How I became a happy Atheist
Every year after my birthday, I try to reassess my life. I write down this reassessment so I can read it. I’ve found my memory slants things in my favor and only by writing down my thoughts can I later be sure of exactly what I was thinking at the time. So this post is primarily for me, put out publicly for anyone who might be interested. In essence, I’m reintroducing myself to myself. If you want to get to know me again, this would be a good thing for you to read, if you don’t there won’t be much you haven’t heard already.
I spent most of my life with what you might call a divided self. To some people, I was a good and serious Christian, to others I was a very liberal Christian, to myself I could be either of those two, but there was also a private life hidden from both my serious Christian friends and my nominally Christian friends. There were two parts to this private life as well: there was young man that desired nothing but the satiation of the flesh, and finally caught in the tension of all of this and man who truly hated his very life, and struggled constantly to avoid physical self harm and deep feelings of worthlessness. I was deeply ashamed that I, a Christian felt that way and struggled as much to keep people from finding out how I felt like trash as I did to overcome those feelings.
It made for a complicated life. I thought my parents were the greatest parents on earth and I loved them. At the same time, sometimes I hated them so much it was purely my fear of the punishment of God for disobeying them that kept me at home much past my 16th birthday. If I was going to choose one word to describe my young adult and adult years it would “confused”. I was never sure who was the real me: the serious Christian, the liberal Christian, the sex freak, or person who was prevented from suicide purely because whenever he put a gun to his head he saw his family around his hospital bed as he was in a vegetative state, clucking their tongues and saying “Couldn’t even get that right, could you?”
I was always on the look out for someone who had the answer of how to live the Christian life. I wanted to truly be a Christian more than anything on earth. Adolescent angst turned into adult depression. Frequently, I would wake up before my alarm went off and stare at the ceiling trying to will myself into facing another day of failing to be the man I was supposed to be. Usually I could. Sometimes I could not, and it cost me more then one job.
This would lead me to join a radical Pentecostal group who claimed to have a corner on knowing God. Some would call the group cult-like, and perhaps it was but, in the end it was good for me. For the first time in my life I was honest with people about the feelings I had about myself and others. There was an enormous rush to being that intimate with people emotionally. The feeling, though sexless, is not entirely unlike the feeling of being courted. (I’ve talked to a few cult survivors who say this remains a feature of their live that they now miss.) When the novelty of those wonderful feeling wore off however, I was largely the same person. This became an increasing source of frustration. Further, the church talked a very radical, revolutionary game, but when I started to ask hard questions about when this so called revolution would start, I was ostracized.
A pivotal moment in all of this, was falling in love with my wife’s best friend. Of course, being 24 and her being 22, part of these love feelings including an intense and acute desire to make love to her. Which at first, made me hate myself more then I knew was possible. It would hardly seem that this could work for good? But it did. Through long conversations with my wife about my feelings, we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t feelings that were wrong but the actions you took with them. That being the case, I just ignored the sex drive and enjoyed loving someone. Always I had seen my desire for sex with a woman I was not married to as sick and twisted, and myself as perverse for having such feelings. Now, I accepted those feelings and enjoyed them but chose not to act on them. This was the beginning of a life of much less self hatred.
This new life of believing that I was worthy of love changed what I expected from a church. I now wanted to be treated as a peer. This didn’t sit well with the somewhat cult-like church we went to. The last straw was when I quit my job (to avoid temptation, long story) and no one would help us. Further, I was reading the Bible as a whole document looking for the whole story rather then reading individual passages to see what I could make it say. Our church wasn’t even close.
We had moved to the inner city to be closer to the people we were supposed to be saving. I sat on the stoop listening to the gun fire and the sirens. I realized that every stupid thing I had ever done was because I thought someone besides me would take care of me, yet here I was unemployed in the projects of Kansas City. I had a high enough ACT score to get into MIT and I was waiting tables and living three doors down from a crack house.
I decided I would start taking care of myself, and that such a thing would glorify God. I also still wanted to help people in the inner city, and it looked to me (after 2 years of hearing about transformation that I never saw) that hard working people getting money into the crappy schools would go a lot farther then prayer meetings.
I joined the Air Force (same pay as the other branches but least chance of getting shot and most time at home). I joined a very sincere Christian who had reached one simple conclusion: If one was going to consistent with ALL of scripture instead of just the parts they liked, then God was a radically different person then most people thought.
It’s unfortunate in many ways that I deconverted after joining, because I think a lot of people have the idea the military experience is what made me an atheist. Not at all. I joined, as I said, primarily to make enough money to make a difference. I came into the military a Christian. It was not the Air Force life that deconverted me but careful study of Scripture and the history of the early church.
That study lead me to believe that one of three things must be true (1.) There is no God. (2.) There is a God but he actively hides from those who seek him (3.) There is a God and I personally can see no evidence because he doesn’t want me to. In any of those three cases, this life on earth is the highpoint of my existence as I am either bound toward nothing or hell.
Logic says to believe the idea which requires the least invention to work. I could invent a God that cannot be found with the scientific method, or say there is no God. I chose no God. I prayed a final prayer, “Lord if you are real, I came to this conclusion with the brain you gave me and the best facts I could get. If you are real and I am wrong, then please keep my daughter and don’t hold my sin against her. I’m going to be true to myself and admit I don’t see you.”
After this, everything got better. (A subject I have blogged on extensively.) I didn’t ache inside because I wasn’t failing anymore. I stopped pretending I was a Christian, so now I had one kind of friends: the kind that liked me for me. Three months later, I woke up and was getting ready for work. I felt strange and it took me some reflection to realize why: I couldn’t remember the last time I woke up so depressed that I couldn’t go to work.
I didn’t immediately “come out” as an atheist. In my life I have been many things and what I am really excited about today is not something that will necessarily have great meaning to me in 6 months or a year or 5 years. I quietly worked out things. One of the things I really struggled with was the meaning of life in the absence of God. Christianity is a pre-packaged world view, the paradigm equivalent of a Lunchable. Atheism is merely a theology. Eventually, two things would move me. The first was existentialism. Sadly, since most existentialists are big philosophy geeks, existentialism has a huge image problem. Existentialism does not say that life is meaningless (that would be nihilism), on the contrary existentialism says life can have great purpose: the purpose you give to it.
This helped me understand some of the great confusions of my life. What meaning did my relationships have? The meaning I chose to give them. Guilt I had carried over an ex-fiance for years melted away. But what of the indifferent universe that I now believed I lived in? Well, when I spoke of this to the very wise Doctor Karen Stollznow, she said, Israel, rocks and trees may be indifferent, but we as humans are generally surrounded by human beings who are as authentic parts of this universe as the sun or the earth. Because people can make the choice to care, the universe is not indifferent.
During this period (around this time last year) I began to really hate my parents. I was profoundly bitter with Christianity and I blamed my parents for raising me in it. That was stupid. We’ve talked since and worked it out largely. Though not bitter, I remain slightly miffed at Christianity. I’m 29 years old and it has only been the last few years that I have had a normal sexual relationship. I’ve been in a sexual relationship since I was 22, however it wasn’t normal or healthy until fairly recently as atheism and existentialism helped me come to healthy view about myself. Sex is not very important to some people and incredibly important to others. I am the latter, and it irritates me that I spent the first 25 years of my life when unhealthy, ineffective thoughts and actions regarding sex because of Christianity.
A note here, when I say “Christianity” I am not referring to a code of ethics based on the Gospels, but the unique expression of American, politically conservative protestantism as I understood it. I have talked to many people since deconverting that managed to believe psychologically healthy things as well as Christianity. They managed to believe everything I do, yet do so with a paradoxical belief largely at odds with scripture. More power to them, I’m not mad at them anymore either. (For awhile I was jealous of their ability to keep all the pleasant trapping of Christianity without the madness, but I’ve come to accept that they can do it and I can’t)
This is largely the complete story of how I got to where I am. Next post I will tell you myself (and you all) where here is.
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