My journey as a “spiritual atheist”—Pt. 1

The search

Long ago as a college music major I spent most of my time practicing piano in “the catacombs”—a series of windowless, graffiti-lined cubicles under the University of Oregon School of Music. The walls were paper thin, and the din from neighboring musicians usually insufferable—but also sometimes fascinating. Practicing required unique non-musical skills: the ability to stop reading the graffiti; the ability to tune out the sonic competition; and (the hardest one for me) the ability to stop writing music on the walls. I wasn’t good at these, and my lessons and grades suffered accordingly.
Prelude for Organ in F# Major

Under such distracting circumstances I practiced hard and somehow also managed to compose reams of music, dreaming of the day when I would be a famous classical composer with splendid symphonies and film scores to my credit. Alas, that was not to be, and after graduation my life took a very different course…

I can’t point to the precise event which propelled me out of the stuffy mental cubicle that had been my life in music. Perhaps it wasn’t an event at all, but rather the penchant to ask deep questions that (to my parents’ chagrin) had no practical application. Questions like: Why am I alive? Why is anyone alive? What is this life all about anyway? Is there an actual purpose to it? My parents often reminded me that I was the dreamer of the family. Of course, they were right. I didn’t become the successful professor, doctor, or diplomat that my father wished. I didn’t marry well and raise a family as my mother wished. And I didn’t even become the reputable composer as I had once wished!René Salm at the keyboard

I spent many days pondering the meaning of life, often in the beautiful Oregon woods surrounding my hometown, Eugene. After graduation from college with two bachelor’s degrees I took a job as a lowly nurse’s aide—to everyone’s bewilderment. “I just want to help people,” I said sheepishly. It was pretty obvious that my life would not include the big career, the big income, or the big reputation.

The desire to understand led to some graduate coursework in science—biology, chemistry, the organization of the nervous system… But my questions remained unanswered. I wasn’t seeking how things work, which is what science can offer. I wanted ultimate answers: the why of it all.

This led me to consider religion. After all, religion claims to have the ultimate answers. It instructs us that our task is to believe (or follow) one or another prescription. If we do we’ll be happy. If we don’t—watch out! I reflected on my Catholic upbringing and on the preacher’s familiar teachings: that Jesus Christ was the only-begotten Son of God; that he died for our sins; and that we only need to believe him in order to have eternal life.

But I wondered… “Why is this prescription correct?” Belief seemed an awfully cheap down payment for eternal anything. Furthermore, the preacher was assuming my trust—he was promising future life for my fealty now, sweetening the deal with the threat of eternal damnation—“death.” It was a macabre transaction straight out of the Stone Age: either you’re with me now—or you die!

History has proven that assessment correct… The Church has gained converts at the point of the sword, promising (a mythical) paradise in exchange for submission now. And I reflected that the promise could well be bogus. The preacher could be like a snake oil salesman, claiming that his wares are of great value in some distant future though they will in fact prove useless—or perhaps even poisonous. “It’s so easy,” he was reassuring. “Just take this tonic!”

With reference to Christianity, the old saying came to my mind more than once: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true!”

But I’m not one to dismiss possibilities just because they’re easy. That would be a bit foolish. Maybe—just maybe—Jesus Christ is the answer, as bible thumpers tiresomely thunder. Perhaps a future in paradise awaits those who simply believe. How did I know? So, in my early twenties I opened the bible and systematically began to read the New Testament with a critical mind, not with the mind of belief. That critical attitude made the reading very different from your ordinary church indoctrination. Indeed, my fealty would only come at a price—if at all. Blind faith and worship were absolutely out of the question. If I were to give my allegiance to Jesus, I would first have to understand him.

Private ethics, public religion

About that time I started working in psychiatric hospitals, first in Boston and then on the West Coast. Over the decades my job title changed—Psychiatric Aide, Adolescent Counselor, Mental Health Associate—as I moved from one locked unit to another. There was a tie-in between my work and religion: as people become mentally more unstable, their religiosity tends to increase. Often the most religious patients are the sickest, seeing Satan in others, aggressively trying to convert their peers, carrying a bible everywhere, and forever praying or mumbling verses. These patients tended to be demanding, angry, and intolerant. Fights sometimes ensued when other patients tired of their intrusiveness or resented being characterized as “possessed by the devil.” I concluded that religion could be very bad for one’s mental health!

But not everything about religion seemed bad. For example, I’ve always considered the emphasis on Christian love to be praiseworthy… The problem, it appeared, was that Christians don’t manifest the love which they readily ascribe to their founder, Jesus Christ. After all, “Love your enemies” has yet to become the foreign policy of any Christian nation! It seemed to me that the whole point of Christian ethics is to improve one’s own behavior. This led me to the realization that religion is valid only when it’s private. How good Jesus was is really not the point. In fact, Jesus himself is not the point. My own behavior is the point, my own thinking, my own life.

I witnessed the religious patients focusing on the behavior and thinking of others—never on themselves. They were always right and others always wrong. The same situation obtains with the Christian Church in its myriad denominations—each one considers itself right, all the others wrong!

It also occurred to me that the Christian focus on Jesus is misguided. After all, a person can engage in right conduct perfectly well without Jesus. In fact, everything about Jesus Christ became more and more problematic for me as I continued to study the gospels—from his status as Son of God, to his inflated biography, to his resurrection from the dead. Jesus was both false and redundant. Despite all the attention given him, he seemed quite unnecessary for personal thinking and personal action. I concluded that “Jesus” is the corporate side of Christianity, the rallying point of fellowship, the icon of the mob…

It appeared to me that religions in general are corporate perversions of certain noble qualities that are uniquely personal: ethical conduct, and the desire of each person to grapple with the ultimate questions of life—to “understand.” These things are private and demand the imposition of no government nor of any clergy. They come from within and not from without. In other words, belief by prescription—by fiat—is an insult to each person’s innate capacity to reason.

I was heartened to find that some threads in the Christian scriptures seem to extol these things that I was discovering: good and bad come from within, the public display of righteousness is “phariseeism,” one should pray in secret, “seek and ye shall find”… It seemed to me that buried in the gospels are numerous kernels of truth. Somehow, however, those kernels got smothered by corporate Christianity. Somewhere along the line the private exercise of reason was hijacked by the religion that preaches belief.

I’ve always felt that reason and belief are diametrically opposed. Reason uses the mental faculties that make us distinct from animals, while belief insists on parking our mental faculties at the church door. Christians believe that Jesus/God has done all our thinking for us—we no longer need to engage in such arrogant and useless activity. We only need to believe.

Needless to say, I didn’t buy it and discovered early on that church is not the place one goes for answers. Lines of worshipers on their knees mumbling verses in unison—that is hardly the sight of people seeking answers and exercising their reason. Rather, it is the sight of people who have given up all initiative, who have accepted subjugation, regimentation, and brainwashing. Christians call this “worship” and claim that god demands worship.

I metaphorically shrugged, for I was now beginning to wonder whether there even is a god…

—> My Journey, Pt. 2

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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