An Evolution of Doubt

E. Jeff Justis

My earliest memory of religious thinking is, as a child, saying nightly prayers with loving parents: “Now I lay me down to sleep. If I should die before I wake … .” Thus, with protection in t he hands of a supernatural being, I could sleep soundly. Then came Sunday school, with stories of various miracles highlighted with pictures and, like the superheroes in the comic books I devoured, quite believable to a ten-year-old. Fortunately, my parents were not strict churchgoers and, on occasion, did not hesitate to plan a trip to the lake or a visit to a relative on Sunday mornings. Since I so enjoyed such reprieves, I rather dreaded the times I did have to dress up for church. Bored with the monotony, I drew pictures on the church program and was always anxious for the sermon to start. Even though the words meant little, I knew that the time elapsed before the sermon began was longer than the time afterward, at least in the Presbyterian church my parents attended. But, being young and impressionable, I did buy into magical thinking. After all, when one feels small and lacks full control of his or her life or is in situations in which he or she cannot rely on his or her parents, then that “God” out there could surely be of some help. Could He please protect my dog? However, with developing reason there were questions. If God is omnipotent, then how can there be another, equally powerful, “fallen Angel”? Are there two gods? What is this “trinity” business? Are there three gods? If God exists like a person, then who made God and, of course, where is he? Then I discovered science through Popular Science magazine, Scientific American, and, of all things, Darwin’s Origin of the Species in Classic Comics. This exposure to science, math, and the humanities did influence my critical thinking, and I began to formulate my own philosophy.

Nevertheless, in spite of developing doubts with the uncertainties and insecurities of adolescence, I continued to harbor a belief in a Greater Power in the universe and felt some comfort in magical thinking. In high school—an Episcopal boarding school for boys—I dreaded mandatory Chapel, especially the lengthy communion service, but feeling that my theological beliefs (and doubts) were private, I secretly read the daily devotionals in “The Upper Room.” I even began reading the New Testament; that raised even more questions because of the inconsistencies and contradictions I found in the first four books. I made notations in the margins highlighted with large question marks—my own version of the Jefferson Bible. I was holding onto a questioning faith, that is until the reality of life and reason pointed to the fallacy in such thinking. My dog died after all, in spite of my prayers. A baby sister never saw the light of day following my mother’s full-term ruptured uterus. Two of my uncles and then my grandmother succumbed to the inevitability of death. Prayers had failed. More questions.

At the age of eighteen, I penned a manifesto that began my journey toward understanding the world and the universe through science, although I did include a concession to what I considered to be “unknowable.” At the time I thought of this, rather simplistically, as empty space—without matter. Now, of course, space seems to be rather full of dark energy and dark matter.

My adventure in living continued with marriage to a most wonderful girl at the age of twenty-five, requiring the obligatory church wedding and, for a while, trial attendance at a local church in Appalachia where I was employed as a general physician working in one of John L. Lewis’s ten United Mine Workers Welfare Fund hospitals (long since converted to community hospitals). Visits from church members soliciting funds for a building project furthered my resistance to organized religion. My upcoming duty with the U.S. Air Force gave me the excuse I needed to leave. Nine years of active duty assignments, including three years in Germany, exposed us to a broader worldview and eclectic philosophies and, I might add, gave my wife and me an easy excuse to avoid the churchgoing ritual.

After twelve years of a happy marriage and four children, I lost my wife to ovarian cancer. By this time in my life I did not believe in the possibility of a suspension of the laws of nature and could never consider praying for a so-called “miracle.” The only thing I could hope (pray?) for was that we would have enough inner strength to handle the situation with as much serenity as possible.

I was beginning to appreciate that the continuum of life is not dependent on some supernatural force but on nature, which, alone, is super enough. Still I was not quite free of that pervasive religious milieu in which I lived, especially in the deep South. I married another wonderful girl in 1970 and, for the sake of harmony, attended some services with her at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Although my understanding wife was quietly persistent in seeing that our five children had some exposure to Sunday school, she was never resentful of my fewer and fewer forays into the pews. Aside from that, my woodworking shop and aviation avocation provided me with far greater contentment than I could ever gain from stained glass or from staring at an instrument of torture in the form of a cross.

When I did occasionally attend a religious service for a wedding or funeral, I felt somewhat uncomfortable—or was it hypocritical? In order not to call attention to myself, I pretended to be engaged in reciting the liturgy and singing the songs, all the while questioning the words recited, especially at funerals. It bothered me when some tragedy was touted as part of some divine plan. “God’s will be done.” So much for the omnipotent, omnibenevolent being that seems to take delight in subjecting his followers to unspeakable horrors or who orders his followers to commit genocide in his name. It seemed to me that accepting nature with all her laws and chaotic uncertainty, which may or may not directly affect humanity, is a much better choice than trying to find some supernatural justification for personal loss. The Bengal tiger that, moving from the jungle, comes upon a hapless Indian child is not evil. On the other hand, although I remain open to the possibility that “free will” is an illusion, I prefer to live my life as if I had the ability to choose freely how to relate to fellow human beings and other living creatures. By extension, all humans should have the same ability, and those who choose to detonate a suicide vest in a crowd of children or to murder physicians who perform legal medical procedures to terminate pregnancies may be considered “evil” from a human perspective.

The closest I have ever been in my life to what some would call a transcendental experience has been while flying. I became a pilot in 1954, and I have been fortunate enough to continue that ultimate expression of freedom in three dimensions. If one were not limited by the requirement for fuel and physiological necessity, then even time would seem diluted. During the 1970s, I flew many missions of four to five hours, and during these ventures from one coast or border to the next, I contemplated the earth below. Though often scarred and defiled by mankind, it was a beautiful mosaic, stretching all around me, domed in blue, accompanied by a daunting chaos of clouds. On occasion I penned words of rhyme when inspired by what I alone was able to appreciate from my lofty perspective. Although at the time I was migrating away from traditional beliefs, I often used the word god as a catchall phrase for a developing sense of an all-inclusive and scientific view of the universe. I felt that I was a very small part of the greater universe and that nothing else mattered; that all the organized atoms bonded into molecules of which I was made would succumb to entropy and once again would become part of the greate
r whole of the universe. I didn’t need anything beyond that; I didn’t need a god that thought as humans think or that cared as humans care. The purpose of life is living, and beyond that, there need be nothing else.

In spite of my evolving philosophy and developing resistance to organized religion, I always respected and admired the many religious or faithful individuals with whom I have been associated over a lifetime. I might wonder if my Catholic friend really believed in papal infallibility or if my fundamentalist cousin really thought words in the Bible should be taken literally. Rarely was I able to have an intellectual discussion of these questions, since I did not want to push my personal beliefs on someone else, anymore than I wanted some proselytizing Mormon trying to convince me that Joseph Smith was not hallucinating. The Jesuit priest, from a rough past to a lover of humanity, the Catholic nun with a great sense of humor, my first wife with whom I was one, my wife now of nearly fifty years—religious all … and all have enriched my life.

So I was slowly leaving my faith behind, although some of my Christian friends might have felt that I never had much faith in the first place. I was learning to expect nothing more from the universe than what we already have been given and to expect nothing beyond this life than what we have already lived.

If the word god were not so overused and abused, it could be a shorthand title for our beautiful universe that invites exploration by its semi-intelligent primates and has no purpose other than to exist.

As an octogenarian, I can now say with confidence that I am finally free of magical thinking and that secular humanism, as a philosophy, enhances our relationship with fellow human beings and other creatures with which we share this rather small planet. I will cease to exist when consciousness is no more, and the universe asks nothing more from me than this. I no longer believe in some “being” that exists out there beyond experience, beyond reason, but I will always believe in the universe of which I am a small part. Call me a naturalist.

E. Jeff Justis

E. Jeff Justis is a retired medical doctor residing in Oxford, Mississippi.

Discovering that the universe is unauthored … and that life without a higher meaning is enough.

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