Last week, I officially came out to the internet as one of the 8% of Americans who identify as an atheist or agnostic in my post entitled “It’s Hard To Become An Atheist.” I got an unexpectedly validating number of positive responses from friends, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. It was both powerful and moving, realizing we had been living side by side in silence, imagining we were alone in this formative stage of questioning and doubt.
As we explored the commonalities of our experiences, shocked that others had felt our growing pains, I found myself wondering why “post-Christian atheism” wasn’t discussed more in secular culture. It would have helped me so much if I’d had access to some kind of guide to transitioning out of the Christian faith: “What To Expect When You’re Backsliding” or some such helpful tutorial. Unfortunately, the atheist community prefers to highlight the Christopher Hitchenses and Robert Dawkinses of their ranks — the cool-headed and arrogantly sarcastic Answer Givers who represent the end goal of total and utter separation from any kind of religiosity. Good luck to the rest of us, still trying to extricate ourselves and find that level of objective distance.
In an attempt to bridge this gap in information (because what else is the internet good for?), I’ve decided to start reaching out to those baby atheists like myself, who might still be surprised and confused by a life without faith. It’s hard enough to leave the community you grew up in — why do we need to feel all alone while doing so?
To start us off on our journey, here are five things you realize when you leave the Christian faith.
Caveat: While I see these issues spanning denominations and traditions, my references to Christianity are borne out of my own experience within my communities, particularly those of the nondenominational Evangelical variety.
1. Fear Was A Primary Motivator
In a lecture discussing the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and ‘90’s, founder of The Thinking Atheist, Seth Andrews, called Christianity a “fear cult.” While I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, the claim does have its roots in truth. It was only after leaving the faith that I realized how much of my life had been motivated by this underlying sense of fear, instilled in me from a very early age.
I have vivid memories of my father describing the ancient persecution of Christians by Nero in 64 C.E. He’d talk about Christians being used as human torches, being forced to walk across burning coals, and being ripped apart by lions. Then, looking into my eight-year-old face, he’d ask what I would do if I was about to get eaten by a lion. Would I renounce my faith? “Of course not,” I’d whisper. (And then I’d feel guilty for the rest of the night because I knew, Of course I would.) I can’t describe to you how often I envisioned being brutally tortured for Christ as a kid.
Then there was the Second Coming of Christ (which my parents assured me would happen within our lifetime). Any day, the trumpets would sound and all Christians would disappear into Heaven while everyone who didn’t believe would stay on earth and experience the End Times. The End Times was when the evil Government would get control of everything, and force everyone to wear the Mark of the Beast, and kill those who refused. Then came the monsters rising out of the sea, the giant insects with human faces, and the plagues of Egypt, part two.
This was something I expected to have to live through, if when Christ returned I had even one unconfessed sin staining my soul. You know, one of those horrible, damning sins that ten-year-olds commit on a daily basis. And people wondered why I was such a good kid.
As I got older, the visions of brimstone and fire faded, but the sense of fear remained. Things I was afraid of as a Christian (as recently as 2011, if my “On This Day” page on Facebook is to be trusted):
- Other people judging me for being a Christian
- Other Christians judging me for not being Christian enough
- Other religions hating me or targeting me for being a Christian
- The government trampling on my God-given rights
- SECULAR CULTURE!! (What did this even really mean?)
- Being friends with non-Christians/atheists/queer people
- Not going to church enough
- Not praying enough
- Impure thoughts or actions
- Thinking about impure thoughts or actions
- And most of all, doubt
Here’s the kicker: as a Christian, I wouldn’t have called myself a fearful person. I wasn’t able to see it until I stepped away and looked at it from the outside. Now, I can see it in others, too. When I confessed I was no longer a Christian to someone very close to me, they asked, wide-eyed and with bated breath: “But… what if you’re wrong?” In that moment, I saw their primary motivation for staying with a faith that had let them down over and over. They were very, very afraid of being wrong.
Realizing that these things no longer had any power over me was (and continues to be) the most freeing thing. It didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t a “bursting out of the cage” type situation. It was slower, more surprising, a sudden moment of panic or guilt offset by the realization it was groundless, empty. There was nothing behind it.
2. You Were Always Guilty
On the Focus on the Family website, there is an article called “Healthy Guilt vs. False and Harmful Guilt.” Radio talk show host and author, Paul Coughlin, concedes that some kinds of guilt that are bad, but then expounds upon “the beneficial nature of healthy guilt, or what Christian counselors sometimes call godly sorrow.” Through this kind of guilt, “people have the potential to change for the better.” (He then goes on to tell an anecdotal story about a sociopath he knew who could feel no guilt and has since become homeless and miserable. These are, apparently, the only two options: godly sorrow or indigent pathology.)
Coughlin is simply reiterating a very well-known Christian truth. As Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Guilt is the foundation of the Christian doctrine. It is the only reason Christ needed to exist at all. Interestingly enough, the concept of mankind being inherently evil is actually thanks to the sexually perverted teachings of St. Augustine. His views on Christianity, highly influenced by the Stoic doctrine of apatheia so popular at the time, were incorporated into doctrine about 400 years after Christ’s life. It was Augustine who argued that man is inherently sinful from birth, that we are created in and of sin (aka sexual pleasure), and that we can not escape this soul-warping guilt without a savior. (It’s worth noting that I’ve spoken to several devout Christians who believe this wholeheartedly, and have no idea who Augustine is.)
As with the fear discussed above, I wasn’t aware of this pervasive guilt until I had given myself some space from it (unless you count the torturous periods of paranoid, OCD-level guilt that plagued me as a pre-teen). I remember once, a couple of years ago, walking home at night. I was suddenly struck with the most amazing realization: I was not a bad person. In fact, I wasn’t just a not-bad person. I was a good person! The concept was new and strange, and extremely joyful.
It still is, but I can’t help but wonder how much of my persistent inferiority complex and pervasive lack of self-worth stems from being told throughout my formative years that I was a dirty, worthless, twisted soul, only as good as the Man who deigned to forgive me.
3. You Were Subconsciously Keeping Score
You’ll realize pretty soon after leaving the faith that there’s a lot of extra clutter in your brain you suddenly have no use for. This clutter is everything from the difference between “the infallible Word of God” and “the inerrant Word of God,” to judgments held towards people you no longer need to judge (I’ve harbored subconscious grudges against everyone from college professors to TV personalities just because they used to clash with my godly worldview). But some of the worst clutter comes from that internal score keeper who lets you know if you’re Christianing adequately.
How many nights in a row have you gone without saying a prayer? How long has it been since you picked up your Bible? Do you even remember the last time the Holy Spirit had moved through you and brought you to tears? And those were just the lapses in duty, not even touching the actual sinscommitted: gossip, cursing, masturbation, etc.
I’d keep score of other people, too. What they said in prayer versus what they did. How loudly and fervently they’d sing the hymns during service. If they played on their phone during the sermon. If they were having sex outside of marriage (because when you’re a Christian, other people’s sex lives are something you have a right and a duty to worry about). I’d pray for their souls on rotation, names listed on a piece of crumpled note paper. Meanwhile, you knew the others in your community were most likely keeping score of your virtues and flaws as well.
(It’s worth noting that I grew up in a nondenominational Evangelical section of the Christian community, where the concept of “grace by faith alone” was fervently preached. And I still kept these lists. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been if I’d been raised in a more “legalistic” tradition.)
The decluttering process is still in full swing, even many years later (in fact, I think my motivation for writing these blog posts stems partially from the desire to put these unnecessary factoids to good use). But I am happy to report that the score keeper has been kicked to the curb.
4. There Are Very Simple Answers To Big Questions
I remember sitting in class, watching as my brilliant, fervent professor passionately drew slopes, graphs, Venn diagrams, and timelines across a wall of chalkboards. Were we discussing trigonometry? Physics? No, this was a Theology 101 class. Twice a week, I’d watch my professor go into contortions (albeit joyfully and with great gusto) trying to answer the most simple, straightforward questions. Questions like:
- Why is the Old Testament God mean while the New Testament God is loving? Especially if God is beyond time and doesn’t conform to linear timelines?
- If the Bible is a moral book with ageless relevance, why are there laws that force women to marry their rapists, promote slavery, and encourage killing war orphans?
- Why are there four Gospels, and why are they all different — even contradictory? How do Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John infallibly write passages where Jesus is alone and praying?
- If God is omnipotent not just on Earth but throughout the universe, how does Satan exist at all? If God is merciful and loving, why are you telling me that He “allows” Satan to exist?
- How can the Bible still be inerrant after the dozens of translations, revisions, canonizations, cuts, and political interpretations it’s gone through?
And these were just the technical, hermeneutical questions. Don’t even get me started on the blatantly philosophical questions like:
- If God knows the future, how do we have free will?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Why doesn’t God intervene in natural disasters?
- Why was humanity created in the first place?
Of course, Christians have answers to most of these questions, all of which are variations on the theme: “God works in mysterious ways.” For those intellectual believers not satisfied with fluff, there were the charts and the graphs and the original Greek. However, the logic that buoys them ends after a couple of layers, something I quickly started to see once I turned an academic eye to the platitudes I’d absorbed all my life. Some of these theories are so bigoted they have no place in any serious modern conversation— the Curse of Ham, anyone? (Yeah, that’s one I grew up with.)
As someone who no longer has to worry about fitting an entire world’s complex and multilayered philosophical history into a single book, most of these questions are incredibly, refreshingly simple to me. Contradictions or apparent inaccuracies in the Bible are just that: contradictions and inaccuracies. Bad things happen to good people because life’s not fair. God doesn’t intervene in natural disasters because God — at least the engaged, guardian-of-the-galaxies Christian God— does not exist.
Are these happy answers? No, not really. And really, if it gives some people comfort to interpret the world in some other, more convoluted way, more power to them. But I’d rather accept these simple, brutal truths and move on with my life than spend all that time doing desperate mental gymnastics trying (and failing) to justify what happens in the universe.
5. Morality Is A Lot More Hands On
This is perhaps the most important and the most difficult realization to have after leaving the faith. In much of Christianity, morality is a largely internalized thing. You become moral through God’s grace, it is something that happens to you. Getting to that moment of sanctification is the Ultimate Goal. The rest of your life is spent making sure you don’t mess it up.
If you are a God-fearing person, you are a moral person (you may even be of the mindset that only Christians can be moral people). You demonstrate this morality by attending church, by abstaining from sinful behavior, by praying for people. And yes, you volunteer when you have time, and you donate wen you have money, and you sponsor a child in a foreign country every few years. But those are extras. The cherries on top. The outward proof of your inner godliness. You can get to Heaven without doing those things, or by wanting to do those things, or by supporting others who do those things. Morality is, therefore, not based in action or measurable impact (in fact, in the community I grew up in, it was practically heresy to suggest morality was based on actions).
When I left the faith, I realized pretty quickly that my go-to phrase for those in need — “I’ll pray for you” — was not going to work anymore. For a while I felt helpless in the face of the world’s suffering. No longer could I supplicate for those I cared for. No longer could I “let go and let God.” So I started using another phrase instead: “What can I do to help?”
The switch took a while to flip. Morality was no longer something that was measured internally, but externally. Morality was quantified by action. Instead of praying, I started donating money to relief efforts. I got involved in local politics, offering up my peace of mind in order to educate myself and others. I protested in the street for the rights of those less fortunate, standing in the rain and facing down riot squads with smoke bombs.
Now, I’m not saying any of this to prove how “moral” I am. I’m not saying that Christians don’t do these things, and I certainly don’t want to wander into deeper metaphysical conceits about the nature of morality itself (at least in this post). My point is that when I realized that I couldn’t rely on God anymore, I was forced to turn to individual action. I had to be good on purpose. It made me feel more empowered to change my own life and the lives of those around me for the better.
These Realizations Are Just The Beginning
So, now what? I’m sure there are whole areas of my past faith I have yet to uncover, swaths of subconscious influence that — once unearthed — will leave me even more radically free than before. But for now, I’m enjoying life. I am no longer afraid of the future or crushed by inherent guilt, and I am taking all that free time not spent keeping score and worrying about unanswerable questions, and using it to make the world a better place, one individual act of morality at a time. Come on in, the water’s fine.
Originally published on Medium in December 2017.
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