My personal journey away from faith has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I need to sort through how I got here in order to know where I’m headed, or maybe it’s because I need to re-examine my past beliefs to be at peace with them. Regardless of the specific reason, I am certain that briefly cataloguing my current thoughts at the least can help illustrate my present perspective on not believing in the divine. Please note that this is not an argument for or against belief in any deity. Rather, it is a very broad biography of moments in my life that shaped why I do not believe in the divine.
I was born into a family with two parents who were moderately devout Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. At some point in my childhood my parents switched to a slightly more conservative group of Lutherans–the Missouri Synod. Growing up I went to church every Sunday whether I liked it or not, participated in Sunday school, and went to Vacation Bible School (VBS) every summer. Surrounded by believing and practicing Christians, I had no reason to question the existence of God.
At 11, I began going to special classes for confirmation. For those unfamiliar with the process, confirmation works somewhat like a personal renewal of baptism. Since I had some holy water sprinkled on me as an infant, the church required me to personally affirm that I believed in God as soon as I reached an age of self-accountability. In order to make that affirmation freely in front of a congregation I’d known for several years, I needed to attend classes for three years to become more acquainted with the particulars of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS for short). During these classes I found out why we drank wine instead of grape juice at communion, why it didn’t matter if baptism was a sprinkling of water instead of full immersion, and why people went to Hell if they died unbaptized. That last part didn’t set well with me when I was 13 and about to get confirmed, but I’d been in it for three years and I didn’t want to back out. I went ahead with swearing in front of the entire church that I wanted to keep following Christ and kept my discomfort to myself.
In high school, I still attended church regularly, along with Sunday school and helping out as an usher during services. My faith was growing steadily, and I felt like I belonged to a community of good people. There were occasions where I’d hear a verse or personal views about other people that didn’t correspond with what I’d been taught previously about the Bible, but I’d just shrug and assume it was part of my sinful nature to question things. I tried to stay away from people who seemed to provide most of the mixed messages, to varying degrees of success. However, I think my mother noticed what was going on, and she found more and more reasons to require me to attend religious gatherings like prayer meetings and youth concerts. Incidentally, these extra efforts at “helping” me were always associated with some sort of punishment. It was a pretense (the misdemeanors my parents claimed were for things such as failing to perform a chore to a sufficient standard), and I recognized it as such, but nonetheless I felt it was a mixed message being sent my way.
During this time, I talked with my first Atheist in high school. I did not know this guy was an Atheist (I knew him all throughout my time there), but one day we decided to chat while the teacher was out. Somehow we got onto the subject of creationism, and he informed me that he supported the theory of evolution. At that juncture in my life, I’d only heard about Atheists and never had actually met one, so for no discernible reason I became suspicious of his point of view. How could he not believe in God? To me it was an obvious unquestionable truth. To my credit, I did manage to avoid any urge to preach, condemn him to Hell, or mock his disbelief. To my dismay, I did jump at the chance for debate and spouted off a creationist argument I’d read a few years ago. Thankfully he decided to provide a glib counter-argument, and the matter was settled without any further embarrassment.
I’m pointing out this encounter because it shaped how I dealt with people who did not share my beliefs, something that happened daily when I left home for college. Once out of the house, I lived in a place where I met Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Wiccans, Satanists, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics, and more Christian denominations than I could shake a stick at. The more views I encountered, the more I respectfully listened but inwardly found immediate needs to “defend” those views against my faith.
While this was going on, I also stopped going to church regularly. Initially it was because it was difficult to go every Sunday, and then I simply lost interest in going unless it was Easter or Christmas or going with family when I went home. At the time, I defended the decision because I became more uncomfortable with people in my own faith. They were causing me to doubt my belief in God, so I needed to keep my distance. In retrospect, I think this process was done to insulate myself from having to look critically at my beliefs. If I’d done so, maybe I would have realized what I know now sooner.
For some reason, I needed to think of myself as a Christian while disassociating from other Christians. Even when I found inconsistencies in teachings, I would either just shrug and tell myself to believe or ignore them. When someone at church would say hateful things about non-believers or other faiths, I’d pretend not to hear. And if people asked me if I was a Christian, I’d reply, “Definitely.”
But I don’t think I was. For me, the label was a crutch. I’d seen what happened to other people who stopped going to church. I knew what everyone said about people who didn’t believe the Word of God. There was no surer way of getting a crowd of Christians to forget they needed to love their neighbor than to say an Atheist was among them. And so because I did not want to rock the proverbial boat, because what I knew others would do behind my back (and to my family that still went to church), and because it was mentally convenient, I kept trying to keep what little faith I had.
Another thing that kept me from fully acknowledging where my personal philosophy had arrived was a few subsequent encounters with “free thinkers.” I’m using this term loosely because free thought for some of them was only thought they approved of. Otherwise, ridicule and derision would abound. Still, others I met actively felt the need to deny God at the mere mention of any deity. Suffice it to say I did not have the good fortune to meet good Atheists when I needed to the most. This only led me to withdraw even more from talking about my beliefs.
When I finally left for law school, my faith rekindled slightly, but then I really slid back to a point where I did not devote much energy to believing in God. It wasn’t until after I graduated and passed the Bar that I had time to take a breath and focus on me.
By that time, I asked myself honestly if I could still believe anything out of the Bible.
I honestly answered, “No.”
Like I’d done before, I distracted myself with other things (like looking for work in an atrocious economy) while I allowed myself miniscule increments of increasing freedom to doubt things I’d seen and heard. Eventually I questioned statements that were untestable, and I treated everything I heard about the Almighty as if it were a point of law being debated in a courtroom. Every time I realized I did not have to justify the senseless and shameful conduct of other Christians. I felt liberated, but I also remembered I needed to keep my thoughts to myself.
Now, I consider myself a skeptic of any belief in the divine. I’ve read and discussed some philosophy in undergraduate studies and in law school, and I recognize that there is a myriad of arguments justifying and denying the existence of deities. I am aware that some people are Agnostic because they cannot fully justify knowing there is no divine hand at work in the universe. I do not embrace that view, though, because to me the lack of credible evidence in the divine does not support a conclusion that a deity exists.
Looking back on this journey, I recognize now that there are quite a few important moments in my life that helped to shape what my personal philosophy is now. There are still quite a few more that did not make it into this post. Still, organizing this into a broad overview has been a useful labor, as I know more about myself now than when I started.