At the age of fifteen, the fetid stink of religion became unavoidable. Every rotten iota of institutionalized religion became unignorable and unavoidable. My faith doubled down to brace for this assault. I read the Bible cover to cover and my philosophy changed to one of personal behavior. I could no longer believe atheists went to Hell when so many horrible Christians went to heaven. This was, for me, my first run in with the hypocrisy of belief and religion. My once firm and indomitable belief that the Bible was the literal word of God had been undermined by the behavior of its followers and the text it contained.
I would not become an atheist for some time, strangely enough. The isolation I felt in that small school in Mississippi drove me not to atheism, but science. I began reading about physics, particle physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology. I didn’t understand them, as most children don’t at first. However, I metabolized an appreciation for science through the library’s collection of science magazines and the burgeoning internet which, before this point, had been a system to sell crap no one wanted to people who didn’t want it. The internet exposed me to people of many stripes, and the realization that there were more good atheists than just Bill Nye and Captain Jean-Luc Picard served to isolate me further from the good Christian soldiers who I knew, on some level, weren’t.
Star Trek: The Next Generation became the love of my life. I learned many lessons on that show about writing, but one important, transcendent lesson it left me with, was that the values I valued were not the exclusive domain of my belief. I suppose on some level I already knew that, but it would be many years yet before I would figure out that those beliefs are not the exclusive intellectual property of Christianity.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes grew in strength and numbers, overshadowing the once presumably secular friendships I’d come to value. I felt pressured to join them, and I did. But I felt isolated. For me, God was a personal concept, and this was an affront to the intimacy of religion. Public. Tacky. My faith, weak though it was, wasn’t so weak I needed to put on a display to show it. I continued reading science, literature, I had the45 minutes to do it before school started, and though I lost my friendships due to neglect, I don’t regret how I spent it.
In college, the game changed. Though I started by wanting to have the standard college experience, by the end of my freshman year, something had happened on the Internet. A man named Bobby Henderson wrote an open letter to the Kansas School Board, and my view of religion wouldn’t be the same. I read through the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. By the end of it, I was still a Christian, but one who believed religion shouldn’t make claims about the natural world. What it should make claims about, outside of relativistic moral claims, I wasn’t sure. I shared my thoughts with my Christian friends who reacted a lot less kindly than I’d come to expect.
My religion was on the ropes, but it stood up. The summer filled my mind with doubt and when I took Psychology the next semester, the blow was a TKO. My belief, laid flat on the mat, blood running through its mouth. What led it to that point? During the first day of classes, my Psychology professor asked my class to prepare for a debate on the existence of God the following morning. I felt subversive and knew that, if I didn’t argue against God, the debate would be incredibly boring. I spent the weekend researching why God didn’t exist, and while I went with Oolon Colluphid’s proof against God, modified a bit for my purpose.
It wasn’t a great argument, but no one else had any new ideas. Their understanding of apologetics floundered and for a minute it looked like I’d come out of the fight unscathed. Then a woman asked me, “Well, Mr. White, what do you believe?”
My mind raced in circles. It was a question I’d never really considered. What was belief? All I knew by this point was, if no one could deflate my poor argument, it probably wasn’t God. “I’m undecided.” I chuckled as my faith began to bleed internally. Its brain damage so severe, it could never fight again. On the way home, I had a break up prayer with God. Told him that it wasn’t that I didn’t love him, but that he just didn’t exist and that was going to hamper any hopes of a meaningful relationship.
I pondered for years in the back of my mind what it meant to believe in something, but for the time being, I knew what I didn’t believe.