My Journey to Atheism, and a view into a 'good' church experience

I am a 21-year-old college student, and I have been atheist for about 4-5 years now.  I was raised christian, going to a presbyterian church from the time I was born until now (my mom often makes me go when I'm home for breaks...especially around christmas).  Church was a big part of my life every week, and my mom was even one of the sunday school teachers.  Many people become atheist because they had a bad experience with an overbearing, boring, or just plain rediculous church.  I, however, was part of a church community that was genuinely one of the best church experiences you could ever hope to have. Because of this, I want to lay out in detail what church was actually like for me growing up, because I think people don't always get to hear about an atheist who actually had a good experience growing up in the church.


The childrens and youth programs were the foundation and main focus of my church, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself every week.  In the pre-school / kindergarten aged group, kids spent half of the time playing and doing crafts, and then the other half singing cute songs, listening to exciting stories from the bible, and learning values to live by; listen to your parents, be nice to other kids, etc.  Even if the importance of Jesus and accepting God was taught to us, all i remembered were the bible stories and songs.  This is the age-group my mother taught from the time my older sister was in the group, until about 3 years ago.  She was a volunteer, as she saw it giving back to the church, despite all the other teachers and leaders being payed employees of the church.  I always respected my mom for that, and thought it showed a lot about her character and values; ones she has tried to pass on to us.  In highschool I often helped her out when the other teacher couldn't make it or whatever, and even though I was at this point starting to turn, I still didn't mind.  The atmosphere was less of making sure the kids knew the message of the bible, and more of providing a safe and fun environment for teaching them christian values, and not because god says so, but because being good is the right thing to do.  For example, the good samaritan story would be taught and the discussion would involve a person being selfless and helping others in need.  Not to say that Jesus wasn't brought up and important, but he was more of a recurring hero in many of the stories, as opposed to a savior being shoved down the kids throats.  


By elementary school, there was still no in your face accept christ or you'll go to hell.  If these kinds of ideas were ever brought up, it was subtle enough that I don't even remember them.  The most in your face lessons were usually those around easter, when it was all about jesus dying for us.  Every sunday, the stucture was about the same as with the preschoolers, but the play time was baskeball, board games, and tag instead of blocks, play-dough and crayons and the music was upbeat and exciting.  I still remember how much fun I had running around and just being a kid.  The leaders I had were also great.  They weren't there to save your soul, they were there to love you and teach you about being a better person.


By middle and high school, things got a bit 'cooler' and we started having more intelligent lessons that were less about bible stories and more about learning what it means to be christian.  By then I knew i had to believe in christ to go to heaven, but the focus tended to be about surviving school and various WWJD-type lessons like being nice to outcasts.  A few lessons that stick in my memory include one lesson (and only one) where the conclusion was that anything farther than kissing is too far.  Our leader who gave this talk (I had many different leaders throughout my 7+ years) made it a personal testimony about how glad he is he saved himself for his wife...aka not about how having sex sends you straight to hell.  I'm sure any curious kids who brought up sex with the leaders individually would be told the more extreme christian views, but during sunday school, things not to do weren't usually the focus.  Another lesson was one that I heard a few times in different ways, by our most dynamic (and in my opinion best) leader.  He liked talking about how christianity was a party.  He would get us all out of our chairs dancing and celebrating because we were christians and that didn't mean we had to live careful and limited lives like the stereotype, but instead it meant we were free because we had the ultimate friends on our side, blah blah blah.  I don't remember exactly how he put it, but he was essentially encouraging us to live happy full lives, and that being christian would give us the correct foundation to do that.  


By the time I graduated high school, and even for a large portion of senior year, my mom still forced me to go every week.  I hated going to the high school group by then because I was shy, and didn't have any friends in the group.  It didn't help that because I was involved in so many sports, I was never able to go to the wednesday night youth group meetings, where most of the kids bonded and became the close-knit group I always felt so outside of.  To make things even worse, the amazing leader we'd had for my first few years (he created an atmosphere where everyone felt loved, included, and inspired) had left, and the new leader was just plain boring.  So, to avoid going, I helped out my mom with her kids, helped in the nursery, or slept in and skipped church only to have my mom pissed at me for the rest of the week.  There was also a period of time where I had a job and was always ready to take the sunday morning shift. 


Despite this break in involvement sunday mornings, however, I stayed strong with my christian beliefs much longer than I naturally would have because I attended a small group every sunday night.  The group was all girls with two leaders.  In middle school we spent most of our time goofing around and playing sardines, but by the time we were all high schoolers we were sitting around and having intelligent and in-depth discussions.  The best part of the group though was that there was a core group of 5 of us that were there from the beginning until the end when we all graduated, so we were all extremely close, and got to watch eachother grow up and become adults going off to college.  Most of us were all also very smart, mature, grounded girls, and our leaders were amazing role models in every way.  Through this group, my christianity stayed strong, but by senior year, when we were all super busy and our meetings dwindled from weekly to once every few months, I started to realize when I finally did show up for a meeting that I wasn't actually completely feeling the christian stuff.  Having a close group like that, there was an incredible amount of trust, understanding, and support like I've never experienced before, even with my family.  This environment developed mostly because of our prayer time.  Each night the highlight was when we took prayer requests.  Each person would have their turn to say what was on their mind and then at the end we'd all join hands and pray for the person on our left or something similar.  Prayer requests could be anything from a family member or friend who was sick, to a test the next morning or a praise for something that had gone right. Small group (as we all affectionately called it) ended up being very therapeutic and in the end, was a get through high-school support group that just happened to be grounded in christianity.  


Looking back, the fact that I had such a good experience with christianity (most of the love and support I've had in my life has been from christians and my church community, and most of the best people I have ever met, and those that i most look up to were christian) yet I still had those doubts penetrate through, shows how true my nonbelief is.  I remember being a little kid and knowing that I was a christian because I went to church and said I believed, but lying in bed when I was praying it would cross my mind that I couldn't actually tell if I really was...I couldn't feel anything...and I would strain and say I believed, but I didn't have that true belief inside me.  I told myself that maybe I didn't really believe yet, but I was doing everything I was supposed to do...I was going to church, learning about god, talking to god, and I said I believed.  I figured that either I was overthinking it and I really did believe, or that one day I would finally be able to tell whether or not I was actually christian (and I assumed I would be a believer when that happened).


I've always been a very realistic, down to earth, logical person, and I completely embraced evolution when I learned about it in school.  In fact it has become one of my greatest interests, and I am currently majoring in bioengineering with an emphasis on genetics and minoring in earth and environmental science with an emphasis on ecology.  Nothing fascinates me more than learning about why everything's evolved to be the way it is, how their adaptations help them survive, and how everything interacts with each other to create the world we have today.  The main leader of my small group was also very science minded (she is a pediatrician) and once evolution was brought up, and I admitted that even though I was christian, as a science-minded person I completely believed in evolution.  She agreed with me, and we discussed a bit what it meant to be a christian and a scientist.  Even when I was the strongest in my christian beliefs, I genuinely thought I believed it, but it was only because it was all I knew.  My family and so many people who loved me were all christian, and I had no reason to not be christian.  Atheists saddened me the same way criminals or drug addicts saddened me.  But the entire time I never believed for real.  I thought i believed, but only because I didn't believe anything that contradicted it.  Had I been raised in an atheist home, and a friend took me to church, I never would have believed it, because I would already truly believe there was not a god instead of having a forced belief in christianity.


As i drifted farther from christianity, I started to feel deep down that something was wrong.  In small group discussions I would say what I would have always said in discussions, but I would listen to what I was saying, and after I'd said it say to myself, 'what am i talking about?'  Quickly after this began, however, I left home for a gap year in England.  Through the English Speaking Union, I basically did a 5th year of highschool at a boarding school in England, where twice a week we were required to attend chapel.  It was like elementary school all over again (2-6th grade I went to an episcopal school) and I thought it was the most pointless waste of time ever.  I also joined choir, which in a British boarding school means chapel choir.  


By this time I was pretty sure I was definitely moving towards atheism, but joining choir was the final push I needed to finally land me into the pure atheist zone.  Don't get me wrong, I loved the music, religious or not, and through chapel choir I discovered psalms...for those who don't know the church of england (and possibly other churches/places as well but i don't really know) has a very specific way of singing psalms, and it's almost like chanting, and I absolutely loved it.  I'll make another separate post all about church and music, but i won't go too into it here in the hope of keeping this post at least a little to the point. But, essentially, the choir got to travel to many of the cathedrals of the major cities and sing mass for them.  Through this I was exposed to all the weird traditions of the church of england, and I could imagine catholicism is very similar.  This gave me proof that christianity in general wasn't consistent.  As I had been taught, it was right or wrong, yet there were so many different versions.  There was no way they could all be right.  In fact, I was pretty sure that churches like my own church were the only ones that even had a chance at being anything better than superstitious, traditional B.S.  Though my experience had been through a Presbyterian church, the youth groups had all been more non-denominational christian, and it was all about your personal relationship with Jesus and God.  You had to have that personal connection with god and if that was true, it didn't matter if you ever went to church (though the fellowship and support of going to church was always a plus).  In England, however, I was exposed to a new type of christian;  If you asked them they would probably say they were christian, or they would say they weren't really all that religious...but no matter which answer, you could tell they didn't really think about it in their daily life.  Religion was inconsequential to them, except for occasionally attending church or school chapel, where they would zone out and go through the motions tradition required.  I was finally allowed to let religion lose it's importance in my life, and ironically because I was surrounded by people who went to chapel twice a week. I now know that my good experience with church was not because christianity held any kind of real power, but because the people I was surrounded by were such incredible people.   


By the end of the year, I defined myself as atheist, and there was no going back.  I felt so free, enlightened and good.  I finally had that sense of true belief that I had always been missing as a kid.  That unsure feeling was gone and I knew what I wanted, what I believed, and what I didn't.  Coming home and sitting through a church service with my mom was a bit uncomfortable at first, but if anything, things that I had been so used to suddenly seemed ridiculous.  The pastor would create a sermon with a great argument and great reasoning based on the text, but once he got down to real religious stuff, i started to see problems. I didn't just now not believe in god, but I was able to question what was being taught.  The same text examined by a humanitarian with no religious biases would only agree with what is most ethical and best for people in general.  A christian usually does the same thing, but every once in a while, they accept things in the bible that contradict what they would normally conclude in any other setting. It was happening with very little things, but I noticed it nonetheless.  It was then that I realized I had without a doubt made the right choice.


This brings me to the current point in my life.  I am atheist, and all my friends at college know.  My older sister knows, but my mom, younger brothers, and all the members of my old small group don't know, and I can't even imagine telling them.  I hope to be open with my brothers as they grow older so I can encourage them to make their own educated decision about their beliefs.  I want to make sure they know they don't have to stick to Christianity just because they were raised that way.  I also want to be careful not to undermine my mothers wishes for their lives, but as i'm sure you all understand, I can't help but wish them a life free from religious b.s.  While my sister is married to an atheist, she is a self-proclaimed agnostic.  As I personally define agnostic, she's not quite it, but instead she's more a christian who has rejected any organized form of religious practice...but all her spiritual beliefs are still greatly grounded in Christianity as we learned it in our church.  We have discussions about it often, and she is quite stubborn.  She, for example, holds firmly to the belief that religion is important for keeping morality, and whenever I counter she get's mad at me for being one of those arrogant atheists who think they are right and that anyone who is religious is stupid.  She understands why it's hard not to feel that, but it doesn't keep her from bringing it up a lot.  


Now, my biggest problem is knowing when and how to come out to my mom and those from my small group.  I worry my mom may see it as a sign that my life is falling apart and I'm not responsible and I can't take care of myself (she freaked out and wanted me to move home and go to community college when I got one she could potentially have a really bad reaction to me being atheist).  Even if she takes it well and is supportive, things will never be the same.  There will always be this sadness and she, and i assume others, will constantly be 'praying for me' and trying to change my mind and just generally feeling sad for me.  And I wouldn't be able to stand that.  The easy thing would be to go on letting her believe I'm christian, even if i don't really go to church every week anymore.  But I also want to be able to be myself and be honest with my family, especially my brothers.  I feel like I owe it to them to make sure they know eventually that I'm atheist, but I also can't tell just them right now, because they are still too young to not run to my mom and their leaders at church, trying to pray for me and change me back.  Telling the members of my small group would break their hearts, but they would respect my opinion.  They would probably pray for me all the time, and not only do I not see them very much, but they wouldn't try to be in my face about it even if I did.  


Essentially I don't want to hurt anyone else by coming out, but I know I eventually will have to be honest with them, and I'm not looking forward to that day at all.  My plan is to try to wait till I'm living on my own and not still living at home every summer and break etc, but I don't really know anyone who's had this kind of problem, so i'd love any advice on coming out as an atheist.  Also I'd love to hear what people think about my church and I'd love to follow up with questions people have about my experience or if you want me to elaborate on any part.  I honestly feel that there is a place in the world for learning about ethics and values, and that religion has done a decent job at this to a certain extent in certain churches like the one I grew up in; but I sincerely hope that in the future this can be done in a secular and intelligent way because religion has ended up doing far more harm than good.


One final thought:  why am I atheist and not agnostic?  I remember in middle school, we spent time learning about and researching other religions.  They wanted us to know what was out there, and why we were choosing christianity above the other religions.  I remember my group was focused on the morman religion, and I thought it was absolutely ridiculous.  I quickly realized, that if I didn't believe in Christianity, I wouldn't believe in any of the others either.  Religion in general made zero sense to me, and once christianity lost it's hold over me, I thought it was just as ridiculous as the others.  Most people I have heard describe their reasons for agnosticism, often talk about feeling that whatever is out there to prompt religion in the first place may be out there, but organized religion is not the way to go about it.  For me, it was this complete lack of 'feeling there was something else out there' that had me feeling all the other religions were fake.  I was christian, but if that wasn't in the picture, I was going straight to science and believing there was absolutely nothing.  I believed christianity because I had been taught it was the only way.  I was also taught the other religions were wrong, and I truly believed that. (back to that feeling of true belief; I truly believed the others were false, but I only thought I believed Christianity was true)  It was so easy for me to believe the others were false, because rejecting the religions appealed to my reason and logic.  Once I consciously realized what I had known a long time, I easily dropped christianity into the same pile as all the other religions.  In my opinion, the power that people often feel, thinking it's god or some spiritual connection, stems from our own power as humans.  People don't give themselves enough credit.  When they find the inspiration to pull through a hard time, many say they felt god's presence.  What they really felt was their own subconscious and power stepping up to the plate.


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Comment by Ron V on November 13, 2011 at 8:08pm

Tell them you're an ignostic- in my experience, it's easier to swallow for Christian relatives than just saying you are an atheist - I often find myself saying I can't refute someone's belief/definition of god as nature and explaining that ignosticism is the belief that we can rationally debate, and come to reasonable conclusions, about the existence of god depending upon how we define god.

Of course, this always ends up with the reasonable conclusion that the Judeo-Christian god does not exist, but you can probably get by with saying you are an "ignostic."  It might get others thinking.

Comment by Ron V on November 13, 2011 at 8:14pm

Also, thanks for the post and I am glad you, like most here, are free of the bondage of religion.

Sorry, I have no advice about coming out- I was well indoctrinated into Christianity and only finally had the courage to reject it a few years ago.  I still take refuge in the ignostic claim, but I am, for all intents and purposes, an atheist.

And, if you haven't already done so, you may want to look at the American Humanist Association - this may be appealing to you and you could possibly "come out" as a "humanist."


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