Sunday, June 4, 2017

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From Minister To Atheist And Continuing The Journey

From Atheist Republic a reader's odyssey from superstition to reason.

A reader sent us this story in response to our newsletter “Personal pathways to atheism.” We enjoy reading these personal accounts of people’s journeys and wanted to share this one with you. For reasons you will come to understand, this member of our community wishes to remain anonymous.

My father was a fundamentalist Christian minister. For those of you unfamiliar with what a Christian fundamentalist is, he or she is someone who believes the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Every story in the Bible happened exactly the way the Bible said it did. Given that there are some pretty tall tales in the Bible – talking asses, floating axe heads, strolls across the surface of a lake, etc.– this seems a ludicrous position to those who are not fundamentalists. But that was the environment in which I was raised. I believed that everything in the Bible was true, that when I died, I would go to heaven (if I were good), and that Jesus might return before my death, so I didn't have to even think about mortality. I believed that my church and I were right, and everyone else was wrong, and it was our job to lead them to Jesus. I believed that modern science and history were attempts by evil people to subvert the truth about God.

There were cracks in my fundamentalist foundations from very early on. As an 8-year-old I fell in love with astronomy. I was stunned to discover that there were objects in space whose light had been traveling longer through space than the Bible (or at least my Dad's copy of it) said the universe had existed. I was troubled by this, but accepted it as an anomaly to be explained later. As a 10-year-old, I wondered why dinosaurs had become extinct. If two of everything were taken aboard Noah's ark, what happened to all the dinosaurs? (I didn't care how many million other species might have become extinct. I was dinosaur-centric.) My mother told me that God had put dinosaur bones in the ground as a test. That seemed unlikely. As a 12-year-old, I began opening my eyes during prayer. All I could see was other people with their eyes shut. It seemed as though they were praying to empty air.

But it was the idea of prayer, or more specifically, which prayers were answered and which were not, which began pushing me in the direction of nonbelief. I was born with a disability; it wasn't serious, but it sometimes caused me to be made fun of. (Kids can be such delights.) My father conducted a monthly prayer service for those who wanted to be healed. I came forward. Every month. For years. I was prayed for. Nothing happened. Until finally my father said maybe it wasn't God's will for me to be healed. What? Why? Other people were healed, although I noticed that it was always healing for things that either go away on their own – headaches, fever, anxiety – or things which can go into remission, like cancer. Nobody was ever healed of a deaf ear, a blind eye, a missing limb, etc. Nobody even asked to be. It was as though everybody (but me) knew that the power of prayer was limited to things that, well, we heal ourselves.

Despite all this, though I no longer voluntarily went to church, I still considered myself a Christian. Then I took a course on the Old Testament from a historical perspective. I was confronted by the reality that the Bible is a book written by people who were trying to get other people to believe in their God in a certain way, to behave in a certain way. They used stories not to convey history or science, but theology.

And then I had my "atheophany." One night, I had a dream in which the earth was baking under the red glare of our sun in its red giant phase. It was a barren cemetery of a planet. I could see my name on a gravestone and, though blurred, the gravestones of my children, grandchildren, etc. for millions of years. The earth had died, and nothing of me, nothing I had done, nothing I had believed in had survived. A reluctant atheist? I was plunged into a months-long existential depression. Although I had already stopped believing in the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God long
before, the consequences of my belief had never really come together. I felt adrift in a sea of meaninglessness and oblivion.

I couldn't accept it. I couldn't go there. A friend introduced me to the works of Paul Tillich (a liberal [probably also atheist] Protestant). Reading Tillich's Systematics made me think, "hey, here's a smart person who is still a Christian." I began to look for a non-fundamentalist Christian path. I found a church, and ultimately decided to become a minister.

If anything robs a person of any vestige of faith in the reality of God, it's being a minister. It's like being an actor. Theater goers may be amazed by the performance on stage. The actor knows what went on behind the scenes to make it happen--the blocking, the rehearsals, the set designers, the prop people, lighting, sound – it's not magical to him or her. It is the same way with a minister. Over time, Christmas and Easter, indeed, every Sunday can become a performance. The minister knows what went on behind the scenes, and it's often lonely and empty. Ten years into the ministry, a series of tragic deaths followed by very difficult funerals led me back to where I was as a college student. God was a vacant hole, and I couldn't be his prophet any more. So I left the ministry and became something else.

End of story? I wish. There is something in me that is always searching for meaning and purpose, a philosopher, I suppose. And I couldn't let go of the idea that there was some objective source of meaning that could somehow be found in religion. So I went back. They took me back. I fought for many long years to shape religion into a form that would be acceptable to my congregants and yet also acceptable to me. I couldn't. I can't. I quit.

But, I haven't circled back to that terrified college student this time. I love the world too much to give up on meaning and purpose. I love the stars; I love the furtive fox trotting through my back yard, the wren that sings against the cold, white heart of winter, the bright eyes of a wandering infant. For as long as I live, I will devote myself to enhancing life. If there is a God, she is no more than the Universe and no less. I would never go back to religion. But I will never stop loving the world.


Steve R said...

It's amazing how the doubt sets in at a young age, maybe religion is so ludicrous that a child can see through it?

I Remember my first doubt, I was about 8 as well. We were being taught about Native Americans and I asked my RE teacher what happens to them if they never heard of Christianity. Off to nothingness or Hell was the response. I still remember thinking that was manifestly unfair.