By Gordon Ward
With tears streaming down my face, I walked to the front to accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour.
I was 11 years old and I had just watched a film of a rally led by the wonderful evangelist, Billy Graham. He was a superb preacher and it had been easy to convince me that Jesus had died for my sins, that God loved me and that I should accept Jesus as my saviour.
When the minister of the church asked the people to come to the front, I couldn’t wait to get out of my seat.
Fast forward seven years and I was on my way to university to study theology with a view to becoming a minister in the Anglican Church. At university two opposite things happened – I became less and less sure of the intellectual basis of my faith, but at the same time I became more and more convinced of the emotional basis of my faith.
From my course I learnt that:
- Matthew did not write Matthew
- the end of Mark’s gospel was missing
- Matthew and Luke copied from Mark
- John’s view of Jesus was completely different from the other three gospels
- the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke contradict each other
- all the resurrection narratives contradict each other
- not a single gospel was written by an eyewitness.
Of course, I learned many other things as well, all of which undermined my belief that the Bible was inspired by God.
However, just as the intellectual basis of my faith was disintegrating, my emotional faith was increasing.
I had always found that prayer gave me an emotional high, but now I learnt to speak in tongues and the emotional high became even higher; my feeling that I was in the presence of the Almighty made it impossible for me to think that this was just in my mind and not a reality.
Every single one of my friends was a Christian, all the other students on the theology course were Christians, and I spent my days going to church, prayer meetings and Bible study classes so all the older people I met were also Christians. Nothing and no one prompted me to doubt my faith.
I began to take a leading role – I led prayer meetings, I preached and I even laid hands on someone to heal them. Each activity reinforced my faith.
I was living with two contradictory ideas. I now knew that the intellectual basis my faith was shaky and that it was difficult to claim that the Bible was the inspired word of God but, at the same time, my emotional faith was rock-solid. Of course, human beings are very clever at dealing with such cognitive dissonance and I lived with it for several years.
So it seems to me that I had to leave the faith twice. I had to leave it intellectually, but I also had to leave it emotionally. My theology degree had undermined my intellectual faith, but it needed several other factors to lead me away from my emotional commitment.
When I graduated, I realised that I could not go straight into the ministry, so I became a teacher. I taught religious education in a small, rundown, struggling secondary school. I was the only “born-again” Christian on the staff, and I was challenged (quite gently) by a couple of atheists. They asked me the important questions like why did I believe God existed and how could a loving God allow suffering in the world and how could he create hell. This shook my faith because I knew I had no answers to their questions.
But it was my students who had the most effect on me. None of them had any interest in Christianity and they were not interested in my lessons.One Friday night, I was preparing my next week’s lessons; I was going to teach the feeding of the 5000. As I looked at the familiar story, I realised that the students would laugh me out of the classroom – they would see it as nothing but a fairy story. And for the first time, I accepted the fact that I didn’t believe it either.
Another day I was in my classroom with a small group of older students (15-year-olds). At some point, one of the boys began to talk about buying condoms at the local petrol station. I’m sure he was doing it to embarrass me, since I was very sexually ignorant and completely innocent, and I blushed very easily. At one point he turned one of the girls and said, “You like it don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” she said. And then she looked at me and a look of guilt went over her face.
I’m sure my reaction should have been outrage or concern that the slightly underage young people were having sexual relations but actually my reaction was one of shame. The young woman was a very strong character and her relationships were clearly not coercive, so I felt ashamed that my religion censured a young woman for safely enjoying her own body. For the first time, I felt a clear negative emotion when thinking about my faith.
But the thing that finally led me to leave the faith was my time in Ghana in West Africa. After two years teaching religious education, I realised that this was not an appropriate career for me, so I applied to VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and they sent me to teach English in a teaching training college in Ghana.
The first thing that happened was that all the pressure on me to go to church, to lead prayer meetings, to preach and to believe disappeared. Nobody had any expectations of me at all. The freedom was exhilarating.
I tried to pray, but instead of feeling the wonderful emotions of being in the presence of God, I was distracted by the amazing sights and sounds just outside my window – cicadas, birds by the dozen, monkeys howling in the distance – real life was so much more exciting than my internal experience of God.
Most importantly of all I met people of several different religions. Everyone I met had some animistic beliefs. They believed in ancestral spirits, in small gods, in curses and in the power of fetish priests. I met Muslims and was blown away by the power of their faith – they all seem to be more committed to their religion than any Christians I had ever met.
I met Christians of all sorts, ranging from Catholics to the strangest of charismatic groups. All of these people seemed to be having the same emotional response to their religion as I did, with a very similar dedication and commitment. I realised that these experiences were human experiences rather than divine experiences – they were emotions created by our own minds.
Finally, I was ready to leave my faith, so I did the obvious thing – I knelt down to pray. “I’m sorry God,” I prayed, “but I don’t believe in you anymore.”
And God spoke to me.
I didn’t hear a voice, but I knew his exact words: “Don’t worry about it, I don’t believe in myself either.”
The words made me smile. Obviously God had a sense of humour – my sense of humour – and I realised that God had been created by my own mind.
I stood up; anxiety and worry fell away from me and I looked out of the window at the exciting African world and realised that my future was in my own hands and that it could be fun!
Gordon Ward has a YouTube channel – the “Bible Reading Atheist”.
Watch this video for a more detailed account of his deconversion.