This is going to be a LONG post. Here goes.
I have been an Orthodox Christian for some 15 years, but have come to seriously doubt the veracity of Christianity. I would now consider myself an agnostic (I will probably search more, but I see at present good arguments both for and against the existence of God) I have stopped practicing Orthodoxy and would like to leave the Church. But I am afraid I may be wrong, as while there are seemingly strong reasons to believe Christianity is flawed, I see other seemingly strong reasons in favor of it. I was wondering if you atheists and other non-Christians could give me your thoughts. Below I have summarized the evidence I have IN
Orthodoxy being true. As you can see, there is a lot of it. I was wondering if you could explain all this in non-Christian terms.
1. Some key facts about and teachings of the Church seem to make sense
-The teaching of the church is by no means simplistic. The Church has quite mystical, intricate, deep and detailed teachings. At least if one is to believe the Apostles, and Church fathers, who offer many interpretations for concordance between the Old and New Testaments (eg. they say that the Trinity was foretold by the three angels visiting Abraham, or that many teachings of the New Testament are alluded to in the Old). At any rate, it seems to give a lot of answers (whether true or not) to key existential questions (who created the world? What is the purpose of our existence? Why do we suffer?) and there's a system to it, it's not just random statements.
-The Church teaches that it contains the truth. You write that this is arrogant, but doesn't it seems logical that God would want us to know the truth about Him and not believe in false gods or in false teachings about Him, life, spirituality, etc. and reveal it to us?
-Love and synergy between God and humans is utterly central to church teaching. I don't know if any religion is so centered on the principle of doing good through love. Doesn't prove anything, but seems to speak in favor of Orthodoxy/Christianity.
-Christianity is the largest religion of the world, though Orthodoxy is the second-largest denomination. Many people not only believe in it but have suffered for it. In the Twentieth Century under Communism, countless Orthodox were martyred, seemingly fulfilling what Christ predicted about the faithful being persecuted. Now in Kosovo, many churches have been desecrated by Albanians, in Macedonia, the only bishop to remain faithful to the Serbian Orthodox Church and not to the state-supported breakaway church went to jail twice. The list could continue. Why would so many people have suddenly chosen to follow Christ and even accept martyrdom, if Christianity was not the inspired truth of God? Why would so many people (the Apostles, evangelists etc) go to such trouble to invent a religion? And all the other early Christians who followed in their steps? It seems like a pretty big lie or conspiracy, if that is what it is. Why would someone bother to invent an entire religion like this? Who could have an interest in such a conspiracy?
2. Miracles, visions and the supernatural
This is the big one. Many people report having experienced something supernatural, and such reports seem very common in the Orthodox Church and among Orthodox people. In fact, Orthodox literature is packed with reports of miracles, both recent and long past. Time would fail me if I listed all the examples of miracles credited to this or that saint, icon, relic, etc. Here are some demonstrative examples, but with a little research, one could easily find many others:
-The Eucharist and holy water are supposed to last forever without spoiling (I have emailed a former Orthodox priest who is now a deist, and who would have had direct experience with these things, and hope he will tell me if these things are true).
-Our Lady of Zeitoun - a repeated Marian vision from a Coptic church in 1968-1970. It seems much more convincing than Catholic reports of Marian visions, having been reportedly seen by scores of people over and over again, and there having been miraculous healings, a fragrant smell, etc. at the time. Here, if you have not heard about this, is a short documentary. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVXEh4Jzs2s
There exist photographs and maybe even films documenting this. Also in Asiout. http://st-takla.org/Multimedia/07-Vi...s_Videohat-El-3athraa2-Mariam.html
Could some of these very convincing instance be a forgery? There were dreams people reportedly had validating these locations, and supposedly they all happened at locations where St. Mary had been during her lifetime. Another vision is supposed to have happened IIRC in 1924, when a big crowd of Old Calendarists and others at a church in Greece saw a big cross on the sky above a church on a feast day according to the Old Calendar. The cross supposedly appeared and later moved and flew up to heaven.
-Here is a website purporting to show Orthodox miracles. There are crosses in the sky above a church, supposed images of angels during church services, a face of the Lord in the bottom of a baptismal font, etc. More tangibly, a tree in a Russian monastery with the perfect shape of a cross (I have heard of this one or another of these).
. These could admittedly be somehow forged, but why would someone forge miracles? Who would have an interest in doing this in the Orthodox Church? Surely not monks who live in self-imposed poverty and have devoted their entire life to prayer and work?
-Or all the purported weeping or myrrh gushing icons and relics. Some of these miracles have maybe been discredited as commercial fakes etc. but they are only some among many, many such reports. Or incorrupt relics of saints that exist all over the world.
-Or the many reports one hears of healings and exorcisms. My earlier pastor says he was present at one (he did not tell me the result, but the woman was apparently behaving in a demonic way, I think she was compulsively blaspheming or something). Demoniacs reportedly exist and are supposedly cured by priests, right? Or healings after prayer. Many people claim to have been healed after intense prayer to a saint (for example, on one website, there is a recent story about St. Marina appearing as a doctor in a Texas hospital after prayers to her for the Orthodox boy in question, and assisting in the operation
- and this is just one of many such stories. And as, according to the story, St. Marina signed in at the hospital as "Marina from Andros", maybe this miracle could easily be verified by going to the hospital and checking. Or on this page http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache...t+marina+andros&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=9
there is a story "By Her Prayers..." by an Elizabeth Hawkins - the woman claims she was not only healed, but felt strong repentance after being anointed with holy oil , saw light coming out of the icon of St. Elizabeth and had a vision of St. Elizabeth praying by her bedside. It's quite a deep story, why would someone make this up? It seems to have too many elements to be just coincidence or fantasy.
-Or reports of "near-death experiences". A classic story from the church is that of the Carthaginian settler Taxiotis, who was bitten by a snake, died, was revived six hours later, and recounted how he had been thrown into hell for his recent adultery with his tenant´s wife. That is a very old story, but there are more modern ones. In Fr. Seraphim Rose´s book The Soul After Death for example, there is an account of a priest in Greece who reported that a woman had on what she thought was her deathbed re-confessed an old sin, that she had had an abortion. IIRC, she said that she had died from complications after the abortion, and as the hearse was carrying her casket, the engine suddenly stalled. At that point, she said, her soul left her body, and she saw two angels, one of whom had a scroll listing her sins. The angels said that she had committed a grave sin and must go to hell, but that her family made her do it, so there is nothing to do but have her return to earth and confess it. At which point she came alive again. Two similar stories are recounted in an article on http://www.orthodoxinfo.com
called "Concerning the Sin of Self-Abuse (Masturbation)", about young men who, after having masturbated (yes, Orthodoxy is among several Christian churches that consider masturbation a sin), died, and then were revived, one recounting that he had in one case been warned by St. Mary that he would go to hell if he did not confess his sin, the other narrowly escaping being thrown into hell by demons after a priest´s prayer revived him. The former story was supposedly told by a spiritual child to a relatively recent Metropolitan Cyprian, the latter came from a spiritual book. Again, if such stories are not true, why would priests bother inventing them? And are there not medically documented cases of people having visions of hell on their deathbeds?
-Monasteries seem to be rife with the paranormal. Some people say that there are spiritual fathers to whom ordinary faithful go up to for advice and before they even open their mouths, the father tells them what their main sins or their troubles are. Visions, prophecy etc are reported as massively happening among monks. They say that among monks it is common to see or even talk to demons. For example, St. Silouan the Athonite, whose father ate a meat meal prepared by him on a fast day so as not to embarass him, but later told his son that it "tasted like carrion". Silouan lived a dissolute life for some time, and the had a dream, in which a snake entered him or something and he heard I think Jesus or St. Mary's voice saying something like "your lifestyle is repugnant to me". Silouan later became a monk and was reportedly beset with demons who told him contradictory things. He eventually got a message from God "keep your mind in hell and don't despair." I think he also had one or more visions of Christ and maybe spoke to Him. This is just ONE example among many. Would someone make up all these stories (why would poor, pious monks do that? Or is there something I don't know) or are is it all psychological? Or is there something to it?
-Reportedly at least 3000 documented cases of people who have trouble with conception and who succeeded in conceiving soon after eating "grapes of St. Simeon the Myrrh Gusher" from the Hilandar monastery on Mt. Athos and following the accompanying instructions (eg. fasting for 40 days).
-Another interesting example is to be found in the book Kidnapped for my Faith by Ken Levitt (c. 1980). He tells of how he was a Jew who felt there might be something to Christianity. He prayed to God that if He is the Christian God, He send him signs in the form of songs he had not heard in a long time coming on on the radio. He claims that the signs appeared as he had asked for them (and that they stopped coming when he promised God he would ask for no more but did so anyway). His parents later had him kidnapped by "deprogrammers", from whom Levitt escaped after, he claims, he prayed to God fro a dime (so he could call the police after his escape), promptly getting his prayer answered when someone found one on the ground and gave it to him. (I have tried this too and it didn't work. But maybe God revealed Himself to Levitt because Levitt was serious about his commitment to Christianity, whereas I have been minimalist in my approach to it).
-Some people report (I can think of several people saying this in my presence) that they have a great (euphoric?) feeling after taking Holy Communion, and that more frequent communicating has strengthened him by making them more willing to do the will of God. (Not my experience but then, my experience with the Eucharist is very limited).
Have I experienced anything supernatural firsthand? Nothing very big, but I have stories from very ordinary people around me, and there are a number of them:
-when I was 10-11, my mother and I played baseball with people from her company. It was supposed to be all for fun, but there were some more athletic people who did not like a small woman and boy being on the team, as well as people who, as we found out, would apparently try to hit the ball toward me when I was in the field so there would be less of a chance of me catching it. I actually only properly caught the ball ONCE during these games. I was out in the field, and when I caught the ball, I recall it as taking me quite by surprise (or at least I was surprised to have managed to catch it). My mother and at least one colleague reported that the ball had gone up and then fallen back into my glove, as if some higher force was guiding it in order to protect me from being hit by a possibly deliberately aimed ball.
-At the time I started believing, my grandmother told me this story. When the Communists came to Yugoslavia, he started to show off as if he were a big atheist in order to impress the authorities (for example, on Easter morning, he would start hammering away in his workshop so everyone could hear him working). Then, she said, three times in his life he was seriously in danger/injured, each time on the same date, which may have been a saint´s day that had some significance to the family. Once he rode his motorcycle under a truck, another time he fell into an aqueduct or well, another time he broke his hip. He apparently got the message and repented.
-A former family friend, from the former Yugoslavia, had a mother whom he respected and a stepfather whom he said was a crook. He tells how at the moment his mother died, he was away driving, and at that time he found himself among pigsties or some other dirty place, but suddenly he smelled some wonderful odor. On the other hand, when his stepfather died, he was in the funeral procession, and at one point, he saw an enormous snake. As if there had been signs confirming how good his mother was and how evil his stepfather was.
-Several people who I doubt would lie have told me of them or friends they could trust seeing/experiencing ghosts or poltergeist-type activity in their home, at a pre-Christian burial ground etc. The church would probably call these experiences demonic.
-A Coptic colleague of my mother's told of how he was due for heart surgery and after probably intensive prayers at his church, the doctor found his heart to be completely healthy! This is in accordance with similar reports I have heard of or read of as happening to Orthodox Christians.
-My (hitherto) pastor told me that he had been clearly led to the church by God. He had set out to be baptize (in Serbia), but had not wanted to be baptized by a local priest. He was set on being baptized by some "great spiritual father" in a monastery. He said that when he started on his trip to the monastery, he travelled through Serbia to get there, but due to the conditions of the time couldn't take a direct route. However, the normally difficult trip, he says, was made easy by a series of events which were such coincidences that, he says, it is impossible that it was all chance (eg. he was offered a ride at the right time, then just happened to catch a perfect train, etc. - several steps on a normally difficult journey). He ended up having a wonderful time at the monastery and meeting one or more well- known "great spiritual fathers".
-He mentioned that a few years before he had decided to get baptized, he was in an airplane which had a problem, and had to circle before landing. He was not religious at the time, but he suddenly got the idea to pray, and prayed to God. The aircraft ended up safely, but at the moment, he didn't follow up his prayer with continued faith. That came later, however.
-He is also among the people who say they have a wonderful feeling after taking Holy Communion He says he is convinced and without doubts in his beliefs.
-His wife had I think two miscarriages. Then they got a blessing from a monastery, including a blue blessed belt or scarf, or something like that. (I am not sure but maybe they also got the Chilandar grapes of St. Simeon mentioned above) Soon after, his wife became pregnant, and their daughter, while having dark hair like their parents, has blue eyes similar to the girdle, though no one in their family had such eyes.
-He says that during fasts, he has no appetite for meat (I have had an appetite for meat during any fast, but he is far more pious than me).
So many amazing stories relating to one one pious person near to me.
-He told me a story of a not particularly religious woman who visited a monastery, and who pulled a hair from the beard of the incorrupt relics of a saint as a souvenir. On her return to wherever she was from, she began suffering from rampant insomnia. She associated it with her tampering with the relics without permission, and eventually got on a plane, and returned the hairs to the monastery. Her insomina supposedly then stopped.
-He also told me a story of an old woman in Serbia who was apparently not in the habit of going to confession, but on her deathbed, suddenly summoned a priest and had confession. She couldn't die until she did this, at which point she died peacefully.
I could go on and on like this. There are tons of reports of church-related paranormal events around, a simple google search of the topic would show recent and historical reports of healings, visions, moving icons, weeping icons, various such signs in monasteries happening and so on. Paranormal things do reportedly happen in other belief systems, but I don't know if anywhere near as much as in Orthodoxy, or if the examples are so impressive. The church explains things like spiritism and non-Christian miracles as being demonic or rationally explainable, citing sometimes the negative effects of these as proof.
3. My life being guided by God?
-Sometimes I wonder if someone out there is looking out for me. As if certain things happened to protect me from consequences. For example, it has happened several times that I overslept but the people I needed to meet also didn't come or were stuck in traffic or I don't know what exactly. Or there was a time when I was so desperate at a low point during my studies that I cheated on a test (I am not proud of this). The teacher found out and when I admitted it, he said since I had admitted it, there would be no more serious consequences than the head of the department officially informing me of a mark of zero. It occurred to me "out of the blue" that the letter could be mailed home, which would have had very serious consequences, as my controlling mother read my mail before I saw it, so I was able to talk to the teacher and ask specifically that the notice be given to me in hand, averting who knows what (the teacher did not IIRC tell me the notice of this would be mailed, I think it really occurred to me "suddenly" without much thinking, as if God had planted the thought in my mind). In general, some situations in my life seem like several "chance" events have wonderfully combined to produce a result that is important for my personal progress etc. At the same time, I have often had the experience in recent years that something that started out looking bad ends up good, perhaps better than if the bad situation had never happened. As if God wanted me to experience trials, in order to teach me something or what have you.
Of course, these things could also be interpreted in favor of Deism rather than Christianity, but they are arguments for both in theory.
There you have it. These are the things that keep me wondering if I am not making a mistake by leaving the church (though again, there is also evidence against my hitherto beliefs that I am not including here for the sake of time and space). I don't want to end up in hell.