My Journey to Atheism, Part 3: Little steps toward whatever's next

I wrote in part one a bit about my religious background. In part two I explained how, shortly after a missionary trip, I ended up praying a prayer of committal to the truth, even if it meant leaving Jesus.

After I prayed that prayer on Nov. 6, 2010, I began a long and confusing journey. One of my first steps was to try and convince myself I was wrong—that God was actually true after all.

I asked God to give me a sign. I asked him to speak to me in some way. When I asked for simple things, that could happen by coincidence, my prayers seemed to be answered. But when I asked for slightly less simple things, nothing happened.

I asked him to give me a vision, or a vivid dream—something that would clearly let me know he was searching for me like a lost sheep who had wondered off. Something that I couldn’t interpret as just my mind playing tricks on me. I got no answer.

I asked for God to send someone. I have many friends from the mission program who are in tune with the Holy Spirit; God could ask one of them to call me up. Or God could use my current pastor, or my former pastor, or my former roommate who is now a pastor. They would tell me God had told them I was struggling with my faith, and has asked them to pray for me. But nobody called.

I prayed that someone would interpret a dream I’d had, without me telling them what the dream was, like Daniel did for a king in the Bible. But no one did this either.

I attended church regularly, and played on the worship team. I waited for God to punish me for standing in front of the congregation and worshiping dishonestly. I thought he might suddenly wipe away my ability to play, or take my voice, or even just overwhelm me with emotion. But it did not happen.

We took communion every month. Communion is the most solemn ceremony of the Christian faith, and my pastor treats it as such. He always reads from 1 Corinthians 11:27-30:

 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.

Don’t come up to eat and drink just because everyone else is, he would say. If you have something you need to get right with God first, just wait. You can always take communion again next month.

It sounded like a promise that a person taking communion dishonestly would suffer some sort of consequence, and I believed God would keep his promise. As I took the bread and juice, I prayed, God, I don’t think I believe in you anymore. If you are real, God, turn this bread sour in my stomach. Make me throw it back up, God, because I have eaten in an unworthy manner. Make me sick, God, or knock me flat so I can’t take the bread at all. But nothing happened. There was no effect. The body and blood of the deity I was dishonoring went down smoothly like ordinary bread and juice, just as it always had.

I attended several different churches during this time, some of them very Pentecostal in their worship style. I always prayed that God would speak to me there. Knock me flat on the ground, “slain in the spirit”; strike me blind or deaf or dumb; cause me to start speaking in tongues; give me a vision or a prophecy; send someone else to me with a vision or a prophecy. Nothing happened.

I attended a church service by a traveling prophet at another church. He prophesied about people in the audience, giving them encouragement or advice. Some of his insights seemed pretty accurate, but nothing that couldn’t be duplicated by a skilled illusionist. He called people up one at a time out of the audience, and I kept praying that God would have him call me. At the same time I was terrified that he might call on me. I was afraid he would expose my sin and disbelief in front of all those people. I was afraid it might be true, even though I was praying for it to be true. Instead, nothing happened. The speaker ignored me.

It was the same at a revival service I attended later. They gave testimonies of a miraculous healing that had occurred, which actually sounded like an unlikely but very possible physical healing. I didn’t see any healings occur that day; no people leaving their walkers or wheelchairs; no limbs growing back. 

I was filled with anxiety throughout this time. Questioning God didn’t lift a weight from my shoulders; if anything it pushed me back into a morass of not trusting myself. I don’t know if you’d called it “depressed” or not, but I sure got down.

I didn’t talk with my friends as much, because I was afraid they’d find out what I was thinking. I didn’t spend time looking for jobs as much as I should have, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life without God to ask for directions. I was afraid to read atheist blogs, or research, because I still was afraid of being right.

But gradually, things began to change. I got a full-time job, which kept me from sitting around moping so much. Then, about a year ago, I moved out of my parents’ house and into my own apartment. Suddenly I wasn’t in their Christianized atmosphere anymore; I was free to make my own connections.

I started reading the atheist blogs on Patheos regularly. I started digging into other sources, like I eventually got up my courage and posted on an atheist website for the first time.

It was scary, but over time I started to get used to it. It became more and more normal for me to write out the things I was thinking. I’d been keeping a journal for a long time, but now that people were reading what I wrote, it seemed more real.

When I look back over my journal, I see that I slowly stop being afraid. I write a lot about being depressed at first, about feeling like a sinner, about my worry that God is upset at me, but that slowly drops off. Instead, I become more used to this ‘godless’ idea. I become more comfortable with myself and with my own inquiry.

I feel like even if I am wrong—even if there is a God, and I end up needing to repent and return to him—this time was essential for me to figure out what I believe. For me to try questioning what I was taught and discover that it is possible to live differently than how I was raised.

Three years after I vowed to follow the truth, I’m feeling more comfortable as an atheist. But I also feel like I’m stuck again.

I can’t bring myself to tell my family what I’m thinking. In fact, none of my real-life friends know what I’ve gone through over the past few years. My parents still think I haven’t changed—I’m still a creationist, anti-gay, traditional Christian.

I live on my own, and handle my own finances. But I still go home a lot, and enjoy spending time around them. I know we couldn’t be friends like we are now if they knew the truth about me. I honestly don’t know how they’d react.

But I hate not being able to speak about what I believe. When my mom makes anti-gay comments, I can’t say anything to counter that. When I hear people talk about faith healing, I have to keep my mouth shut. When people talk about how Christians have it so hard in America these days, I don’t feel free to point out the many, many things wrong with that statement.

I don’t want to be quiet and just keep things to myself. I have never enjoyed not being able to speak up. I want to be vocal about what is right. I want to stand up for what I’ve always believed—peace, justice, love, anti-imperialism—as well as new things I’ve come to believe in, like gay rights and religious tolerance.  I want to encourage people to use reason instead of blind faith.

I hope at some point here, three years after my big decision, I will be ready to make another big decision, and let the world know. I hope by then, I will be strong enough to survive through the fallout.

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Comment by CJoe on January 2, 2014 at 12:39am

Excellent blog, Physeter. I had a very similar experience... but I did let my family know.

Only YOU know what is right to do. My relationship with my family has suffered, like you suspect yours will, too. They haven't rejected me, and (after about five years) they're finally used to the idea that I am now a left-wing liberal atheist. They are not, however, happy about it... and it probably causes them a lot of anxiety. I live 1200 miles away so I don't have to deal with their misplaced concern, fear, or resentment. Every few months, my mom and I will get into a huge debate. We simply cannot see eye to eye on even the most basic things. We do always apologize after harsh words are exchanged, and assure the other we still love them, but it hurts because we used to be very close. And, of course, there is no guarantee you'll have even this much with your family members.

Whether I had been honest from the beginning or not (I'm a terrible liar, and I don't hide my emotions well), our relationship would still not be what it had been. I could have pretended. She might have still felt we were close, but I would have actually been a million miles away. I wouldn't have been fulfilled. The relationship would only be one-sided, which sounds like your relationship with your family now.

If you want to keep the peace, remain silent about your beliefs. Sometimes it really is worth it, depending on what YOU value. If you want to have honest relationships, that are mutually satisfying, then you should find a way to make your change of heart known. There will be a change. It will be another process. You'll have a part four to this story of yours, and maybe more. At some point, being atheist will feel so normal you'll take it for granted. You won't ever be comfortable, I think, until you go through this phase. But it's all about your timing, and about what you want from your life.

Good luck to you. :)

Comment by IkeArrumba on January 4, 2014 at 11:59am

I would say that I never really bought into the Catholic dogma that was forced on me from a very early age. As soon as it was possible (around age 17 or 18) I stopped attending church and never looked back. I called myself agnostic. It wasn't until I was around 45 years old that I came right out and said to my friends and family that I was an atheist. 45! I was concerned about backlash and of hurting my mother's feelings, as she is a devout Catholic. I have not received any backlash. My friends either agree with me, don't care, or feel sorry for me (these are the religious friends). My mother was like "that's ok, but I still believe". I don't (and never have) hung around fundamentalists, so I don't have them to deal with. Of my believing friends, they are mature enough to look at our differences calmly and I do enjoy debating with them on many topics of faith.

All I can say is that when I made the pronouncement that I was an atheist, it felt really good because I was proclaiming how I truly felt instead of some safer alternative. It still feels good.


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