Losing my Religion

“You’ve changed so much. It’s like I’m mourning the loss of who you were,” Monica’s voice quivered between sobs. She was sitting next to me on the couch, looking at me through tear-filled eyes. I looked back at her, wishing there was something I could do, but there wasn’t. I was powerless.

A month earlier, I had told Monica that I no longer believed in God. This announcement had hit her like a ton of bricks, and her tears had quickly become commonplace. I wasn’t sure if they would ever stop or if she could ever be happy with an unbelieving husband. So I sat and stared in her eyes and held her hand on the couch and hoped we could get through this.

If you’re up for a lengthy read, let me share with you how we got to that moment on the couch. I’m glad you’re here.

I grew up in the Baptist church and was religious from a young age. I read the Bible cover-to-cover when I was in eighth grade. In high school, I attended church activities several times per week, occasionally teaching and mentoring in various capacities. I was genuinely seeking to learn about and serve and love my god. My family was religious, and, because I grew up in a suburb in the South, so was pretty much everyone I knew. Looking back on these years, I realize that, like many other Christians, I had joined the faith without thoroughly and objectively examining the evidence for its teachings. I was influenced by the culture, friends, and family around me. Regardless of how I came to Christianity, I was most definitely all in.

Some of my first doubts started to creep in during college while studying the Christian doctrine of election. Most of my pastors and mentors had been of the Reformed/Calvinist school of thought which taught that we do not have free will and can only be saved from an eternity in hell if God chooses to save us. As I studied that doctrine, I was devastated by the thought of billions of people on our planet dying and spending an eternity in hell without even possessing the capacity for salvation. It was an idea that made me uncomfortable, though several parts of scripture seemed to support it (eg. Romans 9:14-22).

As I contemplated this more, while still in college, it struck me that even if we do have free will, there are still billions of people on our planet who don’t believe in the Christian god due to their geography, culture, or education. Did they really deserve eternal damnation? The Christian response is typically that we do deserve it because we are sinners, but that still seemed like an unjust penalty, especially considering how impossible of a standard perfection is. I began to think that the whole idea of salvation based on belief seemed unfair. Could someone growing up in the slums of Pakistan really be expected to come to Jesus, even if they had heard the message once or twice? Does that person deserve eternal damnation in hell? It didn’t make much sense. I hadn’t asked myself this question too much in my life simply because I hardly knew ANY non-Christians. It had been easy to imagine non-Christians as simply a concept, not real people, “others”. These thoughts prompted a crisis of faith during my sophomore year of college, which led to several months where I wasn’t sure if I could love God or if I even believed in him.

I knew, however, and was reminded by my Christian friends, that just because I didn’t like something about God, that didn’t make it untrue. I also reminded myself that God does love us or he wouldn’t have sent his son to die for us, which helped me to not see God as the tyrant I had been starting to picture. I chose not to worry too much about the things I didn’t understand. I reminded myself that God’s ways are higher than my ways and that I can’t be expected to understand them. Faith crisis averted—for now.

Several years passed, during which time I hardly thought about the questions I had grappled with before. In these years (around 2009-2014), I had shoved my doubts into a corner of my mind and roped them off. “Don’t come close.” Anytime I found myself starting to think about those questions I had grappled with before, I ran the other way. I knew that my doubts might lead me out of Christian orthodoxy, and I just wasn’t ready for that.

After a few years of this, in late 2014, I finally decided it was time to address my doubts. At the time, I had been thinking a lot about intellectual integrity—the idea that we should be honest with ourselves, that we give due consideration to even the most unpleasant of thoughts. I began to view lying to myself as one of the worst forms of dishonesty. And I knew that, deep down, I had been lying to myself—that I wasn’t fully convinced that the Christian god existed or that he was concerned with me and my life. I also decided that knowledge is not something to be feared. Wherever the truth takes me is OK.

I think what was happening at this time is that I was starting to develop some principles of my own. Before this point, most of my guiding principles had come from my religion. But these were new principles or morals, fundamental values that my conscience told me were important: I should not deceive myself to make myself believe. I should not fear truth. And I decided that even my religious beliefs should not be exempt from being filtered through these principles.

This was scary though, because I knew that wherever reason took me, I’d have to go. If I’m just following reason, I can’t choose what I believe.

My mind started opening up at this point to the possibility that God does not exist, something I’d never let myself think about before, with the exception of those couple months in college. I realized how odd it was that I’d never seen or heard him or experienced anything in my life that was definitively an act of God. It also seemed peculiar that demonstrable miracles don’t seem to occur. I’d never heard of an amputee regrowing a limb, or a bone un-breaking. The miracles I had heard about seemed to be explainable as coincidence or just things that we don’t understand.

Then I thought about the world and how much pain and suffering there is. Would an all-powerful, all-loving God sit by and watch human suffering unfold like this? I was also still troubled, after all these years, by the thought of God sending people to eternal torment for simply not believing in him. I also studied the Old Testament accounts of bloody conquest, concubines, and slavery. With these new eyes, the god of the Old Testament started to not seem like someone worthy of praise to me.

I also started to think about explanations for creation and the stories presented in Genesis. I came to believe in evolution—something I’d always felt vaguely sure was true but had kept out of mind. I was shocked by how much evidence exists for the theory of evolution and realized it isn’t just speculative science as the apologetics books portray it. The Bible’s attempts at portraying our origins began to seem primitive and man-made. As I studied more of Genesis, I realized that the tower of Babel story is discounted by historical linguistics evidence regarding the spread of language, and that there isn’t evidence of a worldwide flood as depicted in Genesis (though it does exist in other Mesopotamian legends)—and how did animals get to Australia, anyway? My faith in God was slowly starting to unravel.

An interesting aspect of “de-conversion” for people like me who were deeply religious is that we often feel the need to hide this process because we fear that our families and friends won’t understand. Such was the case with me, and for that reason, I didn’t include anyone on this journey that I was on. No need to prematurely worry anyone, right? In hindsight, I wonder if I should have been more up-front with my wife as I started to doubt. Monica was working night shifts as a nurse, and my research consisted of me reading various books and blogs and sources on the internet using private browser sessions while she was away. I didn’t want people to even know I was googling about my doubts.

The final straw for me came as I started to research Biblical inerrancy. I had noticed several inconsistencies in the Bible through my study over the years, so I figured this was a good place to start. I figured that if the Bible had errors, then how could I fully trust anything in it? I began studying contradictions between the Bible and science, the Bible and archaeology and within the Bible itself. I was shocked at how quickly these started piling up as I researched. The Bible was starting to look to me more like a collection of man-made writings to me than a book written by a divine being.

At this point, I was experiencing a number of different emotions. I think since I had let my initial doubts stew for several years and hadn’t quite felt a full faith in that time, I had been subconsciously preparing for this moment. In some ways, I was already troubled by the fact that billions of people might be going to hell if the Bible were true, and finding that the Bible might not be divine would be a sort of relief. In other ways, this was my worst nightmare, and I was terrified of the difficult conversations and strained relationships that I knew would be waiting for me down the road should I abandon my faith. Also, since I wasn’t yet talking about my discoveries out in the open, I felt like a fraud. I was still praying out loud before meals, attending church, and nodding when someone said something religious, even though, internally, I was beginning to not believe in God. I was miserable.

Sometime around December of 2014, I came to accept that I was an atheist. By that, all I mean is that I no longer believed that there was compelling evidence to justify a belief in a god. A common misconception is that atheism is a belief system or religion, or that it is a positive assertion: “There is no god”. To me, it just meant that I “lack a belief in a god”. I wasn’t making any claim or asserting that I had any of the answers. That was freeing to me—I was able to admit that I didn’t know there was a god. In all other aspects of my life, I had always been careful to reserve judgment and to avoid making definitive conclusions unless I was sure about something. Religion was the one area in my life where I had been forced to say “there is a god”, when in reality, I had probably never been sure (who can be?). It was freeing to finally be able to treat my views on god the same way I treat everything else.

I went about a month before I worked up the courage to tell Monica about my new beliefs, or lack thereof. I was scared to death of what the implications of my changing faith would be on our marriage. I was aware of all of the Christian teachings about not being yoked to an nonbeliever, and I knew how important faith was to Monica, since that had been an integral part of my life as well until only a couple months prior.

On New Years Eve, 2014, Monica and I watched the New Years ball drop while having a quiet night by ourselves in our living room. After midnight, we were sitting on the couch, and I can’t remember how it came up, but I decided to tell her that I didn’t believe in God. For some reason, I has assumed that she might not be utterly blindsided, since I had talked with her occasionally about doubts over the years. I was wrong. She was devastated.

The next several months were hell. Monica was in despair over my lack of belief, and I felt powerless to do anything. The best I felt like I could have done would have been to pretend to believe, and I didn’t think it would be right to do that. As a concession, I agreed to make a sincere effort to restore my faith. I started an apologetics book with a friend, and another on my own, met with three pastors and my Dad, attended an apologetics conference, and offered to continue attending church (though I can’t remember if we did during that time). Monica and I spent many nights sitting on the couch, like the scene that this story started with, talking through tears.

Over the course of a few months, she started to come to terms with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to change my mind, and the shock started to dissipate just a little bit. I slowly let some friends know about my faith change. Some, I still haven’t told, nearly three years later. In truth, it’s tiring “coming out” to friends and family. I’m a people pleaser, and I don’t like feeling their disappointment. I also don’t like feeling misunderstood, which is sometimes the case.

Monica and I have reached a point now where our faith differences don’t matter so much anymore. I know she misses that part of me and our relationship, and I regret that I can’t give it to her. At the same time, we are happy together, and I think we both believe there are more important aspects to our relationship than what we believe about God, and we are making it work.

Overall, I’m happy, nowadays. It’s true that I don’t believe life has a pre-ordained purpose, but I know my purpose, which is mostly the same as it was before—to try to leave the world better than I found it. I don’t believe that I will live forever, but that’s OK. I also don’t believe anyone will be tormented forever. It’s a net positive to me. It can be a little scary sometimes feeling like there is no one in control, no higher power I can go to for help when I need it. Pretty much though, I’m the same person, and my life looks more-or-less like it always has.

Thank you for making it to the end of my long story. I appreciate you reading it and hope none of it came across as snarky or negative as these sorts of things sometimes do. This story is very personal to me, so please use discretion when sharing it. I will probably take this page down in the next couple months.

-steve