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The Pains of Being a Fencesitter

By Will ~

I grew up in a Christian home and began seriously to doubt my faith when I was about 14 years old. Before that time I had experienced both apathy and enthusiasm for religion. But as I hit middle high school it began to vex me.

Now I’m 21 and I’ve spent more than six years trying to determine my religious orientation. This is not going smoothly. I vacillate constantly between two inconsistent outlooks.

On the one hand, I have a swag of reasonable objections to the conservative evangelical Christianity I grew up with: Does free will actually exist, and if not what is the rationalisation for human responsibility and sin?; How can a just God hold the faithless to account if their infidelity comes from honest inquiry?; What precisely constitutes ‘belief in God’, that nebulous condition for salvation?; How does it make sense to condemn lust if it is unavoidable and a necessary incentive to marry?; In what sense is the Bible God’s word, and is it at all?; Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

These questions made me doubt my faith. But it took a procession of blank looks from clueless believers, inadequate answers to serious challenges and hours of fruitless praying for my situation to convince me to stop going to church. Not to mention the shallow social-club ethos I observed among my outwardly pious, youthful congregation.

And yet, on the other hand, the church is where I belong. I love music, and when the church sighs together, singing:

When we’ve been there ten-thousand years
Bright-shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

I feel more myself than I ever do. Similarly, I am exclusively attracted to Christian girls from my church group (relationship-wise, that is). I think I’m turned off muggle girls (I so prefer that tongue-in-cheek adjective to the immeasurably supercilious ‘non-Christian’) because deep down I’m afraid of being ‘unevenly yoked’. Or because I need someone who understands from their own experience how powerful a church upbringing can be.

So where to from here? Until recently I’ve been convinced that the important thing was to pursue my objections: to read widely and see where they lead. So over the course of these doubting years I’ve had a few arguments and read a few books, watched a couple of documentaries and taken my fair share of ‘walkabout’ time trying to figure it all out. But somehow this quickly becomes frustrating. I just can’t muster the motivation to get stuck into the inquiry; and I’m not sure this is entirely down to lack of discipline.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the emotional side of my loss of faith. When I think back on some of my experiences at church, it’s easy to see where this might come from. One youth leader and the books he recommended had me convinced that masturbation and pornography was sinful. I tried many times to stop indulging in them but failed, shamefully. I asked him to help me with my ‘lust problem’, but he didn’t keep me accountable. No wonder, then, that I came to feel a deep conflict between the inner me and the outward face of a decent young Christian.

A more liberal Christian might speak up here: ‘Sexual guilt is not a necessary part of Christianity! Forgive your youth pastor and come back into the fold!’ More often than not these days, I fear this is precisely what I will do.

Being in the church was difficult for me. It was full of irreconcilable doctrinal mysteries and concealed guilt. But being out of the church has caused me such a painful sense of displacement and aimlessness that I feel almost powerless to resist much longer. The 16-year old me, who worshiped Truth above all else, pales with embarrassment at this weakness.

And yet being an atheist is so hard. With no-one to order you around, you are free to make up your own rules, to impose your own values on the world. Being the sort of person who tends to let my friends make the plans, who can’t decide what to do for a career, etc., I find this independence very difficult to deal with. And what is so dishonourable in living your life by a flawed philosophy? We all cling on to our favourite political theory or view of human nature even though, no matter how informed it is, we should know that in time to come it will be rightly criticised as ridiculous.

At this stage, I just want the whole search to end. I want to stop being a spectator to the engaged, youthful, passionate, sexual, loving, committed lives around me and start finally living one of my own. I want to bring on the day when I can say with conviction and a sense of lasting peace, ‘It is well, It is well with my soul.’

Thank you for reading. Please tell me if anything in here strikes a chord and if you can offer any wisdom on my situation.