I no longer believed.
I no longer believed that Jesus was God. I no longer believed that he died for my sins. I no longer believed that he rose from the dead. I no longer believed he was returning soon, or at all, for that matter.
I didn’t know, but I had to tell T. Even though I knew she’d probably be happy to hear it, for some reason it was difficult to have this coming out conversation for the first time. I had to figure out how to say it. On one hand, I wanted to make sure that I was telling her the whole truth about my state of mind, and not something that I thought she’d want to hear. And still I was nervous. To this day I don’t know why.
So we were sitting together – I seem to remember we were in the car, but maybe we were just at home. I started talking about how I was doing some reading and exploring a lot of the doubts I had about the bible and my faith. We chatted for a few minutes and she said, “Well, I know you still hold your core beliefs, about Jesus and such.”
“Actually, that’s what I’m getting at. I don’t believe that anymore.”
The look on her face was actually priceless. I don’t surprise her very much after 32 years, or I have to be really clever to do so, but this caught her off guard. I explained in detail what I’d been through in my reading over the past week/1o days.
Honestly, she was quite happy. We were, for the first time in years, on the same page. I understood finally what she had been on about all this time. We’d both stared for years at the shadows in Plato’s Cave, and now were both together, hand-in-hand, looking at the sun in all its glory, with the freedom to try and understand it for ourselves.
I hadn’t yet decided what I believed, if anything. I labeled myself agnostic and spent a lot of time thinking about the universe, what it looked like, and if anyone at all was out there, now that I had given up the belief that it was YHWH. And of course I wasn’t in a position of having to make any affirmative decision on what I believed.
We discussed trying one of the more liberal congregations, where we could enjoy a sense of spirituality without the need to believe any fundamentalist theology. Maybe we’d end up in another little red Episcopal church, which our current town just happens to have. Or perhaps try the Unitarians, who are more about compassion, kindness, and other people than they are about what you specifically believe.
But I still had a problem. The hardest conversation was yet to come. I had to come out to my pastor and step down from my ministry. And I had to do it right away, because there was no way I could get up there and pretend to believe in front of everyone.
So I called Pastor B, an elder who had taken over when Pastor M. took another position in Southern California. But Pastor B was out of town and wouldn’t return until the following Monday.
Well, I couldn’t let it out to others and blindside Pastor B, a very nice and decent person in his own right. Not while he was out of town. So I called my best buddy, S, who played guitar for me (his daughter was our drummer) and often stood in for me if I was out of town or sick. I said that I wasn’t going to be able to lead worship this weekend, could he do it. He said it was no problem. It was a relief, and I had a few more days to plan my conversation with B.
Now S has had ongoing medical problems from a work accident years before, so he can fall unexpectedly ill, and has on a number of occasions.
You see what’s coming, don’t you?
His daughter called me about 830 Sunday morning and said her dad was really sick, could I lead worship anyhow. Now this is a little church, and there truly wasn’t anyone else to call. It was me or S. And I didn’t want to freak anyone out, and I figured I could get through a few songs.
So I picked her up and went to church, to lead a worship service for a god I no longer believed in.
You hear stories about pastors and preachers who become atheists but stay in their position for years because they don’t have any other way to make a living. This was like the smallest hint of what that might be like for them on Sunday mornings.
I got to church and picked out half a dozen songs. I noticed that it wasn’t any harder to do without a Holy Spirit to guide me. But I was an emotional wreck. I realized that I loved leading worship. I loved singing songs with others and the positive feelings doing so generated. But I knew I didn’t believe what I singing, at all.
As we started the first song, I thought to myself, “I’ll probably never play or sing this song again,” which made me sad, because I rather liked the songs we performed. As we came to the end of the song, it occured to me that I usually prayed right here.
That I couldn’t do. It was one thing to sing a song, it was another one to talk to someone I was sure wasn’t there. I asked one of the worship team to pray, and they did. We shot from the hip a lot in our little church, so that didn’t raise any flags.
We got through the rest of the worship set. I had another singer close the set in prayer. I sat through the service, then I took my friend’s daughter back to their place.
Now that I was through that, I could tell S what was going on without worrying about dealing with a service, as I’d be seeing B on Tuesday to come out once and for all.
I got to their house and sat down with S in his living room. I spilled my guts, told him what I’d been through the last few weeks, and that I was no longer a believer. S just hugged me and promised me that this changed nothing between us, that we were still best friends. He’s been true to his word, and is one of the very few of our Christian circle we still spend any real time with. That brought me to tears, though, because I admitted to him that I was afraid he’d freak out and want to distance himself from me and my unbelief. He looked at me like I was a moron, and said that there was no way, and how could I even think he would do that. We can have conversations about politics, theology, why he believes and why I don’t, and it is never anything but positive.
I wish I could say the same for the other Christians who were in my life. To be fair, most people treat me just fine, with a few exceptions, but only S reaches out to me, wants to get our families together often, and just wants to be friends. He and his wife are one of a kind.
A couple days later I met Pastor B for breakfast. Over some awesome pancakes, I told B what had happened and where I was, and that I was stepping down for obvious reasons. He accepted that pretty well. He asked me what had led to this change, and I described a number of key points, which included issues of evil and the impossibility of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god. In the end he couldn’t answer these concerns, which didn’t bother him, of course, because he was of a mind that the mysteries unanswered would be answered on the other side.
So I was out. In the raw aftermath of not knowing what to believe, I actually did attend church one more time, two weeks later, after it was announced that I had stepped down voluntarily due to unbelief. Halfway through the morning I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing there. I was sitting there refuting in my own mind what I was hearing up front. That was the end of that.
In trying to figure out what I was really thinking I read a couple more books that I would recommend to anyone exploring their doubts, especially Trusting Doubt, by Valerie Tarico. I also read a book called Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor, seeing as a version of that seemed to work for me, I’d explore it, but I didn’t want to just replace one set of unprovable spiritual ideas with another, so perhaps a secular approach would be better.
After a couple more weeks of reading, thinking and long talks with T, who was a complete saint helping me cope with this transition, especially shedding the fear of Hell and correction from above, I stood in my office and said it out loud for the first time.
I am an atheist.
Once I realized that I didn’t believe in any gods, or at least not any that were on offer anywhere, I felt free for the first time. I understood what I had come out of and where I was.
I wasn’t a broken and worthless piece of trash that needed a god to make me worthwhile. My good works mattered. I was a decent person with a good heart.
I didn’t need to live for an afterlife. I have a life right here to live. I have children to whom I want to pass whatever I can so they can live good, positive lives that they’ll be glad to live.
And I didn’t need to be afraid of any afterlife either. It will most likely be just like it was before I was born. I won’t know or realize. I’ll have been here and I’ll be gone and it will be okay.
I did have one more serious coming out conversation – with another friend from SCBC, who I call Titus elsewhere on the blog. He was another that I hoped to continue a normal friendship with. But I had a bad feeling about it, and he proved me right. I visited him in person and we sat down and I told him I no longer believed, that I was an atheist. We discussed why. He tried to answer my objections, but I was too far down that road. The most telling thing was that he keyed in on certain words especially when I talked about opening up my mind to try and understand. He equated that with opening myself up to evil spirits, to wrong ideas and to errors, that I should have stuck to relying on the Word. If I recall correctly, I asked him why, if God was the source of all Truth, a reasonable search for truth would lead me away from Him instead of right toward Him. I don’t recall if he had no answer or just a poor one, but suffice to say, that was it for our friendship as it used to be. We’re still in contact, and he’s a sweet guy, but every contact contains the phrase “We still love ya,” as if I’d ever given him reason not to do so.
T and I started to explore our Christian past and it’s been a revelation to start to realize the impact faith in a delusion had on our lives – to realize what I had allowed to be done to her, to me, to us in service to this unreasonable belief.
I had never considered anything we’d been through as anything but reasonable. But once I got perspective of seeing what happened from the outside, I realized that we had been at times abused by our leaders, manipulated and poorly treated.
I had left behind my filters and was doing my best to see things at face value.
I started this blog to try and understand myself, and what you see here is still but the early stages, I hope. I hope to never stop learning and striving to know rather than believe.
Very early in our Christian experience at Santa Cruz Christian Church, the youth pastor, Pastor L, started a college and young career group, sort of a youth group for the 18-26 set. On that first night, stood in front of us and said, “Ten years from now, statistics say that 9 out of 10 of you will no longer be here. You’ll have fallen away, no longer counting yourselves Christian.”
On that night, with my newly flamed faith firmly ensconced in my mind, that sounded ridiculous. I was certain that most of us would still be there, and I knew that I would be too.
I think back on that night often these days. I remember how his prediction sounded like a very bad thing.
Now I know better.
It is a good thing.
A very, very good thing.
Thanks for reading, and my reason guide your heart and your mind on the journey that is this life.