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On Belief and Disbelief

By Sarah Davis ~

"I never really even believed in Jesus."

These are the words I said to my father a few months after I told my immediate family I didn’t believe in the “God of the Bible” or in Jesus as god (but before I identified as Atheist). I was desperately trying to somehow get my father to come to grips with the reality of my lack of belief in a way that would cause him the least amount of pain.

However, recently, in working on creating content and coming up with ideas for content for this blog, I have been thinking about how wrong I was in saying that I never really believed.

I fell prey to the clever and devious trap I now know as the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.” (More on that in a later post). I was still caught in the thinking of Christianity, or, in the words of one of the lovely people who helped me through my deconversion transition over at Ex-Christian.net, “the furniture of your mind is still quite coloured by the theology.”

Essentially, I believed what I had been told: That if I didn’t believe now, then I had never truly believed, because true believers don’t just stop believing. This is a pretty ubiquitous teaching in the Protestant church, so deeply ingrained that I actually thought it must be true. It wasn’t until months later that I concluded that I had deeply and truly believed and trusted in the Christian god. No one who didn’t believe, and who did not desperately want to believe, would have spent the amount of time I did praying and pleading with their God to reveal Himself and to take away the horrific doubt she was feeling. I spent days and months in a silent, solitary struggle because my faith was teetering, crumbling, dissolving.

I’ve been thinking about my childhood and adolescence rather in-depth the last couple months, as I try to formulate a cohesive and coherent story about my deconversion, which was a flood of upheaval, sorrow, stress and family strife. My faith had been an ever-present piece of me, and a nearly constant prickling of contention between my father and me since at least adolescence.

The story goes that at 3 years of age, I turned to my mother while we stood at the end of a pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean and told her I had “accepted Jesus into my heart,” with no prompting from anyone else. From that point on I was “born again,” though I was to rededicate myself multiple times, and be baptized multiple times - once by my own father.

The interesting thing is that I have always felt a strong tie to and peace from the ocean. Being near the wide open expanse of the water calms and rejuvenates me in a way little else can, so looking back now I find this story very interesting. Perhaps as a child I merely saw this incomprehensible expanse of water, and was overwhelmed by the power and depth and breadth of it, stretching far past the limits of my childlike imagination and ability to contain, and tied it to the stories I was being told in Sunday school and by my father. In any case, from that moment (or at least as far back as I can remember) until the final moment of my deconversion, I felt the “power of God” in nature around me, and any natural event was another confirmation to me of His existence.

As a teenager in high school I began to suffer from depression, and with the depression came an almost crippling guilt. Why was I so sad? Why did I feel so useless, worthless, tired, lazy? I had everything anyone could ever need. I had friends, a family who loved and provided for me, a roof over my head and food to eat. I had no reason to be so blue, and yet every day I felt that sadness. I cried out silently to the God I loved to take away my sadness and my pain after my father convinced me that I didn’t need anti-depressants. I just needed to be more faithful to God, and He would take away my depression and replace it with His peace and love.

So I tried. I tried to be “constant in prayer” and to read my bible every day, and to remember that no matter what I was feeling, that The Christ had suffered infinitely more than my meager psychic pains.

I failed. Of course I failed. I was a hormone riddled, sensitive, introvert of a teenager at the time of life when my brain chemistry demanded not only selfish exploration in search of my identity but during which my genetic tendency towards depression was also blooming. Each time I prayed and felt no relief, or forgot to read my bible, I felt more and more a failure, and more and more deserving of the darkness that was starting to color my everyday life.

I began to feel that God was punishing me for my lack of conviction; my lack of living a life “on fire.” I began to feel I was a lukewarm Christian. I never evangelized people I met on the street, or the cashier serving me at the market, as I saw my father doing. I was quiet with strangers, and introversion doesn’t reconcile well with fundamentalist Christianity.

Introversion doesn’t reconcile well with fundamentalist ChristianityThe depression and the struggle to deny it, to hide it, and to justify it as merely a symptom of a not-good-enough life continued after I graduated high school and began to attend community college. For a few years, I still struggled to be a better Christian. I took on teaching Sunday school classes for the younger children at my church for a short time, I debated with my friends about aspects of theology we had differing opinions on. I struggled to find God in the world around me but instead became entrenched in my depression, to the point where it seemed like all I had ever felt or known. I failed out of a full semester of classes, although I went and sat through all of them. I failed to do homework or show up for tests. I simply didn’t care. I felt abandoned by God and every prayer felt like it fell on deaf ears.

It was during this time that I began to self-harm. Each failure, either perceived, implicit, or plainly stated filled me with guilt and pain. I felt like I had to punish myself for my obvious lack of faith, for my failure to be the daughter my father so wanted me to be, for my failures at school which were so clearly caused by God’s judgment. I was not good enough.

Looking back, I understand that these were all symptoms of my depression, and I wonder: if depression did not run in my family, if I had not developed it at the age I did, or at all…would I still believe?

That year of college, as I sat failing class after class which I should have passed easily, or sat in private cutting into my skin in hopes of reconciliation or retribution or relief, or cried out to a God I felt was no longer listening to me, was the beginning of my real doubts. I began to doubt, instead of judge myself.

Though it would be years before I would conclude that I was an atheist; that I was without a belief in any sort of deity, I began to view Christianity through a lens of skepticism and cynicism.

I started the journey that would lead, eventually, to my apostasy.


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