My journey from the faith I grew up in to my current state of doubt had a clear beginning point: Nov. 5, 2010. I wrote part one of my story here, of how my questions about faith were easy to push to the side until I got to college.
During and after college, I took a couple trips that changed my view on life in profound ways. I could fill a book, or a blog series, on my experiences from each one.
I went to Israel in 2008, for a two-week trip. We learned about the history of the Palestine/Israel conflict. We stayed in the West Bank, and even spent a night in a Palestinian’s home. The trip changed the way I look at politics, pushing me farther left, and gave me the desire (though not the courage) to be an activist, a protester, someone who stands up and makes a difference.
But more relevant to the topic at hand, the trip made me see that there are good people and bad people in every religion.
There were Christians dedicated to peace and justice, like Palestinian priest Elias Chacour, who built a school in Nazareth and worked for understanding between Christians, Jews and Muslims. And then there were Christians like the mainstream conservative Americans who like to preach that all Muslims are evil, and anyone who opposes anything Israel is doing must be following Satan. There are peace-loving Jews in organizations like Zochrot, and then there are the Israeli settlers who terrorize Palestinian villagers. There are Muslims who want to live in harmony with others, and Muslims who want to blow up shopping centers and elementary schools.
I saw that people could be good or bad in any religion, or even without religion. What good, then, I wondered at the time, is our religion?
I went to Africa as a missionary after I graduated college, in late 2009 and 2010. I spent three months in spiritual training here in the U.S. and then eight months in an extremely poor, primitive area of the world.
As I said before, my faith grew in many ways on this trip. For the first time, I really began to think I could feel God leading me. I thought God was speaking to me, even though hearing him wasn’t quite like I had expected, or as clear as I had hoped.
I had questions, still, but I felt like I was finally getting answers. It was only later on I would question the quality of those answers.
I saw there weren’t many more miracles over there, and church people seemed to quarrel and fight over petty nonsense just as much as they do in the West. At the time, I thought this was encouraging; it meant that we weren’t doing something spectacularly wrong in the West. We were only human.
Later, though, I questioned whether, based on this observation, I could really believe that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church. Even with divine help, this is all the better we get?
After I got back, I began to think about how the ‘leading’ I got from hearing God’s voice never seemed to lead very effectively. I thought about how our team seemed to accomplish so little, even though we thought we had an omniscient being as our leader. I thought about how the members of the team fought with each other to the point of our team practically falling apart, even though we were supposed to be filled with the love of Christ. I thought about how the team leaders, the team members, and the leaders back in America all said they were hearing from God but were not hearing the same thing.
And once I came back to the U.S., I began looking at things on the Internet again.
Maybe if I had avoided the Internet and read nothing but my Bible all day, I would have been okay.
But I found that things I were interested in kept leading me back to skepticism, for some reason. When I read liberal politics that I was likely to agree with, these were often published by atheists. I found those who cared about the Palestinians like I did were more likely atheists. I ran across Rationalwiki.org, mostly because they were making fun of Conservapedia and I thought that was funny. I liked a lot of what I read there and agreed with it; I didn’t learn until later that Rationalwiki was an atheist website.
Questions were building up, and this time they did seem important. Questions about evolution, creation, and the reliability of the Bible when faced with this simple fact of science. Questions about homosexuality, which was solidly condemned by the mission organization. I had read testimonies of homosexuals before, and it didn’t sound like they ‘chose’ their lifestyle so they could sin; and modern medicine seemed to back up that view.
Questions about difficult Bible passages were harder to brush away. Why does it talk so much about women submitting to men, when anyone can see that this is harmful, and what’s really needed is mutual respect and equality? Why do the books of Joshua and Judges first say that YHWH gave all of the land into the hands of the Israelites, then give three different excuses as to why the land wasn’t all given to the Israelites?
I had gone to Africa as a step of faith. My faith was weak before the trip. I went out, not to test God, but to trust God. He said he’d be there for me, and I chose to behave as though it were true even if I wasn’t sure. So why hadn’t God spoken to me more clearly over there? Why had there been no miraculous healings, no clear prophecies, no strange and wonderful works of the Holy Spirit? And why did he seem so distant now in America?
I thought maybe I should just avoid reading things that made me uncomfortable. But I thought if God was the Truth, he should be able to stand up to honest questioning. And it was weird how much I identified with the things I was reading.
I don’t remember how I ended up browsing Amazon the night of Nov. 5. But there I was, reading the free samples of atheist books. When I’d read as much as was allowed in one, I moved on to another and kept reading. Instead of feeling indignant at reading lies, I felt terror because it sounded like the truth.
The things I read made my heart hurt. Belief in God is like a virus that destroys its host, they said. People are better off without their imaginary friend. They said leaving the faith wasn’t something fun they did to keep sinning. They said they weren’t angry, and they weren’t just rebelling; leaving God was like a painful divorce. They pointed out ways the Bible is unreliable and inconsistent—ways I had never noticed before, and that I couldn’t just brush away or rationalize.
Faced with these thoughts, which lined up so closely with what I’d been thinking on my own, the next night I prayed what might turn out to be the most important prayer of my life.
I didn’t turn on God, or become angry with God. I certainly didn’t renounce God, or renounce my Christianity, or tell Jesus I didn’t want him in my life anymore.
Instead, I said a prayer in which I vowed to follow the truth, no matter how difficult.
I’m not going to believe in something that’s not real, I told God. Jesus, no matter how much it hurts, I’m going to give you up if you really, honestly aren’t real. I think that’s what you’d want from me—to believe and follow the truth.
I will live based on what is real. If Jesus is Lord, I will serve him, but if not I will figure out my own way.
I half-expected to get a response from God on this. I spent the next three years trying to figure out what this prayer meant for me.
Stay tuned for part three, as I try to figure out how to live now.