Before I get started, I’d like to preemptively declare that I am by no means a spokeswoman for atheism or religious skepticism. I’m just a 22 year old girl from a religious family in the southern US, and am therefore asked quite often by my peers about my beliefs (or lack thereof), which are somewhat atypical in my part of the world. The last few years, I’ve largely remained silent on the topic of my atheism, neither advertising or trying to justify myself particularly often, as doing so often only leads to bitter debates that damage friendships, in spite of the good intentions of both parties. I’ve decided that it would be more productive to explain the convoluted road I went down that led to a godless conclusion, because, if nothing else, I’d like more people to understand the logic and thought processes behind my atheism.
As previously stated, I come from solid Presbyterian stock. All sets of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents were devout believers in Christianity. My grandfather attended reformed theological seminary, as did my father in graduate school. Growing up, I witnessed both the positive and negative sides of Christianity exhibited in my family. My family was always hard working, diligent and devout, whereas my father began to lose himself to religious fanaticism year by year.
I was homeschooled for my earliest school years, but later began attending a very religious, small Baptist school. Private schools, as many of you know, have the privilege of dictating their own curriculum, and as such I had daily Bible lessons in school that were every bit as long as my science or literature classes. In conjunction with attending church twice a week, and private Bible lessons with my mother, I was probably more literate in the nuances of the books of the Bible at six years of age than many self labeled Christians today are.
And yet I struggled with Christianity. My entire life I had been urged to accept Jesus into my heart. I tried, I tried desperately all the time to accept this man I had been taught to love. I prayed to accept Jesus into my heart in the privacy of my closet, in the secrecy of bathroom stalls, in the solitude of empty church sanctuaries, but it never worked. My heart always felt exactly the same after my desperate prayers, just my heart, with no addition of the son of God. It was distressing at times, sitting in a prayer circle, surround by my middle school peers, had they accepted Jesus into their hearts? Did they actually feel like they were praying to a listening party, or were they pretending to be part of this Christian club like I was?
In spite of that, my years spent in Christian schools with accompanying unending Bible lectures, my memories of that time are by and large defined by happiness and contentment. I developed valuable relationships in the church, some with friends that I hope to still be in contact with long after I’ve achieved old age. My life developed a steady pattern of school, church, and athletics through my late childhood and entering my early teens, and for the most part I quelled my quiet suspicion that I was not actually a child of God. Not in the sense that I didn’t believe in his existence, not a single fiber of my being had ever been given the opportunity to suspect such a thing, but in the sense that I knew that I did not have the connection with God that I had been taught to feel. I assumed that everyone else was pretending to have this connection too, and I was content not to mention this pink elephant in the back of every Bible study class, and eventually the elephant got smaller and smaller. I think that this pattern would have perpetuated itself through junior and senior high and into adulthood, as it did for most of my friends, had my life not been dramatically, irrevocably altered.
When I was twelve years old and settling into life as a 7th grader, my father was killed. I guess it doesn’t matter so much why he was killed or the events leading up to it (I’ll save that depressing story for another time) in the context of my reform to atheism, but his death did represent the absolute conclusion of my childhood and the beginning of a series of questions that would result in my lack of faith. I began to exhibit symptoms of classic depression following the death of my dad, and found myself retreating from the world. I am sad to say that while my family has any number of positive attributes, basic knowledge of rudimentary psychology is not among them, and when I began to skip school and church, instead of a child in pain, they saw rebellion, and punished me as such, which contributed further to my feelings of isolation. The cycle of refusing to leave my bedroom and resulting punishments perpetuated itself, and my lack of ability to function in the world peaked when I was 14 and 15 years old. I spent my time delving into the glorious solace of books and internet chat rooms (back when AOL was a thing) and began to absorb new perspectives, began to see that there was a whole world that didn’t revolve itself around Christianity.
Thus began what I consider to be the strangest part of my conversion to atheism, when I still believed in God, but was just as sure that I was not in fact one of his chosen believers, and would therefore go to hell no matter how much church I went to. I formally boycotted church when I was 15 due to this realization.
The rest is history I suppose, I absorbed more and more theology and eventually discovered a word that completely changed everything for me. It’s one of many words that, for the most part, is hidden from Christian children: agnosticism. An agnostic, as defined by thefreedictionary.com is: “One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God”. The heavens split and angels I didn’t believe in began singing when I found this glorious word that articulated my deeply harbored suspicions of god that I didn’t realize I had until that moment. I had, of course, been exposed to the term “atheist” throughout my life, but only in the most derogatory of contexts, and it had been successfully tainted by the Christian community for me. Agnosticism, however, in its newness to my brain and absolute lack of tainting, opened the world of religious skepticism for me. Agnosticism, over time, would prove to be the stepping stone to atheism for me (as it is for many, as I’ve heard), and by the time I was 16, I was absolutely at peace and resolute in my lack of faith and have remained so into my twenties. (To the horror of my entire family, I should add. Sorry for the heartache, family.)
I’d like to reiterate once again that I believe the loss of my father and the resulting depression and hyper over-analyzation of myself is what differentiates me from my childhood friends who are still praying to a God that I suspect they suspect isn’t listening (somewhere deep down). If I hadn’t lost my father in a huge and traumatic manner, I really think I’d be going to church every Sunday with the best of them, with the pink elephant in the Bible study room down to a microscopic size at this point. It was the separation from my world, and society in general, at an extremely vulnerable age that allowed me to step back and see the Christianity for the how-hard-can-we-pretend-to-believe competition that I find it to be.
Now, I’ve skipped over almost all of the inner monologues and internal arguments that I spent years developing that talked me out of Christianity and religious dogma in general, not because they’re not valuable, but because I really believe that sharing them is useless. Whether you’re a skeptic or you’re a believer, nothing I’m going to say will sway you, just as it wouldn’t have swayed me. I suppose the point of all of this is that I’m attempting to remove some of the stigma that surrounds atheism. I wasn’t raised by wolves, and I don’t hate god because he didn’t save my dad, (just FYI, people who simultaneously claim to be an atheist and to also hate god just contradicted themselves – stop listening to whatever they’re saying). I’m not mad at the church, and for the most part think that churches are lovely and often provide important social services. I’m a deeply moral, tax paying, voting, college student who hopes to contribute something worthwhile to the world.
Please don’t tell me that you’re going to pray for me because I’m an atheist, I truly can’t imagine anything more condescending. Just love me for what I am and I’ll do the same for you, regardless of how wrong I think your beliefs are.