There were some comments in response to my post on writing sermons during the time I was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church that expressed surprise that I had been religious at one time and curious about what caused me to abandon my faith. So I thought I would write an explanation.
The main thing that I want to emphasize is that Christianity has been an important part of my life. My personal experience with religion was very positive all the way through. What caused me to leave was not any kind of anger or disillusionment with religion but simply an inability to reconcile my growing understanding of science with even the most minimal formulations of what a belief in the existence of a god implied. I started the transition to atheism in my mid-30s, after I got my PhD in physics. The small seeds of doubt were always there but one can always rationalize away their existence if one is determined enough. In fact, in the progressive, intellectual religious circles I moved in, doubt as a part of belief was taken for granted, not viewed as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.
I grew up in a family that attended the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka. My family was firmly in the liberal Protestant tradition that was not judgmental of other religions and believed that what kind of person you were was the most important thing and that good people would somehow go to heaven whatever their beliefs. They treated much of the Bible as metaphorical and not as a history or science text. They were definitely not of the evangelical, born-again school. We did not say grace before meals or have family prayers or Bible studies, nor do I recall having any deep discussions about God or religion. We were all believers and went to church on most but not every Sundays but that was it.
I had no trouble being a religious believer and was heavily involved in the Church youth groups that were common in Sri Lanka and formed a key part of church life. These provided an opportunity for the young people in the church to get together for a mixture of social and religious activities and were a lot of fun. They also were one of the few venues where young people of different genders could meet and socialize.
My transition to disbelief was not caused by any kind of epiphany or major event in my life or feelings of anger towards god or religion because of some tragedy. Those are often the reasons for people to lose their faith. While I was aware of the negative things that religion was responsible for, I put it down to people being led astray and not following the real religious principles. I retained nothing but warm feelings for the religious views of my family and the role that the clergymen, churches, and religious organizations played in my life. All the religious leaders that had a strong influence on me, such as the two Anglican school chaplains and the minister of my Methodist church were all humane, socially liberal, and progressive thinkers who took a sophisticated approach to religion. They were definitely not of the ‘You are sinners who will go to hell unless you repent and accept Jesus’ school of thought. They were more of the ‘What does belief in God imply for how we should live on Earth and what does the Bible have to say about it?’ kind of people They were people to whom one could ask challenging questions about God and the Bible and they would not bat them away. As a result, I was able to engage with them in theological study and discussions at a fairly sophisticated level, using the writings of theologians, that enabled me to arrive at what I felt was a satisfactory reconciliation of science and religion.
So what caused me to disengage from religion? As I studied science more deeply, especially beginning in graduate school, I just could not reconcile the scientific worldview I was developing with a belief in the existence of any supernatural power. The old arguments that I had been using to convince myself that science and belief in a god were compatible no longer seemed to work as well. There seemed to be a fundamental conflict in what science was telling me, that the world behaved according to physical laws, while religion was telling me that some supernatural agency was able to overrule those laws. Worse, this supernatural agency was not made of any material substance (since we could not detect it) and yet apparently could intervene to change the course of events, could hear our prayers, and even know what was in our minds. It began to seem increasingly preposterous.
But that does not mean I gave up belief easily. My transition was extremely gradual because I resisted it every step of the way. I had for so long been a believer and so active in the church and it had formed such a major part of my worldview that I did not want to let go and tried desperately to retain my belief in God. Furthermore, my religiousness had been an integral part of the way that my family viewed me and giving up on it felt like a kind of betrayal of them and a disparagement of what they believed. I knew that it would cause some concern and disappointment for them. The internal struggle to abandon views one has held for so long is not limited to religion. We see that in science as well when there is a paradigm shift that requires people who had invested much of their lives in the service of the old paradigm to now abandon it. That is never easy and they will often construct quite ingenious rationales to retain their old allegiances.
But despite my best efforts over a period of years, the science and religion pieces just could not be made to fit together and the contradictions became more acute over time. I finally came to the conclusion that for my intellectual peace of mind, I had to make a choice between science and religion, and that the more rational choice was to reject the existence of any gods, since that was the belief that had no supporting evidence. For a lifelong believer to reject the existence of God is not easy and is initially accompanied by a great deal of apprehension that, if one were wrong, one might be risking sending one’s soul to eternal damnation after one dies. But that fear eventually goes away and the realization that there are no gods also brought with it a sense of relief that things now made sense and that there were no longer any fundamental contradictions to address.
I have been an atheist now for over three decades and am very comfortable with the awareness that there is no heaven, no gods, we do not have immortal souls, and that this life is all that we have and we have to make the most of it, not just for ourselves but for everyone.