From time to time I get comments like this on my blog:
Hi I stumbled on your blog yesterday while researching homeschooling. I became quite intigriuedby your story. I am a christian homeschool mom and respected your insights. It brakes my heart how legalism and your upbringing push The Lord out of your life. That is man not God. Since you seem like a very educated girl, may I suggest you let your children decide if God is who He says HE is. I pray that you will love in with Jesus and not who you think He is. Blessings to you, Karen
Okay, so here’s the thing: I don’t think there is a Jesus out there. It’s not that I don’t think God is who he says he is (I don’t think he exists, so there’s no he to say anything), and it’s not that I think Jesus is someone that he’s not. I really don’t think there is a supernatural being named Jesus, or a supernatural being at all.
I’m really not sure how many different ways I can say this.
And then there’s the idea that I lost faith as a result of legalism. But this completely ignores the fact that there were two years between when I began questioning and when I no longer believed—two years during which I rejected any form of legalism and explored other varieties of Christianity, especially Catholicism. I saw how beautiful Christianity could be. I loved it. When I walked away from legalism and into Jesus’s arms and it was wonderful. I’ve experienced so much more of Christianity than mere legalism. (Though we do need to have a conversation about how slippery the word “legalism” is, but that can come later.)
Did I lose my faith as a result of negative experiences with other Christians? I’ve had people suggest that this is the case as well. Except, it ignores the fact that I have known many Christians who are kind, and whom I count as friends or beloved family members. In fact, it was my Christian college friends who opened their arms and welcomed me as I walked away from the legalism, smoothing my path. They were there for me. They accepted me. I’ve had bad experiences with other Christians, yes, but I’ve also had good experiences with other Christians.
But what about others? Aren’t there people who experienced legalism or had negative experiences with other Christians and became atheists as a result? We need to set one myth at rest for good here. People do not become atheists because they are angry at God. If someone is angry at god, they, uh, clearly believe there actually is a God to believe in. Which means they’re not atheists. Now yes, there are some who conclude that there is no God after experiencing great loss. This isn’t about being angry at God, though. This is about concluding, based on one’s experiences, that there does not appear to be a God. And that’s not the same thing.
And that brings me to my next point—why I’m an atheist. Remember everything I said about how beautiful I found Christianity, and my supportive Christian friends? I had literally no reason to leave Christianity. It would have been easier for a variety of reasons to have remained a Christian. Why, then, did I leave?
Quite frankly, I didn’t leave Christianity—it left me. I just couldn’t believe anymore. It stopped making sense. And as it stopped making sense, my personal relationship with Jesus became more distant. I tried to hold on, but it was like trying to grab hold of a ghost. Tired of fighting, I let go, and avoided thinking about any of it for a few weeks. It was a blissful break, and at the end I realized to my surprise that it was simply gone—I no longer believed.
Of course, I don’t claim to speak for everyone. Different people come to atheism for different reasons. Sometimes their reasons may leave something to be desired, and sometimes the use the beliefs they construct to justify treating others unkindly. But I think it’s worth remembering that the same is true of Christians. There are Christians who force themselves to believe because they are afraid of what would happen if they were not to. There are Christians whose beliefs are founded in false stereotypes of the other. There are Christians who use their beliefs as justification for treating others unkindly.
We are all human.
As for me, please stop telling me that legalism is what resulted me me becoming an atheist. Please stop telling me I’ve never known the “real” Jesus. Frankly, if you’re honestly going to tell me that the “real” Jesus hid himself from me that entire time I carried on a personal relationship with what I fully believed to be Jesus, there is something seriously wrong with your belief system. I’m not an atheist because I grew up with legalism or because I was hurt by other Christians. So can we retire that line already?