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My Path to Truth, Part I: From Christian to Atheist

By Ed (Teapot) ~

I was raised into Christianity by my mother when I was a kid, although I didn't really come to understand the gospel’s idea of salvation until I was in high school. It was also during that time that I experienced my first period of doubt in my faith. That experience was very painful, and it led me to fight against doubt, and to assert my beliefs in my religion. I think when someone is struggling against doubt, and are fighting for their religious beliefs, they can often hold on to their faith, at least for a while. That's what happened to me in high school. For me, my deconversion happened much later, during a period when I was weary, and was not longer actively trying to hold on to my faith. That was when I became willing to re-evaluate my beliefs, instead of just holding on to them for the sake of holding on.

It began during the spring of 2011.

Probably the earliest event leading to my deconversion occurred was when I was watching clips from the political talk show called “The Young Turks”. There was one clip that caught my attention. It was an interview of Bart Ehrman, the New Testament scholar. A lot of the things he said about New Testament composition and authorship were disturbing to me. During this time I was not yet willing to question my beliefs, so I tried to rely on apologetics to dismiss what I had heard.

At this time I also felt disappointed in prayer. There was one issue that had been bothering me - prayer doesn't work. Prayers don't get answered. If Christianity is true, should prayers be answered? Sure. In Christianity there is this idea of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. A relationship is two-way. But prayer is one-sided. A one-sided conversation is no indicator of a relationship. (Hence, the popular expression: “talking to a wall”.) Whenever I would ask people about this, they would rely on interpretation or redirection to make sense of their prayer life. (“Well, it’s really more about…” or “Well, we shouldn’t focus on what we want…” etc.)

During this time, I was in graduate school for agricultural economics, and was doing badly. Applied statistics was not my thing. I was stressed a lot during this period, and I wondered about the meaning of what I was doing. I began to look online for what people had to say about whether they thought their life had any meaning. It turned out that there were plenty of people online who expressed their dissatisfaction with life, and their feeling that there isn’t any real meaning in life. But there were others who felt that we have to make our own meaning, to find what is meaningful to ourselves and then do it. It was during one of these search sessions that I became randomly curious and did a Google search on leaving the Christian faith.

I came across this blog by a former Christian named Kevin Parry.

He spoke about the absence of God, about seeking this god through prayer, and wanting to find him with all his heart, but hearing only silence. I agreed with many of his points, but at the time I disagreed with him about whether God existed (I was still a Christian at this time). I appreciated his thoughts and I found I enjoyed ex-christian accounts. Later I came across a number of youtube videos by a guy named Eli. He's a school teacher, but back in college he lost his faith, and his videos tell his story. He said many compelling things, and I became more willing to question.

There was some tension in my mind, because I strongly identified with much of what the former Christians were saying, but I felt the need to assert my beliefs and stay Christian. This came to a head during May of 2011, and I decided that I wasn't simply going to assert my Christian beliefs, anymore. At the same time, I was worried about making quick decisions, because Christians often dismiss atheists as being merely driven by emotion to deny God. (I later realized that Christians are in no position to criticize others for being influenced by emotion.) So I decided not to make any decisions yet. Instead, I decided that I was going to wait, question, investigate, and then decide. I entered a period where I wasn't a Christian, and I wasn't an atheist. I was simply undecided. You could say I was an “agnostic” during this period, but not in the proper sense of the word.

So what did I do during this period?

I watched lots of debates.

Part of what led to my interest in debates was a conversation with one of my Christian friends. He expressed strong dislike for Richard Dawkins (later I learned that he wasn’t all that familiar with Dawkins), and criticized the New Atheists by saying "You can't PROVE that God doesn't exist!” And I (while still a Christian) responded by saying "Well, to be fair, I don't think they are saying that you can prove God doesn't exist. I think they are saying that there is no evidence that he does exist." And my friend seemed to understand, but the next time we spoke he went right back to that old line. This led me to become slightly sympathetic to the New Atheists, even thought I was still a Christian. So later, during my investigative period, I watched debates. The Christian debater was usually William Lane Craig, although I did hear John Lennox as well. I was not very impressed with Craig. Many people online have already criticized him, so I won’t get into it here, but suffice it to say that I felt that Craig was too focused the performance aspect, on sounding right, and didn’t really address his opponents’ ideas. His opponents, including Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, were more down-to-Earth, and more able to speak to the reality that people face.

I read lots of deconversion testimonials. It was during this period that I discovered : )

I would listen to Christian testimonies as well, by going to the website of the local campus church I had attended. I felt like the testimonies relied heavily on interpretation. The person would tell a very emotional story, and then put a religious interpretation (or spin) on it, and then cry.

The former Christians on no doubt went through emotional experiences as well, but I felt that they expressed themselves in a reasonable manner when they explained what they went through.

Most importantly, I began a read-through of the Bible.

There many things in the Old Testament that don't make sense if we believe that the God of the Bible is moral, loving, omnipotent, and omniscient. Even the idea that there is just one god of the Bible, or even just one god of the OT, is questionable. I had read many pieces of the Bible before, within the church context, but only once before had I tried to read through from the beginning. That was during my freshman year of college, and I only made it to Deuteronomy. This time, I got further. I was going at a rather grueling pace (20 chapters a day when I could), so I couldn't keep it up for too long, but in that month I made it from Genesis to 2 Samuel. And yes, I did read through all of Leviticus...again.

When I began that reading, I tried to go in with a neutral, objective, outsider view, but when you read Genesis, that view very quickly transforms to skepticism because the first half of Genesis is pretty much a mixture of sex and killing, emphasis on the sex. And on the killing. (the 2nd half is the story of Joseph). As I read though the Torah and continued through Joshua and Judges, I realized just how angry, neurotic, and wrathful this god is. It's almost comical. One person neglects something, and the Lord is like "Ok, now I'm pissed, time for a plague." People are dying left and right, and Moses and Aaron have to tear their robes, fall face down on the ground and beg for mercy, then the Lord is like "oh ok, I suppose I'll stop killing you for now." And then there are the wars in the promised land, the command to exterminate entire peoples, the anger when they don't, etc.

There many things in the Old Testament that don't make sense if we believe that the God of the Bible is moral, loving, omnipotent, and omniscient. Even the idea that there is just one god of the Bible, or even just one god of the OT, is questionable. When I would talk to Christian friends about the OT, they’d make rationalizations, or they’d try to bring up the New Testament instead. In conversations related to the New Testament, the topic would often be slavery, and my friends would make rationalizations about that.

Reading the Bible seriously pushed me towards atheism.

There are many who say that the best book to read in order to become an atheist is the Bible. I have to say, this is true. When I was a Christian, there was always a layer of interpretation when I read the Bible. If something seemed off, or bothered me, I would try to find an explanation that made what God did seem reasonable or just. But if a Christian tries to read the Bible just once without that layer of interpretation, it is a totally new and different experience.

In the end, there was no one moment or one logical argument where I was like, "ah-hah! Now I know there is no god!" It didn't work that way. I actually kept avoiding "deciding" to become an atheist, because I didn't want to make any fast emotional decisions. Well, as it turns out, I never did get the chance to make any decision, because one day, as I was watching a debate, I realized that I was already an atheist. Even though I'd avoided "choosing" to be an atheist, my exposure to new ideas and my reading of the Old Testament had apparently done it for me. Part of me wondered if it was a little early. I mean, I wasn't done yet. I still had to (and still need to) finish that read-through of the Bible. I still wanted to read so many books, and I'm still in that process right now. But apparently just the beginning of that process was enough to take me out of faith.

Looking back I realize that it was not just the Bible, but also the lack of evidence for Christianity, that shook me out of faith. Christopher Hitches is often quoted as saying “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” I originally entered Christian belief because of what I had been taught as a kid, not because of reason, or the search for truth. Reading the Bible and listening to debates may have given me reasons to dismiss the Christian God, but at the same time I could not, despite my research, and my years as a Christian, find any reasons to assert him.

During the time after I first left my faith, I didn't really emphasize the idea of being an atheist. It was simply what I was, and where I was. It wasn't something I thought about too much. The first Christian friend I spoke to about my deconverstion took it quite well, and we had a good conversation. I got the sense that I could continue to talk to my Christian friends as before, and they would be reasonable towards my new perspective. This idea was shattered almost immediately.

I had a phone conversation with a longtime Christian friend. We were discussing the yes/no/wait interpretation of prayer. This is a fairly common explanation for how God answers prayers, and one which I had heard from time to time when I was a Christian. The basic idea is that if you pray for something, and you get it, then God answered yes. If you didn’t get it, you might get it later (he answered “wait”), or you might never get it (he answered “no”). I was trying to explain to my friend that the yes/no/wait interpretation of prayer didn't make sense because even if there was no god, you could interpret the answer as a yes, a no, or a wait. I would ask him "if you got what you prayed for, how could you tell that it's not a coincidence?" He would say "if you got what you prayed for, then your prayer was answered!" I would ask him "if you didn't get what you prayed for, how do you tell the difference between no god, and a god that answers no?" He would say "if you didn't get it, then the answer is no!" I kept on trying to explain to him that, going by that interpretation of prayer, there is no way to tell that there is a god. He did not understand, so I tried to explain to him that he had created a no-lose situation. He was assuming that that there was a God and couldn't actually discern that from the experience of prayer. The discussion ended up going in a circle and when that happened he got annoyed as though it was my fault, and said "we already talked about this before!"

It was that night when I thought, "Dammit, I'm an atheist!"