It's hard for me to put a finger on the moment I realized I was an atheist. My deconversion didn't just happen; it was a long process of questioning and searching for answers, wherever they came from. I'm sure a lot of people can relate to that. Looking back, I can see many different events in my life that made me question and wonder about my faith and there are a lot of times I can think of where I knew I had left my faith and become atheist, although I may not have been comfortable with the label at the time. Anyway, here's my story:
I was raised in the Lutheran church by two loving parents. My dad had been a Lutheran in his childhood, and in his first marriage got involved with the Jehovah's Witnesses. He got fed up with their restrictions and got himself disfellowshipped after a couple of years, his marriage ended, and a few years later met my mom, a Methodist, who insisted that they go to church every Sunday. That was how they did it in her family and it was "normal." So they attended a Lutheran church downtown, got married there, and had my younger sister and me baptized there. I attended the school associated with the church when I was in kindergarten, but my parents couldn't afford the tuition to keep me there so starting in first grade I was in public school.
Right around then, the evangelist Luis Palau came to town and my family attended every night. My parents rededicated themselves to their faith and we started going to another Lutheran church, one that was more conservative and more lively. Yes, lively...if you can believe that of a Lutheran congregation.
Church was the thing we did every Sunday and Wednesday (kid's group and adult Bible study). I didn't know that it was possible to not believe in God, it was something everyone did. It wasn't a major part of my life, though. I just sang the songs and learned the stories like every other good kid was supposed to do. Mom and Dad said there was a God, and I had no reason not to believe them, so of course there was a God and Jesus was his son. When I was five, I talked my mom into making a cake at Christmas, since it was Jesus' birthday. We've done that every year since.
When I was 13, the youth group from the church went to a Christian music event. It was 3 days of Christian bands, preachers, and other entertainment. It was fun, even now I'll say that. And it was there that I "got saved" and got hardcore about my faith. I became known at school as the church girl, the one who wore Christian t-shirts, listened only to Christian music, read the Bible in class, and shared my faith openly with anyone in earshot. My best friend at the time had her own spiritual experience soon afterward and we became the dynamic duo for Christ. We spent more time studying the Bible than we did studying our homework, and our grades suffered for it. We didn't care; God wanted us to follow him. School didn't matter in the grand scheme.
My friend moved to Texas at the end of our freshman year of high school, and the following summer I went to visit. I got to go with her church group on a mission trip to Mexico, and even though I didn't speak a word of Spanish I had a great time. I wanted to be a missionary from that time on, and anytime a missionary came to my church to speak I sat in rapt attention. They came from Brazil, Mexico, and Poland, and one group even came from Papua New Guinea. It amazed me to think of the adventures I could have in these distant places, the languages I could learn, and all while doing God's work. I prayed that God would tell me where he wanted me to go. Once, I thought he told me to go to Poland, then I had a dream about Peru and thought I should go there.
I kept on with the church, even though by this time I was less interested in Lutheranism and more into the churches of my friends--my best friend had been going to a foursquare church before she moved and I kept on with the youth group there for a few years after she left. Another friend was a bass player for his Pentecostal youth group, so I would go with him and listen to the people speaking in tongues and shouting and dancing and thought it was just great. These were the real Christians, people who let the spirit move them however it happened. We all believed in the same things--the inerrancy of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, original sin and the need for salvation--but my Lutheran church was too quiet, too formal. I liked the more personal, radical faith of these other groups. But my home church was comfortable. We were a very small congregation, more like an extended family, and my pastor was passionate about making sure we kids were brought up the right way. We got a video series from the now-infamous creationist Kent Hovind and I ate that up like candy. I thought his arguments were undeniably correct and the godless evolution of my science classes was Satan's way of trying to pull me away from my Jesus. Needless to say, my grades continued to suffer.
After high school, I floated for a couple of years. I kept on with my church, because by now I was a highly respected member, part of the worship team, and a youth group leader. I felt that there was something more I should be doing, and my thoughts returned to missions. My best friend had gone to a Discipleship Training School through Youth With A Mission (YWAM) and told me it was the best thing she'd ever done. The DTS was designed as an intensive course of Bible teaching and missions preparation, and culminated in an 8-week trip to a foreign country. The YWAM base she was with focused on missions in the 10/40 window: the area between 10 and 40 degrees latitude, east of the Prime Meridian, where most of the population is non-Christian. I decided to go for it, even though the cost was more than I could afford. I sent letters to family and friends and prayed for God to supply me the money I needed. On my 21st birthday, just two weeks before I was to go on my mission to India, I had it all paid off. That was proof to me of God's existence and love.
We spent 8 weeks in India, spending two weeks in Mumbai, two weeks in Chennai, about 4 days in Delhi, another two weeks in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, and leaving a few days for travel and tourism. I still have a hard time believing that I've seen the Taj Mahal in person, walked inside of it, and burned my feet on its marble surface (you're not allowed to wear shoes on any part of the building itself, and in 104-degree heat, you pay for it).
After I returned from India, I was so pumped about God and everything. I shared my story and photos from the trip with my church and family. My pastor took me on as a sort of protegee and one afternoon we went downtown to the city bus depot for evangelism. My pastor's type of evangelism was shouting Bible verses that condemned nonbelievers to hell while I passed out tracts. I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable, and that what we were doing was totally wrong. My God was a God of love, not hate! Yet the things my pastor was yelling to everyone were right there in the Bible. That was the first and last time I accompanied him downtown for evangelism.
I kept seeing the consequences of religion elsewhere. You hear about it all the time, people being maimed or killed in the name of God. People do weird things for their gods, like the guy in India who married a dog as penance for his crimes of animal cruelty. It was madness, and it was condoned in the Bible! I couldn't believe it.
Hurricane Katrina hit later that summer. I watched, helpless, as the city of New Orleans was laid to waste. In horror, I saw the news footage of bodies strewn about the city. I watched as babies cried for food and their mothers could provide nothing. I kept thinking, what kind of God would allow this to happen? Why would God, who created the world, create a storm of such magnitude that it would destroy his creation? What did those families do to deserve this? And why wasn't anything being done about it?
As summer turned into fall, and fall into winter, my church attendance began to drop. I blamed it on work. I was going to school full-time and had a part-time job. I began to seriously question my faith and why I believed. By the end of the year, I was more comfortable with the "agnostic" label and described myself that way. I was terrified that if I abandoned my faith altogether, that I would be sent to hell. I was terrified of God's wrath and although I wasn't sure of what I believed anymore, I knew I didn't want to suffer the consequences of non-belief. I went to church at times, more to appease my parents than anything. By this time they had switched to another church, one that was non-denominational and followed the teachings of Rick Warren, the "Purpose-Driven Life" guy. Their church is big on "love bombing" and outreach to alcoholics, drug users, and the poor. My dad loves seeing these people turning their lives around and it helps him keep his faith strong. My mom, who never used to open her Bible, now reads it on a daily basis.
In the summer of 2007, in a rebellious mood, I bought Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion". I wasn't yet to the point where I was willing to call myself an atheist, but I wanted to see what all the hubbub was with this book. I read it and it clarified to me, in a lot of ways, why I didn't believe the way I used to. The way he described Darwinism was drastically different from the way I'd heard it in church, and it made sense. By the time I finished the book, I knew I was an atheist. I knew that all the things I'd been taught all my life about God were totally false. And what's more, letting go of God helped me psychologically. I've dealt with depression most of my life, and I think a lot of it was due to guilt I felt from my religion. Getting rid of superstition helped me realize that I wasn't a bad person at all and I had nothing to feel guilty about. I could be a good person without God, and that realization was so freeing to me. Now I feel normal, and I couldn't ask for anything better than that.
My parents don't know about my atheism yet, although I'm sure they suspect. Now and then they ask if I want to go to church with them. I always politely decline and we leave it at that. Online, I'm very open about what I (don't) believe. Some of my family members are on Facebook and they keep telling me they'll pray that I come back to God. My sister gets very upset when I post something against religion. I'm okay with it, because I know that they're uncomfortable and upset when faced with new ideas or arguments that make them think. Thought is the beginning of doubt, and doubt is a gateway to reason.
Sorry to make this so long...I'll be surprised if anyone reads it! But my story can't be told in a couple of paragraphs. I lived a life under religion, and I'm happy to have broken free of it.