My parents are fundamentalist Christians in the Bible Belt. I grew up in The Church of God, a Pentecostal, Charismatic, Evangelical Protestant Christian denomination which was originally distinguished from its progenitor, the Assemblies of God, by the dying practice of “foot washing.” I attended a conservative, “reformed” Presbyterian high school K-12th grade before studying at a public university. I’m now 24 and a third-year law student.
By age five I had professed my love and belief in Jesus Christ and had been baptized in my parent’s church. By age six I had apparently lead my little sister in “the sinner’s prayer” in the back seat of our car on the way home from a Christmas pageant. This still baffles me at times, but I was being honest when, at five years old, I said I understood the basic doctrine of salvation. At that age, I could already “feel” my need for God’s grace. As a five year old I felt the sting of religious guilt, even as I faithfully answered back “Jesus!” to every question at school and church with true conviction.
I have a specific memory of sitting in Sunday School, fourth grade. My father was helping the youth pastor with object lessons (he helped teach “Super Church,” children’s church for 1st through 5th grade, for most of my childhood). I was a perfectly sweet and friendly child, yet I was sitting in a folding metal chair, miserable with the guilt of my own sin. On this particular occasion, however, I was begging God’s forgiveness because I just couldn’t help but feel how improbable a miracle really was. Lack of faith was clearly a sin, a failure to God, and my reason was a stumbling block to making God happy. I wanted God to be happy.
Growing up I was a “leader” in my youth group, I nodded to every word of Bible class, I studied every doctrinal debate within Christianity, searching for answers. I ate up C.S. Lewis. I stayed up late at night talking with my other intelligent friends about all the issues. I tried really really hard to figure it out. I wanted truth. In the Church I was always told that the empty feeling inside of me could never be filled by anything but “God.” Of course no drugs, no girls, and certainly no amount of money was going to make that hole go away, so they told me. This was, of course, true. In fact, nothing could fill this particular hole. All the while, it was religion who dug the terrible hole inside of me. Religion dug the hole and partially filled it, promising me that the work would be complete one day—perhaps in “the life to come.”
Being at church pushed away the guilt of doubt, and I loved it there. I had fun times with friends and genuinely thoughtful and well meaning people; people who, in hindsight, must have felt like me. The most perverse part of being raised in the church is that I felt the freest in my youth group for the few hours I was there, yet it was the source of my struggle every other waking moment. It is terrifying how easy it is to believe a fabrication when everyone around you acts as if they know it to be true—when everything you try so hard to believe is spoken of as plain reality. It was easy to believe during the two hours of church, and the guilt inflicted by my own doubt was pushed out of sight, perhaps because that moment was probably the only time I wasn’t somehow “sinning.” The guilt was gone until the next time I was alone. Church was like a drug to which my junkie body has grown accustomed. I remember the drives home alone after youth group, when the high of exaltation of the previous hours melted away into existential crisis. My doubts sprang up again as evidence of my own failure. This was the terrible emotional and mental cycle that I endured the first 21 years of my life.
In college I had a great experience with the local College ministry. Tons of really cool people, great trips, great service to the community, etc. But it was still a struggle behind the scenes. My emotional life re: Religion was becoming a disaster. It was a daily struggle to make sense of it all, even as I hosted “small group” Bible studies in my apartment semester after semester and went on missions trips around the world with others in the college ministry.
I doubt you could have called me a fundamentalist after about age 12. I knew that it didn’t all fit together (“mysteries” they are called), and the more I learned and the smarter I got, the more acrobatics were required to reason it all away. Around junior year of college it came to a head. To believe in the existence of God despite evidence(and duck the problem of evil) it was necessary to believe that the world around me was all artificial. I had to label both my reason and my experience of the world around me as “deceptive.” We can call this complete delusion, but at my core I knew that something was terribly wrong.
The walls I had built up between reason and my faith had been thinning for years. I have many memories of profound moments of doubt and panic. Most of the time though I was fine, able to push those thoughts away when I was around a community of people who genuinely cared about each other and had a great time. It still felt right when I was around believers, but now only rarely when I was alone.
The great crack in this wall came in my History of the Middle Ages class that I had taken as an elective (and I’m so grateful I did). I was studying for the final exam (which was the next day) when I came across a chapter we had skipped in the book. We didn’t skip the chapter because my teacher was friendly to faith—far from it—but perhaps it was too controversial for a state school in the Bible belt. I saw the chapter on the history of scripture and the early Church (one of the early chapters in the book). I couldn’t resist reading it. It completely shattered me and everything I had been taught. It was my first exposure to a “historical” Jesus and textual criticism of the Bible. I had spent my entire life trying to find answers from within the bounds of accepted doctrine and writings of modern Christianity. I had never been exposed to the information about the formation of the Church or Scripture. It was hidden from me, and the truth was just one giant brick through the window. I was in existential crisis. I couldn’t study for the rest of the night, I couldn’t sleep, and I know that I wept openly for extended periods of time. I had been taught outright lies about the authenticity of the Bible. I also did terrible on the exam the next day, but I’m grateful.
I pushed it to the back of my mind. I kept going to my Christian community, but I was checked out for my last year. Numb. I decided to just wait and “see how it went.” I operated this way for my senior year of College and the first two years of law school. I went to a few different Church groups my first year of law school, but never more than three weeks on any given group. They were terrible; the friends were the only reason I had gone to my group in College, and I couldn’t find cool people at my new campus. I tried to identify as an officially liberal Christian for about a year as I occasionally attended a pretty little Episcopal church. It didn’t work. “Faith” had died out slowly for 7 years.
Back in May of this year I realized that I just wasn’t really religious anymore, and had not been for a LONG time. I hadn’t “believed” with my mind for three years. I was clicking through the TED website when I saw Richard Dawkins giving a talk on militant atheism. I was so curious, and I had heard about him as a biologist. I clicked, I watched, and found myself agreeing with an atheist that his position was definitely more reasonable than agnosticism. A few weeks later I bought the God Delusion audiobook from iTunes.
I laid in the bed of my old room in my parents’ house (home working for the summer) and put on my headphones. The words of the preface broke me immediately. “I suspect – well, I am sure – that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you.” I began crying for the first time in a long time. In this exact moment, the guilt and the anger rolled away, right there, and it has never come back. I wasn’t sad, but I couldn’t contain my emotion. It’s cliche, but the only way I can describe it was tasting freedom for the first time. Those are the words that just crushed me—this book WAS for me. Since that moment I’ve been the most fulfilled and true to myself that I’ve been in my life.