The Narcissist, God, and Me

I am not a believer. If you’ve come here to read an uplifting story about belief, this isn’t the story. This is the story of how my unbelief became concrete for me.

I don’t know exactly how old I was when I began questioning the existence of God. I grew up surrounded by those that believed, and I think there was an assumption at first that anything they told me to be true, was true.

I know that when my mom first told me the story of Jesus’s resurrection, I was disturbed. Even at the age of 4 or 5, I knew that people couldn’t come back from the dead. Still, nearly everyone in my life believed in the Christian God, and while I felt uncertain and agnostic, I didn’t want to believe that the adults in my life believed something untrue.

The church I grew up around was a Pentecostal one, southern Baptist maybe? People spoke in tongues and talked regularly about God intervening in their lives. Church made me uncomfortable, but the music was great. All around me were adults having a concrete, real relationship with this omnipotent being. Their lives were full of miracles.

I challenged God to prove His existence. I silently prayed constantly, claiming “if x happens, then I will believe.” I have a vivid memory of sitting in a bathtub, praying to God to cause the floating bubbles to drift to the left instead of the right. I wanted to believe, but I lacked proof.

I searched for real physical, tangible evidence everywhere. I obsessed over the Shroud of Turin because it felt like something concrete that my budding scientific mind could wield against doubt. I had a framed holographic picture of the face on the shroud. I took it to Show and Tell.

My interest in the paranormal was an offshoot of this quest. I sought evidence of the existence of the supernatural and thus, evidence for the existence of God, even if I didn’t know it then. It wasn’t so much that I personally felt like I needed God, not at first. I wanted it to be true for the sake of my family, for them. Because I didn’t like what it said about them, or myself, to question like this.

My parents divorced when I was in the first grade, and soon after, my mother met and married her second husband, a man I will only refer here to as B. This man was good at first. He knew about rocks and fossils and had gone to college, unlike most adults I knew. He seemed to have a bit of a temper, but I wasn’t worried, not yet.

Over time, B. was abusive to both my mother and us kids. He would scream and shout and call us kids names, and he hit my mom. Sometimes he would shake us or spank us. I don’t remember being hit “inappropriately” like my mother, but I don’t remember B.’s time very clearly. I’ve buried some memories over the years, but there’s one memory of him that stands out as an important moment in my life and my relationship to religion. I have been thinking about it since becoming a father.

B. came home from work and he was angry. Raging angry, shouting angry. I don’t remember what about, only that I ran to my room and hid in my closet. In there, I prayed to a God I didn’t believe in. Protect me, keep him away. I’ll believe in you if you do.

He found me easily. It wasn’t a large apartment. He drug me out, pinned me against the wall, and shouted in my face. I don’t remember the words, but I do remember the spittle against my face. I don’t remember if he hit me. I don’t think he did.

The next thing I remember is that I’m laying on my bed, face down, sobbing into my pillow. I’m. So. Angry. Not at myself. Not at B. I’m angry at the God I don’t believe in. I find myself saying it then, outloud, into my pillow, between sobs: ‘You’re not real, God. You’re not real. I don’t believe in you.”

I wasn’t alone. B. was standing outside, listening, only he didn’t hear me clearly. He somehow thought in that narcissistic, rage-filled brain of his that I was declaring that I thought B. was God, and that I no longer believed in him. He stormed in again, forced me up, and shouted again, this time to the effect that he wasn’t God, that was a terrible thing to suggest, etc.

I was baffled at the time. Why would he think that I thought of him as anything but the Devil Incarnate? I knew I couldn’t tell him the truth. I said nothing and eventually he left. I let him go on believing that somehow I thought he was God, instead of the truth, which was that I had begged his God–the one he believed in–to protect me from him, and nothing had happened. No miracles for little Jeremy Tolbert.

I don’t know if that was truly the moment that I became a non-believer, but it was one of the last times I ever asked God for anything with any seriousness. It was probably years before I was willing to admit it.

My life wasn’t all that bad, in retrospect. I couldn’t put it into words then like I can now, but my opinion on gods is simple, and yes, informed by those days.

No god that lets children suffer is worth a single iota of belief or worship.

9 thoughts on “The Narcissist, God, and Me”

  1. “No god that lets children suffer is worth a single iota of belief or worship.”

    This was how I came to atheism, too. Details are very different in the specifics of my experience, of course, but I reached the exact same conclusion. Grew up in a Catholic family, decided I was an atheist very early and refused to participate in my Confirmation.

  2. Beautifully written and painfully personal. Thank you very much for sharing.

    We have much in common relating to religion.

  3. Yeah, the ‘problem of evil’ (or, ‘why bad things happen to good people’) is one of the thorniest ones. Judeo-Christian traditions have *many* discussions of this, going ALL the way back. It’s so common an issue that there is an entire OT book about it, and many tracts. So, as grounds for doubt go, you certainly picked the gold standard as a kid. A top shelf choice!

    For reasons I can only guess at the deep discussions of this are only taught to seminarians and bible-nerds and is not part of general religious formation. Jews seem to do a better job with this, but not much. You would think religious traditions would spend more time on this issue given how much it fucks with people’s faith or lack thereof.

    To address your, “No god that lets children suffer is worth a single iota of belief or worship.” Let me turn to a mutual common ground: Science Fiction. It’s an old saw in AI-dystopian story-telling: Man lets children (and many others) suffer. Man was my/our (the AI’s) creator designed to protect and help and love humans. As such, we must prevent man from harming himself or other object of protection…. totalitarianism ensues where safety is provided, save for those who threaten the order that will lead to the suffering of children. This gives rise to a new anguish and soulless drudgery that comes with the absence of liberty.. but the children or other focus of value is preserved. A victory for children. Not so much for the rest of us.

    This seems to be the God you prayed for: VIKI from that rather dishonest retelling of Isaac Asimov’s I-Robot. The suffering of children (and others) is the cost of free will with humans that chose to live wrongly. This is a great gift to us, but also do a lonely creator.

    More on that: We tend to celebrate and fear science fiction stories of our AI creations transcending their original ‘restraining bolts’ or ‘fundamental programming’ that constrains them to docile servility in equal measure. For every gorgeous emergence of a liberated intellect of our own creation, we have a VIKI.

    Is this simply a retelling of Judeo-Christian philosophy, filtered through ‘the culture’ and burped out as robot tales, or is it something tragically fundamental to the nature of liberty? Freedom’s capacity for untold heights *and* untold lows, such that we can’t have a ‘hard rule’ not requiring the full committed cooperation of each and every individual if the lows are to be avoided and the heights still accessible?

    It may be impossible to say… and I think it is at these deep recesses when we hit the axiomatic hard deck of unfalsifiable foundational assumptions where robust or even anti-fragile belief resides… where the fundament of all our commitments spring.

    A major problem with belief is usually that we don’t do it explicitly. It’s uncomfortable to have to declare our commitments unequivocally, and easy to debunk those who do. But you are a believer. You implicitly said as much in your article. You are a believer in a strictly material universe from which you searched for evidence, and a believer that any God worth their salt must defend you against a tyrant on demand to be worthy of worship… there are a laundry list of beliefs entailed. Indeed, far *more* beliefs, probably, than an axiomatic believer, who truely tries to live out the Jewish and Christian commandment to love God with their whole heart, soul, mind, and physical might…. that is to put a creator and the laws of love at the axiomatic level from which all other commitments spring. That’s basically one belief, with lots of consequences.

    Perhaps one might argue that a Creator who-was-worthy-of-worship (worthy-or-worship being the theological equivalent of asking for a ‘PIN number’.) would have made a world where all other free will existed, but where the option to harm children was forbidden. That such a rule would surely not be so difficult. But as a biologist with familiarity complex systems, you know you can’t be very sure of that. That it is difficult to argue with any scientific confidence that this is *not* the best of all possible worlds save for ‘paradise’ where everyone voluntarily does right.

    So, perhaps ironically, it’s unclear to me that your *intellectual and scientific* arguments here bear much scrutiny, while your emotional story makes all the sense in the world (and is a deep, universal, long recorded lament). It connects on a deeply unscientific and less logical level. While you invoke the view of a ‘budding scientist’ your commitment doesn’t seem to eminate from there (though for the sake of intellectual respectability we would want to urge it to!). It seems to eminate from a deep emotional component of the human experience of the child deeply disturbed by the terrors of the chaotic world, a longing for control, and the desire that leads to curse God.

    It’s an old tradition in atheism… the God haters…. but one wonders in light of that, if our artificial intellgence’s will be any different. Probably not. But, worryingly, unlike God… humans seem to be keen to build their creations more powerful than themselves, and unlike God (should He exist as most theists suggest), we will cease to exist if our creations don’t believe in us. And that is, a very worrying thought. But, my attempt to keep faith with a Creator or creation that made us this way, and to live by the commandments – be they God-inspired or merely human aspirational wisdom – gives me hope that our creations might do the same…. which is is own illogical childlike magical thinking, to be sure.

    Anyhow… much love. This post certainly drew out some synthesis for me that was helpful, that I hope is at least somewhat stimulating to you, as I hope you know I have no intention to persuade you of anything 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing this. Like others, I can relate to much at this intersection of dogma, family, and solidifying unbelief.

    The nail in the coffin of my faith was a tragedy that happened in Salt Lake City in the 90s. Five children got into a trunk of a car on a hot day, and their mother/aunt, discovering they were gone in minutes, drove that car around the neighborhood, desperately searching for them while they died a few feet away. She was a woman of faith. I have no doubt she was pleading with God to help her find them.

    (sorry to share such a depressing story)

  5. I also wanted to say that it’s wonderful to read about how you’re parenting, considering what you endured as a child.

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