Dear Christian Friends,
As many of you know I was once one of you. I became a Christian when I was 4 years old when it became clear to me that death was a reality that I would like to avoid. I didn't really understand how I could love Jesus when we had never met, but I did figure out that loving him would keep me from hell and I would do whatever I could to escape that. Also, my mom and dad loved him, my grandparents loved him and so did most of the other people I knew, so it seemed like a pretty reasonable thing to do.
From a young age, I was active in the church community I grew up in. We participated in AWANAS and I was a dedicated verse memorizer and I enjoyed the extra curricular that went along with it more than the ones at school. I had two very good friends at the church and because our parents were all very active in the congregation we often hung out together at the church. My Dad was a property manager at our church and my sister and I would make up games with the nursery toys while he would work on projects around the church grounds. When I was little, I would ride the church lawnmower with him and when I was older I was assigned the duty of killing weeds in the church yard all by my lonesome. The church I grew up in was walking distance from my home and I often would bike there during the summer just to wave by.
When I was old enough I joined the youth group, and my life began to revolve around Christianity even more. There was simply so much fun stuff to do at church. IMHO we had the best parties, amazing retreats, I got to sing in the band, and all my friends were there too. It wasn't just about fun stuff though, I took my faith seriously. I had an annotated bible. I asked big questions during small group and I sung my heart out during praise time. I acted on my faith at school by attending the on campus bible study, seeing people at the pole, not swearing and skipping the school dance.
As I got to high school I strengthened my faith in various ways. I lead the campus bible study. As the leader, I advocated for us to have the same 'equal rights' as the GLBT group, including getting a sign in the hall and a place in the yearbook. I questioned my faith and found solace in various apologetic resources. I lost someone dear to cancer and was compelled by their story to believe ever more deeply that there was a God.
In college, I was equally involved in a campus ministry, but the questions I felt I had wrestled with in high school still remained and were in some cases were emboldened. I struggled with the lack of intellectualism expected from anyone in ministry I was involved in. It seemed that a fancy catch phrase about Jesus mattered more than sound doctrine. I felt very strongly that the Christian ministry I was involved with was short cutting much of the biblical message I actually believed in. The attitude seemed to be let's tone this a few parsed out scripture verses instead of an entire history and bible. Leaving my questions largely unaddressed, and sometimes regarded just plain unusual or worse down right insubordinate. To clarify, I wasn't actually questioning the faith at large at this point but just aspects of how we practiced it or finer points of what we believe. I struggled a lot in college with 'fitting in' within Christian circles. I felt like a strange anomaly in this group because I wanted to get a degree that was marketable outside of ministry, which seemed to mean a lot more homework and not enough time for leading a bible study (though I tried). I found some spiritual solace at the church I attended (separate from the campus ministry group) and spent a good deal of time with my fellow engineering students who were much easier to get along with.
About the time I graduated from college I found faith again in my own terms. I flirted with catholicism, because I really enjoyed the ritual and reverence. I joined a church where my questions were honored, or at least not completely laughed off and considered irreverent. I became vaguely Pentecostal (though I would not have used that term at the time). I had less homework, and for a time my faith felt very relevant. I met people who 'believed in Evolution' and God, who could have a cocktail and a Bible and who swore and said Amen who prayed and voted democrat. At this time, I felt my faith was dynamic and honest. I wanted nothing more than to stay true to that honesty and remain faithful for the rest of my life.
And I did stay honest.
And that in turn was the problem.
Now let me state that there are bad arguments for being an atheist, and I have heard many of those, but there were three main sticking points that led to me leaving the faith. The efficacy of prayer (or lack there of), the ubiquity of the messiah stories, and evidence that existential experiences are not strictly divine. While a book could be written about any of these, I will just try to address them briefly. The efficacy of prayer, basically the idea that prayer has any ability to produce predicable outcomes outside of internal mental stress is not consistently provable by a statistical study, and many studies have been done. In other words we have no proof that prayer can heal a physical body, which felt pretty weak for a all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God. When I grew up in Christianity I was taught that the story of Jesus was like no other, because of a virgin birth and sacrificial death, but that story is not that uncommon and messiah stories exist in many cultures and contexts, not to mention being highly prevalent in the middle east during that time period. Last, they have done neurological studies where they have measured brain activity and found that existential experiences which you might classify as a spiritual high were repeatable based simple priming questions. All of these topics have wealth of research behind them, and I'd be happy to link anyone to specifics if you would like to know more.
My larger point is to say that I had a strong, but complicated emotional connection to my faith of origin and despite it's messiness I had no desire to leave. I felt forced by the plain logic in front of me, and I was a somewhat unwilling deconvert. I attempted to hang on in various ways. I joined an emergent church, I read Anne Lamott, but it didn't really work.
In the end, I found atheist is the best description I could give myself, though I'm still not a fan of labels in general.
Here's the thing I didn't expect from leaving religion. I'm happy now. I expected pain and heartache and suspected I would feel some sense of existential dread, but to be honest leaving Christianity has made me a much more fulfilled person. I'm finally free to pursue the passions I always loved without guilt or shame, and that has made be very fortunate and fulfilled person. I do experience a certain amount of privilege because I do have a marketable degree and skill set in the secular world, though that's the very thing I was disparaged while being a Christian.
People have asked if there is anything I miss about my former life. I'm not sure I can come up with anything. These days, the positives all appear to come at a great cost, and even if there was something I truly missed, it would require a level of cognitive dissonance I'm not willing to undertake. Ultimately, leaving Christianity alleviated the pain I had always felt in my brain, and eventually alleviated the pain I didn't know was in my heart.