Stephen J. Hurlin

Born Again to Atheist                  

(14 October 1999)

I became a ‘born again’ Christian in 1969 and dedicated my life to the love and service of Jesus Christ.  This service included leading worship for 23 years and becoming a full time missionary. Then in November 1996 I became an atheist.

What led to such a radical change?  Was it rebellion?  Was it bitterness from the traumas life seems so adept at handing out?  Was I ‘handed over to a depraved mind’ for practicing sin?  Was I deceived by the devil?  Did the sordid state of the church or other Christians disillusion me?  No, it was my personal quest for truth and integrity.

While studying the human brain I came to the conclusion that there cannot be an afterlife.  Everything we are is stored in our brains – memories, personality, recognition of loved ones, emotions, communication skills, etc.  Name it!  It’s all there in our brains.  Even consciousness is the result of a chemical reaction.  If the brain dies what will be left?  I could only conclude that death means total oblivion.

This led me to study the Bible and look at Christianity from a fresh perspective.  I found out that the majority of the ‘good book’ was copied almost verbatim from previous religions.  It contains glaring scientific errors and is fraught with mistakes and contradictions.  The Old Testament condones genocide, slavery, prostitution, distributing virgins as the spoils of war, and even the slaughter of little babies.

The cruel unforgiving God of the Old Testament is replaced in the New Testament by one who poses as a loving and forgiving Father, but becomes a million times worse by inventing Hell. Would we, fallible humans, be so cold as to condemn our own children and all their descendants to an eternity of fire merely for finding out about good and evil?  It just doesn’t make sense.

Then Christianity offers an antidote: believe in Jesus as Messiah and you can escape that awful place of eternal suffering.  This means one tiny fraction of billions of people gets forgiveness for someone else’s blunder and the rest burn for eternity.  This doesn’t ring true either.  Even the concept of God coming to earth in the form of a man, dying, and being raised from death for the forgiveness of sin was copied from ancient religions without apology or disguise, and is based on the barbaric practice of blood sacrifice.  And this feeble lie is what Christians base their lives and hopes on?

Current scientific knowledge, although never absolute and always changing, is enough to tell us that there isn’t a supernatural creature hovering over our little planet, and there aren’t invisible angels and demons floating around influencing our lives.  We know that phenomena previously thought to be supernatural are perfectly natural.

Is it possible to prove God doesn’t exist?  Yes it is, in the same way we can prove that the tooth fairy and Easter bunny don’t exist.  I proved it to myself through honest research and a passion for truth.  The result has been a remarkable transformation in my life.  Even after 3 years the joy of discovery and wonder of life hasn’t worn off.  I live each day with an inner excitement, motivated by the knowledge that all my goals need to be achieved in this lifetime. Fear and confusion are no longer part of my existence.  I can highly recommend abandoning superstition and religion – no more than a sad and destructive heritage from our ignorant and barbaric past.


Courage To Doubt

(19 August 2010, delivered at MENSA)

We are privileged to be living in the Age of Information. At the push of a button we can research any topic we choose, read and study all kinds of opinions, and within seconds, from the comfort of our homes, access libraries all over the world. It is even possible now, at negligible cost, to surf the internet from a mobile phone, making knowledge available to people from all walks of life.

Most of us in this room are part of the upper echelons of society, if not materially then certainly intellectually. I do not doubt for a second that we are all experts in our particular fields, and have added to our knowledge in a myriad of other ways too. But there seems to be an unspoken taboo on researching and discussing religion. If a suicide bomber kills himself and 20 other people, the news reports it as another “terrorist” attack, or speaks about his political or economic motives. Why not just say it was his faith that led him to perform such an unspeakable act of slaughter? Why not call the War on Terror the War on Faith? We have all heard the warning not to speak about “sex, politics and religion” but it seems as if these days the biggest conversation-stopper remains as only “religion.”

My question to you is, why not? If a person has faith, and genuinely believes in God, that belief will affect and filter through into almost everything that person decides, feels, thinks and does. If you research and test every single insurance company before taking out insurance on your car and possessions, then why not subject your religion to the same stringent scrutiny? I did this and found my religion, Christianity, to be false. Clearly and obviously false – at just a cursory glance. And the other religions are no different. Each one believes it has the perfect written Word of their particular God, and yet not one of them holds up under the microscope of rational investigators (including the Christian Bible). This is common knowledge among scholars. And those who believe are constantly trying to find ways of proving their particular views are true. Some use intimidation and terror, while others, in more developed countries, use theology and pseudo-science.

You may then ask me, why not just let it be? Most religions are pretty harmless, except at their extremes, and much good has been done by religious organizations. And here I will agree that many institutions formed in the name of religion have done enormous amounts of good work around the globe. But so have secular organizations – they just refrain from blowing their trumpets because they do not have secondary motives in doing good (like, for example, spreading religious views). It is my opinion that good people are drawn to religion. Religion is marketed, or sold, as the “right thing to do” and by its very nature attracts people who wish to “do the right thing.” These same people would still have done good in some other way had it not been for their religion. They would maybe even have been more effective because of the vast fortune in resources that would have been saved had they not spent them maintaining the expensive and economy-draining churches.

You may also then ask, is modern-day Christianity not a unifier, and does it not give hope to people in times of stress or severe personal loss? And does Christianity not offer moral guidance in an age of promiscuity and immorality? These are concepts that “everybody knows” and it is some of the “things we know” in our society that I would like to challenge tonight. And perhaps, in so doing, even challenge you to have courage to doubt some of your own beliefs.

In his book Breaking The Spell, Daniel Dennett speaks of things in every culture that “everybody knows.” For example, yawning is pretty harmless and it is good to wash your hands after visiting the bathroom. And if “everybody knows” that slaughtering a goat will ensure healthy childbirth, you had better do it just in case – it has been done for years and nobody has questioned the practice. In ancient Greek cultures, “everybody knew” that thunder and lightning came from Zeus or Thor. I sometimes wonder how long it took, after the knowledge was available, until “everybody knew” that thunder and lightning were actually natural phenomena. These days, in South Africa, “everybody knows” that God exists, we have a soul that lives after death and that Christianity teaches children to be moral. These are concepts that are seldom questioned because they are things that “everybody knows.” They are beliefs that are part of our culture.

Firstly, God exists. Really? Are you serious? An invisible Being who is all powerful, our Creator (we do not understand the origins of Life on earth so it must have come from God), who is a loving, warm-and-fuzzy Father who is interested in our personal lives? That God? Or some kind of “force-with-personality” that we do not actually understand but “know” exists? That one? It is something we have grown up with and simply “know.” Like you “knew” Father Christmas existed when you were young – that little “everybody knows” paradigm in the back of your brain – but were disappointed to have exposed when you could start reasoning for yourself?

In an article published on the internet recently called The slow, whiny death of British Christianity, author Johann Hari says, “For centuries, religion was insulated from criticism in Britain. First its opponents were burned, then jailed, then shunned. But once there was a free marketplace of ideas, once people could finally hear both the religious arguments and the rationalist criticisms of them, the religious lost the British people. Their case was too weak, their opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people too cruel, their evidence for their claims non-existent. Once they had to rely on persuasion rather than intimidation, the story of British Christianity came to an end.” The article goes on to show that a recent ICM study shows that fully 63% of the population claim a secular world view and a mere 6% still attend regular church services (and these are mostly older folk and South African expats).

Some honest and reasonable research will show you that there is no evidence for God’s existence at all. On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that we live in a natural world and that believing otherwise is bordering on mental illness. In his book The End Of Faith, Sam Harris says, “Jesus Christ – who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens – can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favourite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?” (p73)

Secondly, we do not die when we die. This is another thing that “everybody knows.” But medical research, particularly in the field of neurology, has shown otherwise. Every function of a human being, including consciousness, is a natural function of the brain that will stop after death. Death will unfortunately be oblivion, like before you were born, and wishing or believing otherwise sadly cannot change that fact. I once saw a cartoon that showed how scientific researchers look at the evidence on hand and try to draw conclusions, while religious apologists have ready-made conclusions and try to find supporting evidence. Well there is no evidence to suggest we carry on living after death. Multi-billion dollar industries covering all the major religions, as well as “contact-the-departed” intermediaries, have brought false hope to the bereaved and terrified masses for way too long, all based on the belief that “everybody knows” we live on after death. It is time, in my opinion, that these preachers and priests, and the charlatans of the séance industry, be incarcerated as criminals and con-men. I do not think there can be any greater pain than losing someone close to you, but I would rather grieve in tears, and remember in fondness, and move on in truth, than be comforted by a lie.

And thirdly, raising a child in Christianity will produce morality. Seriously? Do you want to teach an innocent child that he is inherently evil because of something his ancestors did after a conversation with a talking snake? That, if left to his own devices, his natural inclination will be toward malicious wickedness and immorality? Will you then teach that child that it is the shedding of innocent blood that is the cure? But not to worry, he does not have to kill the family pet because an ancient Messiah has made a once-off sacrifice of his own blood and that is now sufficient as long as he believes it to be true. Is this what you want to teach a child? And if you do wrong, this huge all-knowing God, who is always watching, will punish you forever in a place of terrible suffering. Is this the kind of fear you want to instil in the innocent? Or even worse, he may harm someone else but all will be forgiven if he says he is sorry to this invisible God, and he will not have to take personal responsibility for his actions. Heavenly forgiveness is probably one of the most debilitating doctrines to come out of Christianity. Yes, if you steal from me, or damage my property (e.g. by driving into the back of my stationary car) I will forgive you because harbouring a grudge is counterproductive, but I will still require you to return what you have stolen or pay for my car to be repaired.

It is my view that morality is a social skill, not a religious duty. We live in a close-knit society with each other and this condition will automatically expose and remove things that cause harm. We do not need a list of commandments to figure out that murder, theft and lying are destructive activities. Our standards of right and wrong should rest on a foundation of which actions contribute positively or negatively to one another. I think that Christian faith has dulled some people’s awareness to the people around them. For example, a person may go to church on Sunday and “feel moral” because of his “inner holiness” but will not be aware of the havoc he causes by driving inconsiderately or by standing chatting in the middle of a busy shopping mall passage. You may not have murdered anyone today, so according to the Bible you are doing a good job, but were you polite and patient with the new inexperienced till-operator at your local supermarket?

Christianity may appear to produce morality because, as I said earlier, religion attracts people who wish to “do the right thing”, but I think this is a false impression. My observations into this field have shown that the practice of Christianity has produced a morally cripple society and adults who have grown up believing and practicing the Christian religion are less likely to be truly moral than their secular counterparts.

In conclusion I would like to say that it is high time we take a serious look at the beliefs and practices of religion that are poisoning every facet of modern society, and remove them. In his book Godless, Dan Barker relates a terrifying experience in which he nearly lost his wife and unborn child. Reflecting on the event afterwards he says, “During this entire traumatic experience we never once thought of invoking god for help. We never prayed, never even considered it. What we did invoke was some of the best medical care in the Midwest. Religion was not only the furthest thing from our minds, it was totally nonexistent. In fact, if a chaplain had come into the room while Annie Laurie was recuperating her blood pressure would have shot up! … We invoked not a supernatural deity, but the love and support of our community, mostly caring, non-believing friends and relatives.” (p341)

We have all seen these huge billboards next to some of our highways, “SA turn to God.” I think these should be replaced with signs that say, “SA turn to one another.” I think that it is humanity that brings about morality in society and human interaction that brings progress and better living conditions. The failed superstitions of our ancestors that have produced untold misery, human suffering and unspeakable cruelty should be surgically removed from our thinking and “everybody-knows” mindset. The propagators of these false beliefs in gods and ghosts, in demons and spirits, the religious war-mongers and infidel-killing faithful should be removed from society with urgency and single-minded purpose. Must this be done by waging violence and a war of our own? No, it can be achieved by exposing the lie and teaching our children the truth. It can be achieved, as has happened in Britain (and is thankfully happening around the world), by persuasion and logic, by reason and critical thinking.

In closing I would like to read you the last paragraph of my book. “I have told my story and presented my case in defence of atheism. I honestly hope this book contributes in some way to the journeys of those who are looking at faith in a new light and considering the Godless path.  It is not an easy choice. It can be lonely at times, as I said in the beginning, but what price can be put on freedom, morality, integrity, and most especially, truth? It takes courage to doubt, to look into the face of faith and say, “You have lied. I choose truth and freedom!””

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