By Justin Bovee
Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. ~ Humanist Manifesto III
Humanism. A life lived in the service of others, lacking dogma, focusing on compassion and a better world for all humans based on the best evidence and the eternal search for truth.
In contrast, had you asked me 10 years ago where my purpose for living came from, I would have opened with the Westminster Shorter Catechism: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
For my former self, meaning was only found through theological dogma given by an unseen, unheard supernatural being. It could not be tested and had to be accepted on faith. To understand my journey to humanism, it helps to understand the importance of my former belief in the Christian god. It was the foundation of the relationship to myself, my family, my friends, and the world. It was the filter I used to find truth.
I was raised as an Evangelical Calvinist Christian in a small Utah town that was 98 percent Mormon. My mother, a pianist, led the family in nightly hymns, and taught me to read with Bible stories. My father, an electrical engineer, was a leading intellectual in the community. His knowledge covered a vast wealth of topics from religion, philosophy, home repair, hunting, and first aid.
He also led the Young Earth Creation Science movement in Utah through the 1980s and 1990s. At one of the conferences he put on, Ken Ham (founder of the group that operates the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter), gave me a board game he made because I helped sell his merchandise. I then played the game with the creationist Duane Gish. I also remember the lines of school buses at the “Back to Genesis” program for children during the 1992 conference in Salt Lake City. Memories that now fill me with dread.
In order to protect my brother and me from “public school lies” like evolution, we were homeschooled. Involvement with the community was highly restricted. As outspoken Evangelical Christians, our family was also blacklisted by the Mormon community when I was 13. The neighborhood kids were told by their bishop not to converse with us. This only served as proof that our belief was correct and hardened our resolve.
A trope I hear often in humanist and atheist circles is that religion is the opium of the unintelligent. I find instead that it is less what one knows, but how one knows it. Everyone uses a series of filters to understand the world; not everyone analyzes the filter for accuracy.
My spark of curiosity was developed in my father’s study. Our house was filled with books and small electronic gadgets that my father built. He taught me classical logic and had me read literature such as Moby Dick, Treasure Island, The Iliad, and The Odyssey by age 14.
My father was intelligent, but every book, every lecture, every video was screened through his personalized Biblical filter. History, specifically American, was perceived through an American Exceptionalism/Christian Nationalism lens (echoing David Barton, founder of WallBuilders).
The Civil War, for example, was not about slavery, but Northern Oppression. Skepticism was a part of the training as well. My father used the phrase “Don’t check your brain at the door” when he wanted us to think. Contrary opinions were not ignored; they were celebrated. But they ran like everything else through the filter of the Biblical worldview. Regardless of intellect or evidence, the filter controlled the narrative.
Dedicating My Life to Christian Service
It would be easy to dismiss my former Christian belief as just indoctrination, but I cannot. I considered my relationship with god through Jesus to be real. My faith was everything and I wanted to live and was willing to die for my god. It all felt real; everything fit the narrative.
At 13, I dedicated my life to Christian service.I loved reading missionary stories about the likes of Hudson Taylor, John Paton, and Mary Slessor. I wanted to take my faith and convert others to what I thought was true. Throughout my teen years, I worked with a variety of groups whose missions were to “save souls.” At the time, I saw everything we did as “pure love.” I spent hours studying apologetics and other religions. I could tell you what was wrong with a hundred other religions, but the filter prevented applying the same methods to my own Biblical worldview.
At 17, I left home and was accepted at Frontier School of the Bible in Wyoming. I organized mission trips to Utah during the 2002 Winter Olympics, engaged in street witnessing, interned at a Christian camp in Nebraska, was the youth pastor at a local church, and DJ’ed on the weekends for the local Christian radio station. To be Christian meant not just to believe but to live it loudly. If I wasn’t doing it fast, loud, and overblown, then I felt I was doing it wrong.
In 2003, I met and married Erika. We hardly knew each other. In 2007, after house-parenting for a year at a Christian children’s home, we attended missionary orientation. That is when everything slowed down. The staff of the mission organization noticed discrepancies in our marriage and recommended stepping out of ministry for a couple years, counseling me to focus on my wife and my son while building a network of financial support.
I was lost. I had specialized in missionary preparation from age 13, dumping anything I found superfluous. This left me with a 6th grade knowledge of math and deeply skewed understanding of science. I had a bit of experience tinkering with my father’s computer and found a minimum-wage job resetting passwords at a help desk in Utah.
To increase my skills, I would find broken computers at thrift stores or the local dump and fix them. Our very small apartment was covered in wires and computer parts during the early days. For the nerds, I reinstalled Linux over 100 times on my personal system in the first year because I kept breaking it and didn’t know how to fix it.
After a job change in 2008, I met a dear Heathen friend. He was an amazing person with a great deal of love for others and outshined the Christians I knew. As a teenager, I had directed a group of kids to shun a Wiccan family because of my internal bigotry. Here was a person who showed all the signs of a “Christian” but worshipped “Thor.” He was so kind to me, regardless of how I treated him and his beliefs. It didn’t fit.
In early 2009, I started the “TEARS of the Patriots”, a Tea Party group in Idaho. I found that the Christian nationalist friends I met there were exclusionary and less moral than my Heathen friend, who stood for the rights of all, including me. It wasn’t a big thing but a small fissure in my internal model of how I saw reality. It didn’t fit.
In August 2009, my wife and I lost a child due to a miscarriage and I lost my job. I saw an opportunity for a fresh start in Oklahoma and uprooted the family. The stress had taken its toll and the two of us went into hiding. We went to church but kept our heads down. I kept my past hidden and avoided politics. It was during this time that the cracks began to become apparent. I began searching for consistency in my faith. I went back to my foundation, the Bible. This time though, I put the Biblical worldview filter on the table for review. If it was true, it should be able to stand up to scrutiny.
I wondered what made the Bible a better filter for finding truth than the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or The Iliad? What made any of those a viable option? Not all could be true, but all could be false. I read Christian apologetics, I messaged my former professors, and read everything my father sent me. I also reread the research on Young Earth Creationism. In total, it took seven years. It was a gradual unwinding as I systematically asked questions about each aspect of the narrative and found the Christian model lacking.
Some of the powerful resources that helped me during the process included the Great Courses offerings “Redefining Reality,” “Your Deceptive Mind,” and “Science Wars.” Podcasts like The Atheist Experience and Skeptics Guide to the Universe provided insight into ways to counter theistic arguments. The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) helped me take evolution to a much deeper level. YouTubers like Benjamin Burger, C0nc0rdance, Aron Ra, Anthony Magnabosco, Paulogia, Potholer54, and King Crocoduck helped me catch fallacies in my thought process.
Facade of Christianity cracks
In June 2016, I was in San Francisco at a tech conference. I had just finished another back and forth with my father on the early Christian church and writings. The Biblical filter was overloaded. Either that model was true, and everything was a deception, or just maybe the Bible wasn’t a good method for finding truth. I knew at that point which I found more accurate but was unable to vocalize it.
I was terrified of the consequences not only for myself but my wife and kids. What if Erika couldn’t be unequally yoked? How would my friends react? My family? A month later, during a drive from Nebraska, my wife discussed her doubts about the inerrancy of the Bible. She had been on her own journey, separate from mine, and was afraid of the consequences as well.
The façade of Christianity that had a strong grip on our relationship cracked into a million pieces. We had one of the most honest conversations up to that point. It is funny how much one hides and internalizes when living up to a religious standard, regardless of the preaching about honesty.
I continued to study and we moved to Minnesota in the summer of 2017 — the first move we made for us and not religious, family, or work obligations. As I became more vocal about my thought process, my ideas about theism came out. Reactions from my former religious community were mixed.
I heard a lot of “It’s a phase” and “You were never a Christian to begin with.” Many cut off connection without saying a single word, but a couple talked to me about their own doubts. A handful of amazing Christian friends are still willing to talk and even challenge me on my thought process, which is awesome.
Everyone uses filters, mental models, to perceive the world. It allows us to get work done and not get buried in the nuance and the noise. All filters are flawed and it is important to constantly validate them for accuracy. My former personal Biblical filter had built-in safeguards to prevent analysis.
While far from perfect, humanism is built on constant questioning and verification. It is set up to autocorrect itself where it can. Mine has been a long path with a lot of fears, but humanism with skepticism has provided me with beauty, nuanced models seeking truth, a world derived by observation and analysis, evidence-based ethics and real-world compassion, and inclusivity for the human tribe. Instead of focusing on glorifying a completely imperceivable supernatural entity, I have found my life’s drive in individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
Justin Bovee is a member of HumanistsMN, Minnesota Atheists, and First Unitarian Society. He is also a data engineer at Target and always looking for another humanist to grab a coffee with. Justin has started Secular North, an effort to develop tools to connect secular communities in our region. Secular North is in its infancy but can be found on Vimeo, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Check out the Secular North Discord Server for live broadcasts, secular chat and voice communication, and community from across Minnesota. Justin can also be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).