12/01/2013 | Share this article: View CommentsBy SageAtheist ~
My faith has always been a huge, central part of my life. I grew up in the church, singing songs and happily memorizing verses and chapters of Scripture, got baptized in a river at age 7, recommitted my life to Jesus in high school, attended a Christian university, went on multiple short term mission trips and eventually moved abroad after college to work for a new and growing church plant in France. I broke up with my first love because he wasn't a Christian. I believed in my Christian faith with my whole heart.
Following my year-long mission in France, I met my husband through mutual Christian friends back in Seattle. After we got married, we spent time looking for a church that was a good fit for us as a couple and landed at a Presbyterian church that we both loved. It was the perfect combination of old liturgy with the vibrancy of the Holy Spirit; there were families, couples, people all across the age spectrum- and the service always captured a spirit of unified worship despite congregants having a diverse range of political and doctrinal views, which we appreciated. So, we stayed, got involved, and made it our new church home.
Some people were more conservative doctrinally and others more liberal, but our church really was a unified, kind and loving community, coming together to spread the love of Jesus in the community- and being mostly willing to agree to disagree on various points of non-crucial doctrine. In that context, with the doctrinal focus on Jesus, I felt more free to examine my beliefs about other parts of the Bible. I'm a skeptic by nature in most areas of my life- I tend to want to verify information and not accept something just because I'm told it's true, and like to get to the bottom of things that are controversial. There is much of the Bible that had always seemed highly improbable to me (I hadn't believed in the story of Noah's ark or Adam and Eve literally since I was a child) and I found myself acknowledging how many things I didn't actually believe as fact. I didn't feel discomfort about the increasingly skeptical views I had toward much of the Bible, though, because for me being a Christian really was all about believing in a resurrected Christ and allowing God to change my life though a relationship with Him. Most of the Bible, I reasoned, was the story of God's people and their spiritual journey- stories not meant to be taken literally, but rather allegorically. Stories that still have great meaning, that teach us about the relationship between God and humanity and how we can relate to and connect with God... but also written by imperfect humans with a limited view of the universe, seen through their clouded lenses- stories that aren't literally, factually true. And it wasn't important to me that they would be. My life depended on my faith, a faith that wasn't suffering because of my doubts in Old Testament Bible stories. I felt the hand of God in my life when I met my husband, when we had to navigate rocky patches in our relationship together, when we prayed together every night before bed, when I had to face the death of loved ones, when blessings would come unexpectedly in times of need. The reality of God was not a debatable topic for me. But allowing doubt to enter in the seemingly non-crucial areas of my faith was what ultimately undid it.
It all began this year sometime in February, when my husband and I had an uncommon opportunity to go out together for a date and a glass of wine, and I voiced to him something I'd been thinking for a while but had never uttered out loud- "I don't know if I'm a Christian anymore." I wasn't making a statement regarding the importance of my faith to me- rather, I was becoming increasingly concerned that my lack of doctrinal certainty on just about every topic in the Bible was going to eventually exclude me from the faith entirely. Saying something out loud gives it power, and I found myself validating many of the things I'd been thinking by expressing them to my husband. I didn't believe in improbable Bible stories that defy the laws of nature, I didn't believe in a literal hell, I don't think Paul's words support the spirit of Jesus' ministry and therefore shouldn't be taken as doctrine, I don't believe a virgin birth is possible, and finally... I admitted that when I really examined what I thought deep down, I didn't believe a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus was likely at all. It was a scary thing to admit. I knew the implications of what I was saying out loud. It was the last line of Christian doctrine to cross, and one I'd not allowed my mind to approach because I knew what would happen if I did. And I was right to be wary of it, because once I allowed my brain to go there, once I allowed myself to seriously consider the possibility that none of it was true, there was no going back. I was suddenly looking at the whole story of Christianity through a different lens, and holding it to the same standard as I would another religion that wasn't mine from birth. What would it take, I asked myself, for someone to convert me to Mormonism or Islam? Both claim to know truth. Both have people who live by their faith devoutly, have their lives changed by it and are willing to die for the truth of it. But I would no more accept the doctrines of either of those faiths than I would believe in fairies or gnomes. Why, then, would I just accept Christian doctrine? It seemed increasingly obvious to me that I accepted it for so long because it was the easiest framework available to explain my experiences of God, and the one that people I loved and trusted provided me with. There is nothing wrong with that- but I couldn't see it as truth any more.
The following several weeks were a blur of discussion and exploration of our changing perspectives. My husband, whose faith journey has been quite different from mine but had its own share of questions, jumped right into it with me and we spent hours every day talking, debating, reading... and then doing it all over again. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting. We watched documentaries about the history of Christianity, found and read books and epistles that had been excluded in the canonization of the Bible, and learned about belief systems and gods of ancient Palestine. We read debates between theologians about the nature and meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. We explored ideas of progressive/ emergent Christianity and considered faith that didn't require literal belief. For a time, I was able to halt my free fall as I read books by Marcus Borg, who paints a picture of Christianity as a way of life built around the life and teachings of Jesus. Though well outside the bounds of mainstream Christian thought, Borg still identifies as a progressive Christian and made me feel as if there might still be a route to inclusion for me. I wanted it desperately. I felt as if the act of admitting doubts I'd had all along would ultimately separate me from my entire faith, my whole identity. I was a Christian- that's what my entire life was built on. I admitted my doubts because I found them deep in me, but my heart was still with my faith. How could I reject the very thing that had sustained me though so many difficult times in my life? The faith that had guided my choices and changed my heart? I needed to find a way back to it, a way to make it all fit together again, a way to salvage the wreckage of my beliefs. I thought this new approach to Christianity might be the way to do that... but something about it didn't feel quite right. I had a nagging in the back of my mind, something I still wasn't addressing- and would need to before I could come back to my faith from a place of intellectual honesty.
It was God. Not God nudging me or convicting me, but rather the lack of examination of the issue of God. The experiences of God that I'd had my whole life- hearing that still, small voice in prayer, peace beyond understanding in the midst of turmoil, the feeling of being compelled to act in a situation despite personal discomfort, soul-wrenching conviction, and the ecstatic joy of complete surrender in worship- those were proof to me of God's existence. The undeniable reality of those moments had made it impossible for me to imagine the possibility that MY God wasn't real. But what about the stories of Buddhist monks, who are able to reach periods of enlightenment and transcendence through meditation? What about the scientific studies of people given hallucinogens, that look back on the experience as one of the most important and powerful spiritual events of their lives? What about the fact that even within the Christian faith, the leading of the Holy Spirit often guides people in radically different- even opposite- directions? Every person of faith seems to hold on to a specific version of God, one that is often mutually exclusive to other conceptions of God, wholly validated by a set of entirely subjective spiritual experiences. And that thought led me to the thing that was nagging me- the next level, the next logical step, that I hadn't ever been willing to seriously consider.. that maybe the God of the Bible wasn't actually real. That maybe our Christian version of God wasn't just an expression or version of the only, real God, but that he was a fabricated god, the product of an era in which gods were commonplace and the gods of victors were more likely to prevail in the records of history. And of all the gods that humans have worshipped throughout history, that this one god- Yahweh- who began as a god of war in Iron Age Palestine, whose story is told in the Old Testament through the lens of a primitive and superstitious people who worshipped him and later elevated him above other gods that they *also* believed in, who ordered the genocide of entire cultural groups and yet still somehow is represented in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus- that this one god of many was our explanation for the entire universe. Well, I finally went there. And it all collapsed.
I am still trying to find a way to hold on to the parts of my faith that are most precious to me, to maintain a connection with that huge part of my identity.It was Palm Sunday, in the morning, during one of our many, many conversations over the prior several weeks that I allowed myself to think and then voice those thoughts. It was as if I'd been wearing glasses with colored lenses- beautiful ones- that suddenly shattered. I expressed those thoughts out loud and as I did, I realized that there was nothing to consider or examine- that I already believed them. It was a moment of my life I'll never forget, just as I'll never forget the time I put my faith in Jesus. Both times, I said the words and made it real- and the whole world changed around me as a result. This time, it was literally terrifying. We didn't go to church that morning. Instead, we packed up the babies and walked to the park, to clear our heads and get some air. I remember looking at the blue sky and clouds and the hills around us- it was a clear, beautiful day in Seattle- and feeling like I couldn't breathe. This world that had so much glorious beauty looked suddenly threatening to me. I couldn't live in a world without a creator God. I would choose to believe again, because I didn't want to stop believing in God. I wanted to un-see this version of the world and never see it again. But I couldn't. I didn't believe in God, and I literally could not make myself believe again, no matter how much I wanted it. It was one of the hardest days I've experienced. I had panic attacks throughout the day, cried and fought with myself. But it was done.
The dead weight in the pit of my stomach and the frequent waves of anxiety gradually eased over days and weeks. I started getting used to my new reality, and trying to make sense of the whole experience. I was definitely in shock, though, and I found myself going through emotions that resembled the stages of grief. I felt like I'd lost both a dear friend and a part of myself, and it was- and still is, at times- a hard loss. But it got easier. Now, it feels more normal, and I (mostly) feel like myself again. Who I am as a person hasn't changed. I have the same opinions and values, and I still hold many of the same things as precious. I am able to look at the world with awe again, floored by the wonder of the universe and the improbability of our human existence. I find moments of peace and transcendence when I see an incredible view or listen to uplifting music. Since I never saw my faith as a hindrance in my life, losing it didn't make me want to break rules or behave differently. I still make the same choices, I just interpret my reasoning differently. But I'm still ME- and oddly enough, I still find value in Christian faith, even though I no longer have it.
I am still trying to find a way to hold on to the parts of my faith that are most precious to me, to maintain a connection with that huge part of my identity. I don't know if I'll be successful in it, but I haven't given up yet. I still believe in many of the principles Jesus taught, principles held by many religions and philosophies throughout history. My church still feels like home, and I still feel a peaceful presence there, even though I no longer believe in God. Our children were both baptized in our church when they were born, and I am open to them having the Christian faith that meant so much to me. I try to find ways to volunteer and give back, even though I no longer feel comfortable teaching Sunday school, which I loved so much. I still feel welcome and accepted at church- but then again, most people don't realize that I've become an atheist. I hesitate to use the word 'atheist' with many people because of the negative connotations it brings up, but for me, it simply means that I don't believe in God- in any god. And yet, I still find value in my former Christian faith, and I'm unwilling to let go of the good there... so I still go. Perhaps it's naive, but I'm holding out some hope that maybe religion can make itself big enough to include those of us who want love, community, and a message of hope without the dogma and exclusiveness of doctrine. I like to think that it can.
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