Sent in by Chip S
I was not raised in a Christian home. My parents had not made a conscious decision for atheism, I suppose. But their daily lives and lack of religious practice certainly would label them as non-Christians. They were always in that ambiguous category of people who simply had no time for theism or atheism. It was simply a non-issue.
For a whole I attended church with a friend, in elementary school. Of course I didn't comprehend enough to understand what was being taught, let alone make a decision to subscribe to the beliefs advocated by that church. But I did learn enough to remember certain things... John 3:16, the claim that Jesus was God, etc. I had this vague understanding of the person called Savior.
It was in middle school, which I now quaintly think of as the “Dark Ages” of my life that social awkwardness and intense depression led me on a search for more. Perhaps it was not as conscious of a search as I would now imagine, but a search nonetheless. I found an old family bible gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. I've always loved books, and to find a book in our house was rare. So of course, I read it.
My adolescent mind was floored. From the battle scenes of Joshua to keep me entertained to the eternal life-giving promises of Jesus, I was caught up in the promises of this Bible. I supplemented my knowledge of the Bible with videos from the Trinity Broadcasting Network. The text itself plus the constant cries for conversion from the hosts of the channel led me to a conversion experience without stepping into a church.
I was immediately enthusiastic about this idea of Christianity. I demanded that family members begin dropping me off Sunday mornings at the local Methodist church which continued to send us monthly newsletters even though no one had attended in my earliest recollection. Of course, the calm atmosphere of the Methodist church would not fulfill my insatiable boyish desire for excitement.
After my first visit with a friend to the Apostolic Pentecostal Full Gospel Church my freshman year of high school, I was caught up in the loud music, the cheering even the idea of speaking in tongues. For six months I attended this small church, one time I was even grounded from church for quite a while because the Friday night youth service lasted until 4a.m. and I didn't call home. Eventually as the "emotional high" of the services began to wear off and have less effect, much like (I hear) the effects of drugs, I began to question. They made some pretty radical claims. The people at the Methodist church would not be in heaven, for example. You had to speak in tongues to be a child of God. They made extraordinary claims about the ability to do miracles and prophecy the future, but no actions ever seemed to follow the rhetoric.
Though it was hard, I wrote them a letter outlining my problems with them. Things didn't seem to make sense. Their denomination had only existed for a few decades, what about the two thousand years in between? Was everyone from that time in hell? Surely, not. Speaking in tongues seemed to be so silly at times, like they were all just making up things off the top of their heads. None of it sounded anything like a different language, and none of them sounded similar. A few days after I delivered the letter, four of them came to my house to explain to me why I was going to hell. I had committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you see, and that was unforgivable. Though some might argue that it could be very psychologically damaging to tell a fourteen year old that he was damned to hell, I can't help but think it was at least courteous for them to let me know. As I was now an apostate, all but one of them cut me off from their social lives, and she only because she held out hope that I hadn't completely damned myself.
I hopped churches for a while. Back to the Methodist church, to an Assembly of God church, a Freewill Baptist church, even another Apostolic Pentecostal church (maybe they were right, and surely these people wouldn't know about my blasphemy!). Eventually I found a home in a Nazarene church, where though I've always felt a bit the outsider, the people were generally good and accepting of me. The youth group was huge, and almost immediately I was thrust into leadership positions.
As my high school years passed, it seemed only natural for me to pursue full-time ministry. With my negative experience with the Pentecostal church in the back of my mind, I found that I was a "good Christian." Leading small groups at youth group, leading my school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes and spending nearly all of my time witnessing to anyone who would hear me out. I had found a skill, if you will.
At the (extremely persistent) prompting of my youth pastor, I shipped off to the regional Nazarene University for college. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by Christians. It was thrilling at first, people were all generally nice. Classes all began with prayer. Chapel was held three times a week. For the first semester I was happy to finally be in a place that advocated my values.
But over time I found that I was in the minority. In the fall of my freshman year, the White House was up for grabs. Of course the majority of my school was in love with George W. Bush. My Kerry-Edwards poster was taped to the urinal of my dorm. Some of my friends referred to me as a "baby killer." When I suggested in a class that homosexuals weren't in fact destroying America, I was sneeringly labeled "liberal" by a classmate. A label I have proudly worn ever since.
It was as I began to explore more deeply into my religion classes that I first began to seriously question. Of course throughout my years as a Christian I had asked questions, but always had come back to the idea of "faith." I found it disconcerting that my freshman biology professor gave me a "C" on my final paper because I refused to write about how creationism made more sense than evolution. I was frustrated by my Christian Life and Ministry Professor who prayed for the forgiveness of Democrats. I was frightened by my history professor who mentioned the "mystery cults" during the time of Jesus who seemed to have many similarities to Christianity... and no body wanted to hear more about them.
As my freshman year turned to sophomore year, some of the inconsistencies of faith began to strike me. Some of the poor arguments for Christianity started to bother me. Some of the doctrines of the church shook me. For a while I pressed on. Then I found myself attached to Calvinist theology of election and predestination. I became convinced that the reason things didn't always make sense to me and the reason I still struggled with the same "sin" as when I was a new Christian was that I was simply not elect. God did not love me.
Out of sheer willpower I broke free from that notion and again became enthusiastic about the cause for Christ. My frustration with the shallow religion courses prompted a change of major to philosophy. My passions began to thrive around the philosophy of religion and I was bound and determined to prove the existence of God, particularly the Judeo-Christian God. My desire to be a minister was replaced by a desire to be an apologist.
As I became aware of the cosmological, teleological, ontological, etc. arguments for the existence of God, I became obsessed with the need for a rational explanation for Christianity. I devoted countless hours my junior year of college to reading anything I could get my hands on. Books from atheists, journals from Christian thinkers, videos of lectures by Christian apologists.
In my Systematic Theology class which dealt heavily with philosophy of religion issues, I found that I thrived. The class was the hardest religion course I'd taken. The professor was brilliant, and serious about his work. He required his students to read, a lot. And his exams consisted of nothing but very intense essays. I would study for weeks for those exams, and often got them back with notes that read along the lines of: "Great work, best essay I have read yet."
As the year pressed on; however, my doubts only increased. So much didn't add up. And the parts that did add up required that I work from the conclusion backwards. I pressed further, beginning to read much more technical philosophy of religion works.
All the while, I was preaching at regional churches through a campus ministry. And I was good, I think. Often, with or without an altar call, people would come and pray. After services old women would approach me and tell me, "You need to do full-time ministry!" The church board of one congregation approached me at the end of service as a group and told me I had "saved their church" from infighting.
But none of this would confirm for me any kind of "call" on my life. I was unable to work past the contradictions, the absurdities, and the missing gaps of Christianity. Why would God command the Israelites to murder entire people groups? Why did the psalmist glory in the thought of bashing the heads of Babylonian babies against rocks? Why did Jesus tell the gentile woman she was a dog? Why did Paul say that women should not be allowed to speak in church? Why is homosexuality an abomination, but pride is "okay?"
For the summer I worked two jobs and took two classes. I kept incredibly busy with little time for a social life. And all the while, one phrase would float through my head each and every day: "Does God even exist?" I kept reading, and kept reading. I kept questioning those things that had always bothered me, and yet I found no answers. Only ridiculous explanations: Judas hung himself and then he fell off a cliff and his innards burst out.
I finally made the decision that I knew my mind had made months before: it really was a myth, a legend. An attempt by a primitive society to explain the world around them. A failed metaphysical explanation of the universe. Having not been raised in the church, I feel more foolish that I was an outsider who was duped. I pride myself on my reasoning ability, on my rationality. And yet, for years I believed in a deity that now seems completely ridiculous.
Now here I am, a week away from returning to an evangelical university where belief in Jesus is a requirement for admission. I've used the internet to make public my newfound atheism to avoid having to do it personally. Though at this university I have formed some of the closest interpersonal bonds of my life, I find myself dreading the return for my senior year. I have been flooded by e-mails and phone calls of people trying to re-convert me. Yet I can no longer force my heart to follow what my mind cannot justify.
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Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)