On a trip to London two months ago I had the pleasure of getting back in touch with a friend I went to high school with in Brisbane, Australia. Linus was the third amigo in a trio consisting of him, me and Sam, who was best friend to both of us. Amongst the memories of a cringe-worthy yelling match on the green outside the music room and gossipy updates on characters we were still in touch with, we swapped tales of our journeys from faith to freethought.
I asked Linus if he would be interested in writing something up and he responded the next day with this beautifully written account of his year long awakening. I have copy and pasted it just as it was written here for your enjoyment.
If you have a story or thoughts to share – anonymously if you like – let me know.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment I lost my faith. There was no “ah-hah” moment, no singularity to bookmark in a calendar. Losing my faith was a gradual, awkward process… much like puberty.
It started with a discomfort about doctrine. Like a pebble in my shoe. How could Jesus have spent most of his ministry preaching about how the kingdom of heaven flies in the face of our conventional structures of power and status and caring for the powerless and the outcasts of society, and yet the church seems to spend most of it’s time preaching about how to gain earthly power and possessions and can’t give a sh*t about the powerless and the outcasts of our society?
After a year or two of this discomfort, in an increasingly politicised church, I went backpacking around the world for a year, solo. Apart from missionary trips and holidays with family, I had never travelled before. It may sound cliche, but travel really did open my eyes to things I had taken for granted.
Firstly, I got to see just how mercurial one’s lot in life truly is. I was “blessed” to have been born in a developed country. I was “blessed” to have been born into a middle-class family, where my father was able to work in a well-paid profession because of the opportunities given to him growing up. I was “blessed” to have grown up in an English-speaking country. But for each of these blessings, I am in the global minority.
What about the child born to illiterate parents in a favela in Rio de Janeiro? Was there something about me that was more deserving than that child? What about the tramp on the streets of Budapest? Or the prostitute in the slums of Kowloon? This idea woke me to the realisation that I had been cocooned in a microcosm of mostly white, middle class privilege. The idea that God wants you to be rich (or “blessed”) in order to be a blessing to others was, at best, an entirely laughable concept to those outside that “christian bubble”. At worst it was an incredibly patronising, imperialist attitude seeing as most of the people God “chooses” to bless happen to be Anglophone, white people who live away from major fault lines and climates conducive to catastrophic weather conditions.
Secondly, I went into this yearlong journey with the idea of “the Church” vs “the World”. “The Church” cared for its own and upheld good, Christian values. “The World” conversely was a dog-eat-dog place, which only valued materialism and self-interest. Of course looking back it was an extremely naive perspective, and of course I never would have phrased it that way then, but it was a deeply rooted belief that had buried itself subconsciously after 9 years of full commitment to the church. There is an idea in the church that Christians are different from other people. To the point where they believe that others can see that difference and will be drawn to it. It’s even part of some “praise and worship” songs; that the light of God will shine through Christians in such a way that people will approach them and ask them what their secret is and so they’ll get a chance to witness for the Lord!
Well, that’s one myth that I can say has been well and truly busted in field testing. Not once did I recognise a fellow Christian in my travels. There was no difference in demeanor that I could spot amongst the crowd. Perhaps there were no other Christians in all the hostels I stayed in for almost a year across 15+ countries? Not that I didn’t see any Christians at all — I saw plenty at church. At least in the English speaking countries, I did try to go to church regularly for the first half of my trip and not once did anyone go out of their way to talk to me. I was travelling the world, alone, the first time I had been away from home for more than a few weeks, and not one Christian invited me to their home, to join their friends, to show me hospitality.
I met a number of good friends in this time, some of which I still keep in contact with today. None of them are Christian. To my knowledge they are all atheists, except for one non-practicing Jewish girl. These people made me feel welcome, invited me into their homes, went out of their way to show me around in their home city. The scary, uncaring world seemed to care a whole lot more than the church.
When I returned home, I felt my equilibrium had shifted. I stopped believing that doubt was the devil speaking to me (such an insidious self-policing mechanism that it would seem apropos for the devil to have invented it). The one thing I had left was what pentecostalism leans on more than any other flavour of Christianity: my personal testimony. The good that religion had done in my family had to be proof that God was real, right? I began examining the problem of suffering (how an ostensibly all-powerful, all-knowing and all-benevolent God could allow such arbitrary suffering to happen across the world) critically, reading what real scholars had to say not just what was approved by the Christian bookstore. I highly recommend Bart D. Ehrman’s, “God’s Problem”, on this topic. It’s Malcom-Gladwell-ian in it’s readability to the layperson, but written by a serious and respected scholar of Biblical texts and church history.
It was sometime around then, while reading around this topic and about the history of the church and the bible itself, that I hit upon two lasting revelations.
All experience is subjective, and no experience, no matter how seemingly supernatural, can directly prove a specific doctrine, let alone an entire theological system. (E.g. A man in a wheelchair being “healed in the name of Jesus” getting up and walking can never prove the virgin birth, the resurrection, or that an embryo has a soul).
If God is real and personal like the church teaches, yet the majority of evidence leads me to believe that he does not exist, or has no interest in us and our planet, I cannot fool God into thinking that I believe in him when I do not.
It was upon reaching this point that I had to be honest with myself: I was no longer a Christian. After a few difficult months, I “came out” as atheist to my family. My mother cried. My father got angry. Hurtful things were said. It was like opening a raw nerve. It came to a point where I had to make a rule – if my parents wanted me to have a relationship with them, we would never talk about religion or religious topics (e.g. abortion, gay marriage, etc.) again. The good news is, things got better with time. It’s been 6 years now and we can now have philosophical discussions that skirt with questions of religion. I’ve become less strident in my atheism, and they’ve mellowed in their Christianity, so I’ve been lucky in that sense. My church friends are a different story, and this one is already dragging on as it is.
The long and short of it is, I broke ties with the church (which was not only my place of worship, but also my entire social network and my employer) and moved countries. I was essentially starting from scratch. I now consider myself an an atheist (still an unhelpful label, I’m also an “avegitarian” and an “aconservative”). I’m a humanist, I do not believe in a personal god, and as far as the supernatural is concerned, I believe that we don’t have all the answers. Science didn’t recognise germs until we had the microscope, and I believe that in time, we may find ways to measure and observe things we previously had no way of knowing were there. Or perhaps not. In the meantime, I feel that superimposing a meta-narrative to explain the unexplainable is fruitless if I can’t truly believe it.
As for the big questions — Why are we here? What’s the purpose of life? Perhaps those are the wrong questions to be asking. The question I’m asking most now is, How do we make life worth living? What is worth living for? I don’t have an answer yet, and may never find a definitive one. But at least I’m free to ask whatever questions I want, and nobody can tell me I’m wrong for asking them.