I figure it’s about time I made some sort of statement on here about my lack of belief. I really don’t want to be afraid or ashamed anymore of not believing what I don’t. For some people, it may be the only time they ever hear this point of view, and that is a good enough reason to post. But I’d also like to paint atheism in a much more innocent and good natured light than most people see it.
Now I’m not going to go into any arguments or debates about why I changed. Someone’s stance on religion isn’t something that can be changed by a single facebook comment. Just know that it wasn’t an easy change. There were questions. Questions that lead to more questions. Thousands of points and counter-points, debates, and mind-bending philosophical journeys. But I’m not here to convert anyone. I’m just here to tell a story.
Whenever I tell people I used to be a Christian, the first thing they want to know is, “What happened?” As if there was a single catastrophic event that made me bitter towards religion. Maybe it was a news story about clergymen being inappropriate with children, or perhaps some crazy bible thumper, always making the good Christians look bad. There must have been a theological lightning bolt that hit, and made me the grumpy atheist I am today.
The reality of my conversion is much more boring than a pivotal dramatic moment, I’m sad to say.
I grew up as a pastor’s kid, in a liberal church. The fact that our church accepted homosexuals already seems to be a big draw towards atheism, but in reality, I think it made it much harder to make the shift. Hardline baptist or catholic churches saw things in black and white, but our church left room for a lot of gray area. That made it hard to ever be mad at the church. Anything bad or illogical about religion and morality was brought back to the idea that God was a loving God, and He accepted everybody, including people who had controversial lifestyles.
That made religion very appealing to me. I was so enthralled by the idea of a ‘sensible God’ that I at one time announced I was going to be a minister when I grew up. The ladies in the church cheered and clapped. “Did you hear?” they’d say. “Little Joey’s going to follow in his father’s footsteps!” To this day, I think I would make a terrific pastor, except that the end of every sermon would crash and burn in the most spectacular theological explosion.
But one day I was listening to the radio, and I heard someone saying that they didn’t believe in God, and I thought it was interesting. A year later, I read an article about a non-believer. Several years past, and I heard another radio documentary, this time completely about atheism. I met a friend who said they didn’t believe in God, and suddenly I began to wonder what I really thought about all this. I read the Bible, the Case for Christ, and many other Christian books. I also read Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and many other atheist authors. I went to countless Bible retreats, church services, and debates, always looking for the truth. And I kept holding on to my firm principle that just because lots of people believe something doesn’t make it true.
And one day, I just tried to imagine a world without God. I looked around, and everything seemed normal. I’ll admit, I felt a little dizzy at first, but everything looked the same. I just started to admit to myself that I didn’t really believe in God. It was scary. I started to feel all these emotions. Desparation, loneliness, sincerity, and guilt. But mostly I felt terrific. It was the same kind of feeling that a religious person has when they say they’ve just accepted the Lord into their heart. It felt so beautiful and wonderful and amazing to finally be able to say, “I think there probably isn’t a God!” It was so liberating! Like a deep part of myself was trying to get out all these years. The most honest and true part of myself. And I felt like I was getting rid of a virus that had plagued my mind. I was finally free.
It was hard to sleep that night. I kept trying to pray. I had prayed every single night since I was 3 years old, and now I had to try to sleep without that ritual. I can barely go to sleep without a glass of cookies and milk, and now I have to stop praying? I spent the next few weeks praying every night, but my prayers got shorter and shorter, until my last prayer was something like, “Dear God, zzzzzzzzzz”
And the most interesting thing was that I felt this strange sense of urgency. Because I wasn’t going to heaven anymore. Sure, I wasn’t going to hell either, but life was going to be shorter. MUCH shorter! Now I was just going to die and be . . . dead. Suddenly, the world meant so much more to me. Because this was all there was. I could no longer just ignore people and think, “Oh I’ll make it up to them when I get to heaven.” No, every minute, every second mattered, and every word I said to every loved one was extremely important. I started to make big and bold decisions. I wanted to squeeze every last drop out of life, and make the most out of everything I ever did. And in the end, I learned to value my life and the people I loved in a way that someone who is religious never could.