Growing up there was never a question of going to church on Sundays, attending Sunday School as a child and eventually graduating to the “adult” experience of sitting in pews, singing old songs and listening to a sermon. Beyond Sundays there was mid-week youth group of some kind, attempting to instill the bonds of faith with other believers of my age group.
I was “saved” at an early age, internally pushed into it out of fear of death. Later, as a teen, I “rededicated myself to Jesus,” a fact of life for many evangelicals who grow up in the church. Finding myself living a life having “backslidden,” the fervency of “getting right with God” cannot be overstated. I went after this feeling with a dedication reserved for the self-righteousness of the teenage mind or reformed sinner. Being a Christian was more than a statement, it was a living ideal.
College brought a host of new experiences I’d been wishing for. I’d studied philosophy before, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, but never to the extent I was now. Similarly with theology, I was introduced to the history of Christianity, studies in biblical literature and the changing history of theological ideas. I ate it up even as more and more the questions I was coming up with were increasingly not being answered. The boy who had written in his senior yearbook picture caption that “to live in Christ is gain” was now beginning to grasp at straws.
The central difficulty, when faced with more thorough studies in theology and philosophy, was just why Christianity was accurate and all other forms of religion were wrong. I was not ignorant of the story of Jesus, the salvation message was one that still sang in what I considered my soul. However, the old notion put forward by C.S. Lewis and promoted by popular thinking was that Jesus’s story was somehow unique, that for anyone to declare what he did would have to be insane or lying or telling the truth and as believers we knew it was true.
The history of the evolution of theology started the questions. The doctrine of sin wasn’t established for hundreds of years after Jesus died. The same went for the notion of the Trinity. Then there were the political squabbles and theology-by-committee, where even the words of the Bible were determined through debate and political happenstance. While I could certainly declare that all of it was guided by the hand of God, the blatant human ridiculousness could not be ignored. God had more and more to answer for, more and more to take control over. The simplicity of the gospel story was no longer so quaint.
Then there was the uniqueness and power of faith. Faith led me to truth, but the why and how had never been answered. At bible college and through other studies, it still wasn’t. 9/11 hit with the emotional weight of a freight-train. The towers fell, people died and suddenly I was confronted with this whole other religion called Islam. More importantly, they were using the same notion of faith to justify their murderous actions and allegiance to their tradition. Why was I right and they were wrong? How did faith work?
I started seeing that all of the defenses for Christianity I had could be applied by adherents to Islam. Their usage of the term “faith” was the exact same, merely their doctrines being different. It was like looking down a brightly lit path that instead of leading to only one end, there were multiple to choose from and no means of determining which one was better. Combining this startling revelation with studies in psychology about belief and childhood experiences guiding adult behavior, I was faced with the conclusion that had I grown up in a different family I’d have a different religion holding my dedication. There was nothing to set Christian believers apart except the confluence of personal history and the vagueness of personal choice. Faith was not a matter of being overwhelmed by truth, it was simply a rationalization for what wasn’t supposed to be doubted. I was not Job at the mercy of a cosmic chess-match, I was a human being faced with the realization that there was no game being played at all, except in my own head.
The term “atheist” was so abhorrent, so equated with foolishness, that to contemplate such a conclusion was impossible before 2001. The slipping away of faith as a justification for religious belief, the complete destruction of the Bible as a book directly from God without error, the recognition that science could lead to knowledge without resting on the supernatural, these all combined into the very conclusion I’d thought never to reach.
Atheism wasn’t simply a choice on my part, it was the conclusion at the end of complete loss. I was no longer part of the chosen few, no longer taking part of the divine secrets bestowed by God. Instead I found myself within this curious thing called humanity. What used to be vilified through the notion of sin, a disgusting example of what free-will leads to and in desperate need for redemption, the beauty and passion and perseverance of humanity itself was the only salvation I had ever needed.