I’ve started and stopped writing this post at least half a dozen times. I’ve invested something like 10,000 words into it and here I am starting over again. I’m not a perfectionist or temperamental, I just haven’t found a message I felt worth sharing with you all. I think I’ve found it now. What follows is sort of like Mark Twain’s Autobiography: it is long, rambling, disorganized and incoherent – but if you stick with it, it will make sense in the end.
I am a 26 year-old atheist; some might even call me an anti-theist (though I wouldn’t put that label on myself). I’m a card-carrying member of the new atheist culture (or I would be, I suppose, if we had cards) and have spent the better part of my twenties reading the words of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bart Ehrman, Daniel Dennett, and so on. I think my personality must be attracted to this sort of charged debate. Prior to my departure from faith, I was an evangelical Christian apologist – armed to the teeth with Lee Strobel, Michael Behe, C.S. Lewis, and Dinesh D’Souza quotations.
I was raised in a Methodist family. I went to church every Sunday and most Wednesdays from as early as I can remember through my junior year of high school. My church was small and close knit. We had a pastor who had been with the church for decades – he was the reason my mom and grandmother started attending the church when my mom was but a teenager. It’s safe to say my family was well-liked and well-respected at our church. I was a big hit with the older crowd and, being eager to please, I took the whole spirit of the church and ran with it. As a middle school student I was reading the scripture at service and entering the adult Bible study classes. By high school I was giving sermons to the youth and organizing Bible studies of my own. The other members of the congregation clearly appreciated my vigor for scripture and encouraged my studies. When I was thirteen, they began to call me “Reverend” as a term of endearment, and many of them believed that I would one day return to the church as their pastor; I’m not sure anymore but I may have believed it too.
When I was around eight years old, a lesbian couple joined our church. Of course, I wasn’t quite sure what a lesbian was at the time (pretty sure I thought it was a type of fancy car), but I knew by the way that the older members of the congregation spoke in hushed voices about them that they were bad. This didn’t stop me from becoming fast friends with the ladies; one of them even wore a nice cowboy hat and boots, which she would loan to me at times – for traipsing about the nursery and playroom. When some of the senior members of the congregation and leaders of the church began to turn their shoulders to these ladies, they chose to find a new church. When I asked my Sunday School teacher why they had to leave, she told me – and I don’t remember the specifics of this conversation but I remember the meaning quite well – “They have chosen to lead a life that is an affront to God and our Church cannot accept people who don’t accept God’s will.” When I asked her how we knew what God wanted, she responded – and this I remember exactly, “The Bible tells us.” I realized, of course, that my teacher was telling me that these ladies were going to Hell. That these nice women would end up in Hell was too much for me to comprehend at that age.
I went home crying. I asked my mom if what my teacher said was true, and my mom told me, “Some people think the Bible says that, but not everyone does. I don’t.” This was perhaps the first time in my life that I had experienced true cognitive dissonance. How could my mom and my teacher think the Bible said different things? Which one was true? They couldn’t both be. Certainly I liked my mom’s version better, but how did I know that was the correct way? And so began my interest in Bible study.
Over the years as I read more about the Bible and took more classes through my church, I began to realize that no two people agreed on what the Bible said. That being the case, I wondered how we could put so much weight on it. I was probably a nonbeliever by the time I was thirteen but couldn’t bring myself to accept it. Instead, I threw myself into Christian apologetics. I read every book by Lee Strobel I could get my hands on. I drank down C. S. Lewis as if it was nectar. I dated the churchiest girl I could find and joined the youth group of her even-more-evangelical-than-my-own church. This zealousness, of course, further endeared me to the believers around me but did little to assuage the discomfort that was growing within me.
By the time I was finishing my junior year of high school I had come to terms with the fact that I was an atheist. This was a massive change for me. Massive, and terrifying. Outside of school – and even partially inside of school – my identity was my religion. My girlfriend was religious and – more importantly – her family was strictly religious. My mother was a devoted weekly church-goer. My older brother and younger sister were likewise. My grandma was the most steadfast of them all. Then there were the dozens of people in my church who I had known for my entire life who half-expected me to someday be their pastor. If any of them knew the truth they would be so unspeakably disappointed in me. I decided to fake it for the time being.
This year of “faking it” became one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. We had a new pastor who treated the service as his own version of the 700 Club, and the ridiculous spectacle of my church became ever more apparent. Moreover, I began to see the people of my church for who they really were. Some of them were truly great people, those whom the followers of this blog would be proud to associate with as Christians. Unfortunately, this was not the majority of church members. Most of these people were there for the very spectacle I had come to find so abhorrent. They were bitter, angry at the world – as if they felt left behind by modernity. I realized now why they had driven that lesbian couple away almost a decade earlier – they wanted it out of their field of vision. It had encroached on their little world and forced them to acknowledge something with which they were uncomfortable. God was nothing to these people but an excuse to meet on Sundays and discuss like-minded topics with like-minded people. It was never about spirituality or worship; it was about comfort.
Eventually, I left for college and began to be more “open” in my atheism. I made baby steps at first. I didn’t find a church to attend on campus. I didn’t go to the University’s Christian groups. The first big consequence of my new life was the loss of my girlfriend. I knew it would happen, but it was for the best. We were simply looking for different lifestyles in the future. Plus, I’ve never seen a set of parents more relieved than the first time I saw hers after our split. I am sure I cut years of stress out of their lives when I left.
Then next big step for me was when I stopped going to church during my visits back home. I told my mom I didn’t “relate” to our church anymore – I was still too scared to tell her I didn’t believe. She understood, she saw the culture at our church for what it was just as I did, but she still enjoyed the spiritual fulfillment she got from church and she felt compelled to keep going there for my grandma. She offered to help me find another church.
The summer after my first year of college I continued to skip church. At this point it became apparent to my mom that I was no longer interested in church of any kind. She asked me if I believed in God, and I told her that I did not. She accepted the turn of events rather well and didn’t pressure me at all. Deep down I think my mom knows it’s all bunk too; she admits to herself that she “wants” to believe and “needs” a reason. I can understand that. Anyway, she told me it was a good idea not to tell my grandma. I think she was right, and my grandma still doesn’t know.
With the cat out of the bag, I finally felt free to go to church with my mother again. My first time back, the new pastor asked to speak with me after church. I agreed because I assumed he was going to ask me to help with the summer’s Bible School as I had every year since I was in middle school. In fact, he wanted to confront me about my absence at church. He confronted me on the dangers of “falling away from God” and the likelihood that without God I would turn to drug use, crime and (gasp) homosexuality! The horrors! I could become addicted to the gays! I was quite incensed by the stupidity of the conversation, but I also didn’t want to burn any bridges in a place with such close ties to my family. I thanked him for his concern, but explained I was an adult and I had to make up my own mind on these matters. I also asked him not to talk about me with other members of the church. This request, it would seem, fell on deaf ears.
In the years since I have been back to the church many times – typically for services on the holidays with my family. The warm reception I once got from these people has given way to the cold shoulder. Yes, there are still some people in the church who are excited by my presence, but these are the minority. I do not know if perhaps they just don’t know of my non-believer status (my own grandmother still doesn’t know) or if it just doesn’t bother them. In either case, I appreciate their welcome. From the other members of the church what I get isn’t so much animosity as it is a passive, dismal reluctance to admit that I exist. I have come to represent the very thing from which these people want to escape when they come to church: something outside their world, something different, something other. This minor difference (and I do believe it is a minor difference; I am every bit the person I was when I was growing up in those same church pews) is enough for them to turn their backs on two decades. Many of them avoid eye contact, and I rarely am offered more than a few hands at the passing of the peace. They no longer see me as their favorite scripture reader, but as a Reverend who has fallen from grace. I was like that lesbian couple from so long ago, only I just won’t go away.
I’d like to say I think the people of my church are actually good people, even the ones who don’t quite know what to do with me. I also realize that my small church is merely one small representation of Christianity and is not necessarily a microcosm of the greater Christian America. But I think it is telling that a church full of good people with the best of intentions can be so alienating and cold.