You no doubt have heard the phrase “a personal relationship with God” used by Christians. Being in a “relationship with God” is a standard across Christianity. Some people take it more literally than others: I remember once during my first year at college, our class was witnessed to by a girl who claimed she could literally see, talk to, and hold hands with Jesus and considered herself actually engaged to him in a corporeal sense. Even as a lifelong Christian, I found that particular concept disturbing.
But even those who aren’t this literal about it put emphasis on the relationship aspect. “Have you invited God into your heart?” is a common question that is used to detect if someone else is a Christian. “Have you found Jesus Christ?” is another question, asked with the same timbre of someone asking if you’ve found true love.
It turns out, there’s a very good reason why Christianity emphasizes the relationship aspect of belief… things tend to fall apart without it. Last week I was having an amazing conversation with a Christian friend, discussing various logical or scriptural contradictions we found confusing. After a while, they acknowledged: “If it weren’t for my relationship with God, I’d probably be an atheist.”
That knocked me back for a second. It was one of the most honest, self-reflective, open responses I’d heard. It also made me realize why it was ultimately easy for me to walk away from the faith: I got ghosted by God long before I decided the relationship was officially over. It was this experience of being ghosted that I attribute to my fairly quick deconversion and subsequent atheism.
Some of this will probably sound a bit familiar to those of you who know my deconversion story, but here’s the short version. I encourage you to read this as you would any love story, and see what you think.
I was in my third year of undergraduate studies at Messiah College. I’d been feeling a bit disconnected with God for a while, only really able to “get it on for Christ” at the weekly worship meeting on campus. Even then, I wondered if it was more about the community and music than a true spiritual connection. However, I’d heard from many fellow Christians that these lulls were normal — no one could be high on the Holy Spirit all the time. Just wait it out and stay open.
I patiently waited for God to make some kind of move, listened carefully for that still, small voice. Meanwhile, I went to churches across continents, cultures, and denominations. I took some theology classes, and pestered fellow Christians into long dialogues about their divine friendship with the Maker of the Universe. What was he telling them? Why did he seem to like spending time with them more? What was I doing wrong?
When I did find those pockets of connection, I was ecstatic. I felt like I belonged again, was accepted, could be honest in my praise as opposed to feeling like I was forcing it. But they came fewer and far between, love bombs from an invisible companion to keep me around for convenience.
Once, around 2 a.m. in my on-campus apartment, I was overcome with a terror of the darkness outside. I felt an evil presence watching me. Panicking, I tried to pray the fear away, but found God conspicuously absent. Maybe he was watching Netflix, was at the bar with friends, or had gone to bed early… but he wasn’t picking up the phone and I needed him. I finally ended up turning to a human friend, who woke himself up and sat with me, giving me something the God of angel armies apparently could not… or would not.
Cut to 2014, London. After a particularly raucous Sunday service at a local Anglican church, that same friend found me curled up on the floor of my flat, unable to feel anything, absolutely shell-shocked. Why? Because God had finally ditched. I sent out my thoughts to him, as I had done every day of my life as a Christian, and found only empty space. He’s gone, my brain intoned. You’re alone. He left.
To this day, I’ve never felt an absence so keenly or devastatingly. And to be clear, I didn’t stop believing in God that day. I didn’t think I was alone because God ceased to exist for me. God was still there… he just had, well, ghosted me. Took his toothbrush and blocked my number.
Now, I wasn’t one of those partners who gets ditched and jumps straight back into the dating pool. I waited around, expecting some kind of grand reunion. I continued to call myself a Christian for at least two years after that, continued taking theological and biblical classes, holding long philosophical discussions on the concept of God, experimenting with new forms of worship to try and reconnect.
But without a God relationship flooding my brain with soothing and euphoric chemicals (increased dopamine and serotonin have both been linked to religious expression), it became easier and easier to ask the hard questions. I didn’t overlook logical fallacies in apologetics as readily, because I didn’t have to feel defensive about my relationship with God. When Scripture said something I didn’t like or seemed odd, I could take it at face value instead of doing extreme contextualization gymnastics to reconcile it with my moral compass.
To belabor the relationship metaphor: you know how after you break up with someone, you’re suddenly able to see everything that was wrong with them? You go through their old texts and cringe. You find an old love letter and feel your skin crawl because Wow, I can’t believe I thought that was okay. I can’t believe I thought that’s what love looked like. Yeah, that’s exactly what that felt like. And of course, once you tug on that thread everything starts to unravel. Pretty soon I wasn’t just not a Christian, I was an atheist.
Because I know this is going to get taken the wrong way, I just want to reassure you, dear reader: I’m not angry at God for abandoning me. I don’t think a God exists. I think what happened was that I broke through a socially and culturally imposed belief system that permeated the fabric of my life and saw beyond it. Seeing what reality looks like outside the confines of our version of normal is what kills every abusive or unhealthy relationship.
Why it happened in the way it did is a mystery to me. Was it simply a lightbulb moment? Did my prefrontal cortex suddenly spring into overdrive? Did depression or stress deplete my serotonin so badly that it jolted me out of an imaginary relationships sustained by the feel-good chemical over the course of two hours? I have no idea, and I’m still searching for an answer. (If you have any theories, let me know!)
The thing is, I don’t think Christians have a good explanation for this either. If God exists, why did he leave someone so dedicated to a relationship with him? If God is all-knowing, he knew that ghosting me would usher me into atheism. If God is all-powerful, he could have stopped it from happening, and he didn’t. He let it play it’s course. And he clearly hasn’t bothered to use his omniscience or omnipotence to get me back.
Is this some kind of test of loyalty? Is an unannounced four-year absence a test of loyalty you’d find acceptable in any other relationship? We hold our flawed human companions to much higher standards than that, so why not God? If it is a test — and my atheism is all part of God’s larger plan — how could he send me to hell or punish me for playing the part I’ve been roped into playing?
Ultimately, I guess this post is just to say: Look, I get it. You’ve got a relationship with God. You’re in love with him. I know how it feels to have that, and I know what it feels like to lose it. I’m not judging you for that, it’s literally physiological conditioning and you aren’t accountable for the chemicals flooding your brain. I know this all sounds super scary and dismissive, but this is what I’d say to anyone in any kind of relationship, divine or not.
But if you’re reading those texts and they’re making you queasy, if he said something that really rubbed you the wrong way, if you’ve got doubts, I’d encourage you to look a bit deeper. All may not be as simple as it seems. And if you’re holding onto faith because of emotion even when logic is slaloming through red flags, I encourage you to ask yourself why. What are you afraid of losing? What are you afraid of gaining?
Either way, I’m here to talk if you need a friend.