my time as an agnostic


I have briefly touched on the few years I spent as an agnostic before, but I’ve never really explored what happened to me in writing. It’s a hard thing for me to do, because I spent those years experiencing intense cognitive dissonance— which is why I describe what I experienced during these years as agnosticism instead of atheism, although it’s more complicated than that.

But, I want to try to stumble through this story because of something that happened last night. If you follow me on twitter, you probably saw me rant about it for a little bit, and I’m glad I got that out there, but I realized that my story could be important for people– especially those of faith– to understand what it’s like to be an non-believer. There are several common stereotypes about unbelief, and many of them revolve around painting atheists, especially, as immoral monsters who reject an “overwhelming flood of evidence” because they “just can’t stand the Truth of God.” That’s certainly what I believed about non-belief . . . until it happened to me.

When I was 16 years old, I developed tendonitis in my wrists, which prevented me from ‘serving’ my church as the pianist. After my “pastor” openly attacked me from the pulpit and then lied to my parents about what he had done, I mentally absented myself from church. I refused to pay attention to any of the sermons. I stopped listening to or practicing Christian or sacred music. I wrote stories during church. I only participated in church activities when absolutely forced to. At this point, I still believed in God, but anything to do with church– I didn’t want any part of it.

Initially, I thought this reticence to engage with church was simply because of what my “church” was– which I now refer to as a church-cult, and was horribly spiritually abusive. Right before I started my sophomore year in college, my parents were finally able to escape the church-cult, but where they decided to attend . . . made everything worse.

Over the years, our church-cult had hemorrhaged a ridiculous number of members– and many of these families began attending another Independent Fundamental Baptist church half an hour further south. The first Sunday I went with my family, I struggled all that morning with what I can now identify as a mild panic attack, although I had no idea what it was at the time. All I knew was that simply going to church made me feel so physically sick (I would get lightheaded, shaky, nervous, and nauseated) that I just didn’t want to go.

My parents forced me out of bed enough Sundays that I was able to get a reliable feel for the people at church, and what I encountered depressed and horrified me. Because, there had been a part of me that had dared to hope that this church would be better. That it would be different. And while it was different and slightly better –the pastor didn’t scream in people’s faces and directly confront them about “sin” in front of the entire congregation — it was still awful.

  • The pastor was inexcusably racist; he truly, deeply, believed in racial segregation and that interracial marriage is a sin. He told me this, explicitly, to my face, while simultaneously saying that he would “never preach this from the pulpit, because it would step on people’s toes.” This from a man who claimed, from the pulpit, that he would never be ashamed of preaching what he believed. After this conversation, I blatantly refused to ever go back.
  • The young people at the church were . . . abhorrent, in general. They behaved unconscionably toward my younger sister, which I have never tolerated well. Only one person in the entire church made any effort to befriend her. The rest mocked and belittled her at nearly every opportunity.
  • A few specific people –men my age — were exalted in true “preacher boy” fashion. One of them used his position as a police officer to degrade me in front of a huge crowd of people, and even though he was lying, the result was that I was painted as the liar for daring to call the “preacher boy” on his abuse. When I followed Matthew 18 to the letter, I was told by a deacon and the pastor that I was making too big a deal of an innocent remark, that he only meant it in good fun.
  • Certain people obtained celebrity status in the church because of various circumstances; however, while there were two women with severe medical conditions (one who struggled with cancer, another with osteogenesis imperfecta), the only one who received any attention or help from anyone at church was the woman with cancer, while the other woman was completely ignored, to the point of almost being shunned.

I could list many more examples, but the end result was that I couldn’t stomach church any more, because even in a church that was “better,” it was still intolerable. At this point, my aversion to church spread from just my limited experience with the church-cult I’d grown up in, to churches in general.

This aversion extended to my experiences at my fundamentalist college, but this is where it gets complicated. Because it was during my sophomore year in college that I slipped from belief in God to total doubt.

But I hid it.

I hid it so well, that if you asked anyone who knew me at the time, anyone, they would tell you that I was most definitely still a Christian. I walked the walk, talked the talk, everything. Nothing, on the surface, changed. I even ended up engaged to a man who claimed that he wanted to be a missionary. I went to prayer group, I led devotionals, I prayed with friends, I talked about the Bible– hell, I defended the Bible and Christianity. I even talked about some bizarre re-conversion experience that I had during the early stages of my junior year. Occasionally, I even got excited about Christian discussions and theological discoveries I’d stumbled across in research for my classes.

When I chose a graduate school, I chose Liberty University. It was certainly more liberal than my undergrad college, but it was still a Christian school, and I chose it partly because it was a Christian school (but mostly because I knew they would accept my unaccredited degree without a fight). And during my first year, the first time in my life when I had the freedom not to attend church and I didn’t, I was still at a Christian college. I was still surrounded by believers, and I still looked and talked like one. If you asked the people who I interacted with during grad school, they’d be surprised if they found out I didn’t believe 99% of the things that came out of my mouth (or… maybe not. A lot of the things I said were rather ridiculous).

But, all that time . . . I couldn’t believe.

And while it may have started out as disgust toward my church experiences, it slowly developed into a completely inability to believe in God.

I want to make that perfectly clear, because I think it’s one area that many people skip over, or don’t really understand. It’s not that I went away to college and had some sort of Baptist rumspringa. It’s not that I hadn’t been educated well enough about my faith– I was so well steeped in apologetics and logic that I had a doctoral candidate at Princeton and Duke tell me that I should pursue a career in Philosophy of Religion.

It wasn’t that I was angry at God, although in a small way it started there. I was furiously angry at God for a long time. How could he have let everything happen to me and my family? How did he let evil people exist? How did he let totally evil men lead his churches? How was it that so many people who claimed to believe in Jesus were some of the most awful people I’d ever met?

After a while of being angry, though, the anger just . . . went away. And what replaced it was non-belief. I wasn’t angry at God anymore, because I didn’t even know if he existed. Suddenly, it just . . . didn’t matter to me if he existed or not. Not believing in him wasn’t some conscious decision I made. I didn’t have a sudden epiphany where lightning struck me out of a clear sky and I decided that God’s existence didn’t matter.

I clung, desperately, to my belief. I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, where he calls God a “genocidal maniac,” and that passage was horrifying and so powerfully compelling, because it was an image of God I innately understood. But, even in that moment, when horror rose up inside of me so fiercely I wanted to scream and cry and rage and vomit, I wanted to believe. And for a while after that experience, I thought I did believe.

Until, one day, I realized that I couldn’t believe, and that I hadn’t really believed in God for a long time. In some ways, I clutched at my faith by constant debates and discussions and research. I spent a long time searching for a way to believe in God. And I didn’t find one.

He just . . . wasn’t there.


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  • Thank you for posting this. A lot of us have been so rigorously trained to not own up to feelings like the ones you describe, but I think we all have experienced differing levels of profound doubt. At least I know I have.

  • I know that feels. Of feeling like god just isnt there. But I don’t think I’ll be able to come back like you did…. Who knows, I never thought I’d be here. I just mean I even lost the desire to believe. Did you ever lose that?

    • Losing even the desire to believe was a part of my experience, although that actually took a while. After a while, though, I realized that not believing in God wasn’t some hideously awful thing– that I was totally capable of being happy and fulfilled without religion.

  • I’ve been following your blog for a little while now and I am constantly amazed at the abuse you have been through and survived. I am often appalled by the behaviors you relay of people in your churches and whom you have encountered in various leadership positions. As a lifelong Episcopalian, I am just . . . stunned.

    After this post, you may or may not find my last sermon worthwhile, but I’m linking to it because I thought it was relevant:


  • I can relate to certain parts of your story. I’ve been experiencing the gloom of cognitive dissonance… Oh how I look forward to the day of being rid of it. 🙂

  • Beth

    I hate always saying this, but my mind to yours. This could have been written by me. This is where I am right now. The last 10 years have been me trying desperately to believe in god, but I just simply can’t. I’ve tried different churches and different theologies….but he’s just not there and I simply cannot ever go there again. I am exhausted both mentally and emotionally. Cognitive dissonance? Yep. I’m there. I feel like if I believe in god ever again, it will crush me completely. It sounds desperate, but when I don’t believe, I feel lighter. I don’t know if that makes sense or not.

  • Reblogged this on On Beth's Mountain and commented:
    Yep. Very well said, very well written.

  • Sharon

    Beth, did you just take down your site? I was in the middle of reading it, and it sort of vanishes!

  • Having been an Agnostic for 30+ years I have no idea why you are calling this your time as an Agnostic.

    It’s touching and all but it has nothing to do with Huxley’s Principle of Agnosticism.

    We don’t have any problems dismissing The God of Abraham or any other God that depends on man to make himself known.

    Agnosticism addresses the problem of existence – does the existence of the universe have intention or not. The vast majority of people most Atheist included will answer with a yes or no. The agnostic simply admits ignorance.

    If you’re an Atheist now thats fine – we Agnostic’s are not really an evangelical bunch – If you want to look into it however start here –

    TJ Bradders

    • Hello TJ. Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I’d like to explain why I chose to describe myself as an agnostic instead of an atheist, as that wasn’t really the focus of my post.

      I am familiar with Huxley’s principle, which is ultimately my reason for choosing agnostic. During the time that I described here, it’s not that I believed that God doesn’t exist, but that I couldn’t believe in his existence. I know that’s a very subtle difference, but, during this time, all I could think was that I just didn’t know if he existed or not, and whether or not he existed didn’t matter.

      Also, just to be clear, I actually am a Christian now, although ideologically I’m in a very different place than what I describe here.

  • I relate to a lot of what you have posted here. While I have always believed in the existence of God, I have doubted most of what is taught about him in my former church. I continued to attend my former church for years after I stopped believing what they teach because I began to believe that all churches were the same and that I did not want to get involved with another group of people who would simply teach me their version of the truth about God. So I stopped attending my church and withdrew my membership and for a long time I felt so much better…lighter like another commenter said. But now I miss being a part of a church, of belonging, and I have been reading a lot and have realized that all churches are not the same. So I have been visiting around now for about 8 or so months. I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet.

  • I know of at least one man who truly believed in God… was Jesus. The rest of humanity , especially his supposed followers are at various stages of the scenario you describe above….because none of us…..completely… in God at ….all times. May God help our unbelief. The word ‘belief’ with respect to God is one scary word for me because it entails Living Like Jesus lived…..eeeek!!!……a mere mortal like me ? How can I live like Jesus?…….and then I remember that the Holy Spirit was in Jesus and that Jesus has imparted This Spirit to help us Live Jesus.
    Who amongst humanity today has THE Holy Spirit ler him or her teach the rest of us……exactly…….to Live Jesus, for this is the puzzle of our time.
    Try and ask a pastor or priest or Theologian what …..exactly….The Christ-life entails and you would receive no concrete answer because the answers they give leaves ample room for more questions ; how then can we Live Christ if we do not know what constitutes the Christ-Life?
    God help us all especially me. Sorry my friends but this particular post by the writer above stirs up certain non-definitive thoughts which lays deeply buried in me… the original post above I am beginning to lay my finger on some of the unutterable thoughts that has gnawed at the very foundation of my already weak belief in God.
    How do we ‘believe’ in God as followers of the lifestyle of His Son, and what is the detailed constituting elements or ‘syllabus’ of this Christ-Life so crucial to our Faith?

  • Hello Samantha!

    I have been following your blog (and your tumblr!) for awhile. I love all the things you have to say, and I am deeply grateful for you and the honesty you offer. I just stumbled across this post in the archives. I know it’s old, but I was drawn to the title. Reading this, I felt so strongly a connection to your experience. My life has not been as extreme or awful as some of the things you have suffered, but this post echoed in some hollow places in me that I have been ignoring for too long.

    I have been living in a sort of fugue state where I don’t want to go to church, and I don’t really want to believe in God. I go to Abilene Christian University (which is MUCH more liberal than PCC or many other Xian colleges), but I still chafe against required chapel and the constant expectation to be a Christian. I grew up in a moderately conservative Church of Christ and my family still expects me to be faithful. But I just don’t want to. I could be fulfilled and happy if I didn’t have this constant dread overwhelming me that I will disappoint or ostracize my family, or that I will believe (or not believe) the wrong things.

    I believe in everything Jesus stood for and everything he did. I am going to be a social worker someday, partially because of the example of Jesus and the morals I was raised with. But I just don’t want church. I don’t want the hypocrisy and the hatred and the emptiness of “god is love but all you sinners who don’t repent are going to hell!” And I know there is more than that narrow view, but I feel so sick and repulsed by so much of what my experience of church is, and it seems so pointless when we could all be actually living like Jesus instead of practicing this hollow morality. I don’t feel anything during worship and I hate the emotional manipulation which taught me to be mindless, & to be submissive, & to be pure, & that emotional highs were God’s presence and not just a physiological response to the music, & that being bi (which I found out only recently that I am) is wrong, among lots of other things.

    I want to believe, but I don’t want to believe for myself. I want to believe so my family won’t worry about my eternal salvation and so they won’t be disappointed in me. So I fake it and pretend like I believe in God when it just makes me feel sick and tired.

    I don’t really think there’s anything anyone can do for me, but I just needed to say something. Thank you for this post.

    • If there is a god who’s worth worshiping, presumably whether you believe in that god is way down that god’s priority list, far less important than how you treat people (yourself included). I don’t know if that will help with your concerns about believing or not believing the wrong things; obviously it won’t help with the situation with your family.

      Good luck, kraye211.

  • Lindsey Tallent

    I really appreciate this.