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.