There and Back Again: My 30-year lapse from atheism

by Oddbird1963

People who are familiar with my family often say that I look a lot like my late father. I may have received my appearance from my dad, but I also received a love of science and history from him. Thanks to my father's thirst for knowledge we always had a recent copy of Scientific American, National Geographic, Science News, Science Digest and Popular Science lying around. I would read them, look at pictures, read the captions and soak in anything that seemed interesting to me.

I am not a scientist or a mathematician but I certainly have a love for science, and layperson’s explanations of cosmology, physics and evolutionary biology. Such things inspire me when presented credibly and creatively. Good job Dad!

When I was growing up our house was not a religious household. We only had occasional encounters with friends’ churches, my maternal grandmother's church and then the pious ramblings of my paternal grandfather about God, faith, and religion. And then there was the dreaded Vacation Bible Schools. A week of being uncomfortable about my behavior and what I said without really knowing why. My mom used these to get us out of the house so she could have some peace and quiet.

I must have absorbed some of the “sacred” attitudes about the Christian religion along with my occasional exposure to things related to the church. The experience of realizing I was an atheist (the first time) makes that clear enough.

I always loved it when one of our magazines would feature a story, hopefully with glossy photos and artists’ renderings, about dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and primitive humans. I found it so fascinating to imagine what it would have been like to have lived among such creatures! Admittedly, I still do! I was extremely chagrined, therefore, when after telling some classmates about some new article I read about an ape-like creature that later evolved into a human, I was sternly rebuked by my so-called “friends” who seemed outraged at what I said. Apparently, I shouldn’t have been reading such false reports and theories because the world was made in only 7 days. Adam and Eve were the first humans and they did NOT evolve from apes. That’s what God says, because it’s in the Bible!

“Wow!” I thought to myself one night, while watching the stars from my front yard. “I really think what those magazines tell me is true. I just don’t think much of what those kids at school told me. I guess I just don’t believe in God.” At that admission to myself, I got the coldest chill in my body. My head started to tingle with a cold, sharp sensation. (Lest any Christians start to post that this must have been the Holy Spirit convicting me or something, I got the same feeling when I later converted to Christianity and then a few years later when I decided to rededicate my life to the Christian faith). It was the way I have felt before when I have been shocked with bad news or caught doing something wrong. In this case, I believe it was the realization that I was standing apart from my peers. I was receiving a kick in the ass from one of the strongest influences that I believe keeps people trapped in religion: social conditioning.

This realization must have occurred when I was 11 or 12. I didn’t even know what an atheist was at the time. I didn’t really consider myself an atheist even after having read comments from Isaac Asimov on his short stories which I used to love to read. I just didn’t believe in God. I believed in the discoveries of science as well as Bigfoot, UFO’s and even Eric Von Daniken’s “Chariots of the gods.” Hey! Don’t be hard on me. I was just a kid!

I kept quiet about being a junior atheist. I guess mu social instincts weren’t totally dead. I occasionally had to endure hearing the beliefs of my classmates in bits and pieces. I never really comprehended what was the big deal over Jesus. All Jesus was to me was that old timey looking picture hanging in my maternal grandmother’s bedroom. It was a name that was brought up around Christmas time with the adjective “baby” in front of it. But I knew enough not to go around saying, “I don’t believe in God.” The social shaming would be too strong.

This fact was driven home to me one day in the June after my 7th grade year at school. My younger cousin said to me, “Did you know there’s people who don’t believe in God?” At her words I got that stinging cold sensation again – like I was in danger of being found out. “Where did that come from?” I asked myself. Trying not to show my fear of being exposed as an atheist, I responded with a nonchalant , “Yeah.”

One year later, though, the pull of social forces would see me make a change that would take me in a whole new direction. At the age of 14, a classmate invited me to her Vacation Bible School (VBS). It was a lot of the same as with VBS experiences in the past. Arts, crafts, disjointed unconnected glimpses of the world of religion, not feeling part of things, but making the best of it anyway.

On the last night of VBS, one of the bible teachers from that week asked me, “When were you saved?” I told her I didn’t know what that means. Pretty soon Mrs. Margaret had swept me away to the “fellowship hall” and had begun explaining the gospel story to me. It was the first time I had heard the story in a complete narrative thatched together with scripture references that she showed me from her earmarked King James Bible. Later that night, I “received” Jesus as my savior ( a.k.a. “got saved,” “converted,” “born again”).

I used to look back fondly on that whole experience and love Mrs. Margaret for seizing upon the opportunity to ask me and then taking the time to “witness” to me. Now, looking back, that sentiment has shifted to, “I guess I don’t hate her. She was doing what she thought was right.”

The church I was baptized in and received my first indoctrination as a Christian was as fundamentalist as they come. It was a Landmark Missionary Baptist church. They believed this crazy, unsupportable doctrine that they were the “one true church” because of a supposed unbroken line of “true” churches tracing a lineage all the way back to Jesus.

The sign by the highway on the church lawn also said, “Fundamentalist Pre-tribulation Pre-millennial” Many of the leaders of the church believed that the laws against segregation and discrimination were unbiblical. In other words, slavery and prohibitions against interracial marriage were all biblical concepts that were not wrong in the bible god’s eyes. I actually had a deacon from the church tell me that most slaves in the south didn’t have it so bad because they were well treated and they had the opportunity to hear the gospel.

Among all these culturally influenced beliefs I also learned what could be described as the traditional fundamentalist Baptist doctrines:
  1. Salvation by Grace through faith.
  2. Primacy, inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible.
  3. Baptism of the converted through immersion.
  4. Eternal Security
  5. And much, much more.

This was a time of learning, reading and so-called growth in the Christian faith.

Of course there was still crazy stuff. There were always conferences and revivals where the second coming of Christ was expounded upon with more certainty and detail than a person should be able to have. There were lectures on why it is that we know dinosaurs existed alongside humans prior to the flood. How do we know this? Dinosaurs are in the Bible and they burp methane gas and that makes them breath flames!

For the next three years I sat under the tutelage of missionary Baptist teachers of one sort or another. I had a period of three or four years from my senior year in high school through my junior year of college where I didn’t go to church much. I became discouraged by the lack of a “God-factor” in the lives of the people around me. It all seemed a joke. Yet, I held on to my basic Baptist doctrine and faith.

In my senior year of college I experienced a sort of “revival,” a renewal of my dedication to the God idea. I was once again imbued with a desire to study and learn all aspects of the bible and Christian doctrine. I desired the “personal relationship” which my particular brand of evangelicalism taught.

Eventually I felt what I believed was a “call” to become a preacher. I finished out my college degree and was married that summer. After about a year of marriage we stepped out on faith and moved to Texas for me to begin attending seminary and receive the education and training to be a minister.

During my time in seminary, my faith was intact. I did have to adjust my thinking on the Old Testament Book of Genesis. I came to the conclusion that Genesis 1-11 just had to be interpreted as mythological in nature. A literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 just seemed so untenable given what we know about science, history and archeology. Other explanations such as the age-day theory that try to force-fit what we know into the biblical narrative are equally untenable and problematic. My approach was to not try to debunk evolution and not try to dovetail scientific knowledge into the biblical accounts. My approach was to proclaim the meaning of the text, not push for the literalness of the text. The rest of the Bible, I tried to interpret more or less literally. So, I remained a conservative Christian with those accompanying adjustments in my world view.

I graduated from seminary in full expectation of finding a church. I was fully ready to serve God full time as pastor or assistant pastor of some church somewhere. I was just going to focus on proclaiming the word and trust God take care of me and my family (Yeah. I was a bit naïve).

I had two very short pastorates. I left the second one intending to find a bi-vocational type ministry. I was still a fundamentalist Christian at that time. But I had a lot of question marks hanging over my head.

There are a number of factors that “drained” my faith and eventually caused my faculty of reason to develop new, non-theist positions. What follows is an attempt to identify the more significant factors.
  1. Where’s the God-Factor? I spent too much time making excuses for the behavior of God’s people. Too many times I saw that what happens with the Church can be explained more in terms of personal psychology, organizational psychology, sociology and economics - not by the transforming activity of the Holy Spirit. I concluded that, despite the best intentions of many of “God’s” people, the lives of “His” people just do not provide sufficient reason to believe “He” is there.
  2. Where’s the need for a God? Science does not provide a complete view of reality, but it explains more than faith, religion or a creationist interpretation of scripture ever did. There seems to be no need for a God (big “G” or little “g”) to explain reality as it relates to origins. While science does reach a limit where an uncaused Cause appears plausible, the choice between “God” as the uncaused Cause and an uncaused Universe does not tilt in favor of God. Nor does a belief in God as the uncaused Cause necessarily lead to some version of God portrayed in the Old Testament, the New Testament or any other form scriptures.
  3. Where’s the evidence for God? Despite more than a decade of praying for wisdom, guidance, transformation and personal prosperity with an honest and sincere heart, nothing happened inside or outside of me that can conclusively be pointed to as God’s intervention or involvement. Good things have happened to me. A few bad things have happened to me. But nothing really has happened objectively or subjectively to say that God is involved in the little slice of the world known as my life.
  4. Where’s the presence of God? I finally quit praying for things and simply began to ask God to communicate with me in some way that would be clear to me. I so wanted to know God, but nothing happened subjectively to lead me to believe God was showing Himself to me.

It took about ten years to process everything and determine that the god of the fundamentalists does not exist and that there is no credible evidence that any god exists.

As I faithfully served and committed myself to humble, passionate prayer and ministry, my family languished in dire financial circumstances.

It seems that the more I relied on the Christian god, the worse things got. My story is the story churches don't talk about. My story is not an intellectual journey that leads to the abandonment of faith. It is an experiential journey that spanned more than thirty years. Mine is the account of what they don’t talk about when they tell you to “trust in the Lord with all your heart.” Mine is the "true story" that dwells in the shadows of the church with the champions of confirmation bias receiving all the press.

Eventually I came to my senses and realized there is no god to rely on and faith is not rewarded by an all-powerful, all-knowing loving god. I too became free of the superstition of theism and the mental delusions of religion.

Troll Prevention

One time, in a blog on another website, I posted the above reasons for losing my Christian faith. A Christian apologist asked me a question about why I thought I had a right to ask God for the things I did. Here is what I told the PhD. I think my response to the two ways he asked the question reflects an adequate response for de-converts who have to put up with questions about their sincerity or the adequacy of their expectations in prayer.

What right do you have to make such a request?

As a conservative evangelical Christian, I believed and I taught that faith in Christ brought believers into a personal relationship with Christ.

According to Evangelical theology, through the redemption that God grants through faith in Christ, the believer is able to freely approach God as a loving Father. As a believer, I was taught and I believed in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, thus making a personal, subjective experience with the living Christ possible:
Romans 8:9: “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”
1 Corinthians 2:12-13,16: We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words . . . we have the mind of Christ.

We are told in James 1:5 that we should ask for wisdom and that God will grant it:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

Of course there is a condition attached to this verse. I can always be accused having doubt. I can only say that when I asked I asked in good faith, believing that God was there and that he rewarded those who earnestly sought him.
We are also told in Philippians that we can make requests of God.
Philippians 4:6 – Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Matthew 7:7-8 - "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

In those times, I believed we were granted the right to make requests by a loving, all powerful God and that those rights were affirmed in His scripture
What right do we have to make such a demand?

I believe the “right” is covered above. The word demand seems a bit strong. First, many times I did not appeal to God dispassionately. Often I was experiencing great inner turmoil, confusion and indecision. By the time I quit asking for things I was pleading, like a dehydrated man being refused a cup of water. I don’t believe there was anything wrong with my attitude for the most part, so “demand” would not be a general description of my approach in prayer. I don’t believe “demand” in terms of an unfair entitlement to and drain of God’s resources is accurate either. A child can “demand” too much attention from a school teacher or a parent. But I don’t think my asking for wisdom, transformation, direction or a manifestation of His presence drains any of the resources of a “God” who is described as powerful, limitless, loving and faithful.

No, the right words to use might be “ask,” request,” or even “plead.” But demand? It seems too strong to reflect my actual attitude, for the most part, when I believed I was approaching God.

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