This story begins with a boy, seven or eight years old, crouching outside on a mid-summer day under a clear blue sky. The boy is peering down into a puddle. It had been raining the day before and there were many such muddy puddles all around. He stares down into it, wondering, perhaps, if (like in The Magicians Nephew or Alice Through the Looking Glass) another world lies just beyond the reflection of the sky above; if that reflection is the mirror image of another universe, with another boy, who is also looking down into his puddle beneath his own clear blue sky.
He stares at it a while, and then it hits him like a bolt. He is looking into a puddle, at his own reflection, at a natural mirror. No such worlds lie beyond. This is all there is.
That, I suppose, is one of the formative moments of my cognitive development as a young person. Growing up on the outskirts of a farming town in rural Kansas, there weren’t many opportunities for… entertainment. So my two younger sisters and I had to create our own. We read books. We ran through fields. We acted out our favorite movies. We developed our imaginations.
Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family was perhaps not the ideal upbringing for a boy with an inquiring mind and insatiable curiosity. I was always the child in Sunday school asking questions, trying to figure out the story or the lesson, and aggravating the hell out of the adults with my persistence. In church during the sermon I would draw as the pastor talked, illustrating what he was saying in a way that made sense to me. In fact, one week one of my drawings was even published in the church bulletin as an example of how young people were “taking part in worship.”
I’ve been asked over the past several months why, after nearly twenty-five years (you can’t really count the first five, can you?), I suddenly became an atheist. My answer is always that there was no “suddenly” about it. Like the slow progress of evolution over billions of years, my own “coming out” as an atheist was a slow journey; with countless small changes and adaptations along the way, being gradually divested of what I wished were true, what everyone was constantly telling me was true, and accepting what is true.
At first I considered beginning with September 11th, 2001, driving in to college with my father and listening to the first reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center on National Public Radio; and then watching in chapel as the first and then the second tower fell, knowing that there were doomed people still inside them; or later that day watching the footage of people leaping from the top floors of the buildings rather than burn to death in the jet fuel inferno.
But that would be too easy.
Perhaps we should start in my living room when I was about eight years old, sitting in an orange arm chair and watching a Billy Graham crusade on television, and the reality of hellfire and damnation sinking in for the first time as he described the eternal suffering of those who died without having Jesus as their savior. There were tears that evening, and it frightened me so badly that I begged God to please spare me from that fate. I searched my soul for some sin that I might confess, sure that I’d done something to offend God at some point in my life.
A while later I ended up praying “the prayer” with my father, largely after my younger sister had done the same with my mom. I didn’t want to be left out, after all. And for a while things seemed good. I had Jesus now. I was “in.” But any changes I experienced didn’t last very long, and I found myself praying over and over again for that same feeling of newness that I’d experienced the first time.
It was never to last.
It wasn’t until my family moved to Minnesota and we found the church that I’d be at for the next fourteen years that my training as an evangelical really began. My fifth and sixth grade Sunday school teacher was an ardent Creationist, and at one point she even arranged for Ken Hamm to come and do a seminar. Those days were exciting.
My church also had several pastors who were great teachers and apologists. These men knew the Bible, and were able to communicate biblical truths in a way that was both relevant and instructive. There was no screaming, finger wagging or podium banging from the pulpit, and to this day I honestly believe that these men love God and love people. One of the pastors in particular deeply engaged my mind and my intellect, and challenged me to think.
And overall it was a positive experience. The people at my church formed a family of believers, both inside the church and out. They mirrored a kind of Christian love and acceptance that still produces warm feelings to this day. Some have experienced unspeakable shame, threats and all manner of psychological trauma at their churches growing up. Me, I recall the little old ladies in their red hats, and evenings in choir practice. (For a time we had a top-notch group, and not your regular warbly church choir—we were an auditioned and solid vocal ensemble.)
But on September 11th, 2001, I watched the towers fall and for the first time God seemed powerless and even uncaring. How could such a thing happen? How could God allow it? Didn’t God care about those people? And I had to assume then that there were many who “died without Jesus,” which meant that they were ushered from one hell directly into another. And it was the will of God.
I remember that morning that we had a speaker in chapel who changed his topic from whatever it was he would’ve been speaking about to Habakkuk, a prophet who I still admire and respect today. Habakkuk was writing on the eve of the arrival of the armies of Babylon, and questioning the wisdom of God in allowing injustice. “How long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and will you not save?” It was a particularly pertinent passage for that horrific morning. I don’t remember much of what he said, but the response did ring hollow in my mind. How could a good God allow that? Because we were Calvinists and fundamentalists, we had to assume that this was all part of God’s ineffable plan—but why?
That night, as I watched the image of the falling towers for probably the twentieth time, I said out loud, “There is no God.” And part of me waited for a lightning bolt to strike or an earthquake, but it was just me and the television.
It was then that I began to question my faith—not so much in response to the horror that I’d witnessed, not to mention the nightmares at the end of the 20th Century, of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and even in the Darfur. Rather, it was the passivity of God, and the seeming resignedness of his followers—almost a shoulder-shrugging at the inhumanity going on around them. As a child there was a song we sang in my family: “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. (That’s sung three times.) No more crying there, we are going to see the King…”
I remember watching the film “Quo Vadis,” a 1951 biblical costume epic with Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov. In one scene condemned Christians wait to be sent into the Coliseum to be torn apart by wild animals. As they waited, they sang a hymn. And my mom began to sing that old hymn: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” But I remember thinking that it seemed such a waste to be killed over a belief, and pondering whether I could hold out under similar duress.
One night years later in my church’s youth group, shortly after the Columbine shootings our youth pastor proposed a similar scenario: A gunman threatening to kill us unless we renounced Christ. What would we do? My initial reaction was to go with the handful of Jesus deniers (after all, you could always ask forgiveness later), but I’m ashamed to admit that I ultimately caved to the pressure and the guilt towards being a dutiful Christian—but that same thought was nagging away at me. “It’s not worth it!”
For me, church was largely a social activity. It was about being with my family and my friends. God was an important part to be sure, but if I had to be honest he was more window dressing than a personal force for me, and theology was the language we spoke—and going to a Christian college for four years, I got pretty good at speaking it too. But as I felt I was growing more certain in my faith, so did the doubts that had steadily been growing in my mind since September 2001—was God even there? He never seemed to intervene.
In high school the husband of our children’s pastor died of brain cancer, and my family went to the viewing. Several years earlier one of the older boys lost part of his leg in a motorcycle accident. And as we stood there with friends, with the casket not far away, I wondered how she could still believe in God, when God allowed all that to happen, for her husband to suffer unimaginably before finally dying. They all believed he was in Heaven, with Jesus. They even went on how he’d been such a witness to the nurses, and to everyone he’d encountered. “That was Jesus in him,” they’d say.
I remember another incident from much earlier in my childhood, when one of the sons of our pastor in Kansas died in a car accident. I don’t remember the details, but the family’s car had hit a patch of ice or something, and the car had rolled, and only he had been killed. The rest of the family sustained injuries, some severe, but they lived. I was puzzled by everyone’s resignedness to this—how it was all part of God’s plan.
Some people have said, “It sounds like you just don’t like how God chooses to work.” And maybe that’s true. I don’t. But every time I’d watch the news or open a paper, someone was being murdered or robbed, and Heaven just seemed silent. And I started to wonder if it wasn’t that God was choosing to be silent, but that God wasn’t there.
On August 24, 2008, I came out as a gay man after over thirteen years of struggling with same-sex attraction and failing to overcome it. Imagine the pained confusion of a twelve-year-old boy, having read all of the books about adolescence, and knowing that I was supposed to be having thoughts about girls and instead having thoughts about… other guys. My friends were starting to talk about girls, having growth spurts, getting more masculine and… well… sexy. It wasn’t until the age of sixteen one autumn afternoon while raking the leaves outside, under a clear blue sky, that the thought finally occurred to me:
It explained everything. But I couldn’t be gay—not and be a Christian! So I tried to be attracted to girls. I’d masturbate at night and try to force myself to think about being with a girl, and at first I’d try to trick myself into thinking about a guy and a girl, but the girl would always disappear and I’d get off with the image of being with a man sexually. And that led, of course, to more praying and begging for God to please take away those thoughts and feelings. But Heaven was ever silent, and I was left with the guilt.
So in 2008, when I finally came out, I made a sort of deal with God that I was going to figure this out. As Dan Savage said of the Catholic Church as a teenager, “That can’t be right. They must be wrong.” I started researching scripture in depth, stopping just short of studying biblical Greek and Hebrew myself—I was going to find out what the bible really said about homosexuality. And I found some really interesting information, but the more I looked and the deeper I dug, the less satisfied I was with the answers I was finding. And I started to become aware of this voice that had made itself heard that evening in front of the television that hadn’t gone away: “There is no God.”
Years previous to September 11th, I was sitting in the car listening to This American Life, and it happened to be the episode with Julia Sweeney where she tells an abbreviated version of Letting Go of God. In the dénouement of the show (which I’ve quoted on here more than once), she recounts the moment where she first begins to lose her weakening grip on the faith she’s desperately trying to hold on to:
One day I was Cometing out my bathtub, and I thought, “What if it’s true? What if humans are here because of pure, random chance? What if there is no guiding hand, no one watching?” I realized I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant that I hadn’t really spent any time thinking about what not-God meant.
A few days later, as I was walking across my backyard into my house, I realized that there was this teeny-weeny thought whispering inside my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. And it whispered, “There is no God.”
And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. “There is no God. There is no God.”
And then I felt like I’d cheated on God somehow. And I went in the house, and I prayed. And I asked God to please help me have faith. But already it felt slightly silly and vacant, and I felt like I was just talking to myself.
And then, over the course of several weeks, God disappeared.
My teenage self heard this and felt both a mixture of self-satisfied pity, but also of fear. It seemed to me that Julia had just given up; that she hadn’t tried hard enough. Everyone has doubt, but you’re supposed to soldier on. After all, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). But there was also a part of me that was afraid she was right; and, looking back, knew that I was hearing that same voice too.
On the night of my birthday this year, after I’d just been dumped by Seth, the guy I’d been in the quasi, one-sided relationship with, it finally came crashing down. I’d been so excited about the church he was starting with my friends, and the thought of being in that church with them, and having a whole new community of friends—but mostly of being madly in love with him. And as I vented my rage at him, it was as if the glasses were suddenly taken away and for the first time I could plainly see that I hadn’t really believed any of it; that I hadn’t believed in God, in the theology I was so good at talking about, in Heaven or Hell, or any sort of divine purpose for my life or for anyone else’s life. It was a bit jarring to do it all at once, but I was finally being honest.
For years I’d had clashes with my parents over my “ungodly” behavior: The swearing, the drinking, the overtly self-centered behavior I’ve admittedly exhibited over the years. One night as my dad and I were driving up to Forest Lake to look at a car after my SUV had died, I admitted to him that I really wasn’t a Christian. I could “talk the talk,” but I hadn’t “given my heart to Jesus.” Not really. He said he knew.
This past summer I lived with my parents for a bit before finding a new place to live, and in one of the many discussions I had with them, my mom accused me of never really giving God a chance. “A chance for what?” I shot back. “God has never been real to me. Everyone else seemed to have these experiences with God, these personal encounters, but I’ve never once had any of that. Give God a chance at what?”
I’ve had religious experiences, to be sure, which were more emotional than spiritual. They were always connected to highly charged moments in my life, in periods of deep depression or brokenness, or to music. And there were a few times when I could almost sense the presence of God near me, when I was attempting to pray, but it was always fleeting, like seeing something out of the corner of your eye.
In the weeks following the debacle with Seth, I considered my decision to reject God. Was I leaving God, or leaving the Church? Was I just mad at Seth and this was my way of lashing out at him—or was there something more to it? As I thought and read and listened and discussed, the more I, like Julia, had to admit that there wasn’t enough evidence to continue to believe in God. Neuroscience is able to duplicate many of the experiences of transcendence that I had; and if I looked back over my entire life so far, God was always part of the window trappings, part of the paraphernalia of the Christian community I’d grown up in. And that wasn’t reason enough to continue. I could try to fake it, to go to church anyway, sing the songs, sit through the sermons (even though I didn’t believe any of it), and enjoy the company. But that’s not me.
I’ve had overall positive experiences in the church; and despite my family’s dysfunction (and the fact that all three of us kids are incredibly neurotic, can’t really trust anyone, never felt loved, and never feel like we’re good enough), a good home life too—but I never had a choice about what I believed or what I was taught, and we lived in an insular community where exposure to outside ideas was limited. It was God’s way, or Hell, and who wants eternal damnation (especially as an incredibly imaginative nine-year-old)? And I could’ve just as easily grown up in a home with bigoted non-Christian parents who didn’t want a gay son, but I grew up believing I was broken, disgusting and the worst sinner for being a homosexual or not trying hard enough to overcome it, and that God was going to send me to Hell if I didn’t literally straighten up.
Since coming out as an atheist, I’ve had much more peace of mind. I no longer fear Hell, or God. My thoughts are my own, and I’m free to think and believe whatever I want. And life without God isn’t as hopeless as we were always taught it was! It actually means more now than it did as a Christian. We live in an amazing universe, as a race of highly evolved primates who for whatever reason are able to think and reason and know and love and appreciate the beauty and wonder of our world. And the fact that this is the end result of billions of years of evolution makes it seem even more remarkable—and there’s still more evolving to come!
I don’t regret all of my life as a Christian. I made wonderful friends, and did some pretty cool things that were a part of that experience. And it’s made me who I am today. However, I’m left wondering who I’d be had I left religion sooner, or come out as gay sooner. But of course it doesn’t do any good wondering what might’ve been. That only leaves you crazy, bitter and stuck in the past. Things went the way they did, there’s no changing any of it, and here I am.
And all of those things have led me here, to realizing that who I am is who I always have been: the skeptical post-theist. I’ll always be the kid asking questions, aggravating the hell out of everybody else because I can’t just stop at the answer, and looking up from the puddle and at the clear blue sky and realizing that this is all there is and that there are no worlds on the other side—but also realizing that true wonder and magic are all around us.
And that that’s okay.