Losing My Religion (pt. 1)

quitWhat follows is a letter I wrote to a handful of friends a couple of years ago in order to “come out” to them about my atheism.  It prompted a number of probing questions which necessitated a much longer letter, which I will include in the next post.

After twenty years of earnest, sincere seeking, I find that I no longer believe in the existence of God.

I realize it will come as a shock to those who have walked beside me in any significant capacity, sharing my faith journey at one stage or another. How could I today deny experiences which were real and perfectly believable just a few short months or years ago? Forgive me, I don’t have a good answer for that–or at least not one which would satisfy most of those who know me. The best I can do at this point is to say that the last few years of my life have deeply impressed upon me just how easily we can convince ourselves of things which we want believe. It doesn’t seem to matter if those things are contrary to reason; we simply see what we want to see.

This, among other things, has led me to conclude that my faith, which has defined my life for two decades, no longer “works” in providing a framework for understanding the world around me. I’m writing this to you because you are among those who have been close to me over the years, and I feel that those who know me need to know about this development. I also feel that some basic explanation might be in order, even if it doesn’t answer all of the questions that you may have at this point. So if you feel like reading a little, humor me a bit.

I have always had (what I would call) a healthy respect for the limitations of human perception. Even in my years of faith I always found it easy to remember that nothing I “know” is so irrefutable that it cannot be disproved one way or another. Knowledge is just not that reliable, particularly when it is non-empirical in nature. Now don’t label me postmodern too quickly. I still believe our minds are useful–and necessary for life–just not infallible. For what it’s worth, I feel equally tentative about my current disbelief. I remain open to being re-persuaded that God does in fact exist. At this point in my life, however, I honestly believe it would take something quite big and beyond my imagination* to convince me that my current skepticism is in error.

Some who know me may not realize that I have always had a strong inner skeptic, one with whom I have lived since I was young. I was extremely inquisitive as a boy, always having a bit of a scientific bent. For me, then as now, I was able to envision a world in which God did not exist, a world where things just were the way they were by chance and by the impersonal forces of nature. I’m not saying I didn’t have unanswerable questions, or that this viewpoint was either comforting or completely intellectually satisfying. I simply could see reasons for why things are the way they are without invoking a divine creator/sustainer.

I put that part of me away when I began my journey of faith at age 16. I am sure that this inner skeptic didn’t go away entirely since even in my Christianity I always seemed to find a path of nonconformity. I’ve always found it easy to question what I (along with anyone else) believe. That approach led me out of a traditional church environment after the first ten years, and now after another ten it has led me out of both the house church world and indeed out of the Christian faith altogether.

I am painfully aware that my deconversion will be troubling and even hurtful to those who care about me. How can you not be troubled by this if you believe my eternal destiny is at stake? I suppose I will make a fascinating case study for the “once saved always saved” notion. While it will probably satisfy few of those who read this, I will try to briefly explain a couple of reasons for my current state of mind.

First, the subjectivity of it all finally got to me. It seems to me that God is only as real as I make him to be. Faith, I am told, is supposed to be self-authenticating. As a result, God’s presence and activity always seem to depend upon my willingness to believe in them. Yes, I have “heard from God” plenty over the years, but my hearing has always been contingent upon my expectations. The moment I quit expecting to hear from him, or to see any other evidence of his presence, he vanishes completely. I am left instead with the disturbing realization that, like the protagonist in A Beautiful Mind, I have likely imagined a lifelong relationship with a person who does not even exist. To this day, I cannot recall a single event, thought, or sensation which has no other legitimate explanation besides divine intervention. To my mind, there are just too many other good explanations for things. Put differently, all the evidence for God’s existence in my life has always been circumstantial. All the answered prayers and divine guidance that I can remember have come “from God” indirectly, through circumstances and secondary means which could just as convincingly be explained by things other than God. Somehow I have been able to look past that over the years. Now I simply find that I no longer can.

This single relationship is too important to leave to my imagination, and that brings me to the other basic reason for my loss of faith: This central relationship, around which every facet of my life is to be organized and prioritized, has been so profoundly and utterly one-sided that it no longer strikes me as a real relationship with a real person. One would hope that a relationship which serves as the foundation for all other relationships, indeed for all decisions in life, would be at least as real (if not more real) than every other relationship. But in my experience the opposite is true. For example, I have never doubted the existence of my parents, or my wife, or my children. My communication with them has always been two-way, and my experience of them is concrete. A life can be built around such relationships. But seeking to “know God,” and making that pursuit the center of my life, has only left me utterly unsatisfied. It is akin to carrying on a relationship with someone who long ago moved to another country without any future communication save for third-hand letters written to other people, without ever clearly referencing or responding to communication from you. Can that even be called a real relationship? I believe someone in that situation would be justified in moving on. There is no relationship to betray.

There are other things, of course, which work in tandem with these two basic things to persuade me against faith in a deity. Besides boring you, I’m afraid the only other thing it would accomplish to spell them all out would be to invite a debate over particulars, and I really don’t think that would be productive. I’ll be happy to talk with anyone who wants to talk with me about all of this. I have hope that many of the relationships I have accumulated over the years can continue despite this change in me. I hope that you will remain my friend, even if I am no longer a fellow believer.

Sorry for the out-of-the-blue nature of this note. I simply feel it would be helpful at some level for me to make this known to those who know me. Knowing each of you as I do, I trust that you will be kind and compassionate in your response :-)

_______

* When I initially wrote this, I stated that “it would take something quite big and beyond my imagination” to make me believe again.  This inspired almost everyone to demand a list of things which would make me change my mind.  Since then I’ve thought of quite a few examples, but the more pressing question for me is:  Do you hold it against me for wanting evidence?  And why?  Incidentally, I addressed this issue in a previous post.

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  • The Thinker

    Great points in there. I love the honesty and can relate to a lot of what you wrote. I’m still on the journey as an agnostic and may remain here as I can’t be certain… but I really appreciate the points you raised. All the best.

  • http://GodlessinDixie Unborn Again in Paradise

    Hey Thinker: I know this is a late response, but I myself have just recently emerged from Christianity, after 40 years of a professing evangelical faith. I would like to hear more of your story. I identify myself with the points of Neil’s letter, but I take my experience further as describing this “personal relationship with God” as “functioning psychosis”; this mental effort put forth to imagine one is having a “relationship” with an imaginary person is just that. This is a fictional life, no different than the substance of some Stephen King novel/movie where some little girl is talking and having tea with an imaginary playmate (well, at least in the movie the playmate eventually emerges as being real, though unfriendly!).

    This religiosity, articulating this a little different than Neil does, is dependent on how vividly and consistently the believer can conjure the dynamics of this imaginary figure (aspects and specific characteristics will of course differ from person to person) and the imaginary relationship. We have all witnessed in person or on television displays of extreme outburst of hysterical emotion, that undoubtedly are auto-produced in the mind of the person.

    Well, I have got to get to work. Love to hear from you.

    Unborn Again in Paradise

  • http://BryanASands.com bryskates

    My “like” is in regards to your honesty, not to the fact you have stopped believing. ;) I have not read your previous or succeeding post about this topic yet but I will. And for what it is worth, there is nothing wrong about seeking evidence. I think I do identify with you as I am a skeptic at heart. I am reminded of Thomas in John chapter 20. He needed to see the marks in Jesus in order to believe–and that’s what Jesus showed him. Jesus did not chastise him.

  • Kristi S

    Amen, amen, and amen! Sorry about all the likes and responses. I just found these earlier posts and am enjoying them very much.

  • Lynn

    Stumbled upon your site. Just wanted you to know you are loved. Deeply. For what it’s worth, even if you don’t believe, know just for the sake of knowing – there is a wife and mother of one from sunny southern California who doesn’t know you at all who is praying for you. I know what it’s like to question (inquisitive is my middle name) but then again I also know what it’s like to be dazzled into the realm of complete belief. I truly hope you have a wonderful day godless in Dixie…

  • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

    Thanks, Lynn. The warmth is appreciated.

    I’ve decided that doubt and questioning aren’t unwanted conditions to escape from. What I’ve learned from the last few years is that doubt and questioning are ways forward OUT of beliefs which turn out to be untrue. Your kindness is still welcome, though :)

  • Clay

    Interesting reading. Well laid out and courteous respectful of others. I read the letters to your daughters. Then I read some of your other posts. It seems that when you first arrived at becoming an Atheist you had the attitude let people come to their own conclusions. In fact you asked your daughters to at least consider your new found place in life. But then in your later writings you seem to be trying to convert people to your ideology. As time goes on it seems you get more zealous in doing so. Why ? What happened to letting people come to their own conclusions ?? And what do you do with when a Atheist or Agnostic becomes a Christian ?? I asked this of another Atheist and was ridiculed to pieces. I respect that you are courteous and respectful to others that do not share your views. But you mention how people of faith have treated you very ugly since you changed your views. Surely in the 20 yrs. you were a Christian you encountered Atheists who similarly treated Christians ?? I respect your honesty and your courtesy and the fact that you seem to be respectful to others. BUT I would hope you would do as you Initialy did, share your story and let others draw their own conclusions. Not Preach as the people of faith are attacked so many times for doing. Because reading the rest of your posts frankly that looks like what you are doing, Preaching Atheism. If any of my comments have Offended, let me quickly apologize, as I asure you that is Not the intent. Nor do I have any intent to Offend any readers that come here. I have worked and lived around Atheists in peace and relative harmony. I think the world is big enough for both people of faith and those who do not embrace God or religions, or faith to live in. I have shared the Gospel many times. It has never been for sale from me, nor will it ever be. My attitude has always been and always will be that the person has a right to choose to believe or not believe. It is not my place to judge that person or try to Sell them on some thing. The Lord Jesus Christ instructed believers to “shake the dust off their feet and move on”. SURE there have been many people down through the ages who have used the Name of Christ to perpetrate all manner of evil for Their own purposes. And there have been people who have in excessive zeal done much more harm than good for the cause of Christ. On this I fully agree. BUT I was just today called “Ignorant”, “Backward”, “un-enlightened” by proxy on a Atheist web site. Because these comments were directed at all people of faith there. Not exactly friendly and willing to reach out in a courteous manner !! So it needs to be said that quite a Atheists are not tolerant or sensitive to people of faith either, it’s a two street. In one of your posts you mention Christians trying to talk about things of the heart as a “divirsionary tactic”. Almost like they are some sort of enemy ! No they are People. People with a different view from yours, but People none the less. I just hope you will remember that in the excitement of your new found position in life. I’ve been a Christian for over 20 yrs. and I’ve never heard of any body of Christians with the desire to render any sort of harm physical or material to Atheists. Some may be a little to zealous in condeming it. But that doesnt mean that ALL Christians are bent on harming Atheists ! Just like it’s obvious that (you are a good example) ALL Atheists arent out to harm Christians. I hope that people can live and let live. Thank you and sorry this is so lengthy ! Best wishes and Peace !

  • http://www.thirdistudio.com.au Andrew

    Interesting read and you make some good points. I myself have over the years moved further and further away from Christianity. I have come to a point recently that tipped me right over to becoming agnostic. I was doubtful about a lot of the bible storys for quite some time, and after doing research concluded that the old testament in particular is total fiction. Not only that, but I wouldn’t want to worship the god from the old testament as he sounds cruel. The new testament god sounds quite different to the old testament god again making me think that the book is really the work of fiction…..why would an all powerful god change his attitude towards us? These aren’t the only reasons, just a cataslyst that liberated me from religous oppression. No longer do I feel guilt or shame or fear of going to hell. Religion is a terrible thing in my opinion. So glad I am free of the shackles. I hope more people come to realise it for the sham it is. You don’t need a story book to tell you what is right from wrong.