August 5, 2019

What It Was Like to Be a Christian

angel in cemetery

Those who use Twitter do so for many different reasons. At its best, I find that Twitter can be a great source of inspiration for blog posts. This one was inspired by an atheist who was never indoctrinated into any religious tradition trying to understand the experience of those of us who are ex-Christians. I'll respond to a couple of the questions he asked and add a few others I have heard from other atheists with a similar background.

Did you really believe?

I did. As a young child, everyone I knew was Christian: my family, my friends, my neighbors, all of my family's friends. I had no idea that there was any other way to be. Being Christian was part of who we all were, and it was like this for several years. Initially, I didn't question any of it. Why would I? Everyone I loved and trusted told me Christianity was true. When I did finally start asking questions, I was discouraged from doing so to the point where I felt guilty about it and begin to fear the negative consequences I might face for doing so.

I think the thing worth emphasizing here is that I continued to believe long after the doubts first appeared. A big part of this had to do with what I perceived as the high cost of being wrong. Not only was there hell to worry about, but there was a much more immediate cost: the loss of everyone around me. I was afraid not to believe.

For more about what this was like, see An Ex-Christian Atheist.

What was it like to be loved by god(s)?

That's tough to describe. The closest thing I could compare it with was the love for a parent, but I'm not sure that really captures it. It was like a sense of comfort provided by the belief that there was someone watching over me. Bad things happened, but I bought into the idea that I was shielded from the worst of it somehow. There was a being out there who cared about me and wanted me to be a good person. I wasn't always sure what that meant, but that was the goal.

Nothing about this love ever struck me as unconditional. I worked to make sure I did not disappoint "god," which almost always meant doing what my parents wanted me to do. When I screwed up, I sought forgiveness. If there was one thing that had stood out to me from reading the "holy" bible, it was that this "god" had murdered entire groups of people who disappointed it. I didn't want that to happen to me.

Did you communicate with god(s)?

Oh yeah! I tried to communicate through prayer almost every day. Even then, I recognized that this communication was completely one-sided. I never once had the experience of the god to which I prayed in Jesus' name responding. I never heard it, saw it, or experienced anything anyone could reasonably count as evidence that it was there. And no, this was not because my expectations were too high. I've heard many Christians describe the experience of feelings of this god's presence. I would have gladly taken that, but I never had an experience like that. Not once.

God's absence did not initially shake my faith. First, I made excuses. It must be busy. My problems are trivial compared to what others are going through. Second, I blamed myself. I had to be doing something wrong. Every Christian I knew told me that they heard/saw/felt our god and that they regularly received responses to their prayers. Clearly, there was something wrong with me that I never did.

If you never had any evidence of gods, how could you continue to believe?

That's easy. From birth, every person with whom I came in contact told me "god" and Jesus were real and that we were Christians. I accepted this because I had no reason not to. When I started to notice the lack of evidence and the fact that I never experienced "god" in the ways everyone else described, I asked questions. I was quickly discouraged from doing so, and subtly threatened with negative consequences if I did not stop. I was afraid of hell and social disapproval, so I tried as hard as I could to stop thinking too deeply about Christianity.

All of this paled in comparison to the big reason I was able to continue believing for as long as I did: I desperately wanted it to be true. Not only did I want there to be a god, angels, and a heaven, but I wanted to believe that all the adults I loved and trusted had been honest with me. What were the alternatives? Either they had spent my entire life lying to me for some reason, or they were all wrong about...well...practically everything. As a child, neither of those options was appealing.

How did you stop believing?

Although I tried to stop asking questions, I failed miserably. Even though I learned not to express them to others, they continued to fill my head. I fought a losing battle to control my own thoughts as long as I could. Eventually, I could not help noticing all the inconsistencies, the lack of evidence, and the hypocrisy of Christians around me. The more I begin to critically examine what I had been taught, the less sense it made. Eventually, I had to admit that there was no evidence that any of it was real. This allowed me to begin wrestling with a growing awareness that wanting something to be true does not make it true.

Despite my best efforts to make sense of it, I'm not sure I know how I stopped believing. I do know it was nothing I chose. If it had been up to me, I never would have stopped believing. It was something that happened to me over a couple years and something I fought against for as long as I was able. My efforts were futile, and I was left with finally having to admit to myself that there were probably no gods. Like it or not, I was an atheist.