When thinking about all the people to whom I confessed my disbelief in god, I realized that I have yet to write about a key person: me. Well before I told Andy, the first person who ever heard me vocalize my apostasy, and much longer before I ever whispered a clue to my now ex-wife and current disappointed family, I had to consciously come to grips with this matter myself.
It’s tough to say how many times I’ve heard someone, usually a devout believer in God, say that the big reason why people become atheists is because of some sort of trauma in life that causes them to doubt the validity of an omnibenevolent being. Whereas I can’t say that this never happens, I think I can say with a certain amount of authority that the idea that most atheists are created this way is unadulterated bullshit. It sounds more like a story Christians like to tell themselves so they don’t have to face the fact that most atheists have really thought long and hard about their former religion, that they’ve read the holy books and considered the claims, and in the end realized that there’s just as much bullshit in religion as there is in the story that atheists are made via trauma.
Though I wouldn’t say that I was much of a skeptic of my religion during my time as a Christian, we all at least have our moments. Looking back at my old life, I can scarcely think of a time when I was really doubtful of the existence of God, of the validity of the Bible. It just isn’t how I thought. My upbringing was quite insular when it came to information on religion and the supernatural, and I was very skilled at compartmentalizing my thinking in a way that separated “worldly” knowledge from that of church. Which brings me to another misconception: it’s often said that if you leave your church, you were never really a true believer to begin with. Again. Bullshit. From the time of my confirmation (at least) to even the final year of my old life as a believer, I recall sitting in church with not only conviction of my belief in God but the intense, overwhelming feeling of being possessed by the Holy Spirit while singing hymns in the presence of other believers. Such emotional moments go a long ways in convincing one that they’re in the right place at the right time.
Though if I was willing to wager
the thing that was supposed to be
the most important thing in my life
for anything else, then my religious
convictions were at least waning.
So how did I go from that to this? I wrote in a previous piece that the initial seeds of doubt were likely sown without anyone knowing a long time ago when I was just a small boy. But that, of course, wasn’t enough to burst such a Kevlar-lined bubble. But I definitely had it in me for much of my life to question whether or not I was truly in the right place. Around the time I graduated from college, I recall laying in bed at the house I rented with my friend Matthew in St. Paul, looking around the dark room and making a silent deal with myself that if a short story I wrote was accepted by a publisher I had recently sent it to, I would leave the church. When I think back to this episode, am I convinced that I would’ve done it had the story been accepted? No, I don’t think so. It says more about my desperation to be a successful writer than it does of my skepticism. Though if I was willing to wager the thing that was supposed to be the most important thing in my life for anything else, then my religious convictions were at least waning.
If I had to pick a real beginning to my journey away from faith, I would have to say it was in 2007 when I stumbled across a video on YouTube of Christopher Hitchens talking about the passing of Reverend Jerry Falwell on Fox News. Not sure why I clicked on it since I had no idea who Hitchens was and had nothing good to say about Falwell (he, like everyone else in the world who did not go to my specific church, was spiritually lost), but I’m glad I did because I had never seen an interview like that in my life! I was struck by Hitchens’ bold and unapologetic manner in which he talked of the deceased, not pulling any punches about how Falwell was a dangerous demagogue, even to the point of saying that if you “gave Falwell an enema, they could bury him in a matchbox.”
Now that I knew who Christopher Hitchens was, I naturally looked up more interviews. As it turns out, he had just written a book entitled “God is Not Great,” in which he refutes the claims of the world’s great religions in the hope of convincing people that they’re simply not true. And on the book tour, he decided to have a debate with pastors and other religious spokespeople at every stop, all of which amassed a huge collection of YouTube videos in which he speaks clearly, charismatically, and logically against the articles of faith that I had simply accepted my entire life. So here I was, a good little Christian, watching videos of an atheist (with whom I disagreed) debate other religionists (with whom I also disagreed), and I did so in secret. Why did I do this? In short, I guess I just found it interesting. But I also knew that if my wife found out that I was watching these, it would result in a conversation I’d rather not have. I don’t know if, at the time, I thought this was all innocent or not, but there was definitely some mental compartmentalizing happening. I continued to watch and read more and more on the claims of atheists, yet still attended church religiously and for months never so much as questioned whether my faith was true.
But that’s because I couldn’t! Questioning the church wasn’t allowed. End of sentence. The people of my family’s church are highly skilled at dodging questions about the faith, quickly resorting to “that’s the work of the devil” at the first sign that something might be amiss, if not just disregarding a problem entirely, as though a question was never even posed. This is what I did throughout this entire process, so it never even occurred to me to say, “this stuff makes a lot of sense. I wonder if my church is wrong?” God lived in a lead-lined lock box in my brain, and everything else lived in the cardboard box next to it. Whereas information freely came and went when it came to the world in which we live, God was always one thing and one thing only, and that could not change.
Questioning the church
wasn’t allowed. End of sentence.
Then one day in February of 2009, I made a decision. Ok, so God and the Bible and my church are all supposed to be the most important element of my life, something to put before my family and even my own life if it were to come to that. Not only that, but belief in God and a reading of the Bible was supposed to answer any question of importance that I could ever dream of. So why, for God’s sake, do I do so much mental gymnastics to protect the church, never questioning anything. If the Bible is so inerrant, then surely it can stand up to a few questions. To do otherwise would be to degrade it, to claim in a roundabout manner that I didn’t actually believe it to be as inerrant as I say I do. God, in all his majesty, did not need protection from me.
Except that it turns out he did. On this one day, when I chose to be honest about the things I believed in my religion and I picked the lock on my god box, it was immediately obvious just how empty this safe actually was. Everything I knew about science didn’t jive with what the Bible said, from the age of the earth to our biological relationship to other animals. The morality described in the book was atrocious at best, freely recommending and even demanding slavery and genocide. It was incredible how many timeless rules were written on these holy pages that we couldn’t give a damn about in today’s society, like not eating shellfish or mixing fibers in our clothing. Just what the hell kind of book is this that I had been blindly following?!
I couldn’t breath, I was so scared. The walls of the temple were falling all around me, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop it. The bricks of the world that I had known my whole life were turning to dust, and for the first time I could see the wider world beyond those walls. But for as freakish as all this seemed to me, the strangest part was how unsurprised I felt on this realization. It’s like I had known it for some time, but I had simply never been honest with myself about what it was I thought.
This, as you’ve likely read in some previous blog posts, was just the beginning though.