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Tracie Harris

Up until the time I was about 15, I was raised in a fundamentalist church where the Bible was promoted as the inerrant word of god. I was always very studious, both in school and in Bible classes. I was an active participant in discussions and good at memorizing Bible verses (in classes from the time I was old enough to read). In fact, I was one of the few kids who took an active role and actually came prepared to classes. At 15 I stopped attending church with much resistance from my mother. She wanted to force me to attend, but I explained to her that if I was not competent to reject it, then I was not competent to accept it—and so I would never consider becoming a member of the church unless it was a free choice where my judgment was respected.

During my hiatus, however, I prayed consistently for guidance from god--nothing miraculous, just something that would be meaningful to me. I wanted to believe, obviously, but could not force myself to believe in the absence of evidence.

Maybe two years later, I was contacted by the preacher from the church I had attended. He invited me to a course titled “Evidence for your Faith,” that was produced by apologist Josh McDowell. I agreed to attend, interpreting this as a potential answer to my prayers.

In all my years going to church, we had never studied how the Bible canon was produced. I was told the books were inspired writings. But I never thought to question who decided that and who made that claim. And nobody ever offered information to me on that part of the Bible’s history.

Josh McDowell's argument boils down to "it makes more sense to believe than not to believe." And he made many claims that supported the historic validity of scripture. He also incorporated some apologetics along the lines of Lewis (Lord, Liar, Lunatic, for example). I was very impressed with Josh's arguments (as a teen), and was persuaded that the Bible must be of a divine origin. Convinced it must be from god--based on Josh's information--I decided to accept it as evidence of the existence of god and to be baptized.

I continued to read the Bible at home. I read it in Bible classes. My particular church was big on the Bible. If anything, after my conversion, instigated even more discussions in church, and argued with the other members—including older men of the congregation—if I thought they were in error. I was told I would be a great teacher's assistant, but I couldn't teach in classes that included male Christians, because I'm a female.

After my baptism, it was amazing. I saw god working in my life more and more—tiny influences here and there, and sometimes larger events of significance that altered my life’s direction. I gave up my own desires and aspirations and prayed for god to show me what to do, so that I could follow his will in my life. In church, when we were told to avoid bars and night clubs, I pointed out that Jesus surrounded himself with the worst sort of people—because his word was most needed among those who were the "least" in society. I told other members they needed to worry less what other people thought about appearances (Jesus hadn’t cared what others thought), and more about saving the lost.

I went to bars and night clubs. And I preached at bars and nightclubs. And I must have been effective on some level, because I actually did get some people to attend our church from bars and nightclubs. I also spoke to an assistant professor my freshman year of college and got him to attend. I got other friends to attend as well. I was even proselytizing on Grad Night at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, arguing with strangers in line for the rides.

The only thing that mattered was doing god’s will and bringing as many others to god as possible. Nothing about this life was important unless it correlated to being with god after death. Any set backs in my life, I knew god had a reason. Any successes, I followed, believing it was god opening doors that I should pass through—showing me a way.

I prayed throughout the day. I read my Bible. And I paid attention to every little thing to make sure I was doing what I should—what god wanted me to do. When people would ask me how I knew there was a god, the answer was no longer the inerrancy of the Bible, but that I could see god working in my life. I “knew” without a doubt I was made of immortal spirit. It was crystal clear, and no doubt was in my mind that I was right. There was a god. Jesus was his divine son. And I was his disciple.

When I said I would have happily died, that was no lie. My stance on violence was that there was no excuse for a Christian to use force—even in self-defense. In my view, if a person attacked me, to kill me, and succeeded, I had lost nothing, since my soul belonged to god. But if I killed my attacker, to defend myself, I had robbed him of the rest of his life—and whatever chance at change and salvation his future might have offered. I was convinced that condemning the soul of another in order to merely extend my transient existence could not be justified by the Bible, and could not be rectified with the edict to seek and save the lost.

It was probably around my second year of college that I began to interact with people who made claims about the canonization of the Bible that didn't seem to fit with what I had learned in the course from Josh McDowell. I had never questioned what McDowell had claimed. I never tried to look it up or research it to see if it was correct. But you can bet I questioned what my college buddies were saying. I refused to believe them. At first I simply thought they were wrong. Later, when I kept hearing the same sorts of things from different people, with different backgrounds, I decided I needed to look it up; not because I believed their claims, but so that I could rebut them with references they would respect. After all, if god endorsed the book, Christians would know that and be able to demonstrate it. Surely history had no choice but to support that truth—that the church had produced the collection of books on god’s authority. I had nothing to fear. McDowell’s claims would be supported, and God’s Word would be vindicated. And when these doubters saw the truth, they'd have to accept it as well.

I can still recall, with some humor now, sitting at a table in the basement of the UCF library, night after night, with several books spread out--all describing the canonization of the Bible. Some were authored by Christians/Catholics. Some were authored by historians (and I had no idea what sorts of religions they did/did not adhere to). None were written by avowed atheists. I'd never even heard of an atheist writer at that time. But what hit me like a brick was that they all, every last one of them, agreed with my friends—no matter what book, no matter what author background, whether it was the focus of the book or just a tangent of a book. None of them supported McDowell's claims—they all said exactly what my acquaintances had told me their professors had told them. I could find no support for my stance that the Bible texts were even safe to consider reliable—let alone the product of divine influence and authority.

Just to make it clear, and be fair, McDowell was into errors of omission more than errors of commission. I recall specifically that he talked about how the books were meticulously copied from generation to generation, and that error was not tolerated. In his class, I took this to mean (and I'm sure he meant for me to take it to mean) that from the first generation, they were copied without error as well as could be by human processes.

What McDowell failed to offer was the many generations before the better practices of scribes came into effect. He failed to mention that there were many generations of texts copied using criteria we simply cannot account for or validate. And McDowell surely was aware that there are known errors and forgeries in these texts, and many divergent texts to choose from, and a whole set of apocryphal literature that might have been included in the canon, and that many books lack established authorship, or even any claims of authorship.

Modern authors who address the canonization, such as Bart Ehrman, have published more concise books detailing the transmission and translation problems with the manuscripts we use even to this day. His writings alone would have saved me loads of library time had they been available back then. As far as I am aware, Ehrman has not declared himself an atheist. He claims to have been a fundamentalist, until he began to formally study Greek and the canonization of the Bible. This resulted in more liberal views. However, I cannot say he's an atheist. Still even he must admit that it is not uncommon for Bible scholars to express that it is problematic to use the term "original manuscripts" when discussing the books of the Bible--because we have nothing we can apply that label to with any confidence. Every historian I read gave a description that was aligned with Ehrman's data and claims. Ehrman, himself, states he is still hopeful that there may well be a way one day to talk with confidence about "original manuscripts,” but he's honest enough to admit today is not that day.

At this point, I began to see the Bible as an idol. It was a book created by early church leaders (not at all clearly authorized by god) who then held it up and claimed it as their authority—the Word of God (although Jesus himself in the Bible says that title belongs to Him). They then used the book to enforce their dogmas and doctrines and to persecute any Christian who said they were teaching error. There is no way to know if the doctrines that ultimately won out were correct, we can only say with any certainty that they were supported by the most powerful men.

These same men then set out to discredit or even systematically eliminate any texts or people that dared question their authority or disagree. With their book before them, they ran roughshod over all other ideas and stamped them out fairly effectively. Not unlike how the Koran came to become the authority it is today. Basically a group of men, not the apostles, not Jesus, not god, put the book together, using their own self-made criteria, and claimed it as being from god. They then used it as a tool to create and maintain their authority. They may well have believed this thing was divine and that they were acting on behalf of god (who can say?)—but there is no reason for anyone to agree they were. They provided only their assertion it was so.

At this point, calling that book the Word of God was blasphemy as far as I was concerned. I was still strong in my faith that god existed--after all, I'd seen god working in my life for a few years now--and I “felt” my own immortality—and I "knew" god was there. So, if the Bible was a blasphemous idol created by men—whether corrupt or honestly misled—I had to divorce myself from it (just as I would from the Pope, the Koran, the writings of Joseph Smith, the WatchTower Society), just as I would any human authority claiming god's authority without reasonable justification). I affirmed my allegiance was to god first—not to any doctrines of men or any human authority. I had meetings with my preacher to discuss. I felt it was important that the congregation be aware of this “new” information. To my astonishment, he rebuffed me, saying "I have to believe god had a hand in it [the canonization of the Bible]." To me he might as well have been sitting there saying, "I just have to believe god had a hand in putting the Pope in power." It was the same line of reasoning.

At that point, I began praying harder. I believed god would be with me. I knew I wanted to be right with god and god would not abandon me. If not the Bible, then whatever god wanted me to do, wherever he led me, I would follow, learn and accept. Wherever I was led, I followed. I read and studied. I never accepted other texts as divine, but I studied them to see what people had to say about their experiences with god.

I read Buddhism. And I learned it was nothing like the doctrine I'd been told it was (in church). I read Hinduism, and found, again, it was not like what I'd been taught in church. I read the Tao te Ching. I studied the histories of other religions to see how they were related—with Buddhism, for example, breaking off from Hindu and originating in India, rather than Japan/China (a misconception I had harbored). In college, I was studying anthropology (including anthropology of religion) and communication (including communication psychology, along with intra and interpersonal communication). If the Bible was not from god, then god must be found in the creation and in me; the creator would be reflected in what he had created. I sought. I prayed. God would show me the way.

I became most interested in studying what people refer to as the religious experience at this point. I read the mystics, including Rumi. If god didn't reach us through books, then perhaps his touch could be experienced directly. But if I was foundering for a way to reach him, being god, surely he could reach me. I could work from there. It was just me and god—wherever he wanted to take me. I continued to follow and studied and read. I thought deeply about what I was reading. I opened my mind to god’s influence and guidance. Continually in my life, I was asking these questions: Did what I just read make sense or not? Did it feel right or not? What is the nature of god if it is not what I was taught and what the Bible was made to say by men?

This process went on for several more years. And it culminated one day while I was driving home and asking myself "what is god?" I wanted to know what I believed in. I had also, by this time, taken to going to online forums. Most of this process had taken place before the Internet was around, so once I was on the Internet, I began talking to people personally, online about their experiences with god, and sharing mine for scrutiny. After a time, I began to see that nobody seemed clear on what god is or how god works—or really much at all about god, even the people who seemed very sure of themselves. There was no consensus. And I found myself just as unable to give a clear account of what god represented to me and what exactly I was seeking.

So, the important thing became to understand what I claimed to believe in—to know what I meant when I put forward, "I believe in god." If I couldn't define god, that meant I didn't know what I believed in; and, that is no different than believing in nothing. It's no more than saying, "I believe in X." When a person asks "What are you calling X? What do you mean by X?" I should be able to explain what I'm claiming to believe. If I can't, the statement becomes meaningless.

I had to be able to explain my belief in order that it should be meaningful in any way—to me or to anyone else. I wanted to know who or what I was trusting and taking guidance from. And at this point, I wasn't sure there was even a personality involved any more. “Personality” was something I'd accepted from the start—that god was personality; but, I found no support for it in reality.

I kept asking and thinking and looking at the world and comparing what I could see and know, to what I believed, to see if it was supported. If someone makes a claim about the world or about god, and I can see it does not align with what actually exists and how it works, then I can recognize it is false. Could my knowledge be flawed or incomplete? Could my reasoning be faulty? Of course. But it's still all any one of us ever has to go on.

I still believed that if I sought god with an honest heart, and I needed better information, it would be provided if the god that existed wanted me to find my way to him. I trusted that whatever god was, if I'm searched sincerly, I would find the truth. And I kept searching. If god is personality, and if he cares, he will guide me in my search. If he's not personality or if he doesn't care, then I might not find god, but in that case, it really wouldn’t matter. Still, unless I could define what I believed, then my belief meant nothing. My driving force, then, became to define what I believed.

I remember coming to the conclusion that I could not accept a god that was "less than" anything. A god that was not complete was no god at all. This meant that god would encompass everything—no matter how that might defy what I’d been taught as a child. To such a being or force, there would be, then, no differentiation between good and no evil. Duality of that sort would be meaningless. Such a being would have to encompass all that is—Ghandi as well as Ted Bundy. It would have to contain all power and force, all consciousness, and everything that could be known—including all consciousness.

It would be—the idea rolled out of my brain like adding machine tape—the universe.

When I got home, I immediately looked up "universe. The definition that grabbed my attention was "everything." It was a Eureka moment. Pieces began to fall easily into place, and the culmination of my years-long search started coming together exactly as I’d hoped it one day would. God was "everything."

If god was not everything, then he could only be "part of" the universe. And if that was the case, the universe was a greater set that contained god as a mere part. And if “everything” was something “more” than god—then god was “less” than the universe. And nothing could be greater than the god I was seeking.

Prior to this, I had held come to view emination (ala Clement and Origen) as the most sensible theological creation idea. It didn't make sense to me, that anything was separate from god. It was either all god—or “all” was more than “god.” I began to google "universe+god" and variations of that combination. I even searched for “I am god,” since, if everything is god, then I am as much god as anything and everything else. I ended up hitting on Pantheism. But it only took a few days to ask myself, "If the universe is everything, and god is everything, then what does that mean for this god I’ve been seeking?” If A=B and B=C—what was I really saying?"

In the end, I had to admit that the only claim I could reasonably support was that the universe exists and appears to encompass every existent thing. If people, like Pantheists, wish to call the universe "god," they can. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose.

Of course, like a movie with a plot twist ending, I had to rerun a good chunk of my past life to reveal that my idea of "god working in my life" was no different than what some people would label more colloquially, "shit happens." Whatever happened in my life, simply happened. I told myself it was god's will and god's plan for me. But no matter what happened, good or bad, I has merely taken it in stride and interpreted it as a lesson, a test, or a sign from god telling me I was doing well or not so well—that this door was open to me, and the other (regardless of my personal desires) was shut. But that is no different than just living life and going with the flow. How we choose to interpret that flow, however, is totally flexible, and totally within our control. Calling it “god” didn't make it so. Just like calling a book “god” (which is basically what I did as a fundamentalist; the book is god's only authority to the fundamentalist mind) didn't make it so.

Could it be that "everything"—the universe—is all there is? It was something I hadn't considered before. So, I looked into it further. So far, to this day, it continues to fit the facts and satisfy my search. The supernatural claims of religions, however, continue to go unsupported.

I suppose, in a nutshell, I became an atheist when I began to see that, despite all my surety and desire that god exist, in the end, I couldn't find any actual support for that belief. It appears I simply wanted it to be true, very badly, I'd been well indoctrinated as a child, and I was determined to find that thing I believed in. Despite all that, I had to own up to the fact that anything I would consider to be “god” never really existed in any supernatural form. I started out deluded some supernatural personality was there, and believed it, and forced reality to fit my beliefs (instead of building beliefs consistent with, and supported by, reality).

I heard a theist say, recently, "I have found that most do not became atheist due to the facts or any real evidence against God." There is absolutely some truth to that in my case. It wasn't that I found evidence “against” god, it was that, try as I might, I was utterly unable to find anything that could legitimately be called evidence “for” the existence of a god—despite the fact that few could have been more biased that me in favor of the desired result "god exists." And since that time I've talked to many theists and read lots of theist claims and statements, but nobody has offered anything new or convincing.

I’m sure some will write me off as someone who was never really a “true” Christian. I've seen Christians at atheist forums telling each other they're not true Christians. They all appear to believe they are the true Christian, and everyone who views it differently isn't reading the Bible correctly (if they take the Bible as their guide). I've seen atheists who used to faithfully do mission work abroad, who wrote and published hymns, who were ministers, who were also told they were never true Christians by currently practicing Christians.

In fact, to be fair, if I was still a Christian, I'd probably be using that same line on someone like me. That's one of the ironies of my life today. If I were to talk to my past self, I can’t imagine I’d have any negative impact on my then-faith. Even I, today, would be as unable to deconvert my past self, any more than I could hope to deconvert a “true” Christian today. If that's not ironic, I don’t know what is.

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From the officers:

The audio and video from Steve Bratteng's July 13th lecture are now available.