Reading Time: 7 minutes

A first-time visitor to Godless in Dixie asked me this week why I went from being a Christian to being an atheist.  I get this question pretty regularly, and I always like to take the opportunity to think back each time to see if the way that I myself understand the transition has changed any over time.  Losing faith wasn’t a linear or sequential process for me, so the contours of the journey take on slightly different shapes each time I look back with the benefit of deeper hindsight. I find it an ongoing challenge to find better and more comprehensive (even if not more succinct) ways to explain what led me to where I am today. What follows is her question, then my answer to her.

After reading what you had to say about the movie [God’s Not Dead] and this being the only time I have ever read anything by you, I have a question. I am curious. ….you said you were a Christian but now you are atheist. Can I ask why? What turned you?
–Curious reader

Hi, D____.  Thank you for asking, and for not automatically assuming I was never a real Christian to begin with.  I get that a lot, and lemme just tell you, it’s insulting to have 20 years of your life dismissed by people who don’t know anything about you. I appreciate the curiosity, and your willingness to listen.
People often ask me that same question:  Why did I quit believing?  But to me it’s a far more interesting question to ask: Why did I start believing in the first place?  I personally feel that once that question is answered in full, the other question will seem less important.

A Better Question

writingThe answer to my alternative question is that I absorbed and internalized the Christian belief system because I was taught it from my youngest years.  Before I was old enough to possess the critical reasoning skills to challenge such beliefs, I was taught that everything that exists had to be made by a person, and that person had to be the Christian God and no other.  I was taught from my youngest years to accept whatever the Bible says about Jesus, about judgment, and about my need for salvation from a coming punishment. As a teen I became much more heavily invested in my faith and my devotion to it came to characterize the next 20 years of my life.  I had no trouble finding confirmation for my beliefs, and for the duration of those 20 years, I had an ongoing, dynamic, and passionate relationship with a God who I was certain was real.
When I reached my mid-thirties, however, I began to notice something.  I looked around the Christian faith just enough to see how wildly different people’s beliefs (and experiences) could be, and how fervently each person can be certain that his or her way of seeing things is God’s way of seeing things.  I began to ask myself why each person was so convinced that his or her way was the only right way, and soon I began to ask myself the same question about my own beliefs.  What made me so sure that I had grasped the right way of seeing things?  How did I know that my own experience up until that point had been legitimate?
Looking around a bit further, I saw that people around the world had even more diverse beliefs about which religion is right, which God is right, how many gods there are, and what all of them want.  The more I observed my own people as well as the people on the outside of my own “tribe,” the more I began to question how many of us could be so completely convinced of things which obviously cannot all be right.
Life is too short to walk around with only one eye open, and this self-examination led me to raise my standard toward my own belief system.  I began to ask harder questions about how I know the things that I know.  That process is eventually what led me out of my faith.

Faith First, Then Sight

The first thing that began to dawn on me was how utterly subjective my faith was.  By that I mean that upon further examination, almost everything said to be true of my faith depended at some level upon my own first believing that it was true.  I was taught that the benefits of my faith were dependent upon my willingness to believe in them. Like the verse in the famous chapter on faith in Hebrews says:

Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

In time it began to dawn on me that pretty much everything in my belief system works this way:  First you must believe, then you will receive the benefits of the thing you believe.  But upon further consideration that struck me as awfully convenient.  Placebos work exactly the same way. As long as a person is convinced that a thing will accomplish a given function, that person becomes much more inclined to interpret whatever happens next as a successful outcome.
Looking a bit deeper into my own beliefs, I began to notice how flawlessly unfalsifiable my own beliefs had become.  I’ve written about this before because it comes up a lot.
[Read my “Games Christians Play: Making Your Faith Impossible to Disprove“]
Most of the assertions my religion made about the outcomes of a life of faith are impossible to disprove because they are either worded so vaguely as to make them so, or else they are so thoroughly couched in rationalizations for why they didn’t come true that there can be no valid reasons for discounting them.  It’s a rigged game, and that should bother anyone who is serious about demanding that his or her beliefs be founded on things which are a reliable basis upon which to build his or her life.

Like former pastor Ryan Bell wrote about four years later, I began to ask myself if it would make any practical difference in my daily life if divinity were just excluded from the equation altogether.  The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that even for a believer as devout as myself, most daily chores and duties had to be carried out the exact same way whether or not any gods existed.
You still have to get dressed and go to work. You still have to lock your doors and look both ways before crossing the street. You still require medical attention, have to pay taxes, and you still eventually die far too soon. On a practical level, even believers must live as if there were no God for all intents and purposes.  About the only difference is that some of us do the same things while carrying on a prolonged conversation with an invisible person whom the other group doesn’t think is real.  That’s really about it.  On the outside, there’s not much that’s different about how people live.

Making Love Out of Nothing At All

The other major factor in my departure from my faith was the growing realization that the relationship with God to which I had dedicated my life was a completely one-sided relationship.  I spoke to God on a regular basis, and I felt (and openly testified) that he also spoke back to me.  But it slowly dawned on me that I had to supply both sides of the relationship.  It was always up to me to conjure up the communication from either direction. Like a child who’s convinced the Ouija board is truly speaking to him—completely independent of his own imagination—I was very good at finding God’s voice amidst a cacophony of otherwise meaningless background noise.

After twenty years of passionately pursuing my faith, I came to realize that I had been carrying on a loving, decades-long relationship with a figment of my own imagination.

For what it’s worth, I should add that for many of the years in which I performed this ongoing relationship, I enjoyed it very much. It was a fulfilling relationship in many ways for as long as it lasted.  I am convinced that human beings are fundamentally creative beings (much like the gods they envision, no coincidence) who can dream up the most engrossing characters and storylines even in their sleep.  Is it any surprise that we can create our own favorite characters so well that they keep us company even while embodying both our noblest aspirations as well as our most sinister flaws?
The bottom line is that I reached a point in my life in which I needed something more solid to stand on—something demonstrable as true outside of my own head and independent of my own wishes about what should be true—and my faith just wasn’t cutting it anymore.  What worked for me at 17 no longer worked for me at 37. I have yet to see an alternative which involves invisible spirits and instills so much confidence in me that it can survive the same criteria of demonstrability.

Your Life Isn’t My Business

Now, please notice that throughout this entire explanation (which has gone on long enough, so I’ll wrap it up now) I have spoken of myself and my own journey out of the faith which I was given as a child. I always try to stop short of telling other people what they should believe, even if it seems clearly implied in what I am saying about myself.  To be sure, I don’t believe the religions which we have inherited are based in reality (aside from a handful of ethical guidelines like the golden rule which are universal to almost all religions and philosophies). But I don’t feel burdened with a responsibility to tell you what you should believe.
And why is that?  Quite frankly it’s because I don’t really care what other people believe, so long as they treat me and the others around them with a basic level of respect and compassion.  Others may fret that something bad is going to happen to me after I die. I can’t make them stop worrying, even if I wish they would.  But all I ask is that they respect my own personal boundaries so that I can live my life as I see fit, doing the most good I can see to do for others since that’s all I really wanna do anyway.
You asked a short question and I wrote you a novella!  I tend to do that. At any rate, thanks again for asking, and feel free to ask anything else you’d like. I’ll try to answer in fewer than 1800 words next time.
 [Image source: Shutterstock]
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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...

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