It took me a long time to jettison the religious beliefs that had been instilled in me from my early youth. While my father, an ordained deacon, was almost silent on religious matters while at home, my mother made certain that I knew of her beliefs every day. She taught sunday school to teenage girls in our local Baptist church, and pressed my brother and me into attendance whether we liked it or not.
Mom was ecstatic when I finally had my conversion experience at 16, but soon became concerned when I began to parrot the more extreme views of our church youth group leaders. They were very dogmatic and uncompromising in their views on religious doctrines, and told us that the members of nearly all the other churches in our town were bound for hell. They went into a jingoistic frenzy when the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis erupted. The bellicose tirades they launched at this outrage were a sharp contrast to the God of love that my mother had always taught me about.
Fortunately, I majored in biology and chemistry in college, which helped me develop critical thinking skills. I slowly began to realize that there was a lack of internal and external consistency in all the religious teachings I’d heard all my life. Despite these doubts, or perhaps to overcompensate for them, I became even more zealous in proclaiming my beliefs. I still cringe when I recall what an irritating, legalistic prig I was during that time.
So, I continued to attend church while in college. I also visited friends’ churches with them, and found that they, too, believed that they alone were the ‘real’ Christians. It seemed they sincerely derived the same comfort and joy from their beliefs as I did from mine; yet I had been taught that their heretical views meant their eternal doom.
This, I think, led to a decisive epiphany for me. I had observed that, even within evangelical Christianity, there were sharp doctrinal divisions between churches; yet they all were reading from the same guidebook! There was no objective way to determine which, if any of them, was really reading it correctly. I remember hearing a number of very heated arguments between different churches’ members on various doctrinal points. Each of these opposing viewpoints could be ‘proved’ by citing one’s own select scriptures. Every church believes that they alone have all the answers. From listening to the arguments, I saw that the differences of opinion weren’t so much that one person has any more or less insight into the ‘true’ meaning of the scriptures. They simply believed what they had been TOLD to believe, and the groupthink was enforced through the social interactions within each church.
You would think that an omnipotent God would be able to make his will perfectly known to his followers. Instead, what we have is a cacaphony of thousands of different sects and denominations sniping at each other, each proclaiming its own monopoly on the truth. What we do NOT hear is God proclaiming which churches are right, and which are wrong.
If God were omniscient, he surely would have known ahead of time that there would be division, ostracism, persecution, even wars waged over differences of opinion on scriptural meanings. And all of this among people who sincerely sought to know and obey his will. Why then didn’t God make his will more clear to us? Certainly he would be capable of doing so. When I asked a minister about this, he told me that the Holy Spirit was here to guide our understanding of God’s word. But if that were true, then why were there such divisions between people who all sincerely sought to know his will? Why would he set this whole catastrophe in motion, knowing fully well how it would play out?
The other issue that I couldn’t reconcile was the injustice of eternal torment for nonbelievers. I challenged a Sunday School teacher on this point, asking him how God could condemn people for rejecting a messiah they’d never even heard of. He cited a passage in the first chapter of Romans, which states that God’s message is manifest in nature, so nobody has any excuse for their lack of belief. I started thinking that one over, and wondered how anybody could think that was logical. If the message of Christianity was written in nature, then why was there even a need for a Bible, or for evangelists? When European explorers encountered new cultures, they found that the natives hadn’t already figured out this “obvious” gospel. How could a supremely wise and compassionate God condemn people for failing to see a message that he knew they wouldn’t see? A message that, in fact, wasn’t there to be seen?
Abandoning my former religious beliefs wasn’t quick, and it wasn’t painless. I’m especially glad to be free of the cognitive dissonance inherent in trying to hold onto archaic beliefs and attitudes that belong on the dungheap of history. I’m not yet ‘out’ as an atheist to many of my friends and family; They still remember what a self-righteous asshole I used to be. I can easily imagine them saying that I’ve just fallen into yet another fanatical phase. What would I say to that; this time, I’m REALLY right? So for now, I’m keeping my deconversion mostly to myself. This self-imposed silence frustrates me, though, when many of my Facebook friends frequently post religious inanities. I just bite my tongue, and remind myself that I was once there also.