One set of footprints

Why loss of religious faith should be something to celebrate, Pt. 1

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,

“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”

The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”

Footprints In The Sand

By Mary Stevenson

When I heard this poem as a kid, I remember empathizing with the concern of the main character when they believed Jesus was not around for their most difficult and trying times.  It reminded me of the feeling when I was learning to ride a bike; of me peddling nervously, thinking my dad was behind me holding the bike and steadying my balance, until I looked back and realized he had let go long before.  In that moment, I felt immediate fear and a feeling of abandonment, much like I imagine the poem’s character experienced. I thought to myself, “How could he have abandoned me and let me go alone??  I am still just learning to ride! I can’t ride by myself!  I could have fallen and hurt myself!”

…But then there was another feeling: a growing sense of confidence and achievement in the realization that I had, in fact, ridden my bike on my own.  I may not have realized it at the time, but I did have the capacity within me.  Now looking back, I read this poem and think it would have been truly inspiring had Jesus replied, “Because I wanted you to know that you had the strength within you to overcome these trying times all along.”

A big reason that I decided to start this blog is to discourage the shame people feel – or are made to feel – for not believing in God, and conversely, to encourage confidence in a life without supernatural oversight; to celebrate it.  You may ask: why would someone celebrate a life without God?  Well, for one, because of what that says about the strength, accomplishment, and capacity of human beings.

My first post dealt with the danger of divorcing yourself from ultimate responsibility for your actions by acting primarily as a follower of God.  But there is another aspect of not claiming ultimate responsibility for your actions: you also inevitably rob yourself and others of due credit for truly impressive human accomplishments.  We hear a variant of this all the time: “God carried me through to the end to win the game”, “I have to thank God for without him, I wouldn’t have gotten these good grades“, or “God blessed me and now my cancer is in remission!” to name a few examples; and as well intentioned as these statements are, they have the ulterior effect of putting down the player, student, or the oncologists (respectively) that truly deserve the acclaim and praise.

Some rightly feel insulted by the subtext of crediting God for human achievements.  For instance, NBA guard Ray Allen:

“I’ve argued this with a lot of people in my life. When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day.”

Along the same lines, if a patient emerges from a difficult but successful surgery and thanks God for his health, you can understand doctors, surgeons, and/or scientists feeling like their efforts went under-appreciated.

But this is NOT to insinuate that followers of God are ungrateful, insulting people.  I point this out to simply highlight that humans are independently and collectively capable of tremendous and wonderful achievements, and unfortunately a lot of it goes untapped or uncredited.

Hence the celebration.  To understand that humans are not subject to a supernatural being that merely blesses you with intellect, strength, or ability comes with it the confidence and sense of accomplishment with realizing that every struggle you have overcome, every challenge you have risen to, every strength you have displayed… has come from within.

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13 thoughts on “One set of footprints

  1. Jamie says:

    Hey Santiago! I’m still enjoying reading your blog! This is just a topic will have to “agree to disagree” on, but I thought I’d throw in my Christian perspective.

    Because I believe in God and the Bible, I believe this verse from Revelation 4:11 “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” So, since I believe God created us, while I feel accomplished for hard work, He should receive the ultimate praise. How could I have done it if He hadn’t given me the ability?

    In your example, you pointed out that praises to God for accomplishments “have the ulterior effect of putting down the player, student, or the oncologists (respectively) that truly deserve the acclaim and praise.” I guess that’s obviously where we disagree. For me, I believe that every good thing that I have had or will have in the future, including athleticism (not that I’m athletic 😛 ), intellect, or healing, come from Him. If the oncologist has the gift to help my healing, I believe that is from God. When Christians praise God, they are not trying to make those around them feel under appreciated, they are trying to give credit first to their God. I would still show my thankfulness for their efforts.

    I agree with the celebration… “confidence and sense of accomplishment with realizing that every struggle you have overcome, every challenge you have risen to, every strength you have displayed… has come from within.” A Christian would agree with that because we believe that the Holy Spirit is in us. That God is within.

    Thanks for reading my perspective…looking forward to the next article 🙂

  2. chrisneiner says:

    Good blogging Santiago.
    I just wanted to comment on Jamie’s response (Hi Jamie! I Chris!). I grew up in a Christian community and I think that the message that was given out a lot when I was growing up was that you should always thank God first. I feel like that is what you are saying. But unfortunately, people thank God first and either fail to mention all the other human aspects that went into that particular circumstance or every single little aspect got whittled down into “well God was behind that anyway.”
    If God was behind my successful operation, He was also behind the doctors that performed it, and He must have also been behind the inspiration of the advancements of the medicines and techniques, and then He must have been behind the weather that made sure that nothing crazy happened the night of the surgery and He was behind etc… let’s just say thanks to God for the whole thing and I’m covered. God = everything.
    For example, if I needed a someone to help me change a tire. Wouldn’t it be strange to thank God that someone came and and helped me change the tire, and NOT thank the friend? Of course that would be strange. But that is what happens all the time with “bigger” events that actually require more human ingenuity than smaller events!
    We see this with ultimate hypocrisy after natural disasters. After the disaster, a community or human effort comes together and helps the victims. But so often the victims thank God for the help! AFTER the huge terrible natural disaster! The community gets thanked, but it is almost a second though or a given. The real praise and glory go to God… the One that either 1.) didn’t prevent the horrible event 2.) caused the horrible event or 3.) doesn’t exist.
    I agree with Santiago that in NOT celebrating our own human achievements, at least first, then we are actually doing harm to our collective self.
    Whether you believe that the resolve comes from within because of God or not, the first step is to merely to see that it come from within first.

  3. Jeremy Closs says:

    Hey Santiago,
    Quick question, just to hear your thoughts on the matter – how do you choose what accomplishments to celebrate? Or to think of it another way, do you believe there are certain accomplishments that should always be celebrated by everyone (within reason – I’m sure some folks wouldn’t be able to know about them), and certain ones that should never be celebrated by anyone (again, within reason)?

    • sarchila says:

      Hi Jeremy,
      I take your question as being somewhat similar to trying to differentiate between moral right and wrong. I touched on that in my last post, but I’ll paraphrase and say that things that are “good” and should be celebrated promote peace and justice among the population and usually have the characteristic of being unselfish. Conversely, a moral “wrong” denies a population peace and justice, is usually marked by selfishness, and should never be celebrated. There are, of course, other human triumphs that deserve celebration that don’t necessarily directly promote peace and justice, such as getting an education, learning complex physical or artistic skills, etc. but most of these serve to increase the overall happiness and well-being of people and should be celebrated for those merits.

      • Jeremy Closs says:

        Thanks for your swift reply. I’ve just finished reading the post you mentioned.
        A follow up question – Would you say your standards are objective or subjective? You mention that you don’t speak for all atheists, so off the top of my head I would guess you lean more towards subjective, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Example: Suppose someone took a page from Gordon Gekko’s book and really believed greed, for lack of a better word, was good. They intentionally exploit the financial weaknesses of others to better their own situation, leading to the financial ruin of many, all while fully convinced in their own self that they are doing right. I’m certain you would readily say that you think they are doing is wrong (it promotes neither justice or peace, and is certainly selfish), but would you feel comfortable saying that they are, in an objective sense, wrong?

      • sarchila says:

        Yes, I would be comfortable in saying that there are some things that are objectively “wrong” and “right”, and I do attempt to base my standards on objective definitions. Like I said on my post about morals, I believe that establishing your morality is much like becoming well-versed in any other kind of knowledge, and as with all other forms of human knowledge, it compounds through human history. With knowledge of science and technology, for instance, it is important to build on the knowledge and experience of the past. Likewise with moral issues, we have a long history of human trial and error with which to base and grew our collective moral knowledge.

        A few hundred years ago, it may not have been a “wrong” act to dump your garbage in the lake, for example. Now, we have more sophisticated ways to assess the overall chain of effects of such an action, so now we can conclude that because dumping your garbage in the lake pollutes the environment, which has deleterious effects to the natural wildlife and to others that may use that water, it is objectively “wrong” to do so. It represents a disregard for the health and well-being of others. That is not a subjective opinion, as it can be shown demonstrably that the overall effect is a negative health effect on others. Same goes with your example. It can be shown empirically that preying on the financial weakness of others leaves that one person rich and many others financially ruined, therefore to commit such an act would unequivocally and objectively selfish and wrong.

      • Jeremy Closs says:

        Fascinating response. I appreciate it a great deal – I’ve attempted to have this conversation a number of times in the past, and few people ever seem to take it seriously.
        It seems (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that your objective wrongs have their root in hurting others in some way, either directly and physically or indirectly. Why have you chosen this objective standard? Or, if someone believed that causing negative health effects was not wrong, how would you address them?

      • sarchila says:

        Well, the rooting of morality in the elimination of pain and suffering is a consequence of how our brains have evolved. It is essentially hard-wired into our brains to avoid pain or hurt. If you were to slap a newborn baby or any other animal for that matter – don’t actually do this! 🙂 – you will see quickly that the avoidance of pain is innate. That’s because intense avoidance of pain and suffering that may lead to death gives a higher probability of staying alive long enough to pass on your genes.

        Your second question is a tough one, though. I was asked a similar question in the comments section of my “moral GPS” post concerning the Norwegian killer, Anders Behring Breivk, and in there I essentially responded that for people that do not abide by established moral rules and have committed “wrong” acts… it depends… can they be rehabilitated through therapy or taught to understand WHY certain actions are wrong or right in a way that they’ll understand? If so, they should be, until they can function in normal society without hurting others. If not, then they still need to be kept away from society so they cannot do any further harm (put in jail). This is especially troublesome because we know that some people simply don’t have the mental capacity to understand complex morality, be they schizophrenic, psychopathic, etc. but for the overall peacefulness and health of society, it is necessary to keep them apart where they can do no more harm…

      • Jeremy Closs says:

        It appears to me that your basis for your objective moral categories is found in an understanding of human evolution. If I may, it is based more on the “hard sciences”, especially biology. What of someone who bases his or her moral paradigms on a “softer science” like philosophy? Suppose someone (maybe not so much in words, but in their general life attitude) tosses our evolution to the wind, saying that we must all live existentially, actualizing ourselves based on our own experiences, not on what anyone else says. Would you insist that they abide by your moral paradigm (as much as you can, of course) as the only objective paradigm, or would you allow the freedom for others to create moral paradigms of their own?
        I agree that rehabilitation is a much better goal than simple incarceration in most cases. The American justice system leaves a lot to be desired in terms of actual justice.

      • sarchila says:

        Well, I would never claim to be a moral authority, and I will readily admit that I don’t have it all figured out. Like with any other form of knowledge, we continue to learn all our lives, and I have certainly been made to rethink moral gray areas even recently. So I would not say that the world should follow my personal moral paradigm per se, but I do tend to believe that my personal moral paradigm is in line with two major human goals throughout humanity from which it is based: 1. To continue living and 2. To do so peacefully and happily.

        It seems, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, most everyone has these two goals. I don’t even feel that I have to insist that anyone follow these goals, because I’m certain that almost everyone wants to do so innately.

        So, if I understand your question, you ask… what if someone rejects this paradigm (or the goals for humanity that they are based on)? Would I insist they abide by my idea of morality? I would say not necessarily. In theory, it really doesn’t matter to me what moral paradigms people create. But when it does matter is if their idea of morality involves denying others either or these two goals and they decide to act upon it. And it wouldn’t even have to be me standing up and ‘crying foul’ alone. I try to base my morality on what I feel our innate goals for humanity, so there will be an outcry from others when someone or a group is denied either of these two goals.

        Not sure if that sufficiently answers your question! I’m curious on your background… Are you going through religious doubt/loss of faith and are trying to understand morality from a purely secular humanist perspective?

        PS. I completely agree about the “justice system”. I really think this is an issue where we as a country need to have a serious conversation. What is the purpose of prison? Is it rehabilitation or punishment? I think we need to think about that seriously soon because what we are doing doesn’t seem to be working…

      • Jeremy Closs says:

        Sorry for the delay in replying – finals looms on the horizon, and no matter how nicely I ask, the last few papers of the semester won’t write themselves.
        I wish we had a more honest picture of ancient history. Most of what we see is from the perspective of kings/other rulers, so we often don’t get a picture of what the common person’s passions were. I would say that based on how historical events played out, it may be possible that the goal of living peacefully may be fairly recent, but that could just be because the twisted desires of the few in power shaped the course of those under them. I’d agree that your first goal is certainly nigh universal, and your second is shared by the majority of modern people in Western society (I limit it to Western society simply out of my own ignorance about the personal lives of most people outside of the West).
        This is taking things in an entirely different direction, but you say you’d be opposed to anyone who tried to take away those two basic goals. How does that shape your view on war? I had a discussion on just war earlier, and it’s still sticking in my mind, so I figure I’d see if you have any thoughts.
        My background is a little complex, so I’ll try to summarize. For the first decade of my life, I was Roman Catholic. I remember very little of the teaching during this time, but the masses themselves tended to be beautiful. After that, my family began attending a Reformed (which, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, tends to serve as a code word for Calvinist) Protestant church. It was immensely conservative. I grew up thinking liberals = evil and dumb.
        Fast forward to now – I’d still say I’m a Christian, even an evangelical in terms of what I believe in terms of doctrine (inerrancy of Scripture, deity of Jesus, all that jazz), but I’ve grown a lot more liberal in my social issue standings, as well as some of the less-central doctrines of my faith. I’d be happy to discuss any of that in-depth, so feel free to ask.
        My interest in this discussion mainly stems from the fact that a lot of people in the Christian circles, as you point out, say that those without a faith system don’t have a solid foundation for morality. I’ve tried to engage some of my non-religious friends on this subject, because I’m a big believer in hearing about an issue from the perspective of those that hold it, but those conversations always fizzled. I’ve very much appreciated your thoughts and insights on the matter.

      • sarchila says:

        Hey Jeremy, I’m sorry it’s been a while since I could reply as well. I actually just did a new post that I hope you take advantage of. https://fishoutofwateratheist.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/a-call-for-concerns/
        If you have any more questions/concerns that you may want to hear a different perspective, I’d love to hear them. I will definitely address your question about war then, too. So, stay tuned…

  4. MelWaszak says:

    Santiago, I have enjoyed reading your blog. As someone who grew up in a very religious family, and who used to be what you would probably call a “Bible beater”, I have struggled very much over the past few years as I began to denounce religion and doubt/question everything I ever believed. Your statement early in this post about wanting to write this blog to discourage the shame people feel about not believing in God really jumped out at me. As I hide my feelings on God and religion and everything I was brought up to believe from pretty much every person in my life other than my close friends and my husband, reading your blog gives me a sense of comfort and community. Many of the posts you’ve shared are things that I have thought many times but never had the courage to say out loud, so thank you and keep it up!

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