a novel idea, indeed.
After hearing her take on things, I looked back on my own missionary aid work with a new found sense of embarrassment. Although I helped build shelters for the impoverished and handed out food to the less fortunate, it was always accompanied with Bibles and Bible studies–prayers, and calls to walk with Christ, and live a Godly life–all of what you might consider a not so subtle brain-washing scheme.
Although the charity was well received, and the aid work necessary, the latter part–the unabashed proselytizing–was wholly unnecessary.
In fact, the whole reason missionary work seems to be mainly targeted as developing nations is because their worldviews are relatively simple, uninfluenced and uncomplicated by the multicultural worldviews of the modern world. Additionally, when a people are in need, they will look toward anything that can lift them up, and when you spend as much time and energy (and let’s not forget the $$) helping the downtrodden as the Christian church does, only to tell them they have God to thank for their new blessings, well, they start to believe it. So, let’s not pretend it isn’t extortion, brainwashing, and quite the opposite of loving others without prejudice. Every bit of Christian missionary service reeks of prejudice–the prejudice which accompanies the dominant world religion trying ever so desperately to remain the dominant world religion.
My wife taught me that this was the wrong way to think and be.
The lesson was simple: to think that my beliefs were more important than anyone else’s was egotistical, arrogant, and conceited. To expect them to change for me, or for what I held to be true while dismissing their position, was unloving.
She taught me humility. She taught me that being caring, loving, and having genuine empathy for others, regardless their beliefs or their culture, is what was needed, not lip service to some archaic deity.
After proposing to my wife, she had the foresight and the wisdom to, suggest we live together a year before marrying. I reluctantly agreed, but I was glad I had postponed the wedding for that incremental year, as we really learned the truth of whether we were compatible or not.
Additionally, the slate of small domestic problems which plague first year couples were ironed out early on, a practice which seems to be direly missing among the majority of today’s Christians, as is evident from their extremely high divorce rates they seemingly have.
During that year, which we spent planning the wedding, I had received a spate of warnings against following through with it. I received numerous emails of concerned friends, strange phone calls from firmly faithful family members, and a passive aggressive sounding letter from an ex-pastor of mine, in which he claimed I had strayed from the flock. What? For loving the woman I was going to marry? Good thing, then, I’m not a goddamn sheep, I thought!
Yet nobody had anything bad to say about my wife as a person. Everyone who met her saw how intelligent, sophisticated, and kind she was. There wasn’t a single excuse they could make as for why I shouldn’t marry her other than she was raised differently, in a different culture, and consequently had different beliefs, but that argument simply didn’t hold any water.
And then there were the little, more subtle challenges to my faith as well.
I won’t deny it. Sex, was one of them.
When I met my wife, and we had started dating, I had informed that I was still a virgin. I was twenty-three at the time. She felt that my holding off until I had found the right person was a noble act, regardless of whether it was religiously motivated. But here I was, finally, with the right person. And then the whole question about pre-marital sex raised it’s ugly head.
I felt horribly conflicted, because I wanted to express my deepest felt love for this woman who had won my heart, but was to afraid to go the distance due to the fact that I was, since childhood, told that sex before marriage was a sin, that it would lead to temptations away from Christ, and that Satan could use it against me as a tool of manipulation.
At first it began with a reluctant blow-job, because I felt that at least this wasn’t full on sex, and I found a way out of the whole premarital sex. A loophole, so to speak. Oral sex didn’t count, because the Bible had nothing to say on it. It only condemned actual, full-on, sex. That’s how I justified it anyway.
But as our relationship grew, and we became closer, it became increasingly hard for me to deny myself the pleasure of falling into someone wholly and completely–of giving my mind, body, and soul to that person and it was only a matter of time before I broke and gave into my baser desires. At least, that’s how it felt at the time.
You see, my religion had made me ashamed of sex. Instead of being free to openly enjoy the person I was with, instead of being free to express my love in such an intimate way, it came with it the stigma of sin, of failure, and of weakness.
Instead of viewing sex as a strong chemical and emotional bond which would strengthen my relationship to the woman I loved, I viewed it as a tarnishing blemish, a blotch, a stain on my spiritual progress.
After my first time being with the woman I loved, I returned to my abode and shook with teary eyed sobs for my horrible failure as a Christian. I was that entrenched into the belief system that I didn’t separate my personal identity from my religious identity. To me, they were one in the same thing. I defined myself according to how good of a Christian I was, not how good of a person I was.
So, feeling I needed to repent for that grotesque act of engaging in premarital sex, I got down on my knees and prayed to God for forgiveness for what I viewed as a huge failure. I had sinned. And being in Japan, I had nowhere to turn to reinforce my Christian faith, no Christian church to go to so that I may be consoled, no Christian pastor to reprimand me to set me straight, so I did the only thing I could do–I fell to my knees, hands clasped, and grovelled like a good Christian sinner. I begged for my redemption from this unfortunate set-back, this trespass into temptation and lust, this stomach churning act of licentious disobedience.
But then, nothing came of it except for a wonderful experience. In fact, I began to feel less guilt because I felt better about myself. Engaging in sex opened my eyes to the fact that it wasn’t some ugly, sinful, act that would make Jesus cry, but something quite beautiful and life changing.
My relationship with my future wife grew stronger, and then pretty soon I had pushed the notion that premarital sex was a sin completely out of my mind. The rationale was simple. I felt that if loving somebody utterly and completely was a sin, then God couldn’t truly be a God of love. In other words, I came to realize that to withhold the true, and ultimate expression of love, sex being a part of it, would itself be an unloving act–and to me that seemed distinctly un-Christian-like.
Wedding plans went on without a hitch, until we finally got hitched (if you’ll pardon the pun), and the fact that I had grown as a person, mentally, culturally, and bodily helped me to re-think my spiritual journey as well. And here’s the hitch!
All these experiences led me to the inevitable conclusion that sex as simply another part of the journey, a part of my own personal story, and it wasn’t as bad as I had been brainwashed into believing it would be. In fact, it was quite wonderful. It was quite frabjously life changing.
Although, to be honest, it’s only in retrospect that I realize all this. At the time, I was a mental train wreck. I kept feeling my life as a devout Christian was being challenged at every turn. I felt spiritual peril, I felt as if my very salvation teetered on the very brink of no return, where it could so easily slip off into precarious sin and I’d end up in eternal damnation–working the corners of the red-light district as a two dollar American gigilo (well, perhaps not exactly that but that’s how it felt).
Naturally, I was shaken by an overwhelming degree of cognitive dissonance, because everything I learned from my wife, and the experiences I have had with her, taught me that this conception of sin simply wasn’t so. That everything I thought on these concerns had, indeed, been wrong. I felt a huge relief come over me when I finally let go of that superstitious notion–and matured into a thinking adult who was more concerned about real-world concerns, like truly helping people, rather than the absurd notion that sticking my pecker into a beautiful, exotic, Asian woman would make Jesus cry.
I struggled for three long agonizing years with this unneeded spiritual turmoil, and it wasn’t until I had finally relinquished my faith that everything became calm, tranquil, and pleasant again.
It wasn’t until my atheism that I could embrace love making as a part of love, regardless of whether or not I was married, and even then, it took me some time to realize that sex could be done out of sport, just for fun too, and needn’t expressly be tied to concepts of love.
Post-faith, I saw that kindness and genuine empathy for others demonstrated a more authentic compassion than I had ever experienced in the throes of my most potent religiosity.
Finally, I came to see that I could love others in an unbridled fashion which wasn’t beholden to any religious rules, regulations, or standards. It was a pure unadulterated love–truly without the diminishing factors of a morbid theology which attempts to wrap the concept of love up into a straight jacket of its own design. No, I left all that behind. I was finally free to love my wife, love others, have real lasting empathy, and I was able to love myself again without the constant feeling that I was a disappointment.
As an atheist, I came to see that I was free to love with all my heart, mind, and soul. Something most Christian know nothing about because their entire concept of love is so tangled up with their religious notions, concepts, and ideologies that they actually experience a type of religious interference to the kinds of love they may experience.
And I never would have learned that if I hadn’t come to Japan and fallen in love with a girl who had shown me what it truly meant to love.