I used to put my faith in worship, but then my chance to get to Heaven slipped

Just as most Christians (and presumably people of other faiths) have “Conversion testimonies,” some of them heart-wrenching tales of overcoming obstacles, others merely banal anecdotes about attending Church camp, we atheists often have “Deconversion stories.”

Here’s my story.

I know my story isn’t particularly unique, but that’s the point, the commonality of my experience. Perhaps the most fascinating aspects of my experiment with faith are the lengths I went to in order to hold tight to it once I began to waver.

Fitting In

I’m a fairly self-reliant person.  I would have to be to do this whole 10 cities in 10 years project. As a Christian I was self-disciplined enough to spend my solitary time in the pursuit of a stronger ‘relationship with Jesus’ (one of those dandy Christianese phrases), meaning that I read my Bible and Christian writers, listened almost exclusively to Christian music, and generally immersed myself in the Christian culture to know any and everything that could possibly make me a more complete Christian.

Some Christians will object to this with the well-worn homily: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” Their point being that going through the motions isn’t what makes you a Christian, it’s true belief and relationship that makes your faith real. Which, of course, I love, because as soon as a Christian does something despicable or detrimental to the religion’s image, they can just say, “Oh, he wasn’t a real Christian,” and they don’t have to look back at themselves and deal with any possible failings.

Still, ignoring that, I can say without a doubt that my faith was real. As real as any Christian’s faith, for what that’s worth. If the proof of faith is one’s actions (and the Bible says it is) then there can really be no question of my faith’s legitimacy.  In high school, rather than chasing girls (man, I wanted to) or playing sports or hiding in my room to read/watch TV/masturbate, I attended weekly prayer meetings (where sometimes I was the only person there for an hour), took on a leadership role in my church’s youth group which included doing a lot of behind the scenes work that got little attention, and even spent nights typing out portions of the Bible so that I could tape it up on my mirror and read it throughout the week. My life, especially in high school, was devoted to Christianity.  Church, youth group, bible studies (multiple). Every night was for God, and all the while I still managed to get near perfect grades in school and never indulged in drugs/drinking/smoking/sex. (At least one of those I seriously regret.)

Were my attentions all forthright and God-focused? Unlikely. I mean, let’s be honest, religion is a way of being a part of a group, being accepted and possibly even popular (not that I ever was). My friends were Christians, so going to church could be just as much about hanging out as it was about devotion to The Lord. There were definitely times when I wasn’t in the mood to be devout.

But I was also a teenager. I’m sorry, but if God is so strict a taskmaster that he expects even children to be 100% devoted to him without any sense of personal enjoyment, then that’s no God worth worshiping. I don’t think that any Christian would claim a person’s faith is less meaningful because they, for instance, also happen to have a crush on a girl in the next pew. If my sole aim was getting into hot Christian girls’ panties, then sure, I wouldn’t have been much of a Christian (and I would have been an epic failure, besides).  That wasn’t the case, though. My personal ambitions were as selfish as any other lonely, horny, confused teenager, but my faith was no less ‘real’ for it.

By the time I reached college, my faith was fraying at the edges. Partly it was because I was angry about how my life had gone (recently divorced parents, unable to afford the college of my choice, feeling mostly directionless in life), and partly it was due to my expanding intellectual world revealing that many aspects of the religion didn’t make sense.

Mostly, however, my faith was dying because despite fervent and frequent prayers, God didn’t talk to me. Ever. My friends would go on about how God had spoken to them, told them what to do in life or given them a word of comfort in hard times. As for me, zip.  No lightning, no quiet whisper, not even some divine wisdom parsed from reading the Bible. When it came to God and my faith, I felt nothing. Ironically, my intellect (that evil thing that some Christians say we should fear) tied me to my faith for longer than I should have been. I knew that sometimes God didn’t speak to people because he was testing them or allowing them to ‘go through the desert’. I accepted the seeming abandonment for years because I believed at some point I would come out of the dry period and God would pour out his love and words to me.

I had strong faith things would change, eventually. And I needed that faith, because God certainly wasn’t going out of his way to give me any signs. The closest I got to a fiery bush was using the communal bathroom in my college dorm.

One specific night sticks out as a microcosm of my religious experience. I attended a ‘tent revival meeting’ (literally held in a circus-sized tent on the outskirts of town) where some Holy Spirit-filled faith healer was holding services. If you’ve never experienced this sort of Fundamentalist Christian experience, you’re missing out. There are raised hands, loud singing, shouting, often in gibberish (as in, “Speaking in Tongues”), people falling over ‘under the spirit’ and even people rolling around on the ground laughing hysterically.

Along with two of my friends, I went up to the front to receive prayer. While waiting my turn, my two friends were prayed for and upon the laying on of hands, immediately dropped to their knees cackling like hyenas, tears in their eyes. When I was prayed for next, I went down too, laughing right along with them. But nothing was funny. I don’t know why everyone else was laughing, but I know my reason: Because everyone else was laughing. It was uncomfortable and kind of painful to sit on the ground and fake laugh for nearly twenty minutes, but I did it because I wanted to feel it and I wanted to be a part of the excitement.

But I didn’t feel anything. I never did.

The summer after my freshmen year, I was feeling especially lost and I needed God to finally break the silence. So I decided to do what all great spiritual leaders do: I fasted.  For 7 straight days, I ate not an ounce of food (maybe not 40 days, but come on, I was still a growing teenager). To make it worse, this was the beginning of barbeque season. It was rough.

What’s the point of fasting? Well, as I understood it then, the point is to show a submission of will to God. Also, it frees up that time normally spent eating to have more time to pray (I’m guessing that’s sort of an American distortion of fasting; after all, only in America is eating such an all-consuming event that one cannot possibly be expected to focus on anything else but stuffing our fat fucking faces).

And after 7 days, what did I hear? You guessed it:  Nada!

You might think that this was the moment when I lost my faith, but no. 

The Good Book

A Road Trip

I still considered myself a Christian through that next December when my brother and I took a Greyhound Bus trip. Leaving my car behind in Kansas City, we bussed it through Nashville and Boston before arriving in my mecca, New York City (my first time to the city).  Staying in a hostel (nothing beats staying in a NYC hostel for a true Beat-worthy traveling experience) we met a big, burly dude, a mean looking fellow who wore all black yet was unfailingly friendly. Let’s call him Greg.

Now, Greg was having problems in his life. My brother, the patient, open-hearted Christian-type willingly gave up some of our sightseeing time to listen to Greg’s story and offer condolences. I don’t remember what those problems were, though I’m thinking a jilted girlfriend was involved. Regardless, after Greg had unloaded his burdens on my brother (and me, as I was stuck in the room with them), my brother did the holy thing:  He offered to pray for Greg, if he’d like. And, boy, did Greg like. Yes, prayer! That’s what he needed, because nothing else had worked.

So we prayed for him. Or, rather, my brother prayed for him while I awkwardly extended my hand towards Greg. With my arm outstretched, I realized some impromptu prayer wouldn’t fix Greg’s life one iota. It was right there, in that moment, crouched around a rickety bunk-bed in a tiny dormitory style room, with an Asian businessman snoring soundly on a bed across the aisle from us, that I had for the first time the one truly revelatory thought of my life: There is no God. It was almost spiritual.

My brother and I returned to Kansas to find my car broken into and all of my clothes and most of possessions stolen out of it. I was distraught. With nothing else to do, I agreed to join him on a spiritual retreat in Colorado along with a group of church interns that he worked alongside. Up in those mountains, surrounded by very nice, very fun and very accepting Christians, I gave God one more chance. (Yeah, I know, I’m a masochist.) 

For awhile, I thought I had re-found my faith. God didn’t speak to me or anything, but back in Kansas I attended a new church with these new Christian friends and even agreed to live with a group of them in a huge house the next school year. Bizarrely, I even agreed to join a summer church internship, like my brother’s. I spent one more summer entrenched in Christian duties, praying and singing and reading and living like a monk (not completely, I guess, since I did end up with a girlfriend at the end of it). All the while, I felt nothing.

By the end of that summer (over a year since my fasting debacle), I finally allowed myself to understand what I had been afraid to accept: I didn’t believe in God. god.  There was a reason I didn’t hear a voice of comfort in my periods of hardship. Either God was testing me/punishing me for not being completely pure or… There Is No God. It was the one answer that actually explained everything I had ever experienced, I had just never allowed myself to consider it.

I don’t know when I first called myself an atheist. That next school year I was locked into a lease with 9 Christian guys in one house, and I was still involved with the church.  Coming out as an Atheist really wasn’t an option. I’m not even sure I told my non-Christian friends at that point.

Whenever I did finally allow myself the Scarlet A-label, I’m fairly certain I never called myself an ‘agnostic’. It’s just not the way I work, to pretend like I’m okay not having the answers. I either want to know there is a God or I want to know there isn’t one. I spent the first 20 years of my life looking for all the proofs of God’s existence and came up with naught. Now I’ve spent every year since looking at the proof that God doesn’t exist and that evidence has piled up quite nicely.

The point of me writing this isn’t to try to de-convert my Christian friends (and I still have many), and I don’t think it will read as particularly revelatory to those atheists who had analogous experiences (though, perhaps, you’ll find some comfort in the familiarity).

I write this to say that an atheist is not a person who’s secretly angry at God or a person who never really had faith. So often, atheists are dismissed (by Christians, especially) as being bitter or people who don’t really know what Christianity is. Well, I’m not bitter and I knew (and know) Christianity as well as pretty much anyone (no, I’m not a theologian, but if you have to teach theology to be a true Christian, then I’ve never known a Christian).

I wasn’t “too smart for my own good” (as I was often told), because ultimately, while my intellect now allows me to better understand a world without God, it wasn’t an intellectual decision that cut me loose of faith’s anchor. It wouldn’t have mattered if I was raised Muslim or Jewish or just some non-Fundamentalist version of Christianity. The fact was, God proved countless times to be completely powerless and ineffectual, so much so that to believe in him was to believe in nothing.

And that’s exactly what I do believe in.

15 thoughts on “I used to put my faith in worship, but then my chance to get to Heaven slipped

  1. “Some Christians will object to this with the well-worn homily: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” Their point being that going through the motions isn’t what makes you a Christian, it’s true belief and relationship that makes your faith real. Which, of course, I love, because as soon as a Christian does something despicable or detrimental to the religion’s image, they can just say, “Oh, he wasn’t a real Christian,” and they don’t have to look back at themselves and deal with any possible failings.”

    I feel ya. I’m not an atheist; in fact, I do believe in God, though not with the same perspective that I used to have. BUT this fucking argument is exactly what I had to deal with when I started, well, fucking (sorry). All my leaders/friends would say (not directly to me, of course, I have a sort of “don’t mess with me” aura for some reason…maybe it’s the dark skin) that people who move away from the faith IN ANY WAY never had faith to start. I know from personal experience, just like you do, that that’s just not true. I think that if we former teens were encouraged to pursue “truth” as we would propose to pursue it, we wouldn’t spend years lashing ourselves when we just. can’t. get there. Ugh.

    This post really resonates with me. The “speaking in tongues”, the group mentality, the fasting, seeking, and thinking something’s wrong with you. I hope you got through to a happier end like I did/am continually doing.

    Being a believer in God (Christian and non-Christian definitions), I disagree with you that God’s not there. Though, I actually did/do feel God’s presence, which you say you did not. Of course, I don’t actually how you define that statement to yourself or what it really means to you, so it makes no sense to try to show you something that I see completely through my own lens. I’m glad you can finally feel like you’re seeking the truth wholeheartedly. That’s not something all of us former teenage fundi’s can say.

  2. Thank you for reading. I did in fact get through it, and now, leading my own life, I am much happier, and free in a way that “Christ’s love” never could accomplish.

    Naturally, as an atheist, I would question what you call feeling ‘God’s presence’ as what that usually means for most is the indefinable moments of awe or peace that we all experience and can be understood simply as the product of our evolved brain chemistry.

    But, I don’t write to argue people away from their faith, I merely write to represent fully the often times ignored or misrepresented views of the ‘godless’. Again, thank you for reading, and best of luck in your own truth seeking and fucking.

  3. Joseph, I literally laughed out loud multiple times while reading this. Funny stuff, bro. Very interesting read.

  4. It’s good to hear your perspective on this. Thanks for sharing your story. I am a Christian and faced some of the same experiences as you but resulted in a different outcome and understanding. I have friends who have had similar experiences and I think I somewhat understand how it could happen the way you described. Either way, I definitely cannot stand how many (maybe most) Christians treat people who have doubts or people who do something considered sinful.

    I won’t try to convince you otherwise but I will say this: I hope you take an opportunity to give God another chance someday. My only word of advice for next time (if applicable), don’t try so hard man! God doesn’t expect perfection. I am of the, lets call it opinion, that there is NOTHING a person can do to make God love them more than he already does and there is NOTHING a person can do to make God love them less.

    • I appreciate your openness and light touch, Brian. You have your beliefs, I have my (lack of) beliefs, and that is just where we are. No, I will not be giving the God hypothesis another go, but I hope that I can work with Christians on social issues and that our differences on the question of faith doesn’t mean we will always have to be on opposite sides (I know for many of my Christian friends, that isn’t the case, and I’m grateful for that).

    • As I have often said, “Given undeniable proof, I would change my position on religion and a god.” What would it take to change yours?

      For ever 50 years I have been asking this question and for that proof. I have never received an answer for the proof that eventually did not translate down to, “You must have faith.” That prompted me to write a short essay on faith. You can read it at:

      As far as a “believer” changing their position, the few answers I have ever received have always come to mean, “Nothing. It makes me feel good to believe, so I don’t want to stop.” That’s a lot like what I have heard from drug addicts and alcoholics.

  5. Becoming Free

    Blame it on my parents.  They always told me to “think for yourself”.  I doubt they ever considered what would happen if I really did that. 

    Now, I suspect what they meant was, “Think what we tell you but do it in your own words.”  Too late.  When I was 13, I began to question everything and soon the total absurdity of religion became apparent. 

    Because I have been “encouraged” (forced) to read the bible several times, it was easy for me to see the contradictions in the book, what christians professed to believe, and how they really lived.

    When I refused to go with them to their church, they said they would “Make me go.” 

    I asked them, “How are you going to make me? How will forcing me to attend church change my mind?”  Already, their attitude was starting to harden me against everything else they would tell me.

    Their next idea was to have their minister talk to me.  I told them it was a waste of everyone’s time.  They persisted and had him come to the house to “Talk some sense into me.”  (as if that ever works for anyone)  After about 15 minutes of him quoting the bible to me and me pointing out that he was either wrong in his quotes or showing him how it said something else in another place, he became very angry and told me I was going to hell.  I suspect it was because I knew the bible better than he did and was, at age 13, able to prove how ridiculous his arguments were.

    I told him, “If there is a Hell I’ll see you there.  Save me a nice place, OK?”  He said I was an impertinent, disrespectful child.  By then, I was angry myself and for the first time, I told a christian that he was a hypocrite, a liar, and a fool.  My parents insisted that I apologize.  I refused and left the room to a lot of yelling and threats.

    For the next four years, I heard about this at least once a week.  So the night I graduated high school, I left my parent’s home and didn’t see them again for well over a year.  By then, with the credits I had accumulated in high school and summer school,  I had completed a couple of years of college.  Fortunately, I was able to pay for this myself.  I was entering the army and wanted to try to make peace with them, but had to listen to the same old recriminations and arguments again. 

    The next time I saw them was two years later when I was getting married.  After several years of an on-again, off-again relationship they finally agreed to just not discuss it any more.  I’d like to say that worked, but  subtle hints slowly became outright condemnation.  Then I took a job transfer from Ohio to Arizona, so family meetings were rare enough to become occasions for something other than contention.

    I do have to say that I appreciate the other things they did for me, like encouraging my education and equipping me with the work ethic and attitudes I needed to survive and thrive at that early age.  In those areas, they were excellent parents and I am grateful for those things.

    What did I learn?  Even your family can turn against you if you refuse to share in their illusions.  There are times, if you are to become your own person, you must stand firm in what you know to be true.

  6. I read a lot about atheism and people who become atheists. I suppose I have a slightly different perspective than many; my parents were Quakers, and may still be for all I know. But I grew up never being taught about religion – apart from obligatory RE – Religious Education at school, which didn’t stick, and a (very) brief period at Sunday School which I never understood and dropped out of almost immediately. My parents were happy to let me work it out for myself, which basically means I was born and grew up without belief in religion. I don’t think atheist is a good term as I have never “believed there is no god”, I have just never considered it as a possibility and so am areligious, if that is a word.
    As a result I have found myself bemused by religious belief and engaged in long and frustrating debates with religious people over the lack of logic in their stated positions. My father, my grandfather and my insatiable lust for reading gave me a lifelong love of scientific method as a way to explore and understand the World (let me just say I am furious with those who cheat and exploit scientific research for their own ends).
    So, I have every sympathy for those who come to realise that the World manages very well without deities, but I must admit I experience it more as “oh, you’ve woken up at last”

  7. I know this is a dead thread, and understand that you may never read this. I would say that your deconversion was, simply put, a result of a couple thousand years’ worth of man-made confusion and manipulation of what was once holy. It’s gotten to the point where trying to find God through an apostate ideology (the same one, repeatedly, in fact) yielded, understandably, zero results.

    I’ll be frank with you, I’m a Mormon, and much of the fundamentalist Christian group hates me too. I’m no stranger to threats of hell fire and forced soul-saving prayer from those people. I’ve lost track of how many times they have made me recite a vain repetition because I worshiped the wrong Jesus, or something…it was always a different reason. In reality, it was because I didn’t believe exactly what they did. Either way, I humored them, since what they were asking was meaningless anyway. There are whole groups of people and organizations whose sole purpose is to antagonize the Mormon church. Did you know that Mormons don’t believe in God, nor worship Jesus Christ? We also, apparently, do not read the Bible. Anyone with the capability to harbor common sense and do basic research, and not lie, can see that these claims are completely false. My point is that you had the misfortune of being a part of a particular religious group that likes to twist and turn everything to fit what they like: One prayer can save you for eternity, simply reading the Bible and praying will immediately grant you the authority to act in the name of God to condemn all his children if they don’t believe you, publicly demand financial donations or face righteous shaming, etc. As such, I feel your pain.

    I personally believe it was God’s intention to get you away from all that, even if he had to appear to be silent and powerless and resulted in your becoming an Atheist. According to your article, things are more clear to you now and you feel great. Isn’t that neat? Maybe that was the only way. Who knows? It would be just about impossible for us mortals to understand the grand scheme of things from the point of view of an Omniscient Being.

    Anyway, I won’t preach at you. Eventually you’ll no longer feel the need to validate your views by constantly reminding yourself and the world how terrible it was and posting tasteless images of children sticking their tongues out in a “screw you” type fashion, which truly screams to the world that, yes, you are still bitter about your past. No offense intended, for what it’s worth.

    You can now move on and figure things out for yourself, unclouded by false belief and superstition. Best.

    • I wasn’t going to reply to this because “Mormon shits on another group’s crazy beliefs” is a level of irony so self-evident it needs no commentary, but then you put those last two paragraphs.

      No offense intended, for what it’s worth. The classic, “I’m going to say something offensive to you, but you can’t take offense because I said, ‘no offense intended.'”

      That image of children sticking their tongues out in a “screw you” type fashion is in fact a picture of me as a child merely sticking my tongue out as a bit of fun while I play with my siblings. There was no bitterness in the moment the picture was taken and no bitterness in posting the picture. But just like every other religious person, you believe you know me and everything that is going on inside my head and thus, you have the right to ignorantly comment on it.

      I moved on just fine, thank you, and I have figured out my life without god, false beliefs and superstition. It doesn’t involve speaking in tongues or rolling on the floor, and it also doesn’t involve magic underwear or following the teachings of a man who was a convicted conman.

      • Lol, wow, I was having such a bad day when I wrote that. Please accept my apologies for taking it out on you and being a jerk for no good reason.

        Basically, what I meant to say is that I feel for you. Even if I don’t agree with you or how you handled it, I understand, to a point, what you’ve dealt with regarding fundamentalist Christians.

        Yeah, I have what most of the world considers to be crazy beliefs. But they are true crazy beliefs and putting them into practice throughout my life has never failed in helping me make my life the best I can. However, this was one of those times where I did something wrong and am only left with wishing I had never written what I did.

        Anyway, no hard feelings (for real this time). I’m glad you’re happy and I wish you the best.

      • Also, I would like to clear up any misconceptions and adverse effects of my bad example. Here are a few facts I decided to address regarding what you’ve mentioned, in case you would like to educate yourself on those matters:

        The temple garment, see 2:40 in particular. (https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2014-01-1460-sacred-temple-clothing?lang=eng) I wear the temple garment every day. It is a sacred reminder of the promises I made to God.

        You’ll find that the allegations made against the prophet Joseph Smith were false accusations perpetrated by those who simply bore ill will toward him and the LDS Church. (http://digitalcommons.law.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=lawreview) Unfortunately, at that period, he, and others, suffered much inhumane treatment for a long time because of it.

        Finally, the Articles of Faith, which describe our core beliefs:

        I know you don’t believe, and I don’t expect this to change that, but I hope this was at least informative. I do, however, know for myself that the righteous things I’ve learned and practiced are absolutely true and infallible. And if I’m wrong, every one of us is simply crazy and victim of possibly the largest, most elaborate prank ever.

        Once again, best wishes.

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