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The Atheist Coming Out Project: Anonymous
Today’s Atheist Coming Out story is curtesy of Anonymous.
Perhaps the most important step of all
As children my sister and I were forced to attend Sunday school (but not church afterwards) and a week of Bible school in the summer. I hated Sunday school. To me it was just precious time out of my weekend. When I was thirteen my mother literally dragged me, kicking and screaming, to confirmation classes. I really hated them at first, mostly because my mother was forcing me to go and I was being a teenage rebel. I claimed my freedom of religion was being violated by being forced to go, mostly just to have something to argue about. But I did actually grow to like and looked forward to the church services afterward. I loved the sense of community.
Ever since I was little I liked science, especially natural sciences like biology and geology. (Christians reading this will already be thinking “Aha! Science claims another Christian!”) Well it wasn’t so much the Dark Side of Science that won me over; it was that science made sense; my religion didn’t.
Even as a young child I can remember wondering:
• How did Noah get North American animals on the ark? They didn’t know about North America, and even if Noah knew about it, how would he get there?
• If Adam and Eve were the first two people, who did their kids make more people with? Their brothers and sisters?
• If God is so great and powerful and omnipotent, why does he care so much whether people worship him, enough that he would send a good person to hell just because they believed the wrong religion?
• Why did God only talk to people a long time ago? If someone today says God talked to them, we lock them up.
• And if every society in history has had its own religion, how can we be so sure that WE finally have it right?
As I got older I found it harder and harder to mesh my religion with what I knew about the world. As my questions mounted I found no answer for them other than “Just believe it.” Through my history classes I learned about the failing grip of religion. In the Middle Ages, everything was caused by God, and the Earth was the center of the universe. Then Galileo discovered that Earth wasn’t in the middle, but in some backwoods corner of the universe, rotating around its parent star. Why would God put his precious creation in a corner? Ok, we’ll let that one slide.
Then it was discovered that disease was caused by other organisms that could be killed with medicine, not by an angry God. Well you could still argue that God sent the organisms, but then why did medicine work? And if medicine working was God’s will, then why were people born after its discovery more entitled to lifesaving care than those before? Why didn’t people always know about it? And on and on like that.
Somewhere along the line I came up with a puzzling question I call “The Car Crash Scenario” and so far I’ve never seen a religious person address a question like it. It goes like this:
We are taught that heaven is this beautiful place and we should all look forward to going there and we should be happy for loved ones when they get there. Well suppose there’s this man with a wife and two young kids. They are totally dependent on him. Mom doesn’t have a job, and they are scraping by. Then one night while Dad drives home his car swerves out of control, hits a tree, and he dies. Mom and the kids are devastated. Daddy is gone and they miss him terribly, but their means of support are also gone. They might go hungry, or loose the house. But even that would be okay if only Daddy would come home. Now suppose you’re Dad in heaven looking down. How could you possibly enjoy it? How could heaven be so wonderful that you wouldn’t mind seeing your wife and children suffering on Earth and missing you so terribly? How could it be so wonderful that you wouldn’t mind not holding your wife or kids anymore? What’s more, how selfish would you have to be to be able to enjoy heaven knowing what you’ve left behind?
By college I was struggling because I no longer believed there could be a God; it just didn’t make sense. However, I did believe in Jesus, and, like so many people, I guess I felt obligated to believe in something. And I reasoned that if I believed in Jesus then I have to believe in God. But by this point I was forcing it.
Now we are up to October 2006. I was fresh out of college working an internship that I very much enjoyed. I had travelled to Dover Delaware with my parents because my sister, who had joined the Air Force, was stationed there. It was not a long drive, and the Air Force Base was having a festival to honor the C-5, the largest plane in the US inventory. While there, I somehow learned that there was going to be a free Skillet concert in town. I knew Skillet was a Christian rock band but I liked their music and thought a little prayer before the concert would be worth it. I tried to get my sister to come with me but she didn’t want to. Determined, I went by myself.
The concert was a little more Christian-y than I anticipated. There were people selling religious paraphernalia and Christian warm-up bands. Still, I stuck it out, though it was pretty embarrassing sitting by myself in the bleachers filled with couples and families. Then an evangelist came on the stage. He went on and on about how he just knew the Holy Spirit was out there and would touch every one of us tonight, blah blah blah. For the past several months I had been very depressed as I struggled to get over a breakup with my boyfriend. As the evangelist talked I kept wondering “Where was God when I needed him? Why did God let that happen? Doesn’t God care about me?” (Pretty immature petty things to think looking back, but that’s the way I was feeling that night). By this time I was getting pretty damn impatient for the band to come on. Then the evangelist sent a bunch of hats around the audience for people to put money into. He went on: “God needs each and every one of you to give money tonight and I know he will reach into your hearts and compel you to give!” I watched the hats go around and people dropped their money in. By this time I was in such a bad mood I just kept thinking “Why would God need money?
If his message is so great and he is so powerful why does he need something as worldly as money? It isn’t God that needs money, it’s this guy.” And so as I watched the hats go around and this guy beg for money in the name of God and wondering what had God done for me lately, it suddenly hit me. It was a jolt, like a snap snapping into place on a coat, or gears locking together, or plugging an appliance into the wall. THERE IS NO GOD. As I looked around, it suddenly explained everything. It explained why my boyfriend had broken up with me, it explained why this preacher needed money from the audience, it explained why the earth wasn’t the center of the universe.
I stood up and left without ever seeing the band I’d come to see. The evangelist was still talking when I called my dad to come pick me up. I told them the band had been great; I was too embarrassed about how religion-y it turned out to tell them what really happened.
A lot of people might have changed their minds after they had time to cool down. For me it was too late. The concert had just been a culmination of thoughts that had been brewing since I was a child. I didn’t announce to my family my new non-faith. Like many 20-somethings in 2006, my medium was Facebook. I proudly changed my religion to Atheist. There it was cemented in electronic glory. I was so relieved. No more wondering why bad things happened to good people, or why children get cancer, or why some good people are poor and some evil people are rich. It just all made perfect sense now and The Answer to it all had been on a bumper sticker all along: “Shit happens”
I was fortunate that my family is Christian in name only. My parents haven’t even been to church since my sister and I moved out. I was friends with my father on Facebook and he saw my change in religion. I started getting a few religious chain emails from him, as if he were worried about my soul or something, but I told him to stop sending them and he did. They don’t seem worried about me.
I went on to meet my husband who was also inwardly atheist but outwardly Christian, like I had been for so many years. When I told him that I was atheist, he suddenly realized he was too. But wait, Christians might say. You stopped believing partly because a boyfriend dumped you. Couldn’t it have been God that allowed that to happen so you would meet your husband? Well the boyfriend thing was way before I met my husband and it had nothing to do with us meeting, so I don’t see how me falling in love and getting my heart broken was really necessary. But I digress. My in-laws are Christian in name only just like my parents. I’m not sure if they even know we are atheists.
Religion plays such a small part in their lives that the subject never even comes up. And while I’m by no means ashamed of my non-belief, I don’t go around spouting it. If someone asks, or tries to get me to pray at a dinner table or something I tell them, but I’m not out to start arguments or debates.
And if there’s ever someone out there who thinks I’ll go to hell for my non-belief, I have only this to say. I have lived a good, honest life. I work hard, I don’t steal, I’m faithful to my husband. If I’m wrong and when I die God can look at my good honest life and say “I’m sending you to hell because you didn’t believe in me,” well, that a small, petty thing that an imperfect person would do, not an omnipotent God. And if God is that way, then he doesn’t deserve my worship.
But I’m not wrong. In the 7 years since I came out to myself I’ve only grown more and more certain that my childhood inklings and my adult revelations are correct. And I still feel that sense or relief that washed over me that October night. When I watch a fascinating show on the Science Channel I can take it at face value and not have to wonder why if the Earth is only 6,000 years old did God work so hard to make it look so much older. I can watch the news and know that war and crime are the results of our human failings, and not blame them on an angry God. Christians still cling to questions we don’t know the answers to like the beginning of life or the universe as proof that there’s a God. But look at all the things that used to be a mystery attributed to God that are now explained. Just because we don’t know the answer yet doesn’t mean we never will.
The only negative thing in my life since becoming atheist is the dread of death. With no afterlife to look forward to, I truly dread the day that I will cease to exist and my life and memories will evaporate. But even that has a positive side. It makes me appreciate the one life that I do have even more. It led me to decide not to have children, since I only get this one life I want to live it to the fullest and enjoy every moment, and to do that there’s no time or room for kids.
So that’s my story of coming to the realization that I was an atheist. It wasn’t a calculated decision. In fact, it was one I struggled against for years. And I still find it comically ironic that the realization smacked me in the face while an evangelist preached.
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