My Journey to Atheism, Part 2: The prayer for Truth

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, 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. 

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Comment by IkeArrumba on December 28, 2013 at 7:44pm

I find this story to be inspirational and illustrates a point I was going to blog about, but this seems like a good place to put that thought.

You, like most people in the world, were born into a society of religious belief. You were brought up in a culture that constantly reinforced these beliefs. You were indoctrinated -- brainwashed as a child to believe the religious claims. But you were different. You were part of a small minority who questioned these beliefs even though you had been taught not to. You trusted your judgement over the stories you were told and came to a different conclusion. You used logic and rational thought in order to make sense of the world you lived in and discovered that what you were taught was not truth. What you represent is a person who rejected the religious programming and emerged a more enlightened person. You, and all the others who have accomplished this must realize how special this is. It is so very hard to swim against the current of accepted societal norms. At every turn you worry about the consequences of your actions, yet do them anyway because you trust yourself and your senses. This is an heroic thing to do.

So many others have their doubts but bury them and go along with the crowd so they are accepted. They learn how to close their eyes to any proof that goes against their training. They learn the group speak and profess what they have been taught. The enforce the brainwashing so much that they actually believe it. You have fought this urge and won.

Rationalists find it hard to understand that people really do believe and accept their programming, but the proof is all around. Anyone who can honestly say that they believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old has to be either extremely stupid and unaware of the last couple of centuries of scientific discovery, or they are brainwashed and unwilling to look at facts. The majority of the people on this planet have accepted large chunks of this religious programming and will fight to remain ignorant. I am glad to see that you have had the courage to open your eyes and trust yourself and your own judgement.

The journey is never over. Ultimate truths are hard to discover and many questions will never be answered. Keep your eyes open, keep asking questions, and keep searching for truth.

Comment by Dr. Bob on December 29, 2013 at 12:49pm

Physeter, thanks for sharing. 

I think there is much in atheism that has merit.  There are some ways in radical religious sects that indoctrination or brainwashing occur.  That's certainly not true of the large majority of mainstream religion, but where it occurs it should be condemned.

I think it's also true that intelligent people as they grow in understanding need to shed some of the childish notions of faith.  Biblical literalism.   Grounding religion in one ethnic or national identity (also a problem for atheism, BTW).   Naive belief that somehow religious people are going to be "better" than others.  Looking for miracles as magic tricks. 

Keep on your quest, Physeter.  Even as a devout theist, I believe it is good and healthy to shed all that nonsense.  St. Paul admonishes us to "test everything," and so we should. 

After you've jettisoned the detritus of religion, be sure to employ the same spirit of testing to atheism as well. 

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on December 29, 2013 at 3:34pm

Once the nonsense is shed what is left?

Comment by MikeLong on December 29, 2013 at 4:24pm


Excellent question.

Dr. Bob has always been at the forefront of rejecting all the "silliness" of religions. However I've seen MANY prominent posters asking Bob directly to justify his most basic assertion - that there exists some personal sentient being who one "day" decided to create everything we see around us.

In every instance our demands have been met with silence.

Come on, Bob. "TEST EVERYTHING". Show us, PLEASE, how any thinking person could seriously believe such nonsense. You can ask St. Paul to give you some assistance.

Comment by Physeter on January 4, 2014 at 1:59pm

I know I'm late with the response, but I do want to say I appreciate you, Dr Bob, and your willingness to hang around an atheist website and respectfully give your take on things.

To me it sounds like you are just telling me I need a different denomination. Of all the denominations in the world, I've only experienced a few 'wrong' ones, and if I found your correct one it would be right.

I know that's not how you worded it, but your comment essentially boils down to "you were doing it wrong." It means the Bible isn't the problem, God isn't the problem, it's just something wrong with me or with those who taught me. That's the same message I've been getting from Christianity all my life, and it's never gotten me anywhere. Atheism is different, because it tells me I can experience the world for myself. I don't need a bible or a priest to tell me what I should be thinking and feeling.

Plus I find it hard to defend a more liberal Christianity based on my upbringing. I get to a point where the more conservative believer says, if the Bible is true, why wouldn't you follow it? And if the Bible isn't true, why do you call yourself a Christian? And I find I have no good answer. Most of my life I responded by falling back into a more fundamentalist understanding; now I have fallen the other way.

But you're right, I will keep testing everything. I will be on the lookout for God if he really is real. I certainly know there are some things in atheism that I still question.

Comment by MikeLong on January 4, 2014 at 3:42pm

"I certainly know there are some things in atheism that I still question."

Would you mind expanding upon that? Do you question the same sorts of things in regard to aleprechaunism?


Comment by Physeter on January 4, 2014 at 4:07pm

All I'm saying is I'm trying to keep an open mind. I see people who are truly inspired by religion to do great things, and I think that has meaning. I have been reading more liberal Christian blogs lately, and I find they speak to me in a way atheists writings sometimes don't. I sometimes feel odd at the goals atheists have, because they seem different from what I think is good--even though my ideas of what is good are still changing.

Maybe I'm a different kind of atheist from most vocal atheists. Or maybe I'll end up being a Unitarian Universalist instead of fully atheist. Or maybe I'll wind up as more conventional atheist, but I'm not there yet.

And leprechauns are completely different. Everybody knows that leprechauns exist, and you know it. Why else would we have such a big national debt, if the leprechauns weren't stealing all our gold?


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