It seems that a lot of people these days are noticing the hypocrisy, oppression, bigotry, intolerance, cruelty and greed associated with organized religion. But instead of questioning the core concept of God, they simply take their God with them and step away from the organization. (Julia Sweeney has recorded a great comedy routine where she talks about this) Some people are even raising their children with this God-only religion. They think this somehow makes them non-religious. And it is important to note that the God concept they take with them is almost invariably the one their religion gave them. When you ask them to describe God and what he wants or what he does, their answers usually sound just like the religion they left. If they were Christians, they usually keep Jesus and all the dogma of virgin birth, resurrection and salvation. They may be physically disassociated with the group but mentally they might as well be right back in church.
I can certainly see the attraction in this approach. You only have to give up what you don’t like. The great thing about this is that no one can question your beliefs because they aren’t tied to some label with all its ancient dogma, ritual and pageantry. It is appealing because it allows a person to modify their beliefs anytime they feel like it. You can say Jesus was gay if you want to because it’s no one’s business but yours. Too bad most of these people don’t change their beliefs noticeably. That seems rather pointless to me. For those who have the confidence to actually make a real change it turns out to be one of the first steps in becoming an atheist or agnostic. Whether consciously or not, what they have usually done is switch from thinking emotionally to thinking rationally. They have analyzed the claims of religion and cleared away a lot of unexplainable and incoherent nonsense. That is a good thing, but it’s only the beginning.
I think there are several reasons people hang onto God when they abandon organized religion.
- To let go of God is like saying goodbye to an old friend or a family member. They have normally grown up with this God as their ready companion or confidant or confessor. Even if they don’t always think about God, he has been a fixture in their lives - albeit an imaginary fixture.
- It’s built in. God concepts are part of human evolutionary development. It is a basic human instinct to anthropomorphize things like forces of nature and infinity that we don’t understand. But being a rational, civilized human means we have to overcome many of our natural instincts.
- The problems of religion are obviously the fault of people, not God. They think God is as much a victim of religion as they are. But if God does exist, who are they do decide this for him and if God doesn’t exist they are just keeping their imaginary friend.
- They are hedging their bets. According to many, the one truly unforgivable sin is to turn your back on God once you’ve known him. Leaving a church is bad enough but leaving God is like worshipping the devil. So they are covered if it turns out there is something to this God thing. These people probably aren’t very committed to it. They need to just fish or cut bait.
- They are worried about what their family would think if they were to announce that they had become atheists. That is a serious concern. Many families have disowned people for becoming atheist. I remember the story of a young man who told his mother he had something to tell her about himself that she wasn’t going to like. When he finally got to the point and said he was an atheist, she said she could have accepted it if he said he was gay or a pedophile or a gangster but he was no longer her son if he insisted on being an atheist. She would have rather found out he was terminally ill. In some parts of the world it is legal to kill your child if they deny God.