I’m not usually interested in talking about myself, but at the prompt of a regularly commenter, I’ve decided to write a short history of my time as a Christian, and how I lost my faith.
I was born the son of a Methodist Minister in apartheid South Africa. The Methodist Church was, as in many places, near the liberal end of the Mainline Protestant spectrum, but the spectrum itself was not very wide. Like a good preacher’s kid, I attended church from the youngest feasible age, and grew up assuming that God existed and operated as proclaimed by the church. Religion seemed, to me, to be as real as bricks.
Me as a young teen
As a youngster, I was involved in youth groups and Sunday School (I remember winning a Bible Knowledge Quiz once), and most of my social connections were forged through church activities. My two longest friendships, which still remain active today, started at my dad’s church. Throughout my secondary education, then, the church was my social foundation.
In terms of the nature of my belief, an episode from my middle school years stands out. There was a time when I truly believed that God’s Holy Spirit had entered into me. For several days, I had an unusually strong feeling of elation, and the sense that a spiritual flame burned within me. This feeling gradually diminished over time, though.
Me as an older teen
A very different experience stands out from my high school years. A friend of mine invited me to a “rally”, which in our neck of the woods (and perhaps in yours too) referred to a very large religious meeting of a strongly Pentacostal bent. I was apprehensive, because that style of worship usually made me feel uncomfortable. That night would be no exception. People all around me were waving their hands in the air throughout the service. At one point, someone fell to the floor in what appeared to be a seizure of some kind. In short, I was horrified. I felt completely out of place, and scared of the emotional frenzy that seemed to be taking everyone over. I just wanted to get out of there.
At the time, I remember having trouble reconciling my reaction to the rally with my religious beliefs. Why would an event so strongly steeped in God’s presence make me feel so unbearably uncomfortable? I simply couldn’t figure it out. All I knew was that God did not seem present that evening – the people around me seemed strangely insane and unhealthy, not filled with the Holy Spirit.
Me as a university student
Despite my experience at the rally, my faith continued unabated. I believed in all the things I had always believed. While at university in Grahamstown, South Africa, I attended the local Methodist Church, where I eventually joined the praise band, playing guitar and singing for Sunday evening services. I was still developing my musical tastes, so the saccharine, repetitive, and overly dramatic music – so obviously crafted to elicit an emotional response – did not bother me.
At the same time, I began attending a small Bible Study group. This stands out as one of the highlights of my religious life. We knew one another well as friends, and we explored the Bible in a quiet, contemplative manner. (Indeed, at one point we practiced contemplative prayer, a sort of meditation-prayer mix.) We provided emotional support for one another too: we all went through various difficulties in those years.
In which I sally forth
After completing my Masters degree in Physics, I made the decision to leave South Africa and study abroad. This was a heart-wrenching process requiring the termination of my first real relationship, but that is another story entirely, and I won’t dwell on it here. I arrived in the U.S., two suitcases of belongings to my name, and threw myself into the life of a Physics graduate student. I quickly found the local Methodist campus ministry, and this proved to be another highlight of my religious life.
The campus church was, once again, the basis of my social network. I spent a lot of time there with like-minded students, and we engaged in stimulating Bible studies and religious discussions, as well as games of pool and band practices (I was usually in some band or another). I remember quite clearly, though, that no one ever questioned the existence of God outright. I just don’t think it occurred to us.
I was near the end of my studies when I started to ask more serious questions in the privacy of my own mind. I found that there were fewer and fewer things I could honestly claim I had reason to hold true. And so I embarked on a very gradual process of examination and reexamination. To get everything clear in my head, I decided to write things down. Thus began the document, which would be repeatedly revised over one or two years, that now appears as my Critique of Religious Belief essay on this blog.
Going, going, gone
Eventually, I had to face my conclusions head on: I no longer believed in God. This realization was a little shocking to me at first. What if I was wrong? What if I went to hell? What do I do now? I felt a little like an actor who, after being born and raised on a movie set, wonders onto the lot for the first time, and sees the real world before him.
Most of all, though, I felt an immense sense of relief. For the first time, I felt free to be genuinely honest about how I regarded the world. I no longer had the burden of defending strange supernatural ideas against the hammer blows of science and everyday experience.
I can’t say I shared my new found atheism in the best possible way. For me, the entire thing was mostly an intellectual exercise, and I didn’t expect the people around me to care very much about the conclusions I had reached. I was still the same person, after all. But I was wrong, and some damage was done – thankfully to be repaired later – and I learned some valuable lessons about sharing my beliefs.
Today, I am happier as an atheist than I was as a Christian. I’m at peace with my beliefs – the sense of cognitive dissonance is gone.
And therein ends my tale.