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Oct 02 2012

Why I am an atheist – Joel

For most of my life – late teens until mid-30’s – I was an Evangelical Christian, and this wasn’t just a social identification for me. I really believed, I really loved Jesus. My freshman year of college I went to a little Bible college in Minnesota, and seriously considered becoming a pastor or missionary (fortunately in the end I decided to pursue engineering). Over the years I attended various churches within the evangelical/Pentecostal part of the Christian spectrum – Assemblies of God, Vineyard Christian Fellowships, occasionally Baptist or independent churches – but always places that took the Bible seriously and believed that Jesus should be the #1 priority in a believer’s life. At various times I led youth groups, attended men’s fellowship groups, went to prayer meetings, and volunteered for various special events. I tithed. I hosted missionaries in my home when they visited our church on fundraising trips. And, I’m now ashamed to say, for a couple years in the late 90’s I helped run a pray-the-gay-away program that was sponsored by my church. My churches were for most of that time the center of my social and personal life.

In spite of all my effort and devotion, I always had nagging doubts in the back of my mind. Never since high school was I a young-earth creationist, and I always cringed when I heard Christians talk about that issue (though I almost always kept my mouth shut about it). Also, I was for most of that time a political independent, and voted for Clinton both times. The overt Republicanism of the Evangelical movement seemed to me to be at best a distraction from the cause, and at worst an unnecessary source of division in the church and a hindrance to our attempts at witnessing (though I usually kept my mouth shut about that, too, in the face of overwhelming numbers).

More seriously, I had concerns about the Bible itself. No, not the obvious fables in the Old Testament, like the creation story or the flood – I just figured the Old Testament writers told parables like Jesus did. That wasn’t the problem. The problems I saw were in the New Testament: where were the miracles? Miraculous healings were supposedly the center of Jesus’ ministry, and also of Paul’s and Peter’s. So why don’t they happen today? There are various churches nowadays who claim that God still does such things – indeed, that claim was at the center of the Vineyard movement for many years. But it didn’t take much investigation to conclude that these people were either credulous and gullible (Vineyard) or charlatans (depressingly easy to find across Christendom). So I had questions about the very foundation of my faith, but I mostly didn’t pursue those questions, even in private. I loved Jesus.

The process that eventually pushed me out the door of the church began with, of all things, rock climbing. As I mentioned above, my church involvements occupied most of my personal life. All of my friends were Christians, usually members of the same church I attended. But in my early 30’s I jumped at a random opportunity to go climbing, and I completely caught the bug. I found other climbers via a club nearby, and was soon going climbing several times a month, and taking vacations to climbing destinations all over the country. Almost none of my climbing partners were Christians, and this was the first time in my adult life that I became real friends with a significant number of non-believers. It didn’t take long to recognize that the personal benefits of faith were much, much less than I had thought, and I eventually concluded that they were nonexistent. Some of these nonbelievers were more centered and trustworthy than almost any of my Christian friends, not to mention that the nonbelievers seemed to be having a lot more fun. It also seemed that decision-making was much less stressful for them, since they examined situations based on common sense and personal interest, and never asked themselves what God wanted. And, most importantly, I enjoyed hanging out with these people more than with most of my Christian friends, even when we weren’t climbing.

These realizations, coupled with my aforementioned nagging doubts about my faith, led me to reexamine, eventually, everything that I believed. By “eventually” I mean that I went through a roughly five-year process of gradually exiting Christianity, a process that included a stint in Eastern Orthodoxy and officially ended only two years ago, when I finally told my best friend, who is still a Christian, that I am no longer one myself. He took the news as well as I could have hoped – we are still friends. I am not a hard atheist (“There is definitely no god”); I am a soft atheist (“No religion in the world is based on evidence; however, the existence of a god or gods cannot actually be ruled out”).

The irony is, I don’t climb much anymore ;-)

Joel
San Diego

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Olav

    Joel:

    In spite of all my effort and devotion, I always had nagging doubts in the back of my mind.

    It is good of you to mention this. I am convinced it is true for most if not all religious believers. Of course many of them respond to those doubts by doubling their efforts.

    “If only I could overcome my nagging doubts I would be a real Christian. Until that happens: keep pretending.”

  2. 2
    =8)-DX

    Congratulations Joel for making it out =). Meeting non-Christians and finding out they aren’t the devil-worshipping baby-eating sex-crazed* morally nihilist one was told they were was also crucial for me. Now though I just have to try that rock-climbing!

    *Although a positive outlook on sex may seem like that from a Christian perspective.

  3. 3
    pinkey

    The process that eventually pushed me out the door of the church began with, of all things, rock climbing.

    Funny, for years I’d go rock climbing every Sunday morning and only half jokingly said that it was “my church”, except it takes more faith to rock climb. (*)

    But how do you feel more alive than being at one with the Earth, challenged to the core–physically and mentally–where strength, calmness, poise, balance all are required to succeed, in the face of stress and potential danger?

    Though I’ve pretty much alway been an atheist, I’ve still been baptized and tried really hard for a couple of years to “believe”. Thankfully that stint is just a blip in my past.

    (*) Except it was a more satisfying kind of faith, as it was not without evidence and placed in real things: faith in your abilities, faith in your belayer, faith in the equipment, faith in the rock.

  4. 4
    marcus

    pinkey @ 3 I don’t mean to pedant you pinkey but, coincidentally, I had a conversation with myself a few days ago on just this subject (though more in an emotional context). I decided that in my case “trust” was a better a better word than “faith”, since it is more reality-based.

  5. 5
    machintelligence

    The difference between “confidence” and “faith”: John Henry (the steel driving man) had confidence. The kid holding his drill steel had faith. Or I suppose you could call it trust; I’m going with faith.

  6. 6
    procyon

    Joel, I congratulate you on freeing yourself from those churches. It must be very hard in the face of teachings like this:

    If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:
    2 John 1:10

    Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
    Romans 16:17

    And worse yet:

    6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
    Deuteronomy 13:6-10

    This is why so many fundamentalists fear the real world.

  7. 7
    Crudely Wrott

    Joel has profited through the simplest of expedients which is simply observing the world and participating with its inhabitants.

    His story has much in common with mine and with others I have participated with.

    Nice to be in good company.

  8. 8
    jimgolds

    Can we bring back the term “agnostic”? The term “soft atheist” seems to be an attempt to stay in good graces with “hard atheists” who can be as dogmatic and arrogant as any fundamentalist in their beliefs. I was raised as a Christian, but it was in the moderate tradition of the Methodist church. I can still go to a Sunday service, state my Buddhist philosophy, and not only be welcomed but even have people show genuine interest in my viewpoint. It seems that many who came to atheism from fundamentalist Christianity brought with them the rigid, intolerant, and close minded attitudes that they intended to leave behind.

  9. 9
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    @jimgolds

    Personally I prefer “soft atheist”. Agnostic litterally means “does not know”, and actually applies to everybody – you have to distort the meaning of “know” to pretend otherwise.

    I take soft atheist as meaning a certain degree of uncertainty – a hard atheist leaning toward non-existence, and a soft atheist more at the boundary between belief and non-belief.

  10. 10
    stonyground

    The atheist/agnostic argument seems to come up from time to time on this kind of forum. Very few atheists are dogmatic about their position as most understand that it is usually impossible to prove a negative and, for this reason, they cannot be certain that no gods exist. It should be noted that theists are almost always totally certain about the non-existence of all gods apart from their own.

    My own position is that the gods, as defined by the various religions, can be disproved. They tend toward contradictory atributes, they are absurd and they can be traced back to the primitive superstitions of the ignorant past via their own holy books. This means that some vaguely defined deist god is the only one that I see as being credible, some kind of disembodied mind or intelligence that was or is responsible for creating the universe. I see no evidence for the existence of such a god and, until I do, I will continue to describe myself as an atheist.

  11. 11
    stonyground

    Sorry, I forgot to say to Joel how much I enjoyed reading your story.

  12. 12
    James Stuby

    “…not to mention that the nonbelievers seemed to be having a lot more fun.”

    You know it Joel!

    Your comment made me laugh, and it reminded me of the Reason Rally back in March in DC. Everybody there was smiling (except the Christians and other protesters of course).

    Jim

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