by Ben Loewen
My family is United Methodist so that’s how I was raised. I grew up without a doubt in my mind that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all existed as one being and three beings at the same time and that evolution was as wrong as wrong could be. There were only two things that bothered me. One was the fact that I hated praying. I never felt like I was doing anything except talking to myself. People always talked about how they heard the voice of God and I couldn’t understand why I never could. The other was the idea of the Rapture happening at any moment. I was always taught that God’s return was imminent and that I had to be ready at all times. This caused an enormous amount of stress since I never felt that I was “saved enough”. I had been saved but I never felt like it stuck (i.e. my faith hadn’t given me a heightened ability to avoid sin) and, for this reason, I got saved three times in the space of a few years, just to make sure it would stick. The fear never went away, though. I thought that God would return before I got a chance to go to college, get married, get a job, and have kids.
However, these two things didn’t bother me enough to be a constant problem and I easily kept my faith. In fact, I was so confident in my beliefs that when I was in 10th grade I brought a book about creationism entitled ‘It’s a Young World After All’ into my biology class and gave it to my teacher. I told her that she’d find it interesting and to just give it back when she was done. A few days later when she returned it I asked what she thought of it and she said, “I have my beliefs and you have yours.” I took that as a snotty “You’re right and I won’t admit it” type of remark and counted it as a victory for Christ. Of course, I gave her the book believing full well that evolution was wrong and creationism right, and I truly thought she’d be surprised. After all, how could anyone deny the facts? Nowadays I realize it annoyed her and I feel like an ass for trying to convert her.
I basically went through high school ignoring anything I was taught that contradicted Christianity, passing the classes but forgetting the information afterwards. Looking back on my first 17 years, the only thing I can remember that really gnawed at me was the fact that most of my friends were decidedly less religious than I was and they somehow seemed happier. I couldn’t do certain things that they could because God said ‘no’. Of course, the one that got to me the most was sex, not out of a desire to have it, but from a desire to understand why it wasn’t allowed. I was torn between two sides of my mind, the one that said “God says to wait till marriage. Who are you to disobey God?” and the one that said “What’s the harm if you truly love the person?” No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t understand what the problem with premarital sex was if you took all the proper precautions. Why would God dub something evil if it isn’t done for evil reasons? Even human laws take that into account. However, I managed to put this aside and forgot about it. I graduated from high school and soon went on to college still firm in my beliefs.
My first semester in college went by the same as high school had and I never had a problem with the fact that a lot of my friends were atheists, agnostics, wiccans, and other types of non-Christians, though at one point I realized that, without even realizing it, the vast majority of the friends I had chosen were completely non-religious and this fact intrigued me, though not enough to question my own faith. That changed in the middle of my second semester. I was in the campus cafeteria having lunch with my friend Sean, and somehow we started discussing the idea that all morals come from God and that non-believers have no good reason to be moral. Looking back on it, I never really believed deep down that non-Christians were immoral, but I accepted that belief because I knew that’s what I was expected to do.
As Sean and I debated I quickly discovered that, despite my 17 years of devotion to Christ, I had absolutely no ability to defend my beliefs. Also, despite my unquestioning faith in God, I was always the type that thirsted for new knowledge and was never satisfied until I was satisfied with the answers I got. So, instead of thinking “Oh, he’s wrong, I’m right, and there’s really no point arguing about it”, I immediately ran back to my dorm and got on the net and started searching for apologetics sites. I was amazed. All this proof of God’s existence and I had never heard most of it! After reading different sites for a couple hours I thought, “Wait. If I’m gonna tell these to Sean he’ll probably have counterarguments, so I have to know his side and how to take it down.” So, I started reading sites about evolution, abiogenesis, astronomy, the big bang, and all that good stuff. I had always had a strong interest in these subjects already, being the type of kid when I was younger that devoured books on dinosaurs and the universe, so I really did enjoy it. However, that was where it all turned around for me.
As I continued to read I compared the atheist side to the Christian side and found, to my horror, that the Christian side was weak. Very weak. In fact, whenever a non-Christian brought up a good, strong counterpoint to a creationist argument, the creationist was rarely able to answer it and very often resorted to half-truths, evasions, and even flat-out lies, even going to far as to blatantly ignore evidence and facts that the non-Christians gave them.
How could that be? These people had God living within them. He guided their every move and yet they lied, evaded tough questions, and generally acted very un-Christlike. Despite my religious beliefs, I also had a strong belief in basic honesty, and only rarely did I find a creationist who demonstrated much of that. I remember the very moment I realized that my beliefs might be wrong. I was sitting on my bed in the dorm, staring into empty space, slumped against the wall in utter disbelief. I can’t describe the feeling of complete shock and horror I felt at that moment.
Now, at the time I was talking to my cousin over instant messenger whom I knew was an atheist and I told him that I was questioning my beliefs. He said “Just do what I did. Become an atheist,” and I replied that I couldn’t. I didn’t want to risk it. What if God really did exist and he sent me to hell for not believing? As a result, for the next few months I tried desperately to hang on to my faith and prayed fervently for God to help me through this tough time. However, because of all the research I had done I was now looking at Christianity in a whole new light. I realized that the reason I had always felt like I was talking to myself when I prayed was because I really was. I understood that the reason I could never hear God’s voice was because he had never actually spoken to me. I learned that science could provide a fully acceptable answer for the origin of Life, the Universe, and Everything without the need for God’s input. Yet I still fought it. I tried desperately to ignore it, but it was always there nagging at me. Finally one morning in June, I woke up and my first thought was literally, “I don’t believe anymore”, and surprisingly, I felt really good. I had spent so much time and effort trying to hold back what I was thinking, and in the end all it took was waking up one morning and realizing that I was being stupid to complete the paradigm shift. I felt like I was finally free to live my life the way I wanted without the constant fear of living up to God’s standard, which I had never felt were possible to live up to anyway.
After I officially gave up my faith it was still a good four months till I got up the courage to tell my parents I was having doubts. This was a lie, I admit, as I had already progressed far past the “doubting” phrase, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell them yet how far my doubts had gone for fear of their reaction. Luckily, though, when I finally did tell them they were more sad than angry. I waited till October to break the news, but when I did it wasn’t on purpose. I was in church that morning at a youth group meeting and we were discussing the recent presidential elections and I mentioned that I had voted for Kerry. Several people in the group jumped me. They called me an idiot for voting for him and asked how I could do something so stupid. I was so mad about it and it kept gnawing at me all day. I realized that I was tired of keeping my beliefs to myself, and so that afternoon I told my family. They took it very well but, unfortunately, they treated it like a phase that I would soon grow out of. They told me that they wanted me to keep going to church because God wasn’t done with me yet. Of course, I didn’t want to keep going but I did anyway just to keep the peace. I managed to keep it up for a year but it finally got to me and I said I wasn’t going anymore. Fortunately, my parents seemed to understand.
It took them a long time to come to accept it, though, and it wasn’t without a few fights. The one I’m least proud of is when my dad said that believing evolution takes just as much faith as believing in God, to which I replied, “No, I accept evolution because I have evidence. You only believe in God because you were raised that way.” It wasn’t until my mom asked me, possibly as a last resort, if I had every tried just praying for God to reveal himself to me. I said that yes, I had prayed for a very long time for that exact thing, and yet he never did. God is supposed to be all knowing, so of course he knows what it would take to bring me back to Christianity and he knows how to do it. I can only assume that the fact that he hasn’t means that either he wants me to be an atheist (for now, at least) or that he doesn’t care whether I’m Christian or not. Or, option three, he’s an evil bastard who wants me to be an atheist just so he can laugh when he sends me to hell. However, God is also supposed to be all-good and completely loving, so if he exists he wouldn’t do that. So, either way there’s no risk in me being an atheist. If he wants me to come back, I will never close my mind to the possibility that he exists. He knows what it would take to convince me of that.
Finally, with my deconversion came two main things:
1. The answer to the debate I had had with Sean. Non-Christians are moral because it’s the right thing to do. Why does anyone need the almighty to tell them why it’s bad to kill, rape, or steal, when it’s already obvious that those things hurt other people? After all, Christianity doesn’t promote true morality, it only promotes fake morality borne from fear of punishment and hope of reward. Which is better: to be a good person because it’s the right thing to do, or to be a good person because you’re hoping for a reward? Honestly, I think if God is any sort of good himself, then he’ll realize that I tried my best out of a real desire to do good, and not because I was expecting to get into heaven for my goodness.
2. A much greater sense of honesty than I ever had as a Christian. Sure, I tried to be as honest as possible when I was Christian, but now I realize that, in order to learn, sometimes you have to risk discovering that what you already “know” is wrong. This is what I love most about science. It’s the constant search for objective truth, without letting your preconceived biases get in the way. If a newly found fact contradicts your beliefs, then change the beliefs. After all, reality isn’t going to change, and fighting new evidence is an exercise in futility.