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.
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.
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.