Nathan Hwang

Ain’t No Calvary Coming

Epistemic status[1]: preaching, basically. An apology, in both senses[2].

I know my mom reads my blog; hi, mom.

Mothers being mothers, I figure I owe her a sit-down answer to why I’m not Christian, and don’t expect to re-become Christian[3]. Now, I don’t expect to convince anyone, but maybe you, dear reader, will simply better understand.

Let’s start at the end.

Let’s start with the agony of hell, and the bliss of heaven. Sure, humans don’t understand infinities, don’t grasp the eye-watering vastness of forever nor the weight of a maximally good/bad time. Nevertheless, young me had an active imagination, so getting people out of the hell column and into the heaven column was obviously the most important thing, which made it surprising that my unbeliever friends were so unconcerned with the whole deal. I supposed that they already had a motivated answer in place: as heathens, they would be wallowing in unrepentant hedonism, and would go to great lengths to make sure they kept seeing a world free of a demanding and righteous God.

I knew the usual way to evangelize, but it depended to a frustrating degree on the person being evangelized to. It seemed unacceptable that some of my friends might go to hell just because their hearts were never in the right place. Well, what if I found a truly universal argument for my truly universal religion? The Lord surely wouldn’t begrudge guidance in my quest to find the unmistakable fingerprints of God (which were everywhere, so the exercise should be a cakewalk), and I would craft a marvelous set of arguments to save everyone.

Early on, I realized that the arguments I found persuasive wouldn’t be persuasive to the people I wanted to reach: if you assumed the Bible was a historical text you would end up saying “no way, Jesus did all these miracles, that’s amazing!”, but what if you didn’t trust the Bible? I would need to step outside of the assumption that God existed, and then see the way back. Was this dangerous to my faith? Well, I would never really leave: I would just be empathetic and step into my friend’s shoes, to better know how to guide them into the light. And you remember the story about walking with Jesus on the beach? There was no way this could go wrong!

Looking back, I see that my thoughts were self-serving. As a product of both faith and science, I wanted to make it clear that religion could meet science on its own terms and win. If the hierarchy of authority didn’t subordinate science to religion, then…?

So I studied apologetics[4], particularly Genesis apologetics. I made myself familiar with the things like young vs. old earth creationism, the tornado-in-a-junk-yard equivocation, attacks I could make on gradual and punctuated equilibrium[5]. I was even dazzled by canopy theory, where a high-altitude aerial ocean wrapped the planet, providing waters for The Flood and allowing really long lifespans by blocking harmful solar radiation[6]. I went on missions, raising money and overcoming my natural reticence to talk to people about the Good Word. I even listened almost solely to Christian rock music.

Now, I don’t doubt I believed: I felt the divine in retreats and mission trips, me and my brothers and sisters in Christ singing as one[7]. I prayed for guidance, hung on the words of holy scripture, found the words for leading a group prayer, and eventually confirmed my faith. As part of my confirmation, I remember being baptized for the 2nd time in high school[8]: a clear, lazy river had cut a gorge into sandstone, and the sunset lit the gorge with a warm glow. Moments before I went under the water, I thought “of course. How could I doubt with such beauty in front of me?”.

But some of these experiences also sowed the seeds of doubt. Someone asked if I wanted the blessing of tongues: I said yes, thinking a divine gift of speaking more than halting Spanish would be great for my upcoming mission trip. And, how cool would it be to have a real world miracle happen right in front of me‽ Later I tried to figure out if glossolalia was in fact the tongue of angels[9], but I didn’t come up with anything certain, which was worrying. Why were my local leaders enthusiastic about this “gift of tongues”[10], but other religious authorities were against the practice? On a mission trip I told someone I could stay on missions indefinitely (in classic high school fashion, I had read the word “indefinite” a few times and thought it sounded cool) and was brought up short when they responded with skepticism that someone could stay forever; why wouldn’t they stay if the work was righteous, comfortable living be damned? Or I would think about going to seminary instead of college, and wonder if that was God’s plan for me.

How did I know what was right, what was true?

The thing is that I didn’t even begin to know. On my quest for answers, I didn’t comprehend the sheer magnitude of 2000 years of religious commentary[11]. I didn’t grasp how hairy the family tree of Christian sects was, each with their own tweaks on salvation. I read Mere Christianity and a few books on apologetics, and thought it would be enough. I didn’t even understand my enemy at all, refusing to grapple with something so basically wrong as The Selfish Gene. Into this void on my map of knowledge I sailed a theological Columbus, expecting dragons where there was a whole continent of thought.

So the more I learned, the more doubt compounded. When my church split, I wondered why such a thing could happen: were some of the people simply wrong about a theological question? That raised more disturbing questions about how one could choose the truest sect of Protestant Christianity, ignoring “cults” like Mormonism or Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox or even other religions entirely, like Islam (and there are non-Abrahamic religions, too‽). Or, maybe a church split could happen for purely practical concerns, but it was disturbing that such an important event in a theological institution wasn’t grounded in theological conflict: if not a church split, then what should be determined by theology?[12] And, I realized other religions had followers with similarly intense experiences: what set mine apart from theirs?

Again, what did I know, and how did I know it?

Don’t worry, my spiritual leaders would say. God(ot) is coming, just wait here by this tree and he’ll be along any moment now[13].

And maybe God would come, but he would maintain plausible deniability, an undercover agent in his own church. Faith healings wouldn’t do something so visible as give back an arm, just chase away the back pain of a youth leader for a while. My church yelled prayers over a girl with a genetic defect, and the only outcome was frightening her[14]. Demonic possession leading to supernatural acts isn’t a recorded phenomenon, despite the proliferation of cameras everywhere. So the whispers of godhood would always scurry behind the veil of faith whenever a light of inquiry shone on it.

I started refusing to stand during praise. Singing with this pit of questions in my stomach seemed too much like betrayal, displaying to the world smiles and melodies I knew were empty. I sat and thought instead, trying to retrace Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason without Kant’s talent[15]. I simply couldn’t accept the dearth of convincing evidence and simply trust, when all my instincts and training screamed for a sure foundation, when I knew a cosmic math teacher would circle my answer of “yes, God exists!” and scribble in red “please show your work“.

I told myself I would end it in a blaze of glory, pledging fealty to a worthy Lord, or flinging obscenities at the sky and pulpit when they didn’t have the answers. Instead, my search for god outside of god himself petered out under a pile of unanswered questions[16], and I languished in a purgatory of uncertainty. In a way, I was mourning the death of god. It took years, but now I confidently say I’m an atheist.

So that was the past. What about the future?

Sometimes the prodigal son falls on hard times and has to come home; in the case of the church, home has a number of benefits. Peace of mind that everything will turn out okay. A sabbath, if one decides to keep it. A set of meditation-like practices at regular intervals (even in Christianity!). A set of high-trust social circles[17] with capped vitriol (in theory; in practice, see the Protestant Reformation and aforementioned church splits), a supportive community with a professional leader, a time to all feel together. Higher levels of conscientiousnessHigher productivity[18]. The ability to attract additional votes in Congressional races. Chips at the table of Pascal’s Wager[19].

Perhaps most importantly, though, is a sense of hope. How does one have hope for the future when there is only annihilation at the end?

Paul saw the end, a world descending into decadence, a world that couldn’t save itself: hell, given a map, it wouldn’t save itself. Contrary to this apocalyptic vision, scientism[20]/liberalism preaches abundance, the continual development of an ever better world. We took the limits of man and sundered them; we walked on the moon, we eradicated polio, we tricked rocks into thinking for us, and we’ll break more limits before we’re done. Paul was the product of an endless cycle of empires; we’re on a trajectory to leave the solar system[21].

There is light in the world[22], and it is us.

But if the world is simply getting better, then does it matter what I believe? Well, our rise is only part of the story: it took tremendous work to get from where we were to where we are, and the current world is built on the blood of our mistakes[23]. The double-edged sword of technology could easily lop off our hand if we’re not careful. We’ve done some terrible things already, and finding the Great Leap Forward-scale mistakes with our face is hideously expensive.

So progress is possible, but we haven’t won. How do the engineers say it? “Hope is not a strategy.” There ain’t no Calvary coming[24], ain’t no Good King to save us, ain’t no cosmic liquidation of the global consciousness, ain’t no millennium expiration date on suffering. A reductionist scientific world is a cold world without guardrails, with nothing to stop us from destroying ourselves[25]: if we want a happy ending, we’ll need to breach Heaven ourselves, and bowing our heads and closing our eyes in prayer won’t help when we should be watching the road ahead. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but this isn’t a cause for despair. This is a call to arms.

So in the past, a successful prodigal son may have gone home for a sense of continuity and purpose, a sense of hope beyond the grave. However, now he doesn’t have to. It’s not just about unrepentant hedonism[26]: we’re getting closer to audacious goals like ending poverty, ending aging, ending death. We won’t wait for a bright new afterlife that isn’t coming: we humanists will do our best, and maybe, just maybe, it will be enough.

No heaven above, no hell below, just us. Let us begin.

[1]  Epistemics: the ability to know things. Epistemic status: how confident I am about the thing I am writing about.

[2]  Senses: saying sorry, and in the sense of apologetics or defending a position. Commonly found as the bi-gram “Christian apologetics”.

[3]  I almost didn’t publish this post, figuring I hadn’t heard from my mom about faith-related topics in a while. Then my mom told all my relatives “We are praying for a godly young woman who can bring <thenoviceoof> back to us”, so here we are.

[4]  A defense of the faith, basically, usually hanging around as a bi-gram like “Christian apologetics”. See Wikipedia.

[5]  Standing from where I am, I can see how the books would paint the strengths of science as weakness: “look at how science has been wrong! And then it changed it’s mind, like a shifty con-man!” In this respect, the flip-flopping nature of science journalism in fields like nutrition is Not Helping, a way of poisoning the well of confident proclamations of evidence, such that everyone defaults to throwing up their hands in the face of evidence, instead of actually assessing it.

[6]  In retrospect, I had a thing for weirdly implausible theories: I remember being smitten with the idea that all of physics could be explained by continually expanding subatomic particles, a sort of classical Theory of Everything that no one asked for, with at least one gaping hole you could drive trucks through (hint: how do satellites work?).

[7]  We even cautioned ourselves against “spiritual highs”. We would feel something, but the something wouldn’t always be there, which maybe should have tipped me off about something fishy happening. How do they say it, “don’t get high off your own supply”?

[8]  Many children are baptized soon after birth, and confirmed at some later age when they can actually make decisions. Hmm.

[9]  Now, I know that I could tell by listening for European capitals.

[10]  I didn’t actually get to the point of spewing glossolalia: I could hear my youth group leader’s disappointment that I didn’t quite let myself go while repeating “Jesus, I love you” faster than I could speak. And, finding out that no earthly audience would have understood what I was saying was also a shock, like finding out God solely communicated to people through grilled cheeses.

[11]  Talk about being bad at grasping infinities: I couldn’t even grasp 2000 years. “More things than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, etc.

[12]  The obvious rejoinder is that the church is still an earthly institution, and it’s still subject to mundane concerns like balancing the budget: for every Protestant Reformation grounded in theological conflict, there’s another hundred grounded in conflicts over the size of the choir, all because we live in a fallen world. The general counter-principle is that if there’s no way to tell from the behavior of churches whether we’re in a godly or godless world, then the fact there exists a church ceases to count as evidence.

[13]  The fact that some biblical scholars translate “cross” as “tree” makes me suspicious that Waiting for Godot was in fact making this exact reference.

[14]  I didn’t partake; this was after I started being weirded out by the charismatics.

[15]  I’m disappointed I didn’t throw up my hands at some point and yell “I Kant do it!”

[16]  Sure, there were answers, but they weren’t satisfying. You couldn’t get there from here.

[17]  Of course, the trust comes at a price; I wouldn’t want to be trans in a small tight-knit fundamentalist town.

[18]  It’s not clear from the abstract of the paper, but in Age of Em Robin Hanson cites this paper as showing the religious have higher productivity.

[19]  Mostly not serious, since I would expect a jealous Abrahamic God to throw out any spiritual bookies. Also keep in mind that Pascal’s wager falls apart even with the simple addition of multiple gods competing for faith.

[20]  I am totally aware that scientism is normally derogatory. However, science itself doesn’t require the modes of thought that we normally attribute to our current scientific culture.

[21]  One might worry that we would simply export our age-old conflicts and flaws to the stars, in which case they might become… bear with me… the Sins of a Solar Empire?

[22]  “Run for the mountains!” said Apostle Paul. “It is the dawn of the morning Son!” Then Oppenheimer said “someone said they were looking for a dawn?”

[23]  Sapiens notes “Haber won the Nobel prize in chemistry. Not Peace.”

[24]  I’m sorry-not-sorry about the pun. If you don’t get it, Calvary is the hill Jesus supposedly died on, and “ain’t no cavalry coming” is a military saying: there’s no backup riding in to save the day.

[25]  Nukes are traditional, if less concerning these days. Pandemics are flirting on the edge of global consciousness, AI getting more serious, and meta-things like throwing away our values and producing a “Disneyland without children” are becoming more concerning.

[26]  Just look at what the effective altruists are doing with their 10%.

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