My journey from acolyte to Atheist.
Between the ages of 4 and 7, I had perfect attendance at Sunday School. We didn’t just go to church, the church was a staple in our weekly routine. We were there every Sunday and Wednesday, my mother was the superintendent of Sunday school and was in charge of the Christmas program, my dad was an usher every Sunday and served on several church boards, my sister and I were there every week for early service, Sunday school, and mid-week catechism classes where we learned our Lord’s Prayer, Apostle’s Creed, how to be acolytes, and we were prepared for our confirmations where we would become adults in the church’s eyes. From birth to about 15 years old, I was a church kid. I showed up, I did my lessons, I volunteered to acolyte, it was who I was. Half of it was a lie.
My doubts in my faith started early. I would question why, if God was all powerful, he didn’t solve so many solvable problems that plagued his followers. I asked how Adam and Eve could populate the Earth without procreating with their children and their children procreating with each other. I asked if we’re all made in God’s image and God was perfect how he could make anyone who shouldn’t, by my church’s teachings, exist. I questioned why Christianity had to be “brought” to other lands if God created all of us, shouldn’t they already know him? My questions were not appreciated. It was very clear that somehow my yearning for knowledge was wrong. I was not an easy to dissuade kid and often far too inquisitive for my own good. I started trying to answer some of these questions on my own.
These were the days before the internet, and there was no way I could ask my pastor or my parents, then they’d know that I didn’t understand and maybe didn’t believe enough. I started reading encyclopedias and the National Geographic magazines that my grandparents had given us as a subscription for Christmas. I was about 7 years old when I realized that there were other kinds of Christians. I, until that point, naively assumed that everyone was Lutheran. It was supposed to be the only way to get to heaven, and my parents had chosen to raise us within its flock, why would anyone choose anything else? This troubled me. Then, through National Geographic, I discovered that there were millions of people who didn’t believe in God at all, in fact, some of them believed in different gods altogether. So now, armed with the realization that not only were there other kinds of Christians, but there were other kinds of faiths as well, I branched out on my research. I started studying the basics of other faiths and trying to figure out what made Lutheran “right”.
While I was independently learning about other faiths, I was also going through my Catechism classes to prepare for confirmation. These were classes I took every Wednesday night for two years, yet I only have one stand out memory of the entire experience. When I turned 13, my mother bought me some age appropriate makeup. Some powder, clear mascara, lip gloss, and some Baby Soft perfume. I was completely awesome. I showed up at my next midweek class feeling quite grown and super cool with my new makeup on. The lesson that night, which I’m almost convinced was aimed at me, was on abortion. A large portion of this lesson was about how most cosmetics were made from aborted fetuses. I was horrified and could barely withhold my tears until my mom pulled up to take me home. I got in the car and immediately started sobbing incoherently. How could she let me cover my face in aborted fetuses? Did she not know? Did she like killing babies like the pastor said was done with every abortion? Once she was able to get me calmed down and figure out why I was so upset, she was livid. She told me quite clearly that my makeup was not made of aborted fetuses. We also had our first discussion about abortion. From this discussion, it was quite clear that her feelings about it did not match what was being taught by our church. I asked her about the difference. She explained that while she believed that life started at conception, as our church taught, she knew it wasn’t her place to make that very difficult decision for anyone else and any God worth believing in would understand what was in the heart of that woman and what went into making that very difficult decision. This was very much in opposition of what our church taught. I asked her how we could still go to that church if they were teaching us things that she disagreed with and she said our church, like all churches, taught a lot of things and it was up to us to decide what we believed to be true and what made sense with our interpretation of God.
My mother didn’t know it but she broke my already fragile faith that night. I would spend years convinced I had to fix it, but I never did. What was the point? We go to church, learn our bible lessons, commit our money and lives to God and the church, but it was really all up to us. Their words and the faith they were trying to instill did not hold the keys to heaven. I felt immediate shame. What wasn’t I understanding? I clearly didn’t deserve the glory promised by my professed faith if I didn’t get it. I had to figure it out and more importantly, I couldn’t let anyone know. I stopped studying other faiths and rededicated myself to studying and learning all I could about my own faith.
I studied my Bible, my Catechism, and all of the church histories I could find. I couldn’t find the answers to my questions and, in fact, found out how hateful the founder of our church was. I was convinced it was my fault. Worse, it was not something I could go to anyone with or they would know my shame, they would know I didn’t see God, I didn’t hear God, and I didn’t know God.
I ignored my doubts and pressed on, I faked it well enough that I was confirmed, and I felt like a fraud. Fortunately, my confirmation signaled the end of some of my responsibilities at church. I no longer needed to go to midweek classes and I no longer needed to acolyte. It was far easier to ignore my shame when I wasn’t constantly confronted with it.
Life continued as it does. I was in high school now, with all of the distractions that come with it. I kind of forgot about my crisis of faith in the chaos of the hormones and homework of high school. Until junior year, that is. Junior year my closest friend, who must have been dealing with a crisis of faith of her own, and I decided to visit a new church neither of us had ever attended each week. We did this for about 2 months, attending several different churches in the area, I realized that not only did being Lutheran not make sense to me, neither did any of the others. In fact, at this point, I was pretty sure I didn’t even believe any of it. It was then I was struck with the thought that God was not real, for the first time. Initially, it was liberating, but soon old shame and guilt crept back up. What was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I able to just have faith? I felt broken. I couldn’t continue, someone would figure out that I was a fraud, I made some excuse not to continue and stopped going with my friend. Fortunately, high school was a busy time between homework, debate & forensics, social life, and my job. It was easy to be distracted from my religious confusion.
Then it hit me. Right in the face. Senior year I took a mythology class. The class examined and read Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. In our first lecture on the first day of class, our teacher explained that these myths were no different for the people who wrote them down than the New Testament was to Jesus’ disciples. She then continued that this is how they explained the world around them, interestingly she continued to explain that this is where they differed from religion today. All of the sudden the Bible made sense, it wasn’t a book of faith, it was a book of myths. This is how people in that time explained the world around them. Their lack of understanding of modern science, medicine, and mathematics led them to write and embellish the things that happened in their world that they were not yet advanced enough to understand through science. This is why science has always seemed at odds with faith. This is why Leviticus contains so many oddly specific laws that don’t make sense in our modern world with our refrigeration, overpopulation, understanding of biology and physics. I was excited by my epiphany, and then immediately worried. I felt like I had figured out something big here. It all made sense to me suddenly, but I couldn’t tell anyone. Despite my new found confidence that I’d finally figured out the truth and my relief that I wasn’t actually broken, I was raised to believe that my new heretical understanding of the world would not only hurt my parents as they would be forever concerned by the fate of my soul, it would somehow bring shame upon them.
So I kept my mouth shut, but I kept reading, book after book about religion. Countless comparisons between Christianity and myth, trying to find where my logic may be flawed, but I only grew more confident that I had figured it out. God is as real as Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin. Religion, like mythology, was a way to explain things that human understanding had not advanced enough to explain and served as an excellent form of population control. The problem was it was explaining the things that were already explained, it no longer served its function and it was becoming more and more corrupt and backward trying to combat science’s and society’s advances.
This is where I became one of those obnoxious atheists for a time. If I heard a discussion where the Bible was used as evidence of some sort, I would arrogantly explain why they were wrong and how they were stupid for still being under the spell of religion. That was wrong. It was stupid and I was an asshole. Young atheists tend to be stupid assholes. With age comes wisdom, compassion, and the ability to see a more nuanced picture of the relationship between people and their faith.
As I grew older and more secure in my own beliefs (or lack thereof) and place in the world, I realized that those who did live their lives in faith came to the decision to do so through a similar path to my own in realizing I did not believe. I have now witnessed the incredible joy and comfort that faith can bring to people who believe and see it as something wonderful, for them. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen it wielded as a weapon, trying to cleave “others” from their basic human rights and I’ve seen atheists attack, insult and disparage those who do believe. Like most things, faith is nuanced, as is an absence of faith. We really should take a page from the good book and do unto others. It’s what Jesus would do.