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Image via FlickrChildhood
My parents raised me Christian. To be specific, most of the time I was attending a Church of the Nazarene three times a week. The CotN is a fairly conservative church in the Wesleyan holiness tradition and as such has an Arminian theology. In practice though, its supposed uniquenesses are swallowed by general American Evangelicalism.
As a young child, church was largely an experience I enjoyed. Watching stories played out on the felt board, signing such classic songs as Father Abraham, and potlucks were are fun activities. From my time at home with the Picture Bible, Bible stories on records, and the Psalty tapes, I was something of a star pupil in Sunday School. At the age of eight, I went to altar at a service to accept Jesus as my personal savior and to give my life wholly to God.
By the age of 13, I had read the Bible from cover to cover twice and my view of church began to change. My devotion to Christianity was stronger than ever, but I started to grow disenchanted with church. I noticed that I knew more about the Bible than my teachers, and in fact, more than the vast majority of the church. I considered that youth group was a waste of time as the poor teachers had to spend most of their time keeping the kids in line, and what they did manage to teach I had learned long ago. I stopped going to Wednesday night youth group for a few years.
Not much else changed during my teen-aged years. I remained a model church kid, showing up every Sunday morning (and every Sunday night). I didn't drink or smoke, go to parties, or engage in sexual activities. This wasn't any great effort on my part; I had no desire to do the first two, and my social awkwardness made prospects for the last two exceedingly dim (I shudder to think what would have happened to me social-skills wise if I hadn't gone to public schools my whole pre-college education).
After high school, I went off to a non-denominational Christian University about three hours from home. It's noted for it's aviation and engineering programs (each perhaps the best that any Christian university has to offer). I went to study computer science.
At first the university had a great, positive effect on my belief. It was refreshing to be around other knowledgeable Christians my age, and socially I thrived in dorm life. There was also the student lead prayer and praise on Sunday nights. My church had sung praise music, but it was '70s-'80s celebration style. This was turn of the millennium emotional praise style. It hit me like a drug.
University wasn't all good for my faith however. I knew about Calvinism of course, but I was shocked to see just how man believed it. I did not enjoy the required chapels (pretty much the university's way to show that they where a "true Christian" university). I noticed a lot of hypocrisy on the part of the school administration. The school president was all about the money -- he once bragged in chapel how he secured a $5 million donation from a guy when the poor chap was on his deathbed.
Back home, for my first summer break from university, I talked the church board into starting a class for college-age people. My idea was that me and a couple others would take turns teaching, but I ended up being stuck with all the teaching. I also did this my second summer home. It wasn't much of a success, as I was not that good of a teacher, and I couldn't get much discussion out of the attendees like I was counting on.
Anyways, back at university probably the first major problems with my faith crept up. Computer Science wasn't as much fun as I thought it would be, and I was pretty sure I didn't want to be a computer programmer. Of course, I wanted to do whatever it was that God wanted me to do. I prayed for guidance, but none was forthcoming. I had prayed before, but it was normally stuff like, "Please be with Mom, and help me get through this, etc.," and not anything where I really expected a specific response.
Gradually, I began to not feel the connection with God while praying that I had felt before. Prayer and praise begun to lose whatever it had for me, and I seldom got the experience from it I used to. It was during this time that I was diagnosed with depression by a professionally done, voluntary survey sponsored by the university. I just wrote it off.
The first semester of my senior year saw a changing point for my faith. (I was still majoring in Computer Science since God hadn't told me to do anything different). It came in my Christian Apologetics course I took as part of earning my Biblical Studies minor. We studied the rational "proofs" for Christianity, and looking at them somewhat objectively, I found them weak -- surprisingly weak -- even amazingly weak.
I had kind of just assumed that the bases of the Christian religion were logically proved, but it was clear that they were not. I had to reject the Christian rationalism of my philosophy and religion professors, and I became I fideist. That is, believing that faith alone is the way to know God, and that things like reason, tradition, and experience could not proof God. It's basically summed up by Billy Graham's statement, "I know God exists because I talked with him this morning." Given where I was at with "talking with God" you might have expected that to be the end of my faith...
Not having any direction from God, I decided to go to graduate school; this was probably a way to delay real life more than anything. I studied education and history, with the idea being that I would teach at a community college. The school was a Baptist (general convention of Texas, not Southern Baptist) university within commuting distance of home. I didn't specifically look for a Christian school to go to, but it was the only one close by with this major.
I still held the Bible in high regard, but I was discarding the idea that it was inerrant. In the first place, the doctrine of inerrancy (as believed by most fundamentalists and evangelicals) only applies to the original manuscripts -- which of course we don't have. Even if we can reproduce them with 99% accuracy, that's simply not good enough -- it meant the Bible I could read was not inerrant, and therefore the inerrancy doctrine, even if true, was useless. If I couldn't trust it all, what could I trust?
Anyways, I could no longer hold to the doctrine of inerrancy at all. This was because of my study of history (not for the university, but study I did for myself). That the Israel of the time could have an 800,000-man army -- impossible. That the number of Hebrews in the exodus was as large as the Bible says -- impossible. That the exodus left absolutely no archaeological evidence -- very worrisome.
I did not accept "macro-evolution," but it was obvious to me that we had an old earth -- even from just historical studies I knew that the earth had to be older that a literal reading of the Bible could account for. I never resolved this issue, as the Christian attempts to reconcile the Bible to an old earth are unconvincing, or espouse a type of Christianity not worth believing.
It was during this time that I first heard about what is termed the "Emerging Church." It's a bit complicated to explain here, but you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want. It sounded like a breath of fresh air compared to other Christian groups, and in fact, it was. I read a lot by emerging authors such as Brian McLaren, Scot McKnight, and Erwin McManus.
My prayers continued unanswered, and I was praying less and less.
I graduated with my master's degree in education and history, but wasn't able to get a community college teaching position like I wanted. Let's just say that the admissions people and my faculty advisor had mislead me as to how easy this would be.
A Christian friend who knew I was having some spiritual problems gave me a new Bible. This Bible was laid out in chronological order (or as close as they could get to it). The format caused there to be repeat passages. Actually, only nearly repeat passages. If you can read a Bible like this and still believe inerrancy, you errâ€¦ have a lot of faith.
I started to attend an emerging type church in the big city that I drove 50 minutes to get to. At first, it was absolutely great, but I eventually became disappointed that it wasn't really much different. At the bottom it was the same Christianity, even if it was done by "cool" people who weren't separating from the world, had a more generous view of Orthodoxy, and had a genuine concern for the poor. My view of the Bible began to slip further, to the point where all I could say of it was that it was people's recordings of their faith journey.
I read a very interesting history of Christianity (written by a Christian), and found it very discouraging. The diversity of early Christianity on even the absolutely basic doctrines was very disappointing. It looked like the Church went wrong immediately -- there never was a faith once for all delivered to the saints. And there were way too many disagreements afterwards that still exist today -- disagreements on issues that would affect your salvation. Why didn't God step up and sort things out?
I got a job substitute teaching for the local high school. It didn't go too well. It takes a special type of person to maintain discipline in today's school system, and I am not that person.
God still wasn't talking to me. I read a book about how we are supposed to know God's will, unlike what I had been taught, it suggested that God didn't give people guidance on what to do very often -- that we were to rely on the Bible and upon our reason and common sense. The authors made a good biblical case for this, but I noticed that this was one of the doctrines I was being drawn to that would work just as well in practice if God didn't actually exist.
Having some desperation to rekindle my faith, I turned to "spiritual formation" authors such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. I prayed, I fasted, I mediated, I practiced solitude and simplicity, and I memorized large chunks of scripture. The similarity to brain washing of this process did not escape me. But still, nothing.
The turning point for me came when I read "A Guide to Understanding the Bible" by Harry Emerson Fosdick (an old liberal Christian). He lays out the view of how on numerous key issues the Bible develops significantly in theology from Genesis to Revelation.
I was familiar with ideas similar to this; some Christians use this to explain away certain things in the Old Testament. But what is more plausible, that God could only bring a group's morality and theology up to a certain point -- or that it was men who were developing things without God? Fosdick made a convincing case that it was men.
With still no word from God, it was at this point that I realized I didn't really believe. My depression, which had been gradually getting worse, reached borderline suicidal status. I finally went to a doctor about it, and was given medication for it, which has helped.
I played around with deism and agnostic theism for a few weeks, but I could not honestly hold to one of those. I finally admitted to myself that I was an agnostic atheist.
That was about seven months ago. My depression now is almost completely gone, to the point that I suspect that it was my belief crisis that was causing my depression and not anything that the medicine has fixed.
It wasn't church or any specific Christians that put me off Christianity, I haven't been hurt by the church. The Nazarenes I know are very nice people. If they are a little uptight to perhaps be your close friends, they would still make great neighbors. The people I met at the emerging type church are easily among the finest people I know. Christians in general, though still have things like a high divorce rate and religious motivated murders. I accept that as a group, Christians aren't worse than anyone, but they aren't better either. What is reality more consistent with: Christianity or Atheism? If Christianity is true, and Christians have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, then there really should be a noticeable difference between Christians and others.
I still have some struggles though. As an agnostic atheist, I find it hard to be motivated. As a Christian, I knew the "real" story of the universe. I was trying to be a part of God's plan, I had supernatural motivation, and I wanted to work with eternal purposes in mind. After so many years of that, I probably find it difficult to be motivated by "mere" earthly matters. Socially, I've been cut off from most of my friends. Churches are great for socializing, especially those for whom that is not the easiest thing. Atheists don't belong.
And unlike many atheists, I really do wish there was something to religion. One word form God, and I would be the most committed theist there is. One sentence from God and I could be the most committed Christian God could want. But still, nothing.
(Not that I expect there to be or am trying anymore).
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)