I grew up in Northwestern Minnesota in a nominally Christian household; Mom and Dad took us to church most Sundays, and it was usually the Methodist church, although once in a while we would go to a Catholic mass, a Baptist “come to Jesus” meeting, or a Lutheran church — just for variety, I guess. They didn’t say much about religion and it didn’t seem all that important; it was just what you did. I remember in about sixth grade that one of the neighborhood kids said that he could get away with anything he wanted to do, as long as he asked a priest for forgiveness later. He was from a Catholic family, and Mom and Dad told me that he was mistaken about that. I also went to a movie about being saved where I told the nice young man in a suit that I accepted Jesus into my heart; but I didn’t feel any different in the next few days, so I soon forgot about it.
In about eighth grade, I remember listening to Mr Jones explaining bible stories in Sunday School, and thinking “It’s exactly like the Santa stories; next he’s going to tell us that it’s what they say to the little kids, but now that we’re nearly grown up, he will tell us that they’re just stories.” . . . but he never did.
It didn’t all add up in my mind; there were so many inconsistencies and the bible stories sounded a lot like any other mythology I had studied in school . . . but I didn’t question anyone about the doubts I had about the whole deal. It was easier to go along with everything and not say or do anything about those doubts as a way to fit in socially, and I desperately wanted to fit in.
When I got married to a good Lutheran girl, I decided I should look for a Lutheran church for us to attend, and we wound up teaching Sunday School and Vacation Bible School there and we raised our daughters and our son as good little Lutherans for their first several years.
After teaching Sunday School, I decided the next step was to do a Cursillo weekend. Wow; that was like brainwashing, and I felt like I had become part of a cult.
Then I thought I should become a bible study teacher, so I enrolled in the Bethel Bible Series, and I was taught by Harley Swiggum himself in Madison WI . . . which turned out to be another cult . . . but I went along with it and I didn’t say anything. So I started teaching bible study to some of the adults in the church. That weirded me out a little: that other adults would accept what I said about the bible as The Truth, but I kept doing it in spite of all the doubts I felt.
The gist of my doubting was . . . how could I decide that Christianity was true and ignore all the other religions that also claimed to be the only way to their god? They couldn’t all be true, and as far as I could tell, the only reason for picking one over the other was an accident of when and where I was born. What a way to decide which religion to follow! Just have faith, they said; but which faith? And isn’t faith belief in something in spite of what the evidence says about it? How did that become a virtue? I wanted to believe because of what the evidence said, not by giving up and following whatever was offered to me because it sounded nice.
Around this same time I started talking about religion and the supernatural with a cow-orker who had been down this same road, and he introduced me to the writings of Richard Feynman, Bertrand Russell, and a few others who made me start to think logically about the supernatural, and the evidence for there being anything supernatural just wasn’t there. And of course if there’s nothing supernatural, that puts the kibosh on there being any gods.
I decided that I couldn’t believe in something on faith alone and that I had to follow where the evidence leads; that’s the only way to reliably know what is true and anything else was just wishful thinking. So I told my Bethel class (I was still teaching bible study) goodbye; I told the pastor goodbye; I told the church goodbye . . . and I’ve never looked back.
Well, almost. There is still this lingering idea that somehow when I die I will find out The Truth About Life[*] . . . but given what I know about reality, that’s utter nonsense. But wouldn’t it be NICE to know that I was right after all? Yeah, it would be nice; that really defines the idea of wishful thinking, doesn’t it?
[*]Of course fans of Douglas Adams know the answer is “42”
Thanx to everyone who has contributed your stories to this blog; your examples have prompted me to be more open about my atheism and compose my own “unconversion” story…