What 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.