My response to a comment that Dawn left in my entry on 300 Proofs yesterday prompted her to email me back asking how it was I went from being a Christian to an atheist. I sent back a rather lengthy reply and I realized as I was about to send it that, while I’ve discussed this in part in various entries on my blog, I’ve never put up an entry on this topic by itself. With her permission I’m reproducing my reply here for those who are interested.
Thank you for writing me. I have to ask, in your letter you said you were a Christian “prior” to reading the Bible 4 times?
Yes, that’s true. A neighborhood friend got me started on attending a local Baptist church as a child as my parents, while they believe in a God, aren’t particularly religious in terms of attending a particular church. I was quite enthusiastic about religion well into my teens before the events that would cause me to lose faith would come to pass.
I’m am speaking now strictly from my experience – usually someone who was a Christian that backslides, so to speak, has a traumatic experience or loss in their life that makes them turn. I was one that turned back yet again.
I find this is a common misconception about atheists. Certainly there are a number of people who become atheists because of some trauma for which they blame God, but not as many as most people think. Most of those atheists aren’t really atheists in the idea of not believing in God, they’re just angry and they usually, like you, return to the fold. Kind of the same way some people get angry with someone else and refuse to speak to that person for awhile. It’s not the same as a loss of faith.
What changed from being a believer to not being? I guess I am asking what is was your enlightenment? Anyone who has read the Bible four times is doing some serious searching for answers.
Well, as I said before I was very enthusiastic about being a Christian for quite awhile in my youth. There came a point when I gave some consideration toward becoming a member of the clergy myself and I consulted my Pastor about it. Part of his advice included sitting down and thoroughly studying the Bible. Up until that point I had only studied it in bits and pieces as directed by the youth group or the Bible study groups I’d been a part of, I hadn’t ever looked at the “whole picture” as it were. I figured a full reading straight through would be a good place to start. It turned out to be a bad idea that left me very disillusioned in my religion. You see, taken out of context as the various parts were in youth group or Bible study or the various sermons I sat in on, it was easy to accept what I was being told about what the meanings behind the words were. I was reliant upon the authority figures at my Church to tell me what it all meant. When I read it all myself it brought the whole book into sharper focus and I suddenly saw a bigger picture and I didn’t like what it seemed to be showing me.
At first I was certain that I had misinterpreted something or was somehow getting the messages crossed so I again consulted my Pastor who worked with me on a second reading of the Bible. I attended prayer sessions and asked God for guidance and inspiration, to show me the right path. I had people praying for me and I tried everything I was told to do to help me gain the understanding that I seemed to have missed, but things just kept getting worse and the questions I began to ask left my Pastor flustered until he finally turned to me one day and suggested that perhaps a career in the clergy wasn’t meant for me. I decided that perhaps it was just the Baptist faith that might be the problem so I branched out and started checking into other Christian denominations such as the Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and so on. During this entire time I was praying and asking for guidance. I also started digging into the history of Christianity to see if perhaps an understanding of where it came from and how it developed would aid in my understanding. It did, but not in a positive way. Christianity doesn’t have a pretty history and it doesn’t help that it’s an amalgamation of other religions squished together.
By my late teens and early twenties I had given up on Christianity and started looking into other belief systems. Perhaps, I reasoned, Christianity wasn’t the right belief system. Perhaps one of the others had gotten it right instead. At the start of that path I was still fairly certain that God did exist, but that I was just on the wrong path. As time went on and I grew and learned more about belief systems and human nature in general I eventually found myself in a place where all religions looked more or less the same. It was time to sit down and re-evaluate the belief in God I was clinging to like a shipwrecked victim clings to a board in the middle of the ocean. I realized that, even at the height of my belief, I had never had what people refer to as a “religious experience.” There had been plenty of things in my life that I had attributed to God’s intervention, but in hindsight I couldn’t honestly say that God had actually had anything to do with them. I had just done what a lot of people do and assume that was the case. The more I thought about my past experiences and what I had learned on my journey the more I realized I didn’t have a rational basis for my belief in God. Sure, he’s a nice concept and it’s very comforting to think that there’s someone out there watching over me, but wishing it were so doesn’t make it so and even Santa Claus had provided more proof of his existence than God ever had and Santa wasn’t real in the end. This left me with only a few possibilities. Perhaps I just wasn’t capable of experiencing God and as such no religion would ever be the right one. I couldn’t understand why God would make someone who was incapable of experiencing him if he actually took part in our lives, especially if he expected us to in order to be able to get into heaven or whatever you wanted to call it. Perhaps God did start it all, but doesn’t take part in the day-to-day lives of people and is unconcerned with whether or not people experience his presence. He could’ve just been bored with being the only being in existence so he decided to whip up a universe and plop some interesting creatures down in it and see if they’d ever learn to get along or would end up killing each other off. If that’s the case then worshiping him is pointless because he’s not concerned about such things.
Lastly, and this one ended up seeming the most probable to me based on the evidence I had, and still have, on hand: Perhaps God doesn’t exist.
You see the problem I have is that I want to know “The Truth” even if it turns out “The Truth” isn’t what I had hoped it would be. I don’t want to fool myself into believing something just because it makes me feel good or gives me false hope or because “thats how it SHOULD be” or any of the other reasons that people convince themselves of things that likely aren’t “The Truth.” Some people are content to hold a viewpoint merely because it’s expedient or the alternative viewpoint is an ugly and undesirable one, but I’ve always felt it was better to deal with an ugly reality and try to make it better if you can than to just pretend it ain’t so ugly or that “something else” will make it all better for me.
I do try to keep an open mind about all of this because I’ve been wrong before and I’ll probably be wrong again many times before I die. I hold no illusions about having all the answers. If something should occur or some new evidence should present itself to convince me that God is real and there’s a particular religion he expects me to follow then I’ll change my mind again, but so far it hasn’t happened and I’m not holding my breath hoping it will. I’ve been an atheist almost as long as I was a Christian now and, if anything, my life has actually improved quite a bit since I gave up on that fairy tale.
You know, this would make a pretty good entry on my blog. I think I’ll reprint it there, if you don’t mind.