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 ;-)